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.


  • Anthony D.

    The Thief and The Cobbler would also be a great candidate for this label. As also Fantastic Planet.

    • rubi-kun

      Only if they could release the director’s cut. Maybe after the Academy screening, it’s possible now?

  • Tony

    Mr. Bug Goes to Town and The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

  • Rob Steiner Jr

    Twice Upon a Time on Blu-ray would be beautiful! Maybe even keep the HBO cut in as a separate audio track.

  • Thad Komorowski

    Criterion is difficult to figure out. Many of their releases represent a gold standard (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and BIGGER THAN LIFE come immediately to mind), but they seem to have little sense of what warrants the red carpet treatment (and when to do it) when it comes to the wide array of cinema done right here in America, never mind worldwide. Doubtful it’s a sign of things to come. It obviously is merely “intended to cater to Wes Anderson fans, not animation enthusiasts” as Amid suggested. Don’t hold your breath.

  • jordan reichek

    totally.

    as far as a wealth of ‘behind the scenes’/supplemental material available, FMF is probably a great candidate due to Anderson’s love of the craft and his process documentation while in production.

  • Barrett

    Criterion is interested in “film snob cred” and I have met very few film snobs who give the time of day to anything but the occasional Pixar or foreign animated film. The sad thing is, this kind of cliquishness is very blindered, because many, many people in the animation industry (especially directors) are serious film aficionados and know good storytelling, good cinematography, good cinema period. Many of them own Criterion discs. But to the other film geeks, they will hold onto the outdated “genre” mindset and associate anything animated with bus-side posters and Happy Meals, which somehow automatically negate artistic integrity.

    These snobs can have their Wes Anderson wank party (and I love Wes Anderson films.) Let them take the already-narrow selection of films Worth Giving A Crap About and further reduce the selection to satisfy their cliquish fetishes. It just means the directors of animated features need to up the pressure on their studios to make their video releases as special and high-quality as possible, no more shovelware bonus-free no-frills discs for major features, since it’s obvious Criterion will never get around to doing so themselves.

    • barney miller

      Yes, releasing pristine prints of works by Kurosawa, Truffaut, Kobayashi and Lang is a “cliquish fetish”, because everyone knows those guys are marginal, obscure talents only worth “film snob cred”.

      • Barrett

        How does selecting very specific artistically meaningful films somehow negate my charges of cliquishness? Just because they are picking worthwhile films doesn’t mean that they are not ignoring other very worthwhile films because of petty biases. This is an article about their handling of animated films relative to their handling of live-action ones. The charges stand.

        • barney miller

          The fact that they aren’t including titles you’d like to see on the list doesn’t prove your “charges” that Criterion is excluding them out of a specific bias.

          A lot of it has to do with the expense of licenses on certain films. Many of the titles once offered by Criterion on laserdisc aren’t available on dvd or blu ray from Criterion for that very reason. Imagine the cost to a small company like Criterion for some of the large studio titles.

          I brought up the aforementioned directors because their work is considered classic by a much broader base than you suggest in your previous comments. Criterion includes their work alongside titles like Godzilla and The Blob. I wouldn’t consider that only choosing “specific, artistically meaningful films”.

          I would love it if Criterion released more animated titles, but I think your imagined version of some art snob council at Criterion that looks down their nose at certain films is both baseless and negative in a way that won’t encourage any pursuit of future animated titles.

  • ben marques

    Here are my three suggestions – - -
    1. West and Soda (1965) – original w/ English subs

    2. Vip, My Brother Superman (1968) – original w/ English subs

    3. Allegro non Troppo (1976) – original w/ English subs

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Still wouldn’t mind the English dubs to these films though since those tend to be edited anyway that would never happen.

  • Matthew H.

    Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Cleopatra’ is the film that makes the most sense imo.

    • Beamish Kinowerks

      Tezuka’s production co. also made the wonderful BELLADONNA OF SADNESS. I have no clue as to who owns the distribution rights to that one nowadays, though.

      • Matthew H.

        Belladonna of Sadness would be another good choice. They could release them both as a three disc set along w/ Bremen 4: Angels In Hell. As far as non-Tezuka titles go I. Takahata’s Only Yesterday would be great. And it’s unclear whether Disney has any interest in releasing it. I own the Japan BR release of OY.

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    TWICE UPON A TIME is impossible for Criterion to license-it’s owned by WB, and they intend to release it themselves. However, WATERSHIP DOWN and THE PLAGUE DOGS have both reverted to their producer/director, Martin Rosen, and Criterion would be wise to jump on them.

  • San Diego Cinerama

    I love Criterion, but there’s not a false note in this article.

    That said, I’d like to see the works of Satoshi Kon given the high end treatment- Tokyo Godfathers, Millennium Actress, Paprika… And since Criterion and Sony signed a deal a few months back… I’m crossing fingers.

