The recent release of Inside Out, Pixar’s first film with an original storyline since Brave, has left audiences with a renewed appreciation for animated films geared to children and adults alike; films that deal with mature and thought-provoking material. Inside Out grossed $32.4 million on its opening day, setting a record among Pixar films that leaves it second only to Toy Story 3. It also received critical acclaim across the board.
While many individuals enjoyed the film for its original characters and hilarious voice cast, it also tackled a number of subjects that are deeper and more mature than those of most children’s films. “More than an entertaining film, Inside Out is an important reflection on the power of emotion,” and audiences lauded directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen's decision to tell a more powerful and serious story instead of opting for lighter, Disney-esque fare.
The movie’s critical and box-office success show that films do not merely need to employ simplicity and sweetness when geared toward children, and that kids can (and in some cases, even want to) engage with smarter, more sophisticated stories. While newer, domestic films like Monsters University, Inside Out, and How to Train Your Dragon 2 are working to prove that fact, it is also important to help children gain awareness of foreign animated films. Therefore, we have compiled a list of the 10 Foreign Animated Films Kids Should Watch.
- The only criteria is that the movie must be rated PG or lower (which, unfortunately, means no Princess Mononoke). And if you're worried about kids reading subtitles, remember there is always English dubbing.
10 NOCTURNA (2007)
A French-Spanish animated film, Nocturna was released in Spain in 2007 but not officially in the US until 2014. The film follows the story of Tim, an orphaned boy who is terrified of the dark which makes him unpopular with the other children in his orphanage. The only way Tim’s fears are quelled is by seeing the light of the stars at night, but one day, he notices that his favorite star has disappeared. This begins his journey through the land of Nocturna, the magical place where night is created, where he meets strange beings like the Cat Shepherd. Soon, Tim discovers that Nocturna is under the threat of a fearsome presence known as the Darkness which may cause all the stars to go out forever.
Although it is one of the lesser-known additions to the list, it deals with a number of important lessons about how intense our fears can become if we allow them to rule us. Nocturna is originally in Spanish and contains beautiful visuals as well as important lessons about standing up to your fears and fighting for what you believe in.
9 A CAT IN PARIS (2010)
A Cat in Paris involves complex subjects such as grief, loneliness, and issues of morality - as well as an intricate and often dark plot line. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature and received accolades from critics who deemed it thrilling and dangerous - without being too scary for children.
The story begins with a cat who assists a Parisian burglar by night and lives a quiet life with a little girl named Zoé by day. When Zoé is kidnapped by a band of thugs, her police officer mother must find out whom she can trust in order to save her daughter and catch her man. While serious in its subject matter, A Cat in Paris is definitely geared toward families and provides a beautiful, film noir-ish backdrop that perfectly lends itself to the movie’s style and storyline.
8 THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (2010)
The sixteenth film by Studio Ghibli, a prominent Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, The Secret World of Arrietty was released in Japan in 2010 and as an English dub by Disney in 2012. However, Miyazaki and Takahata contemplated the film for nearly 40 years before its fruition. Based on the series of children’s books by Mary Norton known as The Borrowers, Arrietty was the highest-grossing anime film in the US that was not based on a game franchise.
The focus of the story is a young girl named Arrietty who, like her parents, is a borrower - a tiny person who lives in home of regular-sized people and borrows things that won’t be missed (sugar, pins, etc.). When Arrietty is seen by a human boy, the family is thrown into panic and must decide whether or not they should leave their home for good.
Each version of the film has a phenomenal voice cast, but Arrietty shines in its moments of breathtaking animation: raindrops falling on stones, the wind moving through tall grass. It is enthralling for all viewers, both young and old, and the time spent developing the film shows in every spectacular shot and smallest detail. Children may not be able to appreciate the breadth of work and skill that went into the film, but its calm energy will likely create lasting memories for them.
7 THE ILLUSIONIST (2010)
According to the trailer, “When life loses its wonder, all it takes is one person who still believes in magic.” The film is a French-Scottish drama set in 1959 about a down-on-his-luck illusionist called Tatischeff, who is watching his career disappear before his eyes. When people no longer want to see the type of magic he performs, he meets a young girl who believes he truly has magical powers. For her, he attempts to keep the illusion alive as they travel across Europe, looking for an audience.
Directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) and nominated for an Oscar, the film utilizes fluid, 2D animation to tell a story that (spoiler) actually ends rather sadly. The illusionist gives up everything to the girl who, eventually, moves on. It may seem too sorrowful for children to enjoy, but the ending is bittersweet and reminds us that a movie does not need to end in a marriage or a sing-along to be appropriate for, and influential to, young audiences.
6 THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009)
A French-Belgian-Irish film, The Secret of Kells is the only movie on the list that was originally made in English. It centers around Brendan, a boy living in an Irish monastery, who is curious and desiring of adventure. When he is given the chance to help create a mysterious book that is said to “turn darkness into light,” he goes into the forest only to be attacked by wolves. He is rescued by a forest spirit named Aisling, who befriends him. Together, Brendan, Aisling, and the book’s original creator, Aidan, attempt to finish their task of completing the Book of Kells despite the threat of danger from all sides.
