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Criterion’s First Animated Feature Release in 20 Years: A Sign of Things to Come?

On February 18, 2014, the Criterion Collection will do something that they rarely ever do: release an animated film onto DVD/Blu-ray. The film is Fantastic Mr. Fox, Criterion’s first animated feature release since Akira in 1993. To give you a sense of how long ago that was, Akira was released on laserdisc since DVDs hadn’t yet been invented.

No one is naive about Criterion’s sudden interest in an animated film. The release of Fantastic Mr. Fox has more to do with their fetishistic devotion to the work of Wes Anderson than any sudden desire to celebrate animation. I have mixed feelings about asking the animation community to support the title. On the one hand, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a fine film in its own right and Criterion should be encouraged for releasing animation. On the other hand, the film is readily available on DVD, and it’s clearly intended to cater to Wes Anderson fans, not animation enthusiasts.

By neglecting to include animation among its collection for as long as it has, Criterion has failed in its own self-proclaimed mission of “gathering the greatest films from around the world” and “publishing the defining moments of cinema for a wider and wider audience.” Their narrow definitions of film and cinema might have sufficed when they started the company in 1984, but it is incomprehensible for a contemporary company that promotes filmmakers and cinema on Criterion’s scale to remain so tone-deaf to the place of animation within the cinematic tradition.

It’s certainly not for lack of Criterion-worthy animated films. When we asked Cartoon Brew readers a couple years ago what animated works Criterion should release, you provided dozens of great suggestions. The pickings would be rich for Criterion—heck, any company—to begin releasing high-caliber animation cinema onto home video formats. Just for starters, you have the shorts of animation legends like Raoul Sevais, Jan Lenica, and John and Faith Hubley; contemporary masters such as Koji Yamamura and Priit Parn; experimental films by Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, and Hy Hirsh; and animated features like Halas and Batchelor’s Animal Farm (1954, UK), Yūgo Serikawa’s The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963, Japan), Per Åhlin and Tage Danielsson’s Out of an Old Man’s Head (1968, Sweden), Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976, Italy), Marcell Jankovics’ Fehérlófia (1981, Hungary), and John Korty and Chuck Swenson’s Twice Upon a Time (1983, USA). Just releasing the work of Czech animators would keep Criterion busy for years—think Karel Zeman, Jiří Trnka, Břetislav Pojar, or Jan Švankmajer.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a positive first step, but Criterion is missing out on a much bigger opportunity to showcase great animated cinema from around the globe.