despicable me 3

(Welcome to The Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition: the best animated kids movies you’ve probably never seen!)

There are currently three animated kids movies playing in theaters, two in the top ten at the box-office, and this week also sees the release of Despicable Me 3. This isn’t a bad thing, as kids need entertainment too, but there’s an argument to be made that far too much of Hollywood’s kid-friendly fare is aimed specifically at very stupid kids. Okay, fine, maybe they just treat the kids as stupid. The end result is the same, in that too often the movies ask nothing of its young viewers and give even less in return.

There are better alternatives out there in animated films that entertain while also delivering substance, weight, and wit beyond mere fart jokes, with stories and characters that succeed without turning the volume all the way up to “constant noise.” Wall-E and Zootopia are two popular examples, but they get enough press and praise. No, we’re here to talk about the films you and yours haven’t seen. Some simply failed to find an audience, some are foreign productions, and some are simply decades old. All of them though are worth a shot at family film time.

So gather the young ones around the screen as we take a look at some great animated kids movies that you probably haven’t seen.

mr bug goes to town

Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941)

Hoppity the grasshopper returns to his small hometown of Buggsville to discover a community in turmoil. Human foot traffic – and the burning cigarettes they leave in their wake – have begun to rattle the people and destroy their homes, and the situation is worsened by the cruelty of one C. Bagley Beetle. He’s a wealthy landowner playing dirty in his effort to win the beautiful Honey’s hand in marriage, but her heart belongs to Hoppity.

The film is a story of a town at the mercy of both one of its own kind and the god-like humans who tower above them, and while accusations of a socialist agenda were surely bandied about, the film’s main message is one of compassion. Think of it like A Bug’s Life version 1.0 as Hoppity works to rally the others into acting in the best interest of more than just themselves. It plays very much like an old Danny Kaye movie with its light-footed energy and underdog narrative, and while they’re not the focus the carelessness of the humans offers a sly commentary on the dangers of indifference.

It’s worth noting that as progressive as the film’s social agenda is, there are a couple very brief beats highlighting the accepted racial attitudes of the day. One sees Hoppity in what amounts to black face for a second after he’s caught in an explosion, and the other involves a thuggish underling who does a quick “ching chong” riff for a laugh. Again, they’re over and done in a flash, but they exist in contrast to the message of the film and might make for a worthy talking point with the tykes.

Watch Mr. Bug Goes to Town (aka Bugville) on Amazon Prime.

animalympics

Animalympics (1980)

Welcome to the first Olympic games featuring talented athletes from all over the animal kingdom. Predators and prey alike compete for the gold in sports ranging from track & field to downhill skiing and boxing, and the action is brought to us via equally adept animal commentators.

Readers of a certain age will most likely remember this one as an HBO mainstay throughout the 1980’s, and odds are they haven’t watched it since. I’m here to tell you though that it remains as effortlessly joyful today as it ever was. The lightest film on this list, it’s a giggle-worthy series of animal-related gags and puns in the service of a feel-good sports broadcast and minor lesson on getting along with others. Hard training and natural talent pay off with medals, good sportsmanship, and in the case pictured above…an unlikely romance. It’s funny, sweet, and smile-inducing through to the very end.

The animals are voiced by a handful of performers, and while it meant nothing to me as a kid, it’s an added bonus hearing Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, and Harry Shearer bring them all to life. The Saturday Night Live influence is strong with characters like Barbara Warblers, Keen Hacksaw, Mark Spritz, and others bringing the funny and the nostalgia in equally enjoyable measure. I don’t need a remake, as the original still delivers the goods, but I wouldn’t be against seeing it get a shout-out in the next Zootopia movie.

Animalympics is currently unavailable but can be found on YouTube.

the plague dogs

The Plague Dogs (1982)

Two dogs escape from a medical research laboratory in rural England and head off in search of a respite from the pain. One has undergone brain surgery of some sort, and the other is worn to the bone by a relentless series of endurance tests. Their search for relief is challenged though by the daily struggles of survival and the added pursuit of humans who believe the animals are infected with the plague.

It’s important to note that I will not accept blame if your kids experience nightmares after viewing this one. I will however accept gratitude when, years down the road, they thank you for introducing them to the concepts of life, death, and animal empathy. It’s a heart-wrenching film that should absolutely leave you and your little ones in tears – it works like a test for sociopaths in that way – but sadness is a good and underrated thing that we too often try to dismiss or sweep beneath the rug. Beauty and levity are interwoven throughout, but it’s the pain that endures.

The film is based on a novel by Richard Adams and brought to life by the same filmmakers who adapted his more well-known Watership Down. Both are absolute classics of narrative and character, and both find real beauty among some incredibly dark happenings. Even beyond our emotional attraction to dogs in general, the pair here earn our empathy for the painful lives they’ve undergone, and as their situation worsens their bond tightens. It’s heartbreaking and wonderful in equal measure.

Watch The Plague Dogs on Amazon via Fandor.

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