This article was originally written for Subtitled Online September 2012.
There are some great alternatives to both the style and content of the products of dominant American animation powerhouse studios like Disney and Pixar, DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios. Animation as a medium is far more than something to distract the children while the adults watch something else. There’s much food for thought to be found, even for the most cynical film-goer, in animated features from around the world. Fascinating, enjoyable and beautiful animation is out there, you just have to look for it. So stop watching FINDING NEMO, SHREK and ICE AGE, and give one or two of these highly recommended world cinema animated features a go…
SPIRITED AWAY (Japan, 2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s most famous and most loved creation is a thing of pure beauty, sweetness and magic. We follow Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) who finds her way into a fantastical realm with a bathhouse for mystical creatures at its centre. She endeavours to escape and free her parents from a spell cast by a witch which has transformed them into pigs, and through her numerous trials she emotionally comes of age and proves herself to be a real hero.
Studio Ghibli films are always rewarding, but somehow SPIRITED AWAY strikes an even more perfect balance than usual with pretty visuals, layered themes and a hugely likeable lead character, remarkably surpassing most of the studio’s pwn impressive back catalogue.
Miyazaki is a huge fan of Western literature, so I don’t think Spirited Away’s similarities to Lewis Carol’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND is an accident. Perhaps you could watch this instead of Disney’s 1951 animated Alice adaptation.
PERSEPOLIS (France/USA, 2007)
PERSEPOLIS is funny, daring and satirical. A distinctive and striking comic strip visual style and perceptive political and social humour makes the film a real joy to behold. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (who co-directed this film adaptation) we follow the life of “Marji” (Chiara Mastroianni), from her childhood with a backdrop of political unrest in 1970s Tehran, through her rebellious student life in Europe, to her return Tehran in adulthood. It’s about identity, about nationhood and about religion, and discusses these subjects with much insight and biting satire.
There’s not really an American animated feature that’s particularly comparable to Persepolis, but you might want to watch it instead of RATATOUILLE, which beat it to winning Best Animated Film at the Oscars. Thank goodness for the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded Persepolis the Jury Prize.
MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)
Quirky, intelligent and hilarious, MARY AND MAX really puts Australian animation on the map. It’s an incredibly tender tale of a pen-relationship between Mary Dinkle (Toni Collette/Bethany Whitmore), a lonely Australian girl and Max Horovitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an obese middle-aged American with learning difficulties. There’s laughter aplenty, particularly for the film’s more surreal visual gags, but the plot also goes to some really dark places.
Barry Humphries narrates the film like a modern fairytale, and although much of the story seems remarkable, it is purportedly based on true events.
Presented in the seemingly unsophisticated (although, in reality, complex and time-consuming) Claymation, it’s simply charming in its visual style, and a refreshing change to the spotless, clean computer generated animation of Pixar and DreamWorks.
There isn’t a lot of Claymation in American cinema, with the UK’s Aardman Animation dominating the medium, but maybe you should give Mary And Max a go instead of re-watching one of Tim Burton or Henry Selick’s stop-motion features, like THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or CORPSE BRIDE.
PAPRIKA (Japan, 2006)
Satoshi Kon’s animation provides a stark contrast to Studio Ghibli, and his ideas were always far ahead of their time. His final film before his sad passing has a complex and layered narrative involving scientists researching the power of dreams. Sound familiar? It has a lot in common with Christopher Nolan’s dream-based blockbuster INCEPTION which arrived four years later (though Nolan had pitched his film years before). The story is dense and weaving, and the finale is wonderfully surreal and over-the-top.
Japanese anime has a notorious reputation for bewildering Western audiences, and PAPRIKA is convoluted even by these standards. You deserve an award if you can follow the plot in its entirety – Kon is clearly a fan of David Lynch’s scattergun approach to telling a story. But even if some of the plot turns confuse you, or if you’re simply dumbfounded by what you’re witnessing, you’ll still be mesmerised.
No animated film from Hollywood is really anything like Paprika, so just watch as an alternative (or a companion piece) to Inception, since Nolan’s thriller is so similar in terms of narrative and themes.
WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Israel, 2008)
WALTZ WITH BASHIR isn’t the easiest film to sit through, and provides some of the most horrifying depictions of human conflict in film history. A deeply personal animated documentary made by Israeli director Ari Folman, it recounts his own memories and those of fellow ex-soldiers who served in the First Lebanon War.
The film features straight interviews with former servicemen, and realistic human animation, but this is combined with surreal, nightmarish imagery to represent the horror of warfare. It’s incredibly downbeat and serious, but is honest and intelligent in its discussion of an incredibly controversial conflict. You’ll feel like you’ve been into battle yourself after seeing the film, and the experience will stay with you long after the credits roll.
American animation has never been this dark, intense or intelligent, so Waltz With Bashir is not really an alternative to any other existing animated feature. Just make sure you see it.
THE ILLUSIONIST (France/UK, 2010)
THE ILLUSIONIST is one of the most beautiful examples of animation in world cinema. Not just visually, but in its narrative simplicity and in its raw emotional power. Based on an unused Jacques Tati script, we follow a struggling stage magician physically modelled on Tati himself (Jean-Claude Donda), and his relationship with a poor Scottish girl (Eilidh Rankin) as the pair try to find a secure and happy future in 1950s Edinburgh.
Dialogue in the film is minimal, so it is left to the excellent quality of the exaggerated human animation to get across what the characters are thinking and feeling. The script has been seen as a letter of love and apology from Tati to his estranged daughter, and master director of animation Sylvain Chomet retains this subtext.
Perhaps The Illusionist is a good alternative to WALL-E, another film with mostly-silent lead characters and a soft heart – though the film about the cute little junk collecting robot is great, The Illusionist is better.
Hopefully this list has inspired you to give animated world cinema a go, to watch films that aren’t made by the powerhouses of American animation, and to be more adventurous in your viewing choices. Even if you’re already in love with animation from all around the world, perhaps you will discover something new and expand your horizons. SSP