When Disney zootopia won the Best Animated Feature Oscar this year, it was one of the less surprising awards of the night. This family-friendly cartoon about a metropolis populated by animals had already grossed over $1 billion worldwide and was a firm favorite to win. What was more intriguing was that two of his fellow nominees were films made outside of Hollywood, The red turtle and my zucchini life.
Both films are arguably suitable for both adults and children. The red turtle is a poetic, hand-drawn silent film about a man stranded on a desert island who finds strange company, while Claude Barras’ film my zucchini life (as it’s known in the UK) is a stop-motion story about a young orphan boy who goes through the child care system.
The red turtleproduced by Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, the company behind classics such as Taken away as if by magic and Princess Mononoke, is directed by London-based Dutch-born animator Michael Dudok de Wit. He calls the film “kid friendly”, but admits he had a different audience in mind.
“I asked myself the question during production: for whom am I making the film? I was always thinking of adults.
However, convincing older viewers that an animation will be to their liking is another matter. “It’s an old prejudice,” he says. “I still come across people who refer to the fact that animation is primarily aimed at families and children.”
Gradually, this perception changes. Barras notes that the Franco-Swiss co-production Zucchini, adapted from a novel by Gilles Paris in 2002, found an audience beyond the age group of 8 to 12 years for which it was initially intended. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he says. “Parents and grandparents went to see the film, even alone.”
It’s hard to imagine Zucchini, with its unvarnished view of the world, being made in Hollywood, where studio animations typically affirm wholesome family values. In the film, a little boy named Icarus — nicknamed “Zucchini” — enters a children’s home where he meets other children who have had all kinds of difficult beginnings in life: parents in prison, drug addicts, threatened with deportation or sexual abuse. “When the movie was shown to caregivers, they said it was pretty realistic,” Barras said.
If both Tortoise and Courgette accessible to all age groups, entertainment strictly reserved for adults is also being introduced. Earlier this year, Liu Jian’s Have a good day became the first Chinese animated film to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. An amoral film noir, it follows greedy characters chasing a bag of cash like outcasts from a Coen Brothers movie. With shootings and Brexit jokes, it was definitely not aimed at children.
Later this month, Ali Soozandeh’s feature debut Taboo of Tehran will be unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the uncompromising story of four young Iranians living in a city where moral and sexual oppression is common (a single mother works as a prostitute to pay for her divorce from her imprisoned husband, while a music student a one-night stand with an 18-year-old virgin). Given the censorship in Iran, it would be impossible to shoot such a film in live action in Tehran. This German-Austrian co-production has therefore found a clever way to circumvent censorship by recreating the surroundings of the city via animation.
This is not the first time that animation has been used for the purpose of political expression. The black and white of Marjane Satrapi Persepolis (2007) was an autobiographical account of a young girl’s coming of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, while Ari Folman’s remarkable Oscar-nominated film Waltz with Bashir (2008) was based on his experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War.
Importantly, both films also made money at the box office, Persepolis grossing $22 million worldwide. Now others are breaking through. Unsurprisingly, it’s Japan – famous for its adult-oriented anime – leading the way. This interest in more sophisticated works of animation dates back to the late 1970s when films like the seminal Space Battleship Yamato marked a shift towards more complex materials; later came the manga adaptations Akira and Ghost in the shell.
It’s not just science fiction that benefits from the Japanese touch. “Animation can make serious things less serious, a little lighter, more accessible,” says Naoko Yamada, whose recent film A silent voice deals with issues of bullying and disability. “It can be very effective.” Like Dudok de Wit, Yamada felt that his film should not be constrained by the perception that it was aimed at children. “The theme being very universal, I was thinking of a wide audience,” she says.
Movies such as A silent voice and the recent Makoto Shinkai your name are getting a UK release thanks to Anime, a Glasgow-based distributor that focuses on Japanese anime. “The main problem before,” explains Andrew Partridge, its managing director, “was that even if we took a film, it was impossible to get it widely distributed in the UK.”
The increased support from cinema operators – and the public too – has changed the situation. Partridge quotes the next napping princess and In this corner of the world. “Two years ago, these movies wouldn’t have been seen in multiplex cinemas,” he says. While adult animation has long been a television staple (The simpsons, South Park), it seems that cinema is finally catching up. Yamada also sees the genre moving away from “pretty mice and ducks”.
Dudok de Wit agrees, having just returned from Cartoon Movie, an annual forum in Bordeaux allowing animators to present their projects and seek funding. He cites “an impressive number of projects aimed at adults,” with topics ranging from Ukrainian refugees to Alzheimer’s disease and human trafficking.
After decades of mainstream animations in the West primarily focused on family entertainment, the medium is turning to risque movies like Ralph Bakshi. Fritz the cat (1972) and anthologies like heavy metal (nineteen eighty one). Even last year’s Hollywood cartoon Sausage Party, in which talking food gets very sassy, suggested the tide was turning. As Partridge says, “It’s been a long time coming.”
‘The Red Turtle’ opens in the UK on May 26; “My life as a zucchini” opens on June 2