Are adults finally getting the cartoon capers they deserve?

Anew brand of animated films is coming to the big screen – and there’s not an ogre or talking donkey in sight.
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The Independent Culture

To any parent who has ever pacified their child with an umpteenth repeat viewing of Toy Story or Shrek, it will probably come as no surprise that animation is big business. We're not just talking cinema tickets here. There are the DVDs, the tie-in toys and the branded merchandise, from pyjamas to wallpaper. This year four of the top 10 highest-grossing films at the summer box office are animated. Leading the way is the superlative Pixar sequel Toy Story 3, which at the time of writing had grossed a staggering $732m globally after just five weeks on release.

Following the success earlier this year of How to Train Your Dragon, and with the current triumph of Shrek Forever After globally and Despicable Me in the US, if the likes of Disney and DreamWorks ever decide to animate their AGMs, you'd see the shareholders' eyes leap out on stalks and turn to dollar signs. The problem is – and whisper it quietly, less anyone who blubbed their way through Toy Story 3 hear – these films are not primarily meant for us. Blame it on Uncle Walt if you like, but ever since Mickey Mouse tootled his way across the screen, the target audience of your typical Hollywood animation has always been the under-10s.

Which makes recent developments in the world of animation all the more heartening for grown-ups. This month sees the release of Sylvian Chomet's The Illusionist, a beautiful story of a magician eking out a living on the dying music-hall circuit who eventually befriends a young runaway girl from the Scottish Highlands. Based on an unproduced script by the late Jacques Tati – best known for his bumbling comic creation Monsieur Hulot – Chomet's hand-drawn film is a lyrical, wistful tale that's about as far from the neatly polished CGI world of Pixar as you could wish to get.

"I think people have started to realise that animation can touch adults," says Chomet. "We've all been growing with animation. We've been children before we are adults. Drawings and expressions speak