After what seems like only a few weeks since we last compiled a similar pick of our favorite animated goodies, we come to the end of yet another year – Animated News’ first complete one! – and another selection of all fine things animated. The Animated News team have once again taken a look back at the wonderful offerings presented to us this year and we’ve selected our favorite films, soundtracks and DVDs, which all come recommended for viewing, listening or buying in those January sales! Our picks, including official site and Amazon links can be found right here:
First up: a brief review of the year… It’s been a pretty good one for animation fans and artists themselves who are interested in the history of the medium, with DVD remaining the format of choice in being able to actually see many of the classics referred to in books and television interviews over the years. Plentiful catalog releases featuring very rare material, most of which was footage never before made available to the public, meant that these films – surely the reasons many of us are in or love this particular industry – were finally able to be added to our personal libraries for future reference and study: possibly the biggest gift of all.

Apart from the obvious inclusions (you’ll need no recommendation from me to pick up the various big studio DVD releases this year, such as the excellent Mulan, Aladdin and Mary Poppins 2-disc special editions), there were the “underachievers” – Looney Tunes: Back In Action, The Triplets Of Belleville, Brother Bear and Home On The Range, all of which made their DVD debuts (and not forgetting The Iron Giant), and all of which deserved better than they got and warrant second (or third!) glances. Theatrically, The Incredibles seems to be topping most lists, though a saggy mid-section and a climax that didn’t seem to top what we had previously seen in the film means that it didn’t quite make the cut from me (though fans of the film will be happy to see it represented elsewhere here).
And speaking of which, here are our lists themselves, reflecting the diverse tastes and unique interests of the Animated News team…

Ben Simon:

In no particular order, and playing around with the self-imposed “top five” numbers like heck, my cream of the crop in 2004 were:

Inkwell Images / Thunderbean Animation DVDs
Providing the collector with perhaps the finest and certainly most heartfelt compilations of archival material on DVD, Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images made available their animated silent programs at the beginning of the year. Titles such as Before Walt, Alice In Cartoonland, Ko-Ko The Clown and two volumes of Out Of The Inkwell cartoons opened up private collections and made such early films as Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies series and the early days of the Fleischer Studios fresh again. Joining the collection recently is a new edition on the Krazy Kat series (which I haven’t seen yet) as well as another producer of such fare, Steve Stanchfield, whose Thunderbean Animation titles (which I hope to catch soon!) so far include The Complete Cubby Bear (an early character from the Van Beuren Studio), a Fleischer Popeye Classics selection, and a disc full of 1920s rarities including Felix The Cat and Oswald The Rabbit shorts, with more on the way! Steve has just managed to get a title or two registered with Amazon, but the best way to collect his series is via direct sale through eBay.

On The Front Lines: Walt Disney Treasures Wave Three
Sticking with the archival for a moment, and how could one pass up a collection of perhaps the most closely guarded of all Disney material: the wartime propaganda films of World War II. Personally developed by Walt, these films were much talked about, but tightly sealed up, gems, and it wasn’t until collectors were actually able to hold the set in their hands that it all finally seemed that these historic animated contributions had really been issued to a relatively wide audience. Likewise, the other Walt Disney Treasures, TomorrowLand and Mickey Mouse In Living Color Volume 2, were equally a joy to behold, full of truly rarely seen programs and shorts, especially EPCOT, the last time Walt presented in front of a camera, and Runaway Brain, Mickey’s most recent theatrical outing presented in full Dolby Surround and anamorphic widescreen to boot! The Mouse also made a “comeback” of sorts in the theatrically worthy romp The Three Musketeers, drawn the proper, old fashioned way and full of classic, Disney heart that’s been missing from their higher ranked features of late.

One By One
Though special praise must be heaped upon Pixar’s joyously bizarre and entertaining short Boundin’, which I loved, it’s this traditionally drawn film that gets my vote. One of three shorts completed as part of Roy Disney’s Music Project (itself a continuation of the Fantasia concept, only this time using ’specially composed or contemporary themes), One By One was finally made available on the Lion King II: Simba’s Pride DVD and quickly became the one reason worth picking up that set. With Roy Disney’s resignation from the company and the recent ruckus he has caused in trying to “oust” current Disney CEO Michael Eisner, it seems that any “pet projects” he was working on will fall by the wayside. The other two of this trio of already completed segments, including the highly acclaimed Destino, and Lorenzo, have also had limited releases as self contained short films: Destino in several festival programs, while Lorenzo enjoyed a brief run with the Kate Hudson feature Raising Helen. Though One By One is the only short so far to have made it to disc, there is some hope that we’ll see the others attached to other titles. In the meantime, One By One manages to remind us just what makes Disney so great and why we fell in love with their artistry in the first place!

