This year's batch of animated feature Oscar nominees offered a penguin who surfs, a rat who cooks, and a girl's coming-of-age tale during Iran's Islamic Revolution. If one of these films seems slightly out place, then consider that an introduction to the changing face of feature-length animation. Animated features, which just a few short years ago were considered as little more than babysitter fare in the United States, are being re-evaluated as a legitimate artistic medium with the capacity for expressing a broad range of narrative and emotive possibilities.
The desire of animation artists to yank away the chains of childishness is hardly a recent phenomenon. Artists have been pushing against the art form's self-imposed boundaries for decades with attempts at creating animated features for grown-ups dating back to at least the 1950s when director John Hubley tried to produce an adaptation of the racially-charged Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow and progressive animation studio United Productions of America unsuccessfully attempted to adapt James Thurber's stories into a feature.
The average moviegoer can be forgiven for assuming that this is an art form aimed at children. Cartoon imagery is one of the most accessible forms of art and can be enjoyed by both young and old alike. The candy-colored artwork that comprises most animated films is fun and appealing to look, and caricatured and stylized figures cavort across the screen through a visual shorthand of frenzied movements and metamorphic transformations. Historically, in the United States, feature animation has so frequently been mistaken as a children's medium limited to fairy tales and musicals that the issue has become a sore point for many of the field's leading creators. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) frequently corrects interviewers who refer to animation as a genre instead of a medium, and on a recent DVD commentary went so far as to threaten to punch the next person who misidentified the art form.
Feature animation aside, however, artists have been exploring the storytelling possibilities in animation since its earliest days. A silent cartoon star like Felix the Cat often dealt with issues as adult as unemployment and infidelity, while the early Betty Boop shorts produced by the Fleischers are slathered with sexual tension reflective of the rapidly changing role of women in 1930s American society.
Adult overtones are pervasive throughout short-form animation during Hollywood's Golden Age. Terrytoons explored domestic strife (the John Doormat cartoon series) and neurosis (Flebus), Tex Avery explored sex at MGM (Red Hot Riding Hood, Wild and Wolfy, and many others) and UPA offered up murderous lovers (Rooty Toot Toot) and adaptations of Poe and Thurber (The Tell-Tale Heart and The Unicorn in the Garden, respectively).
There are no simplistic answers as to why animated features did not develop at the pace of their short-form counterparts, but part of the answer lies in this fact: twenty-one of the first twenty-five animated features produced in the United States were created by Walt Disney and his studio. It would not be a stretch to suggest that his success not only influenced the direction of animated features, but that it dictated the art form's development for the better part of the twentieth century. Whereas live action audiences could choose between the suspense of Hitchcock, the sarcastic bite of Wilder, the rugged splendor of Ford or the wit of Sturges, feature animation has for decades been limited to the family-approved confines of the Disney brand.
The art form came tantalizingly close to shedding its kiddie skin in 1953 when animation visionary John Hubley attempted to create an animated adaptation of the Broadway musical Finian's Rainbow. Hubley purposely chose challenging subject matter – a play that addressed touchy aspects of politics, race and social class – and he put together an A-list crew of designers and animators including Paul Julian, Aurelius Battaglia, Art Babbitt, Bill Littlejohn and Bill Tytla. The soundtrack was equally novel for an animated feature with songs recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson, and voices by Barry Fitzgerald, David Wayne and Ella Logan. He was seemingly on his way to producing a groundbreaking animated film.
Something happened along the way, though. Hubley became caught in the sights of Congress's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its investigations into the country's infiltration of Communism via Hollywood. Their fears turned out to be largely imaginary, but the damage they inflicted upon Hubley's work was real. Finian's Rainbow was shelved, Hubley moved into the realm of short films, and adult feature animation was put on the backburner for a few more decades.
Fast forward to the late 1960s when another individual, Ralph Bakshi, shook up the animation world. Bakshi, who had grown up in a rough and tumble Brooklyn neighborhood, was a world away from Hubley's sensitive exploration of graphic possibilities and sophisticated art school-trained approach. Bakshi, however, was determined to make animated features come hell or high water. In his nine films, produced between 1972 and 1992, Bakshi time and time again tore apart the tired conventions of the American animated feature. His approach was informed by his animation training at Terrytoons, a New York studio known for turning out middling fare like Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle. Employing the same techniques that had brought to life that studio's lukewarm gag-driven shorts, he proceeded to create raw and gritty urban stories straight out of his working class upbringing.
His first feature was an adaptation of Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat. "They were animals fucking. And that, to me, was like the best of Terrytoons and the best of what I wanted to do," Bakshi once told an interviewer. In his subsequent features Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975), Bakshi took an even more uncompromisingly personal approach to the art form and satirized race, culture and sexuality in ways that had never been broached in American animation.
