(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best animated kids movies you’ve probably never seen!)
There are currently three animated kids movies playing in theaters, two in the top ten at the box-office, and this week also sees the release of Despicable Me 3. This isn’t a bad thing, as kids need entertainment too, but there’s an argument to be made that far too much of Hollywood’s kid-friendly fare is aimed specifically at very stupid kids. Okay, fine, maybe they just treat the kids as stupid. The end result is the same, in that too often the movies ask nothing of its young viewers and give even less in return.
There are better alternatives out there in animated films that entertain while also delivering substance, weight, and wit beyond mere fart jokes, with stories and characters that succeed without turning the volume all the way up to “constant noise.” Wall-E and Zootopia are two popular examples, but they get enough press and praise. No, we’re here to talk about the films you and yours haven’t seen. Some simply failed to find an audience, some are foreign productions, and some are simply decades old. All of them though are worth a shot at family film time.
So gather the young ones around the screen as we take a look at some great animated kids movies that you probably haven’t seen.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941)
Hoppity the grasshopper returns to his small hometown of Buggsville to discover a community in turmoil. Human foot traffic – and the burning cigarettes they leave in their wake – have begun to rattle the people and destroy their homes, and the situation is worsened by the cruelty of one C. Bagley Beetle. He’s a wealthy landowner playing dirty in his effort to win the beautiful Honey’s hand in marriage, but her heart belongs to Hoppity.
The film is a story of a town at the mercy of both one of its own kind and the god-like humans who tower above them, and while accusations of a socialist agenda were surely bandied about, the film’s main message is one of compassion. Think of it like A Bug’s Life version 1.0 as Hoppity works to rally the others into acting in the best interest of more than just themselves. It plays very much like an old Danny Kaye movie with its light-footed energy and underdog narrative, and while they’re not the focus the carelessness of the humans offers a sly commentary on the dangers of indifference.
It’s worth noting that as progressive as the film’s social agenda is, there are a couple very brief beats highlighting the accepted racial attitudes of the day. One sees Hoppity in what amounts to black face for a second after he’s caught in an explosion, and the other involves a thuggish underling who does a quick “ching chong” riff for a laugh. Again, they’re over and done in a flash, but they exist in contrast to the message of the film and might make for a worthy talking point with the tykes.
Watch Mr. Bug Goes to Town (aka Bugville) on Amazon Prime.
Welcome to the first Olympic games featuring talented athletes from all over the animal kingdom. Predators and prey alike compete for the gold in sports ranging from track & field to downhill skiing and boxing, and the action is brought to us via equally adept animal commentators.
Readers of a certain age will most likely remember this one as an HBO mainstay throughout the 1980’s, and odds are they haven’t watched it since. I’m here to tell you though that it remains as effortlessly joyful today as it ever was. The lightest film on this list, it’s a giggle-worthy series of animal-related gags and puns in the service of a feel-good sports broadcast and minor lesson on getting along with others. Hard training and natural talent pay off with medals, good sportsmanship, and in the case pictured above…an unlikely romance. It’s funny, sweet, and smile-inducing through to the very end.
The animals are voiced by a handful of performers, and while it meant nothing to me as a kid, it’s an added bonus hearing Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, and Harry Shearer bring them all to life. The Saturday Night Live influence is strong with characters like Barbara Warblers, Keen Hacksaw, Mark Spritz, and others bringing the funny and the nostalgia in equally enjoyable measure. I don’t need a remake, as the original still delivers the goods, but I wouldn’t be against seeing it get a shout-out in the next Zootopia movie.
Animalympics is currently unavailable but can be found on YouTube.
The Plague Dogs (1982)
Two dogs escape from a medical research laboratory in rural England and head off in search of a respite from the pain. One has undergone brain surgery of some sort, and the other is worn to the bone by a relentless series of endurance tests. Their search for relief is challenged though by the daily struggles of survival and the added pursuit of humans who believe the animals are infected with the plague.
It’s important to note that I will not accept blame if your kids experience nightmares after viewing this one. I will however accept gratitude when, years down the road, they thank you for introducing them to the concepts of life, death, and animal empathy. It’s a heart-wrenching film that should absolutely leave you and your little ones in tears – it works like a test for sociopaths in that way – but sadness is a good and underrated thing that we too often try to dismiss or sweep beneath the rug. Beauty and levity are interwoven throughout, but it’s the pain that endures.