I, Robot
Okay, not an animated film per se, but featuring an animated lead character every bit as expressive as his human co-stars. Sonny, the android who gains human emotions, is every bit as “real” as Gollum (as with that character, Sonny was created and animated by the geniuses at WETA Digital), or any of the animated characters who populate the CGI eye-candy epics of today, becoming much more than just a special effect and a very integral part of the story. Putting to shame similar techniques employed in bringing to “life” characters in such films as Spider-Man 2 and The Polar Express (with those scary, soulless eyes), I, Robot is the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in ages, as many who saw the film on its theatrical release this past summer have agreed. On DVD, the film gets the short thrift in the States, with a basic edition that’s not much better than the movie-and-a-trailer, while the rest of the world get variations on several deluxe 2-disc sets with production diaries and three commentary tracks. NTSC viewers are probably better off with the Region 3 edition, which has removable Thai subtitles, but comes packed with those extra features from around the world, unless one can wait for the inevitable “double-dip” when the mooted sequel is about to hit screens. Best yet, is this little beauty coming out in Japan next March. My pre-order is already in!

Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Special Edition CD Soundtrack
Coming hot on the heels of the extraordinarily enjoyable special edition DVD, this new remastering of the original soundtrack for Walt’s masterpiece is the best it has ever sounded (including the over processed, new 5.1 Home Theater Mix found on the DVD), and comes with a whole second disc of extras! As if that wasn’t enough, we are finally able to enjoy Irwin Kostal’s complete music score alongside Richard And Robert Sherman’s fantastic songs, all re-mixed by Disney archivist/record restorer Randy Thornton, the man responsible for breathing fresh life into the Disney songs of old on CD. The songs and score, presented in their most complete form yet, fill up the first disc, with several snippets of Mary Poppins Story Meetings between the filmmakers and original author PL Travers making up a fair 41-minute share of the second disc and certainly picking up with more of this fascinating material that was briefly heard on the DVD. Delightfully packaged in line with the new DVD, the 2-CD set also comes with full lyric booklet, as well as notes on Poppins record history and the restoration. On top of all this, we also get the 17-minute Hollywood Spotlight Microphone and The Sherman Brothers Reminisce About Their Work On Mary Poppins, a 16-minute carry over from the 2002 soundtrack release that includes demos for many of the film’s songs. Pure magic!

Best Of The Rest: coming in with close recommends are Walt: The Man Behind The Myth, a wide release for this exceptional biography of the man himself, The Critic, the much maligned film spoof show which became cult viewing, Paul McCartney’s Music And Animation Collection, if only for the wonderful Rupert And The Frog Song featurette, and Winsor McCay: The Master Edition, a feature-packed edition which would have probably made my top picks if I didn’t already have the previous release. Top marks also go to the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2, which easily answered the question of how the first volume could ever be topped. Finally, a special word of praise for Alex Woo’s Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher, a smashing (sorry!) self-funded release that shows unique promise from a group of young filmmakers. Give these guys some real money and let them come up with something to adorn future “best pick” columns!

Mickey A:

Aladdin: Platinum Edition DVD
Is there any reason not to like this movie? Also available in a deluxe collector’s gift set.

The Iron Giant Special Edition DVD
An overlooked masterpiece from 1999, The Iron Giant, directed by The Incredibles‘ Brad Bird, has finally been released as a special edition DVD. Don’t miss out on this one, folks.

Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Edition DVD
Practically perfect in every way”.

The Incredibles
Pixar delivers once again in this adventurous, comical tale, set to arrive on video and Disney DVD in March – right after collecting a ton of awards!

Shrek 2
Upon entering theaters in May, Shrek 2 accomplished two achievements that most sequels only dream of – reaching the heights of their predecessor in terms of critical acclaim, and grossing over $436 million in the US alone. And the film’s DVD only adds to the experience, as it contains a nice collection of bonus features, including Far, Far Away Idol for fans of the popular talent-search reality show.

Best Of The Rest: Mulan: Special Edition DVD proves that Disney’s animated magic did not end with The Lion King. To those people who believe otherwise, I suggest a second look at Mulan, the first attempt at a full-length animated feature from the folks at Disney’s currently-closed Florida studio. The Polar Express – all right, all right; so the children’s eyes in this film look a little creepy. Nonetheless, The Polar Express is reminiscent of such films as Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and Edward Scissorhands, in that it contains a certain quality that makes it both charming and somewhat unsettling at the same time. Brother Bear, due to unfair comparisons with The Lion King and Finding Nemo, received less-than-stellar reviews. Admittedly, the film pales in comparison with Disney’s best work, but Brother Bear is enjoyable, making it understandable as to why the movie did decent business at the box office ($85 million domestically), garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and found a wide audience on video and DVD. On the flipside, Home On The Range remains a vastly misunderstood and unappreciated traditionally animated film, and yet to be discovered by most audiences. The film is small, funny, and even heart-warming at times, which is all that it sets out to be. Finally, The Lion King 1½, with a new spin on a classic story, fun jokes, and swell animation, is arguably the best direct-to-video effort from Disney yet. In the film, Timon and Pumbaa retell the story of The Lion King from their perspective. While a plot such as this could have led to horrifying results, it ends up being a surprisingly hilarious film, fun for both adults and children. If only Disney’s other DTV films were this good…

Christian Ziebarth:

The Incredibles Collector’s Phone
Looks like an old-fashioned rotary phone, works like a new-fangled touch tone phone, and The Incredibles logo lights up when the phone rings. Need any more convincing?

