04/12/2013 05:19 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 GMT

An Animated Debate on Furthering the Scope of Animation

We need to ask ourselves why is it that animation studios in the west do not take risks like they do in Japan.

Not that you need to, but if you google 'Noam Chomsky', it tells you that he's a linguist, cognitive scientist, philosopher, activist and political commentator. What it doesn't tell you is that he is the lead in an animated documentary.

Wait, what?

Michael Gondry, the brilliant filmmaker behind the classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, recently made a documentary, Is the Man who is Tall Happy?, which is basically a long conversation with Noam Chomsky where he talks about science, philosophy, our society and everything else all of that encompasses. What he doesn't talk about are dragons, monsters or princesses trapped in castle towers. And yet, this documentary is an animated production.

People who have been living under a rock or have been in coma over the last decade will be surprised to find that animated movies are no longer the medium for just family friendly content meant for kids.

Gondry's documentary is not an exception to any rule - the animation industry has produced many socially conscious and serious films. In 2008, Israeli documentary maker and former soldier, Ari Folman, came up with the critically acclaimed Waltz with Bashir, an animated recreation of Folman's own experiences of recalling his unit's role in the 1982 Lebanon War.

Iranian storyteller, Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel turned animated film Persepolis was a huge success in festivals and home theatres all over the world. It was not aimed at kids even though it was a coming-of-age story about a girl growing up during the revolution in Iran, her teenage years in Paris and her return to a completely different and now Islamic Iran. The movie touched upon many politically debatable topics in a direct manner, including communism, oil based clandestine western diplomacy, women's sexual expression, etc. In fact, perhaps an animated movie served the purpose of the novel better, seeing how it earned quite a name for itself even in the adolescent circles.

Now, let us turn our gaze towards mainstream Hollywood animated films that are mostly released around the holidays. This year, the kids were delighted with The Croods, Despicable Me 2 and right now, Disney's Frozen is being touted as the best Disney animation since The Lion King. Besides being touted as blockbusters, what else is common to each of them? They are all marketed to the same group of people - kids, early teenagers and their parents. I'm not saying such movies are dumb - they are movies made by intelligent people, the animation and storytelling reeks of talent, but you cannot ignore how movies such as these are marketed to earn hundreds of millions at the box office, while films like A Scanner Darkly, Rango or Waking Life are merely cult hits.


The truth is, in America, and by association most of the other markets that follow suit, animation is still a genre and not yet a medium and this genre exclusively depends on children for survival. The irony is that television on the other hand has been airing shows like The Simpsons and South Park which are full of satire and often adult themed humour. Perhaps one day, there will be a full-on horror film or a romantic drama that is animated and targeted at the general public at the same time.

A good example to follow would be that of Japan. When it comes to animation, the entire world is on one side while Japanese anime is on the other. It is a whole different universe in itself and in the true is a medium for any kind of content that you can imagine.

Whether you want horror, comedy, romance, action or even hentai , you will find popular examples of all of these within anime. Daft Punk fans can also vouch for the fact that anime even includes musicals. "Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem" is an anime action adventure musical which is the "visual realization" to Daft Punk's album 'Discovery'. The sci-fi anime Paprika is the main inspiration behind Hollywood's Inception, and this is a fact quoted by none other than Christopher Nolan himself.

Perhaps the reason why Japanese animation has managed to achieve what others have not is the way the Japanese people look at animation. For them, anime is an outlet of pure fantasy. They use it best to express ideas and desires that are simply not possible with live action. A large part of it also deals with fetishes of people who live in a relatively conservative society. If western animation studios adopt this approach, there's no telling how many possibilities of varied content will arise.

But we cannot simply present one side of the argument and take off. We need to ask ourselves why is it that animation studios in the west do not take risks like they do in Japan. Obviously, cost is an issue. With the amount of money it takes to produce an animated film, it is no surprise that the studios want to ensure that their investments yield dividends. But more than that, there's also the question of shelf life of animated films. With the kind of new technology that is being used every couple of years, it has become very important for the suits financing these movies to ensure that their products earn all they can when they can. Very rarely does a Lion King, Toy Story or a Shrek come along that can stand the test of time despite inferior quality of animation.

An animated movie that seems state of the art today might seem outdated in a couple of years. Compare this to anime, where technically, the level of animation quality has remained constant throughout. They are more concerned with colour and camera angles while the western studios harp over details. This is also why hardcore fans of either kind of animation cannot really enjoy the other style. To really enjoy both, my advice is to look beyond the detailing and the cinematography and simply analyze the content. At the end of the day, it is great content that makes great animated films - nothing more, nothing less.