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Inventory: 15 Animated Films For Grown-ups

1. Akira (1988)

Okay, to be honest, this list could just as easily be "25 Animated Japanese Films For Grown-ups." While there's no shortage of cute kids' fare and teen raunch in anime, Japan's animation industry and its moviegoers aren't obsessed with the idea that cartoons are for kids, and there's no shortage of sophisticated—or just plain pornographic—animated material over there. To prevent titles like Perfect Blue and Ghost In The Shell from entirely taking over this list, however, we're limiting ourselves to one sterling representative: Katsuhiro Otomo's complicated, seminal science-fiction/bike-punk/dystopic-future adventure Akira, which spurred a generation of animators into the field and has been confusing American viewers for close to 20 years. Hint: watch the subtitled version, which makes the plot clearer than the various dubbed editions. And if that doesn't work, just enjoy the terrific animation.

2. Fritz The Cat (1972)

Ralph Bakshi could also easily dominate this list if we didn't limit him to one example—he's made a career out of writing and directing movies that would scare away kids with their stylistic messiness, even if their content wasn't generally wildly obscene and packed with bloody violence. He's made better films than his breakthrough Fritz The Cat, which semi-adapted Robert Crumb's pornographic comics into a somewhat less graphic—but still X-rated—feature. (Crumb disowned it.) But Fritz is more stylistically consistent than many of Bakshi's later films. And Bakshi's sense of place and time has rarely been as focused or as comically acerbic as it is in this vicious satire of '60s hedonism and muddled morality.

3. The Plague Dogs (1982)

Richard Adams' first adult book after the success of Watership Down once again dealt with sentient animals in a human world, but put the action much closer to humanity. After escaping an experimental lab, two abused dogs travel cross-country together, hunted by people who believe they may be infected with bubonic plague. The animated adaptation is a dry, quiet film, less accessible, less fantastical, and more serious than the slightly more child-friendly animated version of Watership Down.

4. Waking Life (2001)

Richard Linklater's stunning dream-story was shot as a live-action film, then rotoscoped into an animated version via a new process overseen by animation director Bob Sabiston, whom longtime animation buffs may remember best from his "Grinning Evil Death" short on MTV's Liquid Television. Children may appreciate Waking Life's hypnotically shifting surfaces and lurches into colorful surrealism, but the structure of the film—a series of philosophical and personal conversations in Linklater's Slacker/Before Sunrise mode—marks it as a venture for attentive adults only.

5. Fantastic Planet (1973)

René Laloux's feature debut is widely regarded as a metaphor for the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but more than 30 years later, it can just as easily be regarded as a quaint, drowsy, but beautifully realized experiment in abstracted French science fiction, all thought and relatively little action. On a planet called Ygam, a race of brilliant but distanced blue-skinned giants keep humans as pets, abusing and pampering them by turns. Then one boy gets his hands on a memory-induction device and educates his people, and they rise up against their masters.

6. Light Years (1988)

Fantastic Planet's subdued, thoughtful tone extends to Laloux's later feature Light Years, though there's a little more action and a little more intrigue in this tale of time travel and giant evil brains. Isaac Asimov oversaw the English translation of the French script, and Glenn Close stars in that English dub as the wing-headed matriarch of the utopian society of Gandahar, which is about to fall to an invading force of metal men. The plot revolves around the "riddle" prophecy "In a thousand years, Gandahar will be destroyed. A thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved, and what can't be avoided, will be."

7. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Okay, so a lot of kids probably saw it, but it's hard to argue that Trey Parker and Matt Stone's feature-length South Park spin-off was meant for them. Given its foul language, adult content, and above all, its smart satire about censorship, it's an adult movie no matter how juvenile the dildo jokes get.

8. Vampires In Havana (1985)

This Cuban oddity begins with a series of sight gags and goes on to a series of sex gags, all against a background of hot Cuban jazz, as an international vampire war breaks out over the formula for "Vampisol," a formula that protects vampires from sunlight. The animation is Hanna-Barbera simple, but it's a must-see sheerly for the unconventional plotline and the goofy good humor.