The film was well-received by critics and earned a number of nominations and awards (including Best Animation at the 7th Irish Film and Television Awards). Its animation style is lush and influenced by traditional Irish art. While several scenes depict frightening occurrences (such as Viking and wolf attacks), the ethereal nature of the film keeps it whimsical, even in its darkest moments, and its animation style may open up a new world to children who are only accustomed to the usual Disney fare.
5 ERNEST & CELESTINE (2012)
Ernest & Celestine is a French film based on a series of children’s books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent. In the film, a bear named Ernest and a mouse named Celestine strike up an unlikely friendship after a series of events cause them to be wanted by the police. The story involves their journey to make a change in their unhappy lives as they grow closer and find themselves bonding over their mutual interests.
Though their worlds seem very different, it slowly becomes apparent that Celestine and Ernest are both being shoehorned into lives they don’t care to lead, based on what is normally expected in their separate mouse and bear cities. While Celestine is an artist who is expected to become a dentist (because that is what mice do), Ernest wants to be an entertainer but must become a lawyer. The film illustrates the importance of being yourself, while also weaving in moments of humor and drama. Ernest & Celestine was also the first animated film to win the Magritte Award for Best Film and was nominated for an Oscar. Its animation and story, while deceptively simplistic, work together to create a film that resonates with individuals of all ages.
4 PONYO (2008)
Another Studio Ghibli film that was also dubbed and released by Disney, Ponyo’s central character is a goldfish who sneaks away from her wizard father in search of adventure. She falls in love with a boy named Sōsuke, and the issues that result when her father tries to return her to her place in the sea cause a tsunami and an imbalance in the world that must be made right before even more disasters occur.
Ponyo has the same beloved animation style Studio Ghibli is best known for, and its Disney dub utilizes the voice talents of Matt Damon (The Bourne Series), Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett (The Hobbit), and Liam Neeson (Taken). But the story’s lessons that adults don’t always know best, and that love is one of the world’s strongest forces, will resonate with the children who watch it - even if they are cleverly disguised by the movie’s (sorry, gotta do it) fish-out-of-water fun.
3 HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)
Though some may prefer Studio Ghibli’s first film, Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a more modern, polished experience than the 1986 film. It follows a girl named Sophie who is cursed by a witch and transformed into an old woman. Sophie goes in search of someone who can turn her back to her former age and ends up at the home of a wizard named Howl, whom she met previously as a young woman. As the story (based on the fantasy novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones) unfolds, war, love, nature, sacrifice, and emotional maturity are all explored, which allow for a powerful and entertaining ride.
It may seem that the storyline or many of the themes involved in Howl’s Moving Castle will sail over a young child’s head. However, kids are able to recognize those concepts they already enjoy while being introduced to a deeper story that becomes better and better the more they watch it. The film won a number of awards (including Best Director, Voice Actor/Actress, and Music at the Tokyo Anime Awards) and was also nominated for an Oscar. It is often considered to be one of Studio Ghibli’s most intricate and creative films.
2 THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAYUGA (2013)
Based on a folktale about a bamboo cutter who finds a small girl inside a stalk of bamboo, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the nineteenth Studio Ghibli film (directed by Isao Takahata) which employs “freely sketched” animation to compliment its story.
Kaguya (voiced by Aki Asakura in the original Japanese cast who will soon be seen in Dragon Blade) is raised by her parents who think she is a divine gift and soon attempt to turn her into the princess they believe her to be. Unfortunately, Kaguya hates the things she must do in order to become royalty and longs for her simple life in the mountains with her parents and friends. Once she finally reveals her origins, it is clear that Kaguya’s fondest wish was to become human for all the beauty in its everyday happinesses and struggles.
The film weaves a touching story with an important lesson about the beauty of life’s temporary nature and the animation style, which always seems to show characters and objects flickering nearly out of sight, perfectly compliments its themes. It also enjoyed critical and box office success along with a number of awards and nominations.
1 Spirited Away (2001)
Topping the list at number one, Spirited Away became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It is also widely considered to be the greatest Studio Ghibli film, and its direction by Hayao Miyazaki is, in many ways, unparalleled in the history of animation. While Spirited Away centers around Chihiro, a little girl who unwittingly enters the spirit world, the story is deeper and richer than a small summary could possibly begin to describe.
Spirited Away takes the number one spot because it basically has it all: stunning visuals, a dark story, humor, drama, horror, imaginative characters, and a memorable ending. The film is also one that can be enjoyed at any age and, while haunting, is still not too frightening for young audiences. It also explores the theme of maturation itself, and what it means to move from childhood into adulthood, making it the kind of story you’ll want your kids to see before, after, and in between.