Recently I had a sudden urge to stroke my own ego; so I began to look at my past articles, only to discover that the only foreign animated films I have recommended were Japanese. A travesty, I say! So to compensate for this oversight I've decide to recommend three animated films that are not Japanese or American. Please note these are very unconventional; not recommended for kids, but that is not the point. Animation is a medium that has been pigeonholed by two different markets; neither of which have any interest in expanding beyond family films and/or geek oddities. These films reveal an alternative to such monotony.
Chico & Rita (Spanish)
There are boobs in the first twenty minutes; and now that I have your attention lets talk about mambo and jazz because that is the real story of Chico & Rita. The plot of this film is a simple romantic melodrama between a jazz pianist and an aspiring singer, who are destined to be together even though their rise to fame, sinister temptations, and later the revolution seem to tear them apart. The story is Hollywood flavored cheese; but the music is so sensual, groovy, cool, and spontaneous that its charm alone pushes the plot in a steamy rush. The fact that the main characters’ own musical progressions reveal their internal struggles and development makes for a deeply satisfying plot that is not cloying.
The fairly realistic animation is deceptive at first, and it can make one wonder why it was not filmed with live action. It is the color; the solid, bright, Pop Art style color palette of Chico & Rita compliments the glamour and romance of the story in a way that nothing in the real world can offer. Like Moulin Rouge and Singin’ in the Rain; Chico & Rita is a film that is not meant to be life changing, but life affirming, which is not bad for a scandalous little movie.
(Streaming on Netflix, available for rent on Amazon Instant Video, also available on DVD and Blu-ray)
If there was one year that Pixar should not have won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it was in 2007 for Ratatouille. It is not because Ratatouille was a bad film, in fact it is a great film, but Persepolis was one of the best films of the year. For one reason is that the story is impeccable. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is a coming of age story of Marjane Satrapi as she lives through the Iranian Revolution. Imagine going through the same issues kids have when they become adults: the existential crisis, and sexual identity issues. Now imagine the once normal world slowly, then suddenly becoming a religious fundamentalist tyranny. This stark plot is complemented with an equally stark black-and-white color scheme and abstract, stylish and often surreal animation. Persepolis will not provide people the immediate warm satisfaction of a Pixar film; but it does show a unique perspective, as well as a more intellectual stimulation on the Middle East than any American studio in the past ten years.
Mary and Max (Australian)
A common criticism with animated features is that they value style over substance, which is when the film looks cool but never tackles with equally interesting themes, nor with any grace. Nightmare Before Christmas, while fun to watch, is a cartoon that values style over substance. Mary and Max; a story about an eight-year-old Aussie girl and a 44-year-old New Yorker who become pen pals, is a film that has a lot of substance and little style. The few sets are minimal, the characters are crude and there are only three prominent voices in the film. Yet within the first twenty minutes Mary and Max sets up themes of alcoholism, unwanted children, neurosis, melancholy, and sexual frustration; great fodder for a dramatic comedy. But what makes Mary and Max so great is how it portrays friendships as an anchor. Even as the main characters suffer the trials of their lives, the one thing that keeps them balanced is the tales they trade and the film never cloying about this message. Mary and Max may lack style, but with a screenplay this strong, it does not need to look cool.
The point of this is that there are animated perspectives that go beyond whimsy, goofiness, ninja action figures, et cetera. The biggest problem with the film industry right now is that nobody wants to explore, at all. The audience doesn't want to explore, so the filmmakers don't experiment, and the filmmakers don't experiment because the audience won't explore. The point is: Do not make my mistake, explore! Even if one or all of these prove to be too odd for one’s taste, they prove that animation is more than just a family market. Plus, this is the Internet, nothing is hard to find anymore. If you can find this blog, then you can find good movies.