    Also, works of Rene Laloux, Jan Svenmaker, and Bashki’s original version of Cool World.

  • rubi-kun

    Seeing as Perfect Blue and Millenium Actress are unlicensed while Tokyo Godfathers currently is, the former two are in more desperate need of a Criterion release (same deal with Paranoia Agent, if they’re up for releasing a TV series).

  • Derrick King

    In November, at a Q&A at the Wexner Center, Criterion President Peter Becker mentioned that they were currently in negotiations for another animated title. Unfortunately, there were no hints at what the title was/is.

    • Kris Kail

      Sir Billi

  • Barrett

    Grave of the Fireflies and The Iron Giant, absolutely. Iron Giant is something anyone who loves good film should treasure. I don’t even think of it as a kid’s movie, even if that’s how the marketers at WB probably thought of it.

  • David

    Some of the films mentioned/suggested have dvd releses or had in the past, while there are films that never had releases altogether. Here are some ofsuch films that should be released, no excuses.

    1) Foam Bath (Gyorgy Kovasznai)
    2) Son of the White Mare (Marcell Jankovics)
    3) Angel’s Egg (Mamoru Oshii)
    4) Heroic Times (Jozsef Gemes)
    5) Jannik Hastrup’s Thralls Trilogy

    Also, Karel Zeman’s many many films, the many Russian fairy tale animated children’s films, the many animated films from the Soviet block in general, Rene Laloux.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Arguably we’re overdue for a “Masters of Hungarian Animation” release of sorts!

  • Shuckleberry Hound

    These were my exact sentiments as I read through these comments. It’s absolutely absurd that so many people are suggesting that Criterion is a disreputable organization just because they’ve been neglecting animation. Yes, we would all love to see obscure, foreign and classic animation films given the Criterion treatment, but just because they haven’t done it doesn’t mean they release nothing but “overblown titles at overblown prices” for film snobs.

    Besides, a lot of the titles you guys are suggesting they release would be near impossible to accomplish because of licensing issues.

    • Kevin Martinez

      I think it’s very clear that Criterion has the same “cartoons are for kids” mindset that haunts so many Hollywood bigwigs, I agree that Mr. Fox lucked out because it bears the name of one of their cinematic darlings. That’s why were seeing it instead of, say, Wallace and Gromit or Coraline or even a Ray Harryhausen, just to name other stop-motion films.

      Criterion can have their snobfest. We’ll be lucky if Mark Gustafson gets even a passing mention anywhere (even though it was he who did the actual animation direction)

    • Funkybat

      I don’t think Criterion is the least bit “disreputable,” they clearly love film and love quality presentation and in-depth analysis. What many of us ARE criticizing is the apparent dismissal of animated films of almost any kind. It’s not unique to Criterion in the slightest, but it is an irritating continuation (and tacit legitimization) of the “animation is a ‘genre’” and “it is meant mainly for kids or mass market family audiences.”

      It’s annoying because every year there are at least a couple of animated films (either short or long, foreign or domestic) that qualify as legitimate masterpieces, but they go ignored by almost all film geeks and even many animation geeks. It’s something they could help to fight change, but it will take more than a Wes Anderson stop-mo diversion to do that.

  • David

    Then by your philosophy all companies lost their credibility because they are the ones who put out the initial films, and no studio or distributor is flawless. Criterion did release two Michael Bay films early in the dvd and laserdisc day for that matter, but they have more than made up for it. That was a marketing move on their part very common in the film business. If it takes a blockbuster to release many Truffauts or Tarkovsky’s then I’m all for it. I do hope they put more animated films in the catalog.

    • Kris Kail

      Okay.

  • Kris Kail

    Oh god the nightmares when I was a kid

  • Lucky Jim

    Seriously, Criterion rules pretty damn hard. Here’s a list of every title they’ve ever released: http://www.criterion.com/library/expanded_view?b=Criterion&p=1&pp=25&s=spine

    It’s an incredibly diverse and eclectic set of films. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is an excellent film and I’m happy it’s going to be part of such an important collection.

    • Funkybat

      Glad to see it added. I just hope it isn’t the last new animated addition for the rest of this decade.

  • luca

    Tokyo Godfathers is a masterpiece, totally agree

  • jimfthomas

    I attended an event with a Q&A with two people from Criterion and the question about a lack of animation releases was asked then. Their answer was that everyone has the opinion that Criterion has the ability to pick and choose every project, but that in reality they have to get permissions from the studio and studios like Disney (as one example) haven’t a need to lend Criterion the rights as they keep their own titles in circulation and even restore them when possible. The Criterion folk said this was one of the biggest misconceptions about their work, that they have unlimited access.