Exploring the World Through Animation
The freedom of the animated form continuously provides a way for filmmakers from around the world to express their creativity. These films can be a great way into World Cinema and also a nice change from live action storytelling. The list below is condensed but covers a large area and will provide some alternatives to more well-known forms of animation such as Pixar and Studio Ghibli. They also act as examples of how the removal of live action or ‘reality’ gives directors the freedom to present abstract and unusual ideas. This freedom is clearly not tied to a specific national cinema as experiments with animation can be seen across countries.
United Kingdom – Granpa (1989)
Although Dianne Jackson is most commonly associated with festive classic The Snowman, an annual tradition for many, she went on to make an equally tender and tragic book adaptation that was lost in the transition from VHS to DVD (I currently own a rather poor quality version copied from my original video tape). Luckily thanks to the wonders of the internet it can now be found on YouTube. Granpa is a visual tale of a girl’s relationship with her grandfather. The perspective is that of a child and thus it is a difficult film to describe but there is something unique about the way it captures childhood. Scenes merge into each other, complemented by a Jackson’s use of song, creating a sense of fantasy but also memory – cuddly toys sing in unison, a bedtime story comes to life, and even a day at the beach has plenty of unexpected surprises. It does have an added layer of nostalgia if watched at a young age but it is so wonderfully universal in its content and the hand-drawn animation feels very refreshing in the Pixar-dominated world of today. It runs at just under half an hour and will be very appealing to those familiar with The Snowman.
Spain – Wrinkles (2011)
This Spanish animation appears to be similar to Granpa at first glance but is actually a very different film. Wrinkles effectively conveys the plodding, zimmer-frame-pace, world of its elderly protagonists unlike Granpa which is from the more dynamic perspective of a child. The film’s simplistic narrative and general humility represent the disillusionment of its protagonist as it focuses on an elderly man suffering from Alzheimer’s and his experiences moving into a care home. Wrinkles is an underwhelming adventure but deliberately so and funny because of it. The day to day problems of the elderly may seem trivial in reality but within the diegesis they are surprisingly engaging. The inability of a group of pensioners to pass a ball around a circle, and the men’s fascination with their young carer’s ‘assets’ become simple but effective comedic devices. This is effectively integrated with a more serious look at the issues of ageing and coming to terms with a loss of control of oneself. Animation also takes the film above and beyond the limits of live action. Quite often with films of this sort, part of the interest lies in seeing how something very real is represented. With real actors it would perhaps seem too mundane but animation helps tone down some of the serious issues and make them more palatable.
France – Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)
In a similar way to Wrinkles, Belleville Rendez-vous (aka The Triplets of Belleville) shows how animation can be used to take a story beyond the limits of live action. This is achieved through the artistic flare of Sylvain Chomet who moulds his stereotypes into the starkest of caricatures. From lanky, forlorn cyclists to box-shaped mafia men and whippet-like waitors, his stereotypes are absurdly over the top but really amusing to watch. It is a visual masterpiece, particularly as dialogue is almost non-existent and the title song brings the story to life from the first scene. The narrative is simplistic, focusing on a kidnapping at the Tour de France, but its lack of complexity allows the viewer to focus on the richness of the mise-en-scene and representations of reality. Along with this it is also a fine example of Chomet’s quirky, very ‘French’, and often dark, humour.
USA – Waking Life (2001)
Just as Studio Ghibli has consistently stolen the limelight in Japan, Disney has dominated the American market for decades. Despite these films being classics in their own right, it can be refreshing to discover new forms of American animation. Richard Linklater’s fascinating studies of human interaction, Slacker and Before Sunrise, paved the way for his first animated feature Waking Life. Animation became the perfect format for his existential studies as abstract ideas can be conveyed fully through the limitlessness of the animated form. The film tackles tricky philosophical concepts, with a particular focus on lucid dreaming, and animation allows Linklater to visually represent his themes of transcendence. In a discussion about life two men pause to share a ‘holy moment’ and Linklater seamlessly blends their transcendent state into an image of the two figures as clouds. This transition perfectly conveys a concept which is very difficult to explain through language. There is a shape-shifting quality to the aesthetic as scenery floats, characters fragment, and settings blend into one another. The animation is not only a real cinematic achievement, but it also helps in understanding some quite challenging themes.
