(Welcome to Let’s Get Animated!, a column that spotlights the best of film animation. In this edition: the best animated flying sequences.)
The best kinds of animated films sweep you away — whether in their dazzling technical craft, their boundless imagination, or their awe-inspiring execution. And the best kinds of animated flying sequences achieve all three.
In honor of the release of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and final film in a franchise that has given us some of the most breakthtaking flying sequences rendered to celluloid, I have compiled the best flying sequences from animated films. Because of my arbitrary decision to limit the definition of “flying” to characters achieving lift for a significant amount of time, it pains me to say that I won’t be including last year’s brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, but honorable mention goes to that leap of faith. Now that that’s all said and done, here are the 10 best animated flying sequences.
10. The Iron Giant – Superman
This is the briefest of flying scenes, but it makes this list because of how emotionally devastating it is. The Iron Giant is a staunchly antiwar film that is also a love letter to superhero movies of old and that rousing, aspirational quality they inspire. One of the most important qualities of classic superhero movies: flight. Directed by Brad Bird, The Iron Giant has deservedly cemented its place as an animation classic thanks to that stirring final flight that the titular giant takes to save the small town of Rockwell from nuclear annihilation. There’s no moment that can elicit more sobs in ’90s babies than the frame of the giant smiling to himself as he says to himself, “Superman.”
9. Paprika – Diving into the Dream
Satoshi Kon is a master of the smash cut, using the technique to full effect in his highly influential 2006 film, Paprika. It’s what makes the flying scene in Paprika feels so euphoric. The contrast from the subdued, dark Doctor Atsuko Chiba to her vibrant and cheery dream alter ego Paprika is brilliantly jarring. As Paprika dives into the dream of the chief of their dream therapy department, Doctor Torataro Shima, the bright blues of the sky and Paprika’s fiery red hair are practically blazing off the screen. Paprika‘s flying sequence perfectly captures that dream-like intensity, and that release of giving yourself over to your subconscious.
8. Peter Pan – You Can Fly
Disney magic is at its finest in the first flight in Peter Pan. Right down to the musical interlude, the hilarious mishaps by the Darling children as they first take flight, and the classic line, “Any happy little thought?” this is a scene for animation history. Try not to smile when you listen to the chorus of voices exclaim, “You can fly!” Peter Pan may be an annoying brat in this film, but the unbridled joy from the other children and Tinker Bell’s jealous antics more than make up for that.. And you might ask where Dumbo‘s flying scene is on this list since it checks a lot of the same marks as Peter Pan‘s, but I had to exclude it because the uncomfortable racial caricatures ended up putting a damper on the breathtaking flight scene.
7. Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Gahoole – Into the Storm
Yes, I know this movie is bad, and it’s a little strange that I’ve already featured it twice in my column. But Zack Snyder‘s 2010 film is one of the few CG-animated films that achieve the breathtaking quality of the traditional 2-D animated films before it. The success of the film rides on those soaring flight sequences, the most impressive of which has been used excessively in the marketing for the film — and for good reason. You’ve probably seen this scene even if you’ve never watched the film: An owl glides through a thunderstorm, water glancing off his wings as the lightning illuminates every speckle, every feather on his body. If not for the attention to detail and the artistry of this scene (one of the few times that Snyder’s love of slow-motion pays off!) this flight could have easily come off as a glorified video game cutscene. Instead, it’s a magnificent example of
6. Aladdin – A Whole New World
There’s that Disney magic again! Disney once again dedicates a whole song to the joys of flying, and it is indeed a whole new world for an entire generation of children in the 1992 film Aladdin. Suspend your disbelief for a bit at the magic carpet’s ability to take a crooning Aladdin and Jasmine from Egypt to China in 10 seconds flat, and embrace the whirlwind magic of this sequence, which sounds just as good as it looks. Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s smooth, sweeping love ballad is a perfect match for the spectacle that Aladdin and Jasmine encounter on their magic carpet ride. The film’s beautiful hand-drawn animation is accentuated by Aladdin‘s use of CG animation — the magic carpet was in fact one of the earliest uses of CGI for a character.