The film is based on a novel by Richard Adams and brought to life by the same filmmakers who adapted his more well-known Watership Down. Both are absolute classics of narrative and character, and both find real beauty among some incredibly dark happenings. Even beyond our emotional attraction to dogs in general, the pair here earn our empathy for the painful lives they’ve undergone, and as their situation worsens their bond tightens. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful in equal measure.
Watch The Plague Dogson Amazon via Fandor.
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A Letter to Momo (2011)
Momo and her mother move to a small island after the death of Momo’s dad, but as if the grief wasn’t bad enough, the girl also feels guilt for having fought with him before he died. Compounding it all is an unfinished letter she finds from him to her, and while she struggles with her emotions something else comes along to occupy her time. Three goblin spirits are in the attic, and they’re game for a little adventure.
This energetic and delightful Japanese gem reminds at times of the far more popular Spirited Away as a young girl finds herself spending time with supernatural beings on a journey that’s whimsical, frightening, and dramatic. The story is its own though, and it’s a rollicking one that sees little Momo dealing with sadness, loneliness, and her father’s absence through friendship and a growing self-confidence.
It’s one of the more obviously kid friendly titles on this list, as the humor runs the gamut from sharp and concise to broadly childish. Like 90% of Hollywood’s animated output, it features some gaseous gags and slapsticky pratfalls, but happily, there’s far more to it all. The personalities build alongside the story to a thrilling and dangerous third act, and while loss and grief remain a very real subject throughout as Momo finds a way to move forward without letting the weight of the past hold her back.
Buy A Letter for Momoon Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon or watch on Amazon video.
The Painting (2011)
A handful of people from different social classes find themselves on a grand adventure with a singular purpose. They’ve in search of their creator. The Allduns are finished and seen as the most worthwhile, the Halfies are incomplete and inferior because of it, and the Sketchies are mere outlines considered to be the dregs of society. These painted figures escape the frame of their paintings to go looking for the artist, but what they find is something far more unexpected.
The metaphor at the core of this French film is fairly straightforward, but none of that diminishes its beauty. The CG brings various art styles to life, including cubism and expressionism, and its efforts work as something of an introduction into art history as the story unfolds. Watching the figures leap from one painted world to the next is visually thrilling both in appearance and in the form of action/suspense scenes.
Adding to the power of this morality play about race and class is the idea of self-determination. Their pursuit of the artist – essentially a stand-in for god – sees them eventually enter the real world of the artist’s workshop and the surrounding fields. It’s a beautiful sequence, emotional even, and rather than hand the power and responsibility of it all to this man, the message is instead one of personal responsibility and accomplishment. It’s an important lesson in the guise of a colorful adventure.
Buy The Paintingon Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon or watch on Amazon video.
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (2013)
Young Jack is born on the coldest day ever recorded, and when the chill freezes his fragile heart, a quick-thinking doctor saves his life by swapping out the organ for a cuckoo-clock. He’s sheltered as he grows up and told to avoid feeling strong emotions, lest they break his artificial heart. Love, of course, is the strongest emotion, and it’s one he can’t help but feel when he heads into town one day and meets the girl of his dreams.
Imagine a rock opera co-created by Ray Bradbury and Tim Burton, and you’ll have an idea what to expect with this beautiful and surprising European gem. Friendship, love, and the importance of reaching for the stars are themes explored here and brought to life with gorgeous and playful CG animation. There’s an antagonist who’s every bit as threatening as Jack’s heart condition, and the girl, Miss Acacia, is a character filled with her own wonders and personality. Their tale is set against a highly imaginative world offering up a feast for the eyes as trains move like accordions, Georges Méliès stops by for a visit, and death comes calling.
More than that though, the film’s musical inclinations also deliver numerous treats for the ears and heart. The film is an adaptation of a book, which itself was adapted from a concept album, and it’s the same artist behind all three. Mathias Malzieu, via his band Dionysios, tells a fable of life, love, and death, and the smart, soulful, and highly catchy songs are a key part of it all. There’s a vitality to Jack’s story as he relishes life’s wonders despite the risk, and while some of the specific references will fly over kids heads the themes will most likely stick.