Quality Animation of 2014

This year has seen the release of many amazing movies in several genres.  From Selma to Maleficent to Guardians of the Galaxy, there has  been something for everyone.  However, let`s not neglect the quality animated offerings that debuted in 2014.  They covered a variety of subjects and styles and featured amazing voice talent.  In no particular order, here is a recap of some of the year`s best animated films.

1. The Book of Life.   This is a unique film which was produced by famed director Guillermo del Toro ( Pan`s labyrinth, Pacific Rim).  There are plenty of Christmas and Halloween movies, but how often do you see one about Mexico`s Day of the Dead?  Book of Life proceeds to enlighten us on this unusual holiday, as it provides a charming story about a young Mexican lady (Zoe Saldana) and the two men who love her, sensitive bullfighter/guitarist Manolo ( Diego Luna) and aggressive soldier Joaquin (Channing Tatum).

We learn quite a bit about the contrasting worlds of Mexican mythology: the Land of the Remembered, in which happy deceased folks party down in a perpetual fiesta, and the somber Land of the Forgotten.  When Manolo accidentally winds up in the Land of the Remembered, he must find a way to return to the living and reunite with Maria, as well as defend his town from a gang of bandits.

The plot, though complex, does not  drag at all due to lively voice acting and playful humor.  Also noteworthy are the animation style- characters resemble wooden sculptures brought to life- and an ingenious soundtrack which blends modern pop music with old style flamenco.

2. Mr. Peabody and Sherman.   Fans of the 1960`s  Peabody and Sherman cartoon have awaited a big screen adaptation for many years.  Despite some differences from the original, the Dreamworks film does not disappoint.   Genius dog Mr. Peabody  (Ty Burrell )has earned many college degrees, invented the time-traveling WABAC machine, and originated the fist bump, but has to learn a bit more about being a good dad to adopted son Sherman (Max Charles).

Chaos ensues when Sherman takes the WABAC  into his own hands in order to impress his crush Penny.  He`s time traveled before, but only under the careful supervision of Peabody.  This time, they bounce around from ancient Egypt to classical Greece to Renaissance Italy, all while Penny`s confused parents are attending a dinner party at the Peabody apartment.

The film often  lacks the acerbic wit of the Jay Ward TV show.  It does have a gentle humor which keeps you smiling, and  sometimes breaks out into pure silliness.  Some of the best scenes occur when peace-loving Sherman is recruited into Agamemnon`s army and becomes a bit too enthused about war.  Ty Burrell is the perfect voice for the uppity yet loveable Mr. Peabody.  Other fine voice work includes Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon and Mel Brooks` Albert Einstein.

3. How to Train Your Dragon Part 2.  I  hesitate to write  about a film I have not seen: this is one of the year`s major animated films I did not see at the theater.  But both word of mouth and media  reviews praise it as  one of the best sequels to come along in a while.   Plucky young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a teen who explores new territory with his dragon friend Toothless.  They find a secret cave which is  home to hundreds of dragons and his long lost mother ( Cate Blanchett).

Hiccup`s next challenge is to fight Drago, an enemy to both his mother and his home island of Berk.  If this is anything like the first Dragon film, which featured gorgeous visuals and a great pro-environment theme, I`m sure it`s worth a look.  Both movies are based on the Dragon Rider book series by Cressida Cowell.

4. The LEGO movie.   Though  I reviewed the LEGO movie`s  Blu-Ray release earlier this year, I`m still raving about it.  What`s not to like about  everyman hero Emmet (Chris Pratt) as he embraces his destiny as the Special?   This movie is very funny, yes, but it`s also action -packed and has a wonderful plot which  contains lessons about  both believing in yourself  as an individual and working with others.   The flawless animation appears three-dimensional even when viewed in 2D, and a voice cast consisting of Pratt, Morgan Freeman, and Elizabeth Banks, among others, brings the LEGO-verse to vivid life.

5. Big Hero 6.   Loosely based on the Marvel graphic novels, this Disney film combines plenty of action with a plot which manages to be touching while avoiding overt sentimentality.  Boy genius Hiro Hamada  is initially scornful of his older brother Tadashi`s MIT-esque college, preferring to make quick cash on the local robot-fighting circuit.   Then he visits the school and gets to know Baymax (Scott Adsit), the lumpy, gentle robot  his brother has designed for health care work.  When the elder Hamada is killed in a fire, Baymax gradually brings Hiro out of his deep grief.

At first, Hiro is focused  on avenging Tadashi`s death,  but he eventually learns that this may not be the right path to take.  Along the way, he builds Baymax an intricate battle suit and gets to know  his brother`s friends,  an amiable, science-loving group ranging from no-nonsense GoGo to dippy yet brilliant Fred.

The heart of the movie is Baymax. Though he`s not human,  his bland smile and huggable white body are oddly appealing.  He`s not supposed to have emotions, but his acts of kindness, though programmed, gradually progress to a more advanced level. Like R2D2 and Lost in Space`s Robot before him,  Baymax is the latest in a long line of robot friends. He`s a huge reason why Big Hero 6 is one of my favorite films of this year.


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