Since the creation of the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2001, the Academy has occasionally honored thematically mature entries alongside box-office winners aimed at audiences of all ages. These more adult-oriented titles are often hand-drawn works created overseas in languages other than English and without the involvement of major corporations.
Some of these notable candidates included the Cuban novel Chico and Rita, the poetic French fate drama I Lost My Body, and an adaptation of Marjan Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis.
Their Oscar recognition helps to go beyond any suggestion that the medium’s only merit is to serve as a medium for stories aimed at children.
It also shows that the studio-dominated American animation industry rarely funds such audacious films. The one Academy-approved exception is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s frame-by-frame meditation on the loneliness and companionship of Anomalyse.
The current batch of contenders vying for a place among the last five nominees showcase many examples of storytelling with emotional content solving adult problems with an idiosyncratic visual flair.
Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda, previously nominated for the fantasy family saga Mirai, is once again tapping into his interest in the online life we lead — a theme he took up in Summer Wars (2009) — with soul-stirring, music-infused . digital fairy tale “Beauty” (in theaters from January 14).
Borrowing images from Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast but repurposing them to fit his flamboyant aesthetic, Hosoda is building a virtual universe known as U, where people co-exist as colorful avatars tailored to their physical traits and personalities.
In this intangible realm, wary teenager Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) transforms into a confident pop star. But when a restless user, a mysterious cloaked dragon, starts wreaking havoc, reality pours into this seemingly idyllic escape. Gripping action, impressive world-building, and a mesmerizing soundtrack belie more complex themes.
With touching seriousness, “Belle” confronts the rupture in communication between parents and children, as well as the neglect and abuse by their guardians towards young people. However, instead of demonizing the interaction we have through our internet personas, Hosoda presents this alternative mode of interaction as a path for genuine connection.
Conversely, the gripping mountaineering drama Summit of the Gods (streaming on Netflix) depicts a tale of dual obsession that unfolds entirely in animated iterations of existing locations: Everest, the Alps, Tokyo, which are no less remarkable in their scenic execution. Filmed in France, the film (based on the manga by Jiro Taniguchi) portrays the strenuous and dangerous activity as a spiritual quest.
Obsessed with reaching the highest peak in the world, reclusive climber Habu (voiced by Eric Herson-Macarel) has been preparing for years to reach it alone. At the same time, photojournalist Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau) is trying to find a camera that belonged to real-life climber George Mallory, who died on the north face of Everest. Their separate desires soon become inextricably intertwined.
Before making The Summit, director Patrick Imbert worked as an animation director on hyperstylized projects such as the acclaimed Ernest and Celestine fable. But here, in his first solo directorial effort, there is a more rigorous approach to character design to bring his exploration of the human quest for the unknown, rather than pastiche, into focus. While most of us may never understand what makes people risk it all at such heights, The Summit tries to bring us as close as possible to that zenith through sensory experiences.
Staying in our rather complex real world, this year’s two films reinforce the trend towards animation as a way to understand Afghanistan’s cultural and geopolitical complexities. These works complement recent highlights such as the Oscar-nominated Cartoon Saloon film The Breadwinner and the poignantly dreary French title The Swallows of Kabul.
First is Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s award-winning refugee odyssey, Flight, a non-fiction work that traces a young man’s treacherous journey from the turmoil of 1980s Kabul to the safety of a foster home in Copenhagen. The subject, Amin (a pseudonym used to protect his identity), became friends with the director when they were both teenagers.
Given the seriousness of the circumstances shown and the fact that they are based on real events, “Run” is reminiscent of “Waltz with Bashir” by Ari Folman, an animated documentary from Israel that was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 as the best international feature film.
Animation allowed Rasmussen and his team to materialize Amin’s darkest, most traumatic memories in lyrical form and allow viewers to travel back not only as it was, but as he experienced it, with vivid resonant immediacy. At the heart of his dangerous transition lies Amin’s concealment of his sexual orientation.
Escape (in theaters) would have made Oscar history if it had received nominations in all three categories: Animation, Documentary and International Feature (representing Denmark).
Its boundary-bending presence in this awards season, already winning Best Documentary from the New York Film Critics Circle and Best Animation from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a prime example of the virtues and effectiveness of animation across genres and formats.
Another hard-hitting tale set in Afghanistan, albeit decades later, My Sunny Maad, unexpectedly received a Golden Globe nomination. Veteran Czech animator Mihaela Pavlatova, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her 1993 short film Words, Words, Words, is here making her first animated film with this domestic drama based on the novel by Petra Prochazková.
Czech student Herra (voiced by Zuzana Stivinova) moves to Kabul after she marries an Afghan man. Unable to have children, they adopt the timid orphan Maada (Shahid Maqsudi) to form a loving core, however family dynamics with extended family members as well as growing national unrest constantly complicate their marriage.
While it’s only had a limited number of qualifying awards in theaters so far, this relentlessly poignant film deserves a lot of attention. Blending subdued magical realism with unfiltered harsh truth, Pavlatova addresses the vulnerable position of women in a strictly patriarchal society.
While the previously mentioned contenders are international productions, two rare American independent titles also delve into adult themes: Dash Shaw’s funky adventure Cryptozoo (broadcast on Hulu) and Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatta’s horror fantasy epic Nightspine (available upon request).
A modestly deep blast of invention, “Cryptozoo” focuses on numerous mythological creatures known as cryptids, hunted both by those who want to display them in an amusement park and by the US military for use as weapons.
Both “Cryptozoo” and “Spine” are welcome additions to the landscape of mature animated films in the US, where for a long time there were few completely independent role models, such as veteran animator Bill Plympton and the prolific Don Hertzfeldt, who managed to maintain complete creative control. their idiosyncratic comedies, working with limited resources.
Whether it means taking advantage of European public funds (Summit of the Gods, Run, My Sunny Maad), starting a self-sustaining company (like Hosoda’s Studio Chizu), or striving for sensible frugality to sustain a career, the denominator between these films, seems to be that they exist outside of systems that prevent animation from reaching its full potential.