American animation and mainstream cinema

With so much of US animation aimed at children in the past, is it possible, Ryan wonders, that attitudes are gradually changing…?

Imagine if all movies were aimed exclusively at kids. There’d be no Godfather, no Raging Bull, and certainly no Tyrannosaur or Midnight In Paris. Instead, cinema listings would be full of movies like Journey 2, Hop or Harry Potter. While there’s nothing wrong with children’s films, an alternate universe entirely filled with them is almost too disturbing to think about.

And yet, in this plane of reality, American animated movies have for years been almost exclusively made for audiences aged 12 or under. Yet, in the rest of the world, animated films aimed at adults aren’t uncommon. Ali Forman’s autobiographical film about the Lebanon War, Waltz With Bashir, was moving, disturbing and often poetic – and was given an 18 rating in the UK.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a similarly personal film about a young girl growing up in 70s Iran, was a mature, wryly humorous drama that rightly won lots of awards. Sylvian Chomet’s The Illusionist was a touching, somewhat melancholy tale about an ageing French magician and his friendship with a young Scottish girl. It too gained plenty of acclaim and awards nominations, though not, it has to be said, a great deal of attention at the box office.

One of the most vibrant markets for animation aimed at all kinds of audience lies, of course, in Japan. Although its most famous animated export hails from the family-friendly environs of Studio Ghibli, the country produces dozens of features and television shows aimed at adults each year. Movies like Akira, Ghost In The Shell and Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue are perhaps among the most well known, and their impact on western filmmakers and artists has been considerable.

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What’s strange about US animation is that, back in the earliest days of the medium, the country’s output was often anything but child friendly. Animated features from the 20s and 30s were often full of nudity and risqué scenes – Bamboo Isle saw Max Fleishcher’s character Betty Boop dancing topless on a beach, for example. The Hays Code, introduced in 1934, put a curb on the more adult content seen in the era’s animation. From that point on, the sexual innuendo in Betty Boop cartoons was toned down, and the character was clad in less revealing clothes.

It was at this point that Disney, established in 1923, began producing feature-length animations. The first was Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, an extraordinarily expensive, risky enterprise that would quickly prove to be one of the most important pieces of animation ever produced. Technically groundbreaking and tonally perfect – precisely balancing its darkness and sweetness for a broad audience – it’s little wonder that Snow White would prove so popular, and influence so much of Disney’s productions that followed.

Certainly, Snow White appeared to define what animation meant to western mainstream audiences for years afterwards – a vehicle for fantasy and gentle escapism. Animation aimed at adults could still be found outside the mainstream in the US – Ralph Bakshi, whose Fritz The Cat was slapped with an X rating by the MPAA in 1972, is but one practitioner – but such films didn’t appear to change the prevailing attitude that animated films are the preserve of the young.

There are signs, however, that attitudes are changing. On TV and the Internet, shows like Robot Chicken, South Park and, most obviously, The Simpsons are flying the flag for varying degrees of adult humour on the small screen. And in cinemas, we’re seeing a gradual shift, too.

Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, one of my favourite films of all time, is a rare example of an American animated feature that tackles such mature themes as drug abuse, paranoia and death with maturity and a welcome dose of black humour. Admittedly, the film’s under-performance at the box-office (partly due to its dreadfully stingy distribution) probably won’t have endeared it to Hollywood’s money counting types, but its warm reception from most critics is one positive, and by the time DVD and Blu-ray sales are accounted for, it’s likely that A Scanner Darkly more than broke even.

Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, meanwhile, proved that animation can deal with adult themes and still make money. Persepolis made just under $23 million on its $7.3 million budget, while Waltz With Bashir made $11 million on a comparatively small $2 million investment. These are hardly the kind of figures that get accountants salivating, but remember that both movies are independently made films with comparatively tiny marketing budgets. Their success was largely due to positive reviews and film awards.

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We’re intrigued, therefore, to see how the forthcoming Hell & Back fares with the film-going public. Billed as an R-rated stop-motion animated comedy, it’ll be directed by Tommy Gianas and Ross Shuman, and produced by the company who brought us Robot Chicken. In what sounds like a comedy retelling of the Orpheus myth, Hell & Back is about two men who attempt to rescue their friend from the depths of Hades.

Nick Swardson and TJ Miller are among the cast, and last Friday saw Mila Kunis also join the production. It could be terrible, of course, but then again, there’s the equal possibility that Hell & Back could be just as joyously funny and irreverent as South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut or Team America.

While much of the animation coming out of America is still aimed at younger audiences – and there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s encouraging that attitudes are gradually changing. And with a mature animated feature such as Chico And Rita among the best animation nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, here’s hoping that more varied kinds of animated films – whether they’re R-rated comedies, dramas, or any other genre you care to mention – will see their way onto the big screen.

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