Why 1999 Was the Best Year For Animated Films

toy story 2 iron giant princess mononoke

This year, you will see tons of articles celebrating the 20th anniversaries of classic films ranging from The Matrix to The Sixth Sense to Fight Club. Even if not every critically acclaimed hit from 1999 holds up today (try watching American Beauty now, or better yet, don't), the turn of the millennium remains a solid contender in the movie buff debate over the "best year for movies."

Was 1999 actually the best year for movies? Actually making a case for that assertion is hard. There are both amazing and awful movies every year. While 1999 might seem like it had an unusually stand-out crop, you could just as easily argue on behalf of 1939 (the year of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) or 1975 (Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) or 1994 (Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption) or 2007 (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood). What there is almost no room for debate on, however, is that 1999 was the best year for a specific type of film: the animated movie.

For most of film history, one single studio dominated all conversation about feature-length animation: Disney. Until the late '90s, nearly all attempts to compete with the Mouse had failed. Adult cartoons decidedly not going after the Disney market -- like Fritz the Cat or Heavy Metal -- could occasionally garner minor success, but such cult hits were sporadic. This unchallenged dominance was changing in the '90s as the Disney Renaissance was coming to its end. DreamWorks had already issued a major challenge to Disney in 1998 with the releases of Antz and The Prince of Egypt, but 1999 was the year the animation marketplace truly burst open for competition.



That Disney's 1999 release Tarzan was only the fifth or sixth best animated film to hit US theaters that year says a lot about how strong the competition was. The last major hit of the Disney Renaissance, Tarzan hasn't stayed as prominent in the cultural conversation as other '90s Disney films, perhaps in part because of how different it was from the others (while it had Phil Collins songs, it was not a musical).

Revisit it, though, and you'll be blown away by just how stunning its hybrid of 2D and 3D animation still is (coming a few years before Disney would abandon 2D altogether), and its story about motherhood still tugs at the heartstrings.

Toy Story 2

At the box office, the biggest competition to Disney's dominance was still technically a Disney release. Pixar had not yet been purchased and fully integrated into the Disney machine at the time of Toy Story 2's release, however, and this young upstart studio was already giving the main Disney studio a run for its money.

The best cartoon sequel of all time (yes, we'd put it just slightly above Toy Story 3), Toy Story 2 should not have been nearly as great as it was. This was supposed to be a cheaper direct-to-video project, only for Pixar's own standards of quality to push it beyond even the greatness of the first movie and make it worthy of a theatrical release. The film is simultaneously funnier than the first and more melancholy, transforming the series into a profound meditation on aging and choosing one's purpose in life.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

In the same year Disney abandoned the musical formula that defined most of its renaissance-era films, the best animated musical of 1999 was an unexpected one: South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Twenty-two seasons in, there's a lot you can say, both good and bad, about the cultural impact of the South Park TV series, but the movie still holds up as the series at its best.

This is in part due to the film's social satire being focused on an issue Trey Parker and Matt Stone know all too much about: censorship in America, but also due to how hilarious the film's foul-mouthed show tunes are. There wouldn't be The Book of Mormon on Broadway if Parker and Stone hadn't proven their Broadway bonafides with South Park: BLU.

Iron Giant

The Iron Giant

One of the most beloved animated films of 1999 happens to be the one almost no one saw upon its initial release. Warner Bros.' attempts to compete with Disney in the late '90s and early '00s were mostly box office bombs, but unlike the mediocre Disney-imitating likes of Quest for Camelot, The Iron Giant did not deserve its initial fate.

Brad Bird's first feature avoided the Disney formula, opting instead for a distinctive blend of retro 1950s sci-fi pulp stylings and a touching emotional message about pacifism, individuality and heroism. Able to make grown men weep, The Iron Giant has rightfully earned the love it deserved in the first place, while Brad Bird's gone on to become one of Pixar's star directors.

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Those four American films would be enough to make 1999 an amazing year, but it's the anime that hit American theaters that year which really solidified 1999 as the best for animated films. Originally released in Japan in 1997 and then in the States in 1999, Princess Mononoke, at the time meant to be Hayao Miyazaki's final film, would be many Americans' first exposure to the master anime director. The violent, complicated eco-epic was equally as stunning whether it was the first or the last Miyazaki film you ever saw.

Also hitting US arthouses that year was Perfect Blue, the twisted psychological thriller which announced the arrival of a new great director, Satoshi Kon. Though not in anywhere near the same league as the other films mentioned, even Pokemon: The First Movie gets some credit for proving just how popular anime could be with American kids.

The sheer variety of great animation released in 1999 was almost certainly one of the main influencing factors in the Academy's decision to introduce a Best Animated Feature Oscar just two years later. Many great works of animation have come out since then, but the only year to challenge 1999 in both variety and quality of animated films was, oddly enough, 2009. That year's Oscar nominees included Up, Coraline, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog and The Secret of Kells, with Ponyo, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Sita Sings the Blues also being released that year. If years ending in 9 have such good luck with animated films, should we be anticipating similar greatness this year?

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