When discussing literature, there is an understood and known canon of the classics. That doesn’t quite exist yet with film or animation. There are books you can read with lists of the ‘best’ movies, and most critics have lists of the top films of each decade. However, despite almost 100 years of animated feature films, there isn’t an exact list of the classics yet. This article by animator Emmett Redding reviews three animated films that use different mediums as examples of what he thinks are the best in class for anime/hand-drawn animation, CGI with motion capture, and stop-motion animation.
Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (2021)
Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time has a bizarre title. The title serves to warn viewers: ‘Beware, the road ahead does not make sense’. The final chapter in the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise is equally a slow burn and a frenetic mess that represents not just a film to many viewers but also a profound and emotional goodbye to a decades-long journey.
Neon Genesis Evangelion follows a small group of teenagers who pilot giant bio-mechanical machines to prevent cataclysmic events. Shinji Ikari is the protagonist; a fourteen-year-old boy recruited to pilot these mechs. The antagonist is Shinji’s father, Gendo, who runs the shadowy organisation that has recruited Shinji. A major conflict in the series is Shinji’s deteriorating mental health due to the weight of his role and his difficulty grappling with having an absent father. Evangelion is a unique entry in the Mecha genre, as it deconstructs and critiques the genre while infusing images of religious allegory, Freudian psychoanalysis and a coming-of-age story.
The Rebuild of Evangelion film series is one-half retelling, one-half sequel. Thrice Upon a Time is the final chapter of the four-part film series. It also appears to be Hideaki Anno’s final closing of the door to future productions. What starts as a remake of the TV series in movie form, the Rebuild series goes off in completely different directions to the original series by the halfway point. There are hints throughout these films that the events of the original series may have had an impact, even though some events are happening again. One character, in particular, seems to be aware of the circular nature of the story. It is an exciting and rewarding way to appeal to long-time fans. However, it could potentially alienate new fans unaware of its history.
The following sections include plot details of the final sections of the film.
Thrice Upon a Time is broken into three major sections. The first is a slower, contemplative piece about finding a life for yourself and rediscovering what is important under the backdrop of a cataclysmic landscape. The hand-drawn animation in this sequence is stunning and faultless, including extended shots of forestry, lakes and water life that could be mistaken for live-action footage. The way this first section is allowed to breathe is a welcome change of pace from everything shown before in the series, but it is also clear that it is not to last.
The middle third is fast and frenzied and full of jargon-heavy, confusing dialogue. The Eva pilots engage in their final stand against their enemies in a massive attack on the senses. This only eventually slows down when the protagonist, Shinji, makes his way to a final battle with his father in a kaleidoscopic scene that takes the viewer to every iconic location from the franchise.
Around two hours in, when you might be thinking, ‘will this ever let up?’, something incredible happens. Gendo Ikari, Shinji’s father and the central antagonist of the franchise, speaks to his son. It has taken 26 years, a TV series, multiple films and a reboot, but the audience finally gets to hear the ultimate bad dad say the words ‘I’m sorry’.
During Gendo’s speech, the scene cuts between rough, frenzied animation and sketch drawings. While an unexpected turn for Gendo, the techniques used in this scene resemble those devices long time viewers have seen before.
The original Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series ran over budget and had to scrap its initially planned ending for a similarly animated final two episodes set within the character’s minds. Hideaki Anno was able to make the original ending as a film finally. To do so, he employed extended sequences of rough animation and live-action footage. With this history in mind, Gendo Ikari’s speech in Thrice Upon a Time signifies we are nearing the saga's end, though heading towards a completely different ending.
After Gendo’s monologue, Shinji has discovered his place in the world and within the circular narrative of Evangelion. He realises that the only way to heal the world is to rewrite it so that Evangelion does not exist anymore (perhaps a realisation creator Hideaki Anno made himself). Anno communicates this ‘rewriting’ by slowly deteriorating the animation until it becomes the actual storyboards of these scenes, complete with handwritten notes.
With Thrice Upon a Time, Hideaki Anno has crafted a satisfying ending for his characters and closed the door to future instalments. It is a challenging film and shines bright as a perfect example of a narrative that can only be told through animation.
The Adventures of Tintin (2011)
At the time of its release in 2011, the idea of Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg collaborating on a Tintin movie sounded like a match made in heaven. The resulting film is a rip-roaring adventure with all of the hallmarks of a great Spielberg picture. A plot taking characters across the globe, intrigue, gunfights, a soaring John Williams score and a 1930s aesthetic, it’s practically Indiana Jones: The Animated Movie.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released in 1981. A French review likened Spielberg’s adventure movie to the Belgian comic book boy reporter Tintin. Spielberg had never heard of the Tintin series. Spielberg was hooked, acquiring the rights to the Tintin series from Belgian creator Georges Remi, better known as Hergé. It then took Spielberg thirty years to find the right moment to make the Tintin movie. With advancements in motion capture and computer-generated animation, Spielberg contacted Peter Jackson to collaborate on the film using Weta Digital, Jackson's effects studio.
