Once again, adventurous viewers might like some animated alternatives to regular cartoon programming this season. However, when venturing outside the familiar, trying to find a compelling title you can share with your loved ones ocassionally becomes a hairy proposition. We’re here to make the search a little easier, of course. These picks don’t get nearly as much press as they should, but they’re all so fun and with so few barriers to entry that they should really become new holiday traditions.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Watson and Holmes duo have enjoyed some diverse interpretations, to say the least–even just in recent years. They’ve been transplanted to modern England and New York and re-imagined as two-fisted demolitions experts. Long before all that, though, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki explored how the team’s mysteries might play out if Holmes were a red fox and Watson was a Scottish Terrier. Naturally, that old heel Professor Moriarty is also present as–what else?–a gray wolf.
The series even expands the fantasia a bit by regularly featuring inventive, anachronistic contraptions Jules Verne might’ve dreamed up. Far from a mere cutesy, funny animal story, this series is a delightful steampunk adventure, with many kinetic, slapstick set-pieces recalling the treacherous gauntlets Miyazaki and animation studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha put Lupin III through in Castle of Cagilostro. Indeed, we’ll assert that no more thrilling bicycle chase has ever been rendered on film.
Little Nemo in Slumberland
A “dream project” in several regards, producer Yutaka Fujioka tried to make an adaptation of Windsor McCay’s classic comic strip for over a decade, rolling through numerous iterations with a swath of international talents like Ray Bradbury, Moebius, Chris Columbus, and even Miyazaki before finally making this happen. Capturing all the whimsical surrealism of the original Little Nemo, the film follows a pajama-clad boy’s bedtime journey to a fantasy kingdom and has all the charming dream logic to suit such a rarebit vision.
Little Nemo is enticed to Slumberland with a plate of cookies, initially coming to be a playmate of Princess Camille, but then receiving a baffling offer of sovereignty upon arrival. Handling his mandate like any little boy would, Nemo almost immediately creates a world of trouble by unwittingly letting the Nightmare King loose (even though Slumberland’s King Morpheus expressly warns him not to). To rescue Slumberland, the moppet must learn how to wield a powerful magic scepter and recite some of the most ridiculous magic words ever uttered.
Note well: this was also animated by Tokyo Movie Shinsha around the same time the studio made Akira, and it has the same superlative production quality. And Little Nemo‘s disappointing box office actually prompted TMS to take on more American productions, including Batman: The Animated Series.
The Cat Returns
Sadly, this has become a bit of a footnote in the Ghibli filmography (right along with almost every production Miyazaki hasn’t personally directed). It’s unfortunate, because The Cat Returns is one of the Studio’s most adventurous films artistically; each frame being quite distinct from their usual house style. Indeed, the art recalls more the wispy, storybook look of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
A feature-length exploration of the fantasy sequences in Whispers of the Heart, this surreal adventure follows a young woman, Haru, who makes a startling discovery about the stray feline she’s rescued. He’s actually Prince Lune, the deposed regent of the Cat Kingdom, and he’d very much like her hand in marriage. Haru reluctantly absconds to this little pocket world with her would-be paramour, and when she starts turning into a cat lady herself, Lune’s absurd proposition starts seeming a little more likely. The two find themselves in the middle of a royal plot, though, and their flight through the Cat Kingdom’s spiraling castles are some truly lavish and inventive spectacles.
Have these recommendations never been underrated in your hearts? What other lesser-known, family-friendly anime titles could use some more love? Drop your thoughts in the talkback.
Image Credits: Discotek Media, Tokyo Movie Shinsha, Studio Ghibli
Featured Image Credit: Tokyo Movie Shinsha