The animation art form has always been more receptive to experimentation with form and content outside of the United States. In fact, the very first animated film ever produced, an Argentinean film in 1917 called El Apóstol (The Apostle), was a damning political satire of President Hipolito's domestic policies. The first British animated feature in 1954, Animal Farm, was an adaptation of Orwell's dark allegorical tale, while the French dabbled with mature approaches to the art form in the 1970s with Rene Laloux's surrealist sci-fi, Fantastic Planet.
Japanese filmmakers have done as much as anybody to develop animation as a storytelling medium. The country's liberal attitudes towards the art form were evident as far back as the 1960s and 1970s in the feature films of Osamu Tezuka and shorts of Yoji Kuri, but the country's animation renaissance began in earnest in the 1980s when directors awakened to the idea that the medium's thematic and narrative possibilities were nearly limitless. A harrowing film about the effects of nuclear warfare? Why not, thought Isao Takahata, when he directed Grave of the Fireflies (1988). A post-apocalyptic cyber-punk thriller? Look no further than Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (1988).
In recent years, directors like Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii, Hayao Miyazaki and Masaaki Yuasa have extended the palette to include deep psychological explorations, meditations on the future of humanity, environmentally-oriented parables and other novel concepts that bear no equivalent in the rest of the animation world.
Spurred on by the Japanese, the competition for sophisticated animated films has heated up globally in recent years. The French have produced a steady stream of stylish animated features for older audiences including Triplets of Belleville (2003), Renaissance (2006), Persepolis (2007) and Fear(s) of the Dark (2007). Similar adult features are emerging from all corners of the world. From Denmark came Princess (2006), about a priest who avenges the death of his stripper sister. Norway delivered Free Jimmy (2006), about the cross-country trek of a drug-addicted circus elephant. South Korea launched Aachi and Ssipak (2006), set in a human future in which recycled human excrement has become a valuable commodity. Israel's Waltz with Bashir (2008) offered an unflinching look at Israeli soldiers' memories of the 1982 massacre at the Shatila and Sabra Palestinian refugee camps. Hungary produced The District (2004), a film that somehow manages to combine wooly mammoths, oil drilling, hookers, time travel, George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden and rap music.
If there's one thing that all of these films share in common is that they are produced on relatively modest budgets compared to their Hollywood counterparts from studios like Disney and DreamWorks. This trend toward lower cost animated films has been taken to its extreme in the United States with the recent rise of indie animated films. Whereas previously millions of dollars and hundreds of artists and technicians were required to produce a feature, today artists are making their films with home computers, off-the-shelf software, and lean crews of between one to ten people.
A notable example of this emerging breed of indie filmmaker is Nina Paley, whose Sita Sings the Blues (2008) won the top feature prize this year at the prestigious Annecy Animated Film Festival. Her film's deeply personal tale – born from the suicidal depression of breaking up with her husband but remixed in entertaining fashion with Hindu mythology and early American jazz – was animated entirely by herself over a period of five years. Working out of her Manhattan apartment-film studio, the final film was rendered on a personal Mac tower and produced for $200,000. The growing indie scene in the US includes Paley as well as directors Bill Plympton, Paul Fierlinger, Tatia Rosenthal and Dan Kanemoto.
Simultaneous with the growth of indie animated features has been the embrace of the art form by the live-action film community. The Wachowski brothers expanded their Matrix universe through a feature-length compilation of animated shorts, produced largely in Japan, called The Animatrix (2003), while Quentin Tarantino utilized animation (also produced in Japan) to illustrate some of the gorier moments in the first installment of Kill Bill (2003). Mainstream documentary filmmakers have also discovered animation and its usefulness in explaining abstract and complicated concepts, as seen in the mixed-media approach of Chicago 10 (2007) directed by Brett Morgen, as well as in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. (The idea of using animation in a documentary was explored as far back as the 1940s when Walt Disney made his most adult-oriented animated feature, Victory Through Airpower, in which he illustrated the military advantages of air power over ground warfare.)
Mainstream American studios are also recognizing the audience's pent-up demand for diverse animated offerings, and they too increasingly have begun dipping their toes into more experimental animated fare with films like Corpse Bride (2005), A Scanner Darkly (2006), and Beowulf (2007). Focus Features (the proprietor of this website) will soon join the ranks of film studios producing mature animated fare with two films of its own – Henry Selick's Coraline and Shane Acker's 9.
More adult-oriented animated features have been produced in the last decade than in all of the prior years of this young art form. There is still work to be done before animation overcomes its childish legacy, but it can safely be said that the animated feature has moved into an exciting new era in which the medium's possibilities are being explored as never before.
Amid Amidi is an author, historian and entrepreneur. His recent book Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in Fifties Animation (Chronicle Books) won the prestigious 2006 Theatre Library Association Award for best English language book about film and television. He has also written The Art of Robots about the making of the Fox/Blue Sky computer animated feature Robots, and edited and designed the book Inside UPA, a compilation of unpublished photographs from the legendary UPA Animation Studios. He founded the website Animation and Cartoon Heaven – which later became Animation Blast – in 1996, and later was associate editor of Animation World Magazine. In 2004, he partnered with Jerry Beck to launch the premier animation website, Cartoon Brew.