Animated films under the sea

Many animated films have used the ocean as a setting. It’s a colorful place that appeals to all ages, and has a mystery that lends itself to the imaginings of a creative animator. Crabs can sing, clown fish can converse with sharks, sponges can live in pineapples. Rarely do animated ocean films stick to realistic portrayals, though ironically there are many real things under the sea that are more strange and bizarre than anything Disney ever came up with.

Here are several animated films that take place under the sea. It’s interesting to see how many different ways the ocean can be seen through the eyes of an animator.

Fantasia – Disney, 1940

This film is a classic in the world of animation, and one of the few feature-length films that focus entirely on the artistry of its subject, not on a traditional narrative. The beauty of the animation speaks for itself, and it recalls a time when animation was more unique in the film world, and appreciated for its own sake.

The Little Mermaid – Disney, 1989

See how much Disney has changed in fifty years. This film has been criticized for draining all of the magic out of Andersen’s original story, and replacing it with trite Disney formula. But it does have some creative portrayals of the ocean, and some of the best songs ever written for the movies (by Menken and Ashman) which lift it to emotional heights that the scriptwriters don’t deserve.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – Nickelodeon, 2004

This movie is just plain silly, and a great example of how creatively you can portray the ocean in animation. Although the focus is on the characters and the sight gags, the ocean is ever-present, and the film mixes live action and animation in unique ways.

Finding Nemo – Pixar, 2003

This film has some amazing ocean animation, covering the bright coral reefs down to the murky depths, and featuring whales, sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and hundreds of other sea creatures. Besides being a great story, brilliantly written, it is like a virtual tour of the ocean and a feast for the eyes. It even sprinkles in some real facts about the ocean.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – 2008, Ghibli/Disney

This film is quite realistic in its portrayal of people and setting, but also the most fantastical of all the films here in its use of mythology and imagination. Ponyo is a magical goldfish who can turn into a human but in doing so offsets the balance of — oh never mind, the story is too complicated, and in a way, beside the point. This is really a visual poem about the human world and the ocean world coming together and making peace. It contains beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring animation of the ocean by one of the world’s greatest animators. (You can read more of my thoughts on Ponyo here.)

So, there are just a few animated films that feature the ocean as a major theme. Out of all of these, I think Fantasia and Ponyo are the ones which provoke the deepest thoughts about the ocean. What are your favorite animated ocean films or scenes? How well do you think animators have done in portraying the ocean, and what new depths are there to be explored? As the ocean becomes more and more of a focus in our shrinking world, I hope more artists choose to explore it through animation.

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8 Responses to “Animated films under the sea”

  1. Hi John…

    Another great post! I have a thing about not watching video clips when I’m browsing online because they take too long… but I just had to watch all of these!

    I hadn’t seen the fantasia clip before. I think my favourite would have to be Ponyo though…

    :o )

  2. Great Article! Makes me want to rewatch a couple of these (Ponyo especially)

  3. Casey G says:

    Ponyo was beautiful. So tender. I loved that when the ocean had risen the fish swam along the roads that were visible.

  4. Then there are movies that mix reality and fantasy like Bedknobs and Broomsticks: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcQ3vNOAk8k

  5. John Lechner says:

    Thanks for the comments! I forgot about Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Mixing animation and real actors has always been a tricky situation, and still is, even with all our technology.

  6. Anna says:

    I recently showed The Last Unicorn to my son, and was struck again by the ocean scenes of swirling waves and unicorns pouring free. This view of the sea is so wild and gray, and perfectly mirrors the desolate rock tower. The movie has flaws, but it’s elements like this that keep it high on my list.

  7. John Lechner says:

    Thanks for the great suggestions! I still haven’t seen The Last Unicorn, I’ll have to watch for it.