Israel – Waltz With Bashir (2008)
Following in the footsteps of Linklater, Ari Folman uses animation as a way of presenting many abstract, and somewhat unspeakable, ideas. Waltz With Bashir is a documentary that attempts to convey the horror of the Lebanon War. Its beautiful imagery made it a festival favourite but its mixture of animation, documentary, and war film conventions makes it difficult to categorise and thus it is frequently overlooked as one of the best in any of those genres. One element that stands out in particular is the way Folman inserts real photographs from the War at the very end of the film. The sudden change from animation to real life makes the images all the more jarring and disturbing, a very effective way of conveying the horrors of war. He also uses animation to blur the line between dreams and reality as his own experiences from Lebanon seamlessly merge into his post-war nightmares. Although many images stand out, the opening scene is particularly memorable as Folman shows his recurring nightmare of a group of rabid dogs chasing people down a street, a haunting but striking image of his trauma.
Japan – Angel’s Egg (1985)
Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the most well-known anime creator worldwide but, because of this, many people confine themselves to his work alone. His films are great examples of Japanese animation but don’t showcase the full range of material the country has to offer. Aside from the more complex films, such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, there are some even less well known masterpieces rarely mentioned by anyone other than anime experts. Angel’s Egg is not for everyone, where it is lacking in narrative it makes up for in surreal visuals and a bizarre form. Many elements are left unexplained but the focus is essentially on the interaction between a young girl and a soldier in a post-apocalyptic world. The girl guards a mysterious egg and moves from place to place collecting glass objects but her encounters with the soldier make her question the nightmarish after-world they inhabit. For those already attracted to non-narrative cinema and surrealism, this film will be of particular interest. It might also be refreshing for those who have confined themselves so far to more well-known anime. It is available on YouTube.
Czech Republic – Conspirators of Pleasure (1996)
Jan Švankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure is not an animation in the traditional sense. It is mostly live action, in the same way as his most famous film Alice, but his use of stop-motion is integral to the overall effect of his work. This is another animated film that is particularly appealing to fans of surrealism as it is really a jumble of quirky moments providing more visual than narrative pleasure. The effort Švankmajer puts into his work is clear to see as stop-motion is a particularly time-consuming process. As in Belleville Rendez-vous, the lack of dialogue directs the viewer’s attention towards the details of the visuals. The lack of dialogue also creates a universal feel. The film is a bizarre comedy focusing on the fetishes of six characters and Švankmajer incorporates the animation into each individual’s indulgence in their fetish. One particularly standout moment is when a woman places hundreds of rolled up pieces of bread in her nose and ears and these moments combining live action and animation create a truly original effect.
Austria – Fast Film (2003)
Despite running for a little over ten minutes, Fast Film displays the great amount of effort animators put into their work. Virgil Widrich literally pieces together snippets of dozens of famous films to create an extended chase sequence. The references to cinema are particularly satisfying for any film buff and the chase structure itself harks back to the concept that all of cinema is based on a ‘chase’. It is a clever, self-reflexive work of art that shows the creative potential of the format and suggests that perhaps all films have animation at their core because editing is a form of animation in itself. The film can be found on YouTube.
From Švankmajer’s stop-motion to Linklater’s abstraction, animated films are exceptionally diverse, and filmmakers never run out of ways to experiment with the form. The examples selected above demonstrate a number of different approaches and show just how universal the format is. A lot of the directors have also shown a particular auteurist quality in their work, Sylvain Chomet for example has created a particular style through his animated films that is instantly recognisable. Please feel free to leave your own recommendations, the more unusual the better.
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