As Pixar launches its experimental wing, we salute some of the trippiest animated features out there
No doubt, Pixar has produced some of the great animated features of the past 20 years, from Toy Story and its pitch-perfect sequels to the elegant Wall-E and the elegiac Up. But recently the CGI powerhouse has been spinning its wheels with a string of disappointing sequels – Cars 2 and 3, Finding Dory – that have sparked rumours of its decline, and further franchise additions to the Toy Story and Incredibles films will do little to allay those fears. Perhaps mindful of these reports, the studio has hit back with news of a new department tasked with creating original, experimental shorts, in a bid to “explore new creative visions and increase studio opportunities”. First off the production line will be Smash and Grab, directed by Piper screenwriter Brian Larsen – but will it help the studio to relocate its mojo? In the meantime, we decided to pay tribute to some of the most startling, original and off-the-wall entries into the animated canon.
THE RED TURTLE (2017)
A shipwreck drama that doubles as a dreamlike meditation on mankind’s troubled relationship with nature, The Red Turtle is Studio Ghibli’s first foray into European filmmaking. In many ways, the film is a natural fit for the home of Hayao Miyazaki – director Michaël Dudok de Wit’s ink-and- watercolour style is highly influenced by Japanese art, and his affinity for the natural world echoes Miyazaki works like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. What makes it so unusual for Ghibli (and for modern filmmaking in general) is its complete lack of dialogue, a genius stroke that actually came from the studio’s co-founder, Isao Takahata, when De Wit was struggling to redraft his script.
Swigging fearlessly from the bottle marked ‘batshit crazy’, Czech animator Jan Švankmajer outdid himself with this super-creepy stop-motion adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. With a cast of characters like a taxidermist’s workshop come nightmarishly to life – and a flatly intoned, ‘he said, she said’ voiceover that sounds like it might have been an influence on Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster – Švankmajer’s vision is less children’s fantasy and more sweat-inducing fever dream. Look out for the caterpillars that’ll make you want to keep your sock drawer under lock and key forever more.
BELLADONNA OF SADNESS (1973)
If Gustav Klimt had plied his trade in 1960s Haight-Ashbury instead of fin-de-siècle Vienna, he might have produced something like Belladonna of Sadness, Elichi Yamamoto’s darkly erotic tale of a woman accused of witchcraft. With stunning watercolour artwork from Kuni Fukai, the film is the third in a trilogy of adult anime films conceived by ‘father of manga’ Osamu Tezuka, as a response to the new wave of ‘pink films’ coming out of 1960s Japan. Is it misogynistic? Or a “radically subversive feminist fantasy”? Not everyone can agree, but Belladonna of Sadness burns with a psychedelic intensity that will stay with you either way.
PERFECT BLUE (1997)
Like a paranoid mash-up of Argento, De Palma and Polanski, Satoshi Kon’s mazy psychological thriller only seems to grow more prescient with time. Taking aim at celebrity culture with its tale of a pop star-turned-actress who questions her sanity when she starts seeing a doppelganger, the film makes striking use of non-linear storytelling to create a sense of unravelling identity, a sense that feels completely of a piece with the brittle narcissism now hardwired into the culture.
FANTASTIC PLANET (1973)
Posing the age-old question ‘What if humans were kept as pets by a race of giant blue aliens?’, René Laloux’s allegorical sci-fi might be the most prog-rock film of all time. Pairing some truly third eye-opening imagery (ever wondered what an alien meditation session looks like?) with a mighty jazz-funk score from Serge Gainsbourg collaborator Alain Goraguer, Laloux and Roland Topor deftly explore the master-slave dynamic in a story that chills from the very first scene, where a group of alien children cheerfully torture a woman to death while her child looks on helplessly. And you won’t get that in Toy Story 4.