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5. Toy Story – Falling With Style
Don’t listen to what Buzz is saying: This is definitely flying. The blocky CG of Toy Story looks a bit dated by today’s standards, but the 1995 film’s seminal flying scene still holds up. Unlike most of the other sequences on this list, this is a heart-pounding action scene that involves Buzz and Woody weaving around telephone poles and risking combustion by fireworks. In just two minutes, you go through the wildest range of emotions: from horror, to shock, awe, and finally, exhilaration. Toy Story was a sign of great things to come from Pixar, but it is also an animation classic in its own right that leaves you on a jubilant note thanks to that magnificent flying scene — excuse me, “falling with style.”
4. My Neighbor Totoro – Waking the Forest
You could name any Hayao Miyazaki film and it would have a flying sequence that could easily make it into this top 10 (honorable mentions to The Wind Rises, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Castle in the Sky). I’m going to limit myself to three, but everyone has their own personal connection to one of Miyazaki’s flying scenes, so rooted in emotion and wonder are each of them. My Neighbor Totoro, for instance, is pure emotion. With the childlike wonder of My Neighbor Totoro and the 1988 film’s stunning iconography, it’s no wonder that the titular forest creature became the icon for Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and one of the most recognizable pop culture mascots today. It all boils down to that flying scene. Totoro takes young sibling Noriko and Chika on a ride on a magical flying top, soaring around the giant tree that has rapidly sprouted from the seeds they had planted a few dats before. It’s a wondrous, whimsical sequence that is as close to real-life magic as you can get.
3. Kiki’s Delivery Service – Saving Tombo
For a film about a witch who makes flying her job, it could be hard to narrow down just one amazing flying sequence. But I’m going with the Kiki’s Delivery Service scene in which Kiki, after having lost her powers in the face of depression and ennui, learns how to fly again to save her friend Tombo from a rogue blimp. There are other sequences in the film which are equal turns enchanting, whimsical, or melancholic, but this pivotal emotional climax outpaces them because flying in and of itself is a triumph. The energy pumping through this scene, the nail-biting tension that accompanies Kiki as she tries to gain control of an unruly broom, the final miraculous rescue, are all spectacular.
2. How to Train Your Dragon – Learning to Fly
How to Train Your Dragon was the first movie I saw that made me realize that CG animation could be beautiful. And yes, it is all because of its flying sequences. Dreamworks hired famed (and now Oscar-winning) cinematographer Roger Deakins to consult on How to Train Your Dragon, and it shows. There is something tactile about these flying sequences that root How to Train Your Dragon in reality far more than any of the other films on this list. The physicality and the sheer panic of the first flying sequence lends weight to the film, and builds the unbreakable bond between the outsider Viking Hiccup and his disabled dragon friend Toothless. How to Train Your Dragon continues to visually outdo itself with each film, but that first flying scene remains a landmark achievement today.
1. Spirited Away – Haku Remembers His Past
Flight is a recurring fascination for Hayao Miyazaki, and one that no one can pull off better than him. The anime maestro is firing on all cylinders for his Oscar-winning 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away, which is actually mostly devoid of flying sequences until the last 20 minutes. But man, when that flying sequence arrives, the torrent of emotions and awe that comes with it are like nothing else. The sequence takes place as our young heroine Chihiro rides on the back of her friend Haku in dragon form, heading back to her final confrontation with the boss of the bathhouse. But as the pair glide through the night sky, Chihiro is hit with a sense deja vu that gives her the revelation that Haku’s real identity as the spirit of the Kohaku River. In a breathtaking moment that is punctuated by Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping orchestral music cue, Haku’s scales shed until he is back in human form, and the pair freefall down to the ground. It’s a moving, powerful moment that perfectly captures the film’s fantastical nature, and makes this flying sequence one for the ages.
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