9. I Married A Strange Person! (1997)

Indie American animator Bill Plympton jumped from shorts to features with his solo project The Tune, but it came across more like a collection of vignettes on a theme. The awkwardly titled follow-up I Married A Strange Person! gets a bit more cohesive with its story about a man who develops weird mental powers and has to fend off the government's attempts to seize him as a weapon. First, though, he puts his skills to the test during a sex scene that gets increasingly surreal as his powers allow him to play out his kinky fantasies on his hapless wife.

10. Mutant Aliens (2001)

Plympton's follow-up feature follows an astronaut whose space mission gets sabotaged by a greedy scientist. Stuck in space and left for dead, the astronaut has an affair with a giant alien nose, befriends a colony of experimental animals also abandoned to space, mutates them into monsters, and seeks revenge. Meanwhile, in true Plympton form, much weird and messy sex is had back on Earth, including a brief liaison between the greedy scientist and his pet project, a spaceship designed to show huge ads from orbit. Disjointed, excessive, and just plain bizarre, pretty much like all Plympton's features, Mutant Aliens is still probably his most creative outing to date.

11. Heavy Metal (1981)

Okay, to be honest, the sci-fi anthology Heavy Metal is more like animation for arrested adolescents than for grown-ups. See also: Beavis And Butt-head Do America. But unlike the relatively tame, teen-focused B&B feature, Heavy Metal features a great many ridiculously overendowed naked people, sometimes having mechanical sex, plus a comic amount of drug use and a little S&M action. It also features a great deal of metal, but in spite of the title (and the legal wrangling over the soundtrack licensing, which kept the film off DVD for two decades), who remembers the music more than they remember watching naked warrior-chick Taarna take so long to ritually bathe and don her minimal leather gear that the civilization she was sworn to protect had already gotten destroyed by the time she could answer their call for help? And does anybody remember the sequel, Heavy Metal 2000, at all?

12. Rock & Rule (1983)

Pretty much the poor man's Heavy Metal, Rock & Rule features cheaper animation, cheaper actors, cheaper music (mostly by Debbie Harry and Cheap Trick, with some Lou Reed thrown in), and a cheaper story—but at least it does have a story. In a post-apocalyptic world where the people sort of seem to be evolved anthropomorphic animals, an evil rocker called Mok, based heavily on Mick Jagger, plots to use the female singer of a small-time, squabbling rock band to summon a demon. Free-form, Ralph Bakshi-like adventures ensue.

13. When The Wind Blows (1986)

If Hayao Miyazaki's partner Isao Takahata hadn't made Grave Of The Fireflies two years later, Britain's When The Wind Blows might still stand as the saddest animated film ever made, as well as the gentlest condemnation of war ever put to film. Living in the countryside on their own, a quirky elderly British couple reads up on how to survive a nuclear attack. Then that attack comes, and they're faced with slow death by radiation poisoning, which is only marginally more bearable due to their naïve lack of understanding about what's happening to them. Much of the film is simply about how great events destroy small people, how little we understand the forces that control us from a distance, and how fragile people really are.

14. Shinbone Alley (1971)

Shinbone Alley is an odd duck of a film. It's sort of an adaptation of Don Marquis' many stories about the reincarnated cockroach poet "archy" and his feline lady-love Mehitabel. It's sort of an adaptation of a Broadway musical about those characters. It's sort of a showcase for Carol Channing's singing. And it's sort of an animation proving ground for Krazy Kat creator George Herriman, whose initial character portraits for Marquis' books occasionally surface amid the more conventional animation. Mostly, it's a bit of a freewheeling mess. But it's bitter, it's surprisingly graphic at times, and like Marquis' work, it's unique.

15. The Triplets Of Belleville (2003)

It's no particular surprise that Pixar's charming family comedy Finding Nemo aced out Sylvain Chomet's feature debut The Triplets Of Belleville for 2003's Best Animated Feature Oscar; Triplets is a deeply strange and kind of creepy piece, aimed at a much narrower audience than the crowd-pleasing Nemo. But Triplets is a much rarer creature: an animated film clearly concocted with an adult sensibility and sense of humor in mind, even as it avoids the old sex-and-violence tropes. After her freakish biking-obsessed grandson is kidnapped while competing in the Tour De France, a mole-like old lady and her dog meet up with an aging three-sister vaudeville team and have gently paced, bizarrely visualized adventures, complete with some strange and wonderful songs.