The design of the film is interesting. Spielberg and Jackson made the risky choice to animate and design the movie realistically while retaining stylised faces reminiscent of Hergé’s comics. The result is divisive. Some viewers felt repulsed by the look of the characters, with many citing the feeling of the uncanny valley due to the faces. For those that can look past it, it may be the most impressive looking animated film of all time. Utilising motion capture, Spielberg shoots The Adventures of Tintin with the same camerawork and movement he would if it were live-action. The camera work and lighting are impeccable, and at times it is difficult to believe it is not a live-action film that you’re watching. A highlight (and there are many) is when Tintin scopes out Marlinspike Hall, lit only by moonlight and his torch. Without going too over the top, Spielberg utilises his limitless CGI world to heighten what would be possible when directing a live-action film by including complex scene transitions without cutting away. One scene in particular of Captain Haddock retelling a story to Tintin involves many transitions between the present and a flashback that are great examples of the power of animation over live-action. Another way Spielberg uses CGI to heighten what is possible is the motorcycle chase sequence in Bagghar. Reminiscent of chases in the Indiana Jones films, this sequence includes an enormous unbroken shot that travels with the characters at breakneck speed. This jaw-dropping sequence becomes one of the most exciting set pieces of the film and would be completely impossible to make in live-action.
The characters are voiced and performed via motion capture by a star-studded cast with Jamie Bell as Tintin, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, and Daniel Craig as the villain, Sakharine. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost appear as the shambolic detectives, Thompson and Thomson.
Based loosely on Hergé’s The Secret of the Unicorn (1943), The Adventures of Tintin has received criticism for ‘missing the point’ of what makes the Tintin comics great, and this criticism is not off the mark. Fans of the film may be in for a shock if they expect the same kind of stories when reading the comics, and fans of the comics might be surprised at how little the film feels like one of the comics. Arguably though, that may not really matter. If you are a great fan of Hergé’s Tintin, the best way to be prepared for this film is to know in advance that it is not Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, but Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin.
Coraline is a film that feels older than its years. It fits closer alongside some of the scarier and more outright horror family cinema of the 80s and 90s, the movies that you couldn’t stop thinking about and maybe gave you nightmares when you saw them as a child.
Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2002 dark fantasy story, the titular Coraline moves with her parents to a house in a neighbourhood filled with strange characters. Coraline is not happy with the move or her parents. Exploring the neighbourhood, she only finds more things to complain about. Not that this can be explained as Coraline just being an ungrateful child. Her parents don’t notice her when she speaks and are generally distracted and pretty equally unhappy. Going through a mysterious tunnel she finds in her bedroom, Coraline is transported to a fantastical mirror world of the neighbourhood she has moved to, complete with a mirrored mother and father, who are fun, warm, and most importantly, pleased to be around her. Exploring further, this mirror world seems to be everything Coraline wants: an exciting new place to play around in and parents who are excited to spend time with her. She finds out that all she needs to do is sew buttons into her eyes to stay there forever.
It’s not often you find a film where the scales are so well balanced, with Henry Selick’s direction and Neil Gaiman’s story both as unique as each other in their imagery. Coraline is the rare adaptation where everything goes right. Gaiman is a gifted dark fantasy writer, and Selick is equally talented in stop-motion animation. Selick uses the otherworldliness of stop-motion to perfectly complement Gaiman’s story. In Coraline, Gaiman has written a creepy and cautionary tale for children that feels immediately timeless, like a story that could have been passed down for generations. It is a story well suited to be adapted in stop-motion, as it’s not an animation medium that really ages either, unlike CGI. The use of stop-motion adds a level of depth to the film comparable to what’s possible with CGI (the film was initially released in 3D). Selick has crafted a unique and original design for the world of Coraline, each character and detail stretched and squished until they look just wrong enough to match each other.
Another striking element of Coraline is its use of colour. At the beginning of Coraline, the primary theme and emotion are loneliness. Selick uses colour to push the feeling of loneliness with grey cloudy skies, cold and muted blues, greens and greys. The only colour not in muted tones is Coraline’s striking yellow coat. In what feels like a nod to both The Wizard of Oz and Alice Through the Looking Glass, the muted palette changes when Coraline travels through the tunnel in her room to the other world. This other world is vibrant and warm, full of reds and oranges, and the clear night sky above is full of stars. Coraline’s yellow coat (and, as an extension, Coraline herself) would fit right into this world.
Of course, as with all great horror stories, all is not what it seems, and things start getting sinister pretty quickly. There are some fantastic sequences of character transformations in Coraline, made all the more stunning when you remember this is being done in-camera, with puppets. Due to the extraordinary level of detail involved in every aspect of the film, it is easy to forget the expertise and hours upon hours of production time required to get something to look quite like this.
Henry Selick has made some of the most iconic stop-motion films of all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. With Coraline, combined with Gaiman’s stellar story, he proves yet again he is a master of the craft.
Emmett Redding is a Melbourne based animator, filmmaker, podcaster and puppeteer. Working in a combination of animation and live-action, he has a core focus on playful and reflective storytelling. His short films have screened internationally. Emmett has a BA in Film and Digital Media, and a Master of Animation, Games & Interactivity. He hosts two podcasts on films, games and pop culture, Hollygood and Grouch Cushions.