[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick, "Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet," is available now On Demand. Need help finding a movie to watch? Let TWC find the best fit for your mood here.]
A sprawling meditation on freedom and the power of artistic expression through the eyes of a mischievous young girl. A bleak character study centered around a depressed middle-aged man stuck in the monotonous cycles of his life. An emotional adventure about maturity and the importance of sadness. A sociopolitical coming-of-age drama that explores the differences between Brazilian life in the country and the city.
In years past, these stories might have provided the foundation for an Oscar-baiting drama starring a bankable actor and directed by a visionary filmmaker. Last year, however, they were simply the stories behind the year’s most daring animated movies. While the genre has always relied on kid-friendly appeal to remain profitable, it seems like more and more filmmakers each year are willing to risk a wide audience in order to use the genre to understand and make sense of adult sensibilities. While animated films have always appealed to adults in some way, we’ve recently seen more animated Trojan horse movies than ever before: movies marketed at children and families but singular to the adult experience.
The existential drama of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s "Anomalisa" was never intended to appeal to children, of course, but other animated movies like "Inside Out," "The Prophet" and "Boy and the World" certainly were, which makes it all the more miraculous how they ended up carrying an equal level of maturity. Much has been written about "Inside Out," which is both the riskiest and most profound venture in Pixar’s history. What is assembled and packaged as a buddy comedy between two anthropomorphic feelings is really a therapy session on the importance of sadness. To appreciate "Inside Out," one has to be an adult who has gone through the maturity the film presents. The movie appeals to children, sure, but to access it completely and to truly understand it demands an adult mind.
Last summer, another animated movie proved to be just as strategic in using the genre in this way. Roger Allers‘ eye-popping adaptation of "The Prophet," Kahlil Gibran’s celebrated 1923 book, took a collection of poetry long thought impossible to put on the big screen and turned it into a stunning visual and thematic feast. Parsing through Gibran’s eclectic chapters, which contemplate everything from love to marriage, freedom, friendship, beauty and more, Allers daringly created his own framework for the story, in which a free-spirited young girl joins her mother and an exiled artist on a journey to bring the latter home, so that he could successfully integrate Gibran’s prose through vignettes that teach the child (and the viewer) the author’s valuable lessons.
As the young girl learns about different themes from the artist, Allers and a collection of acclaimed animators (including Tomm Moore, Joan Gratz, Bill Plympton. Nina Paley, Joann Sfar and more) bring these concepts to life in some of the most visually inventive and captivating animated scenes ever conceived. The first vignette, for instance, takes Gibran’s poem on the idea of freedom and imagines it through the visual story of birds breaking out from their cages. The pairing of Gibran’s words layered over the animated storytelling gives the material a universal edge and the sense of a spiritual cleansing. These vignettes may just be colorful extensions of the plot for children, but adults will see their purpose to philosophically educate, which makes it perhaps the only possible way one could’ve adapted Gibran’s work.
The way Allers both recreates the text and brings new levels of interpretation to it recalls the great work of Nina Paley in "Sita Sings the Blues," another slice of animation that represents some of the most mature storytelling of the past decade. The 2008 feature finds Paley adapting the Ramayana, the epic Sanskrit poem that is one of the two great works of Indian literature. The director beautifully animates the actual story of Rama, an exiled prince, and Sita, his abducted wife, but she also includes different threads to contemplate the story’s meaning. One features a Greek chorus that overtly discusses its impressions of the text, theorizing its quandaries and the motivations of its characters, while another depicts a variation of the story set in modern times as to cement its timelessness.
The animation in both of these works is simply transfixing, which makes them an easy sell for children, but it’s their ambitious storytelling devices that really set them apart from their contemporaries (here’s looking at you, "Minions"). Both filmmakers don’t just want to adapt their works, they want to ponder them, challenge them and open them up for interpretation. Kids can surely follow along with "The Prophet’s" storyline of a young girl on a fun adventure, but it’s ultimately adults who have the power to make sense of the vignettes and capitalize on their spiritual power. Same goes for "Sita," which may make the Ramayana excitingly accessible for children, yet forces adults to make sense of the text’s modern importance.
A similar reworking of the past and present is at play in Alê Abreu’s "Boy and the World," which surprised nearly everyone when it landed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature earlier this year. Like "Sita," the film uses a cultural touchstone — the Brazilian dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s — to investigate the roots that still linger today and the artistic expressionism that can be used to understand them. The story centers around a young boy whose safe rural life is thrown into disarray after his father leaves for the urban metropolis. His father’s departure inspires the boy to embark on his own journey to the city, though in doing so the boy is forced to realize just how oppressed his world really is.
"Boy and the World" carries on a tradition long ingrained in the works of Studio Ghibli, from Isao Takahata’s "Grave of the Fireflies" to Hayao Miyazaki’s "The Wind Rises," in that it not only wants to retell an important part of its cultural history, but it also wants to contemplate its lasting effects as a means of healing. The boy’s imagination shields him from the darkness of his world, and only as an adult can you make sense of Abreu’s lasting message: Self-expression will persevere through oppression. That’s not to say children won’t admire the film — quite the contrary, given its intricate hand-drawn style and imaginative landscapes — but Abreu’s intentions to explore sociopolitical themes can only be understood as an adult who has lived through the world as the boy does.
The real power of animation has always been the way in which it appeals to adults, there’s no question about it, but never has the genre seen so many titles released that are singularly adult-oriented. The genre continues to grow up and mature, and it’s something exciting, wonderful and gorgeous to behold. Like the Studio Ghibli films before them, movies like "Inside Out," "Boy and the World" and "The Prophet" are paving quite the legacy for adult dramas by way of animated family fare. It’s a combination we can’t wait to see more of.
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