Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Time for a toon-up”

Posted on November 21, 2014


Thoughts on animated features, which aren’t just for kids, and ‘Big Hero 6’, which is.

“But that’s an animated movie!” I hear some version of this when I say I’m going to watch… well, an animated movie. It’s surprising how, even today, so many people think that animated films are only for children – something like Rio, which is essentially a colourful diversion to keep kids occupied while you catch up on emails or something. And to them, a Rio is indistinguishable from something like Wreck-It Ralph or Toy Story 3, which, really, are targeted at adults. What tot could flash back to an era of arcade games or the end of childhood as depicted in these lovely films? To children, these would just be a swirl of movement and colour (so the keep-them-occupied goal is still achieved). It’s the adults who’d really get these movies.

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But this business of ‘animation for adults’ doesn’t wash with the majority. Before and after the release of Kochadaiiyaan, I spoke to a number of people (about their expectations, and, later, about their experience of the film) – and I wish I had a rupee each time someone called it a “bommai padam” (literally, a film with dolls, but this could be taken to mean a kiddie-oriented animated feature; and where I say “feature,” most others use the word “cartoon,” irrespective of the length of the film, even if it’s something by Hayao Miyazaki). Here’s this huge superstar in this lavish production (okay, at least from reports), and all viewers could think of was… bommai padam.

Major amateur psychoanalysis-cum-sociological theorising alert: One of the reasons for this attitude is probably that we don’t have a culture of animated filmmaking in the country, and the animated entertainment we’ve grown up with – say, the Tom and Jerry cartoons, or the Spider-Man series – did have a made-for-children quality, with emphasis on momentary excitement rather than a drawn-out narrative. Of course, this did not prevent adults from seeing them, but they didn’t see these shows as adults – they saw them as kids, regressing to a blissed-out kid-like state of watching something for pure enjoyment and nothing else (in the sense that they didn’t have to process something like subtext, like in the Miyazaki movies). And because these shows came on television, the “meant for casual home viewing” label has possibly stuck. Hence the surprise when a grown-up declares he’s going to watch an animated feature in a movie hall.

So here’s a beginner’s list in case you want to check out animated features for adults: Yellow Submarine, if you’re a fan of The Beatles and high-on-LSD filmmaking; Persepolis, if you like social and, yes, political dramas (for more of the same, and with action, check out Waltz With Bashir); South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, if you can handle sacred-cow-roasting satire; Paprika, if you liked Inception and all that thrilling stuff about entering dreams (though this film came first); Waking Life, if you liked Richard Linklater’s Before films (this one too is by Linklater, and has an appearance by rotoscoped avatars of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy); The Triplets of Belleville, if you like the comedies of Jacques Tati; Fantastic Mr. Fox (technically speaking, this is stop-motion animation), if you like the work of Wes Anderson; and since I mentioned Miyazaki, any of his films, like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke (which is being released on Blu-ray as we speak).

What set off this topic is my decision to head to a theatre that was showing Big Hero 6, and the reaction of a colleague, who looked genuinely puzzled and asked: “Why”? To indulge my inner child, that’s why. (Those of us who love animated features do not differentiate between the kiddie fare and the adult fare.) Big Hero 6 is squarely an aimed-at-kids movie, and the first thirty-odd minutes – featuring this insanely adorable robot named Baymax; I’m sorry, but if you don’t love him, you probably think puppies are overrated – are thoroughly delightful. Speaking of puppies, the short film (also animated) that preceded the main feature was equally wonderful, the story of an insanely adorable dog that loves to scarf down humongous quantities of food.

Baymax is the latest in a long line of supporting toons that steal the show (think Olaf the snowman in Frozen, or the minions in the awesome Despicable Me) – and he reminded me of E.T., with that same mix of love and other-worldly cluelessness. There’s even an E.T.-like scene where a youngster hurries Baymax past a distracted parent figure. Eventually, though, the film reminds us of less distinguished predecessors, with frantic action set pieces and an “origins” story. Yes, this is the 495th superhero film this year, and it’s getting tiresome. How strange that an animated film for kids is aping the more adult-oriented Hollywood product – then again, maybe this will make a few more adult Indian audiences go to a theatre to watch a… cartoon.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.