Animated films aren’t just for children, argues James Clarke. They’re lyrical metaphors for the richness of human existence

October 4, 2012


Credit: Frankenweenie/2012 Disney Enterprises


Directed by Tim Burton

Voiced by Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short

Released in the UK on 17 October

“For me, a feature animated film has to have something besides comedy in order for the audience to stay with it and get everything else it has to offer.”

This thoughtful note was struck by Brad Bird, director of The Iron Giant (1999), The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). The release of Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s latest animated feature, offers us a chance to look again at the “something” that enables the best animation to reach beyond escapism and entertainment and to offer us compelling, politically and culturally engaged images of the world we live in.

Even Walt Disney made the point that “the first duty of the cartoon is not to duplicate real action or things as they actually happen - but to give a caricature of life and action… to bring to life dream fantasies and imaginative fantasies that we have all thought of, (based on) a foundation of fact”.

While Frankenweenie is limited to the topography of suburbia (territory that has provided the animated television series The Simpsons with a rich seam to mine for more than 20 years), the story is about coming to terms with mortality. It’s a smart example of the mass-market, popular animated film as Bildungsroman. In promoting it, Burton explained: “I tried to present [abstract] things in a way kids can understand. Because that’s what old folk tales and fairy tales did, and they primed you for those weird things that you have to cope with later.”

Here is a film, then, that animates the culture of young people’s lives and prompts us to acknowledge animation’s facility for reframing the bigger picture. Animated films can ably “get under the skin” of an issue almost without our realising it. It is a form ripe for creative smuggling, and the most interesting animation works as both eye candy and mind-fibre.

Even popular genre-specific titles often express some larger idea about the world. One has only to watch the Pixar Animation Studio film A Bug’s Life (1998) to identify that it’s both an adventure film and a celebration of the value of community and faith in one another. There’s something of this sensibility, too, in the good-natured Toy Story trilogy (1995, 1999, 2010, also Pixar).

Yet animation isn’t only the province of cutely anthropomorphised toys, bugs or dogs, and our appreciation of the form is enriched by films that originate far from the Hollywood studios. A good example is When the Wind Blows (1986). Based on Raymond Briggs’ 1982 book of the same name, the film charts the unfolding tragedy of an elderly couple (Jim and Hilda) as they struggle to survive the effects of nuclear fallout. The visual design cleaves closely to the source material and, while essentially realistic in tone, it fleetingly but vividly deploys a number of expressionistic animation styles that graphically capture Jim and Hilda’s perspectives.

This transformative approach gives viewers a sense of how the couple perceive their plight as they recall an idyllic past and imagine a possible, threatening future. There’s a touching moment in which Hilda remembers her childhood in the country and a striking sequence that visualises the couple’s fear of a Russian soldier storming their quiet countryside home.

Indeed, the apocalyptic lends itself well to visualisation, as we also find in graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991), which recreates his father’s experiences during the Holocaust.

This sense of apocalypse is also present in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), produced by the highly regarded and commercially successful Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli. A fantasy piece, the film explores issues of ecology, responsibility and the relationship between the individual and his community. The story centres on a young man’s journey to eliminate a demon that is ravaging the human world and its environs, proposing a need for the “modern” citizen to be aware of, and engaged with, the natural world and mindful of specific cultural traditions. In a particularly lyrical scene, one of the injured protagonists is healed by the power of nature, deep in a forest.

If these films engage overtly with grand narratives and politics, we can say the same of Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning Persepolis (2007). Relatively austere in its design, this film renders events with pencil-drawn figures overlaid with black felt-tip pen, the abstraction opening up the space for metaphor.

Persepolis is based on Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, first published in 2000 and telling the story of a young girl, Marji, growing up in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The film charts her youth as an outspoken and rather rebellious child who is sent to Vienna for her education, taking her far from the patriarchal extremism of the revolution. She returns to Iran, but concludes eventually that she can no longer remain there. The story puts Persepolis squarely within an enduring politicised tradition in animation exemplified by a number of Eastern European film-makers.

Prominent among them is Jan Švankmajer, perhaps the best-known Czech animator. He began his creative practice in the 1960s and has consistently refused to produce “comfortable” material, using animation to critique the broader culture and political landscape. While his work is relatively unknown outside hard-core film enthusiasts, he has a following that includes Burton and his fellow film-maker Terry Gilliam, both animators by origin.

Švankmajer started within the Czech Surrealist Group and the various creative responses to the enforcing of a Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1969. His impulse towards dream logic, rather than the “common sense” of narrative logic, allows him to mine the imagery of childhood and the Gothic. Compellingly, he has noted: “Objects conceal within themselves the events they’ve witnessed. I don’t actually animate objects. I coerce their inner life out of them.”

Throughout the 1970s the Czech authorities maintained a watch over film production, so Svankmajer’s main creative challenge was to make political comment without being “found out”. He rose to the challenge through a series of shorts and then his first feature-length film, Alice (1988), a startling adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

We may seem to have come a long way from Frankenweenie, but the films are united in using animation and metaphor, working in harmony. Alice draws on the source’s debt to English nursery rhymes and their anarchic and sometimes violent tendencies. It thus becomes a political film, although its “message” is more coded than in other titles, as the heroine moves through a world that is falling apart.

In the opening moments, Alice explains how the process of seeing is as dependent on imagination as it is on tangible reality, and so primes the audience for a film that is very different from the typical animated adaptation of a children’s story.

Animated films might seem as frivolous and inconsequential as movies could possibly get, and yet - from some of the most mainstream titles to those lesser-known examples - they encourage the viewer to look afresh at what they think they know. That’s the “something” that lends animated film its potential for resonance and relevance.


James Clarke is the course convener of the screenwriting module at the University of Warwick. His book, The Films of Pixar Animation Studio, is due for publication in summer 2013.

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