The Complete Peanuts
Every single Peanuts strip that Charles Schulz ever created. Each volume covers two years, and two volumes will be released each year. The first two volumes are already out. Volume 3 is coming out in a few months and will sport “Pigpen” on the cover and an intro by Matt Groening. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Subscription to Animation Magazine
Sure the Internet is all the rage, but sometimes it’s just cool to get a real magazine in the mail. You know you want it, and I heard it has a low re-gift rate!

Jolly Roger Messenger Bag
I don’t know if this is animation related, but if you like animation you probably also like pirates! I know it makes a good gift because I’ve ordered one myself as a gift before (yes, mateys, I be serious) and it’ll help remind you that every September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

The Lion King Special Edition Vinyl Record Soundtrack
This may seem a little like it’s coming out of left field but we probably all know somebody who likes The Lion King and the guilty pleasures of listening to music the way it was meant to be heard: from a vinyl record.

James R Whitson:

Instead of posting about the best of animation this year, I thought I’d post about the best animation you may have missed this past year!

Nick Jr New Shows
After a few years of Blue’s Clues and Dora The Explorer reruns being the highlight of the their schedule, Nick Jr (the preschool programming block on Nickelodeon) hit big with three popular and critically acclaimed programs. Annie Award nominee Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends, based on the children’s books by David Kirk, follows the adventures of Miss Spider and her insect family and friends, and gives kids a bug’s-eye-view of the importance of getting along with others. LazyTown, a show popular with not only kids but parents as well, uses puppets, live action, and computer animation to engage and motivate kids to make healthier choices in their everyday lives. Those interested in the tech side of things might be interested in checking the show out as well. It is filmed at one of the most advanced production facilities in the world using some cutting edge technology sure to get even the most rabid technogeek drooling! Finally, The Backyardigans is all about fun. Each episode the five friends transform their backyard into a different fantastical 3D landscape – using only their imaginations. They may climb up mountains, slide down glaciers, sail across oceans, or visit haunted houses, and be back in time for snacks!

Harvie Krumpet DVD
This year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Animated Short (beating out films from the big boys, such as Disney’s Destino, Pixar’s Boundin’ and Fox/Blue Sky’s Gone Nutty), Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet gets a well deserved DVD release.

The Flintstones Season 1 and 2 DVD sets
While box sets featuring the Looney Tunes, The Simpsons and from the Disney Treasures seemed to hog the spotlight, this year also saw the release of the 60 episodes that make up the first two seasons of The Flintstones, the first primetime animated TV program.

VOOM’s Animania
Fully launched earlier this year, VOOM, available by satellite dish, is the first broadcast provider to focus on high definition programming. VOOM currently offers 39 high definition channels with plans to expand to 70 HD channels by March 2005. Among their 21 exclusive commercial-free, all-HD channels is Animania, focusing on, what else, animation. Animania airs classics like the Pink Panther, Dick Tracy, Mr. Magoo and Felix the Cat, as well as newer programming from around the world such as Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future, 20/20, Ratz and Pet Alien, which was just been picked up by Cartoon Network for (standard definition) broadcast in mid-2005.

Mary Poppins: 40th Anniversary Special Edition CD Soundtrack
In all the deserved hoopla around the recent DVD release of Mary Poppins you may have missed the Mary Poppins special edition soundtrack. This 2-disc edition contains the most complete version of the score ever made available, all the songs with more of their musical context provided, and some bonus material including a 40-minute-plus story meeting recording featuring the Sherman brothers and Poppins author PL Travers, as well as an audio commentary from 1964 featuring the Shermans, and Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Put these discs along with the new DVD release, and you’ll have your very own 4-disc special edition set with enough extras to rival those 4-disc Lord Of The Rings boxes!

Wrap Up:

So, there you have it folks…our recommended animation (and related!) picks of 2004. The new editions of Mary Poppins‘ DVD and CD soundtrack certainly seem to be favorites, and are a fine way of remembering Walt Disney and his swansong masterpiece. DVD continues to be the medium of choice for adding to our own animation libraries, and this is set to continue into 2005, with more Looney Tunes, Walt Disney Treasures, Hanna Barbera collections, plus contemporary and classic animation – all already on the way. Next year could end up being as expensive (or more so!) for the collector as this one!
Happy New Year!

– Ben Simon and the Animated-News Team. Discuss our Picks Of 2004 in the Animated-News Forum!