A screen shot from Persepolis, an animated film that tells the coming of age story of an Iranian girl living in France during the Islamic Revolution. Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Can audiences take cartoons seriously? Taking into account landmark Academy Award nominations of animated films like Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story 3 for Best Picture, it is safe to say that audiences enjoy and respect the art form. However, these are family films being nominated, with G-ratings and themes that are ‘fun for all ages,’ with the emphasis on fun.
Animators recognize humor as a useful tool to inform and persuade as well as entertain, but the issue remains: are animated films an appropriate medium for more serious storytelling?
Showings of Waltz With Bashir being advertised on the marquee of a Vienna city cinema in 2008. Photo by Otto Normalverbraucher.
In 2008, Israeli director Ari Folman took on such a project with his film Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary that catalogues the memories of those who lived through the Lebanon War of 1982. Folman took the first year of production to collect the dramatic and, at times, horrific testimonies to create his screenplay. After the screenplay was written, he and his production team filmed the live action interviews and edited them down to a final video. The time consuming process of translating that video to create the final animated product is mind-boggling to the casual film-goer. The result is a visual marvel that captures the political turmoil of the era, yet you can’t help but wonder why Folman chose to animate the documentary rather than use traditional live action video.
Katie Steed, the creative director for UK-based animation and web design company Slurpy Studios, explains why Folman’s use of animation underscores the true horror of war, rather than masking it in artifice.
“Animation is the perfect medium to present serious topics because of the assumption of innocence that is inherent within the medium.” Steed told BTR, “Because people often grow up on a diet of Disney, Dreamworks, Pixar, etc. animation, it is associated with that type of naive entertainment. So when people see animation, they lower their guard and leave themselves much more open to messages and persuasion techniques within the film. People are often more shocked when they see atrocities and heavier subjects such as those presented in Waltz with Bashir… in animation for the same reason – it goes against their expectations of what animation is used for.”
The idea of an animated film with a dramatic agenda is not impossible but rather unexpected for audiences. Indeed, Waltz With Bashir has won numerous awards not only for its merits as an animated film, but also as a film in itself. These include a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.
“Ari Folman has created a showcase for animation that single-handedly answers any questions about the medium’s ability to deal with darker material,” asserts Steed. “This film in live action could have been both self indulgent and corny, but through animation, he deals with darkly strong, emotional conflicts; drifts between reality, memory and dreams; and is unflinching in its portrayal of war and the atrocities that are committed.
Waltz With Bashir is not the only movie paving the way for animated films with dramatic themes. Persepolis, an animated drama based on the graphic novels written by Marjane Satrapi, tells the story of an Iranian girl living in France who struggles with her cultural identity during the Islamic Revolution. Although the coming of age memoir was extremely personal to Satrapi, Steed suggested to BTR that the use of animation, rather than using live action film techniques, helped make the story more relatable to audiences.
“With live action, the instant you see a person on screen, they already have a race, nationality, color, class, sex, etc. that will either alienate or attract different audience members. In [animated] films like this, the audience is able to judge the characters based only on what they say and how they act, and so [the film] associates more strongly with them. Satrapi uses this to her advantage in this heartfelt and emotional film that is both completely personal to her, and yet accessible to everyone watching.”
An added bonus to using animation is the ability to call on big name talent for voice-over work. In particular, the English version of Persepolis features the voice talents of actor Sean Penn and rock legend Iggy Pop. Animated characters afford actors the chance to fully commit to a role by stripping them of their real-world personas and physical limitations, resulting in a performance that cannot be duplicated in a live action film.
With such a successful precedent set by films like Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis, the stage is set for future animated filmmakers to take on more serious projects. When it comes to drama, legitimate filmmaking by no means precludes illustration or anything outside the realm of live action. In fact, the lack of boundaries in the animated genre enhances the drama and can attain an impressive level of authenticity like that shown in both Waltz and Perseoplis, of which serious filmmakers and audiences would do well to take note.
Written by: Mary Kate Polanin