When it comes to animated feature-length film, it’s pretty obvious that there are two major players: Disney-Pixar, and everyone else. As far as popular opinion goes, Disney-Pixar overwhelmingly outstrips everyone else – all the films they’ve released since the introduction of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001 have been nominated for the award, and four have won. This success is, of course, echoed at the box office, in critics’ reviews, and through merchandise sales. However, the “everyone else” has not been idly sitting by. Interest in alternative animation is steadily increasing, with studios such as Aardman Animations (who produced 2000’s Chicken Run, and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit, which won the Academy Award in 2005) and Studio Ghibli (responsible for the 2002 Oscar-winning Spirited Away, and 2005’s nominated Howl’s Moving Castle) providing strong opposition to the “Disneyification” of the genre.
Perhaps the more interesting element to the other side of animation cinema, however, is the rising talent – up-and-coming directors who are establishing their presence in a field dominated by studios comparable in size and influence to Disney-Pixar. Although these big studios, such as Aardman and Ghibli, offer an alternative at the box office, the subject matter of their films is usually confined to that which we expect from typical “cartoons” – child-oriented content, wholesome messages, a realistic look to the animation, and perhaps a couple of risqué jokes thrown in to keep the parent-escorts entertained. But this crop of new directors have shown themselves to be more open to risk-taking in the field of alternative animation. In their own unique way, each builds on the head-start bigger studios have given them, but their purposes go beyond keeping the kids entertained on a rainy afternoon. They aim to make us think about our preconceived notions of what animation should be. The Cinémathèque Québécoise is recognizing the growing importance of this subgenre though their upcoming series, Feature Length Animation: New Voices, which is comprised of feature-lengths debuts made using more traditional animation methods like stop-motion and clay-mation.
Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max is one of the films featured during the series. Through the pen-friendship of an insecure eight-year-old Australian girl and a 44-year-old New Yorker with Asperger’s Syndrome who bond over their love of chocolate and lack of friends, the movie explores suicide, alcoholism, sexuality, relationships, mental illness, and death. Mary and Max uses these themes – coupled with its bleak palette of brown and grey and unexpectedly ugly clay-mation characters – to disrupt the audience’s perception of the “cartoon” genre. But the way in which the film treats its tricky subject matter could be a better approach to animation for children. Although likely to draw some awkward questions from younger children, ultimately, the film’s portrayal of realistic rather than stereotyped relationships and common insecurities such as body image, loneliness, and young love, is a far more valuable expression of the reality of life.
That’s not to say that realism destroys the imagination of these films. Animation’s ability to transcend what would be possible in a live-action setting is the most important element of the form, and the key to its popularity. This is seen vividly in Henry Selick’s Coraline – also featured in Cinémathèque Québécoise’s series – a film adapted from the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman. It too is a story of loneliness. Coraline escapes to a perfect other-world, complete with an Other Mother who is the antitheses of her own inattentive and work-laden real mother. But this escape comes with a sacrifice – the exchange of her eyes for buttons. This at first seems a ridiculous and innocent thing: to a grown audience, something quaintly imaginative that immediately brings to mind ideas of rag dolls and toy animals. But as the film progresses, the evil behind this necessity becomes clear. The Other Mother wishes to keep Coraline with her forever, a goal fuelled by her overwhelming desire for something to love. This in itself is disturbing – we are most used to a film’s bad guys acting out of hate (Scar from the Lion King, Captain Hook, and every stepmother ever) rather than love, and for the viewer, seeing the story’s climactic danger propelled forward by love challenges one’s conception of right and wrong. When juxtaposed with the development of the animation from rosily idyllic to menacing and distorted, this theme throws the categorization of Coraline as simply a children’s film into question.
Selick also directed The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the similarities to Tim Burton’s style of animation are noticeable – oversized heads, caricatured features, and a pervading sort of spiky feeling. Selick exploits to its full extent animation’s power to be anything imaginable, and many scenes are breathtaking in their alienness, creativity, and darkness. This is a far cry from the realism that has come to be expected of more conventional animation: a preoccupation with making characters as humanly-proportioned as possible and scenery close to that of the real world, transformed into technicolour.
That these alternative feature films pose a challenge to Disney-Pixar is undeniable. Many already have achieved cult status across the world – The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ralph Bakshi’s version of Lord of the Rings, Persepolis, The Triplets of Belleville. The films featured in Cinémathèque Québécoise’s upcoming animation season promise to be worthy of joining these ranks. Their alternative styles, thought-provoking subject matter, and off-beat plot lines lead us to question the stereotypes of American animation and its intended audience, while simultaneously guaranteeing a really awesome trip to the movies.
Feature Length Animation: New Voices runs from January 21 through February 11 at The Cinémathèque Québécoise (335 De Maisonneuve E.). For more information visit cinematheque.qc.ca