Since the inception of the best animated feature Oscar category in 2001, the Academy has sporadically celebrated thematically mature works alongside box-office powerhouses aimed at audiences of all ages. These more adult-oriented titles are often hand drawn productions conceived abroad in languages other than English and without the involvement of large corporations.
Some of these notable candidates have included the Cuba-set romance “Chico and Rita,” the poetic, French-language drama on fate, “I Lost My Body,” and an adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel “Persepolis.”
Their recognition at the Oscars helps to push beyond any assumptions that the medium’s sole virtue is to serve as a vehicle for children-oriented narratives.
It also evinces that the studio-dominated American animation industry seldom finances this type of audacious filmmaking. One exception that earned an Academy nod is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion meditation on loneliness and companionship, “Anomalisa.”
The current batch of contenders vying for a slot among the final five nominees showcases multiple examples of storytelling with emotional substance tackling grown-up matters with idiosyncratic visual flair.
Previously nominated for the fantastical family saga “Mirai,” the Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda plugs back into his interest in the online lives we lead — a topic he undertook in “Summer Wars” (2009) — with the soul-stirring, music-fueled, digital fairy tale “Belle” (in theaters Jan. 14).
Borrowing tropes from Disney’s 1991 “Beauty and the Beast,” but repurposed to fit his vibrant aesthetic, Hosoda builds a virtual universe known as U, where people coexist in the form of bright-colored avatars tailored to their physical traits and personalities.
Inside this intangible realm, the apprehensive teenager Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura) transforms into a hyper-confident pop star. But when a troubled user, an enigmatic cloaked dragon, begins wreaking havoc, reality bleeds into this seemingly idyllic escape. The rousing action, awe-inspiring world construction and entrancing soundtrack belie tougher subjects.
With affecting gravitas, “Belle” confronts the lapse in communication between parents and children, as well as the neglect and abuse committed against young people by their guardians. Still, rather than demonizing the interactions we have via our internet personas, Hosoda presents this alternative mode of engagement as an avenue for sincere connection.
Conversely, the fascinatingly immersive mountain climbing drama “The Summit of the Gods” (streaming on Netflix) maps a story of dual obsession that unfolds entirely in animated iterations of existing locations: Mount Everest, the Alps, Tokyo, all of which are no less remarkable in painterly renderings. The French-produced film (based on the manga by Jiro Taniguchi) portrays the strenuous and perilous activity like a spiritual pursuit.
Hellbent on reaching the world’s highest peak, the reclusive climber Habu (voiced by Éric Herson-Macarel) has spent years preparing to accomplish it alone. At the same time, the photojournalist Fukamachi (Damien Boisseau) is on a quest to find the camera that belonged to the real-life mountaineer George Mallory, who died on the north face of Everest. Their separate desires soon become inextricably intertwined.
Before making “Summit,” the director Patrick Imbert had served as the animation director on hyper stylized projects such as the acclaimed fable “Ernest and Celestine.” But here, his first solo directorial effort, there’s a more austere approach to the character design to make its exploration of the human longing for the unknown, and not the stylization, the focus. Though most of us may never understand what compels people to risk it all at such altitudes, “Summit” attempts to get us as close to that zenith as possible through sensory impressions.
Staying in our sufficiently complicated real world, two films this year reinforce a trend that points to animation as a route to understanding the cultural and geopolitical intricacies of Afghanistan. These entries join recent standouts like Cartoon Saloon’s Oscar nominated “The Breadwinner” and the movingly bleak French title “The Swallows of Kabul.”
First, there’s the already multi-awarded refugee odyssey “Flee” by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a nonfiction piece tracing a young man’s treacherous trajectory from 1980s Kabul in turmoil to the safety of his adoptive home in Copenhagen. The subject, Amin (a pseudonym used to protect his identity), befriended the filmmaker when they were both teenagers.
Given the severity of the circumstances depicted and that they’re based on factual events, “Flee” calls to mind Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated documentary from Israel that was nominated for the best international feature Oscar in 2009.
Animation empowered Rasmussen and his team to materialize Amin’s hazier, most traumatic memories in lyrical fashion and let viewers into the past not only as it happened, but also as he experienced it, with a vividly resonant immediacy. Underlying his hazardous passage is Amin’s concealment of his sexual orientation.
“Flee” (in theaters) would make Oscar history if it received nominations in all three categories of animation, documentary and international feature (representing Denmark).
Its boundary-blurring presence this awards season, having already won the best nonfiction film award from the New York Film Critics Circle and the best animation award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, provides a prime case study for animation’s merit and effectiveness across genres and formats.
The other hard-hitting account that takes place in Afghanistan, though decades later, “My Sunny Maad,” received a surprise nomination from the embattled Golden Globes. The seasoned Czech animator Michaela Pavlatova, who was Academy Award-nominated for her 1993 short film “Words, Words, Words,” here makes her first animated feature with this domestic drama based on a novel by Petra Prochazkova.
The Czech student Herra (voiced by Zuzana Stivinova) moves to Kabul after marrying an Afghan man. Unable to have children, they adopt the timid orphan Maad (Shahid Maqsoodi) to form a loving nucleus, yet the household dynamics with extended family members, as well as growing national unrest, continuously put strain on their marriage.
Though so far it has only had a limited awards qualifying run in theaters, this unsparingly poignant film warrants major attention. Blending subdued magical realism with unfiltered harsh truths, 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 zany adventure “Cryptozoo” (streaming on Hulu) and Morgan Galen King and Philip Gelatt’s gruesome fantasy epic “The Spine of Night” (available on demand).
An unassumingly profound blast of invention, “Cryptozoo” centers on numerous mythological creatures, known as cryptids, being haunted both by those who wish to exhibit them in an amusement park and by the U.S. military to deploy as weapons.
Both “Cryptozoo” and “Spine” are welcome additions to the landscape of mature animated features stateside that for long has had few fiercely autonomous role models, like the veteran animator Bill Plympton and the prolific Don Hertzfeldt, who have managed to retain full creative control of their idiosyncratic comedies by working with limited resources.
Whether it means benefiting from European state funds (“The Summit of the Gods, “Flee,” “My Sunny Maad”), establishing a self-sufficient company (like Hosoda’s Studio Chizu) or becoming cleverly frugal to sustain a career, the common denominator between these films appears to be that they exist outside the systems that hinder animation’s full potential.