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Wow, 2005 to 2010 was a ripe time for outside-the-lines animation! Many children’s films from this time span tended toward the unusual and intelligent. ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ (2009), ‘Coraline’ (2009), and ‘Monster House’ (2006) appealed equally to the children and grown-ups in the audience, while true family fare included such wonderful gems as ‘Ponyo’ (2008), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ (2009), the magnificent ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ (2010), and the animated masterpiece, ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010).
What’s particularly interesting are the animated movies specifically aimed at adults, films that utilized animation to allow filmmakers freedoms unavailable via live action. Revolutions in technology made the process simpler and opened doors for some of the best directors working in the business, regardless of medium, including Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson.
Here are five you may have overlooked.
This chilling French import brings together some of the top graphic artists in Europe and America to present six animated vignettes that showcase some of the mind’s deepest fears.
Films showcasing multiple directors often struggle with narrative whiplash as different segments are introduced. ‘Fear(s) of the Dark’ eases the transitions with an eerily soothing female voice discussing strange psychological fears as various shapes and designs are animated onscreen. Directed by Pierre di Scuillo, these interludes make you feel as though you’re eavesdropping on a therapy session, and they prep you for the fears revealed in the upcoming tale.
Each segment also features a different style of graphic animation. Though all are presented in black and white, the styles range from charcoal impressionism and flash animation to a muted anime style. All are effective, and when coupled with the creepy score by Laurent Perez, they’re strangely beautiful.
The human mind is always more capable of true horror than any slasher flick, and that is what ‘Fear(s) of the Dark’ is interested in exploring. The film delves into social anxiety, sexual insecurity, sociopathic tendencies, needless dismemberment, and the good old fashioned fear of the dark to achieve an overall feel of impending doom.
You’ll get goose bumps without really knowing why.
I saw death rising from the earth, from the ground itself, in one blue field…
In 2001, director Richard Linklater first experimented with rotoscope – a process of animating live action footage – with his existential, dreamlike ‘Waking Life’. He applied the process to a slightly – only slightly – more concrete narrative in 2006, with his own adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s head trip, ‘A Scanner Darkly’.
In a dystopian future, Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr., and Woody Harrelson are roommates. Do you suppose drugs are involved? Well, in this surreal adaptation, you would be correct. Reeves is an undercover agent infiltrating the underworld responsible for pimping Substance D, a hallucinogen that’s addicted nearly a quarter of the population of the US.
Characteristic of Dick’s work, the film is a mind bending, identity defying, circuitously brilliant, and wildly paranoid fantasy. The genius of filming actors and then applying the animation, so we’re seeing a trippy version of Reeves delivering lines is the actor’s own stoned-sounding monotone, fits with the tone of the project so well it’s almost eerie.
Dick’s work can be tough to do justice to cinematically, but ‘A Scanner Darkly’ is a brilliant adaptation.
Aidan is my friend. I’m helping him make the most incredible book in the whole world! He says it will turn darkness into light. Wait until you see it!
Nominated for Oscar’s Best Animated Feature award, this gorgeous Celtic poem looks and sounds like no animated film before it. Nora Twomy and Tom Moore’s talent for blending everyday challenges with ancient magic is at work – as it is again in Moore’s 2014 wonder, ‘Song of the Sea’. We shadow young Brendan through the riotous color and animated details of the enchanted forest outside the medieval Monastery of Kells, where he lives with his strict uncle, Abbott Cellach (the always marvelous Brendon Gleeson, who also lends his talents to ‘Song of the Sea’).
When an abbot from a nearby monastery recently ransacked by Vikings enters Kells, Brendon’s life changes. A magical book, a shape changing wolf, a wizened feline, and some of the most ornate and gorgeous Celtic imagery fill the screen with surprising serenity.
The film bears a lovely respect for Celtic tradition, particularly in its artistic style, and the hand drawn animation is as glorious as anything you’ll see. It’s a slow film, unlike most family fare, although it could be compared to many of the more challenging, magical, and lovely films from Hayayo Miyazaki – ‘Spirited Away’, in particular.
Dreamlike, old fashioned yet refreshingly new, ‘The Secret of the Kells’ is a visually stunning bit of animation that’s as compelling to adults as it is to children.
After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, I lost my memory. Now in order to remember, I am looking for those who can never forget…
A recurring nightmare is haunting a friend of Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman. Night after night, he dreams of being hunted by exactly 26 vicious dogs.
Thus begins ‘Waltz with Bashir’, an unusual animated documentary that was Israel’s nominee for best foreign language film in the 2008 Academy Awards ceremony. Mixing realistic scenes with dreamlike images, it emerges as a brilliantly conceived chronicle of one man’s search for the truth about his past.
The friend inspires the search by telling Folman that the dream must be connected to his service in the Israeli army during the Lebanon war in the early ‘80s, when his marksmanship skills were used to silence dogs before they could warn enemies of the troops’ arrival. Folman realizes that he can remember almost nothing about his own service in the war. He sets out to make contact with others who may be able to fill in the blanks.
Once the recollections start coming, it is clear that Folman made a wise choice in setting up ‘Waltz with Bashir’ as his first animated feature. As his former comrades relate their war torn memories, dreams, and hallucinations, the animation is able to perfectly depict the images that live action would have rendered plastic and overly staged.
The animation itself is a startling mix of a Frank Miller graphic novel and Gerald Scarfe’s best work with Pink Floyd. Much praise to Folman’s lead illustrator, David Polonsky, for pulling us into a world where dreams and reality intertwine with hellish results.
Do you think it’s easy being Iranian here? The moment I say where I’m from, they look at me like I’m a savage. They think we’re all bloodthirsty, violent, loud fanatics…
Marjane Satrapi’s poignant, witty, Oscar nominated autobiographical tale may be the most beautifully observed and globally relevant coming of age story ever drawn.
Set during the Islamic Revolution, ‘Persepolis’ revisits Satrapi’s childhood in Tehran. The precocious youngster, whose two obsessions are to one day shave her legs and to become the last prophet in the galaxy, finds the area’s political upheaval a fascinating added drama to her fantastical play life. It isn’t until the execution of her beloved uncle that her childhood fantasies, and, effectively, her childhood, die.
Without ever losing the intimacy of a personal portrait, Satrapi’s tale is drenched in the politics of her region. Her own personal history provides, with the brutal honesty of a diary entry, glimpses of life within the turmoil of war, religious and political oppression, and constant fear. But for all the breathtakingly observed suffering, Satrapi’s tale lacks melodrama entirely. Hers is the understated, unusually humorous voice of lived experience.
The simple but effective black and white images evoke a sense of amorphous dread and fear – the kind tied to any journey into adulthood, here exacerbated by the political ramifications of becoming a woman in today’s Iran. The forgotten art of hand drawn animation, adding to the human touch, reveals much in the fluidity of images – dark hair to veils to nuns’ habits to hiding places illuminated only by frightened eyes.
By concentrating on the common trauma of growing up, ‘Persepolis’ succeeds where countless films have failed in finding connections between the Islamic world and the rest of the planet.
Somehow the trend to animate for adults faded by mid-decade, but the tendency to produce family fare intelligent enough to appeal to crowds young and old continued with ‘Rango’ (2011), ‘ParaNorman’ (2012), and others.
As cartoons continue to evolve as an art form for all ages, talent like Aardman and Pixar will keep bringing box office gold, while inventive animators offer lushly beautiful indie efforts such as ‘Princess Kayuga’, and new blockbusters remind us that childlike wonder is always fun. (I’m looking at you, ‘LEGO Movie’).
We’re living in a magical time for animation, even if we do have to tolerate that song from ‘Frozen’ for the entire balance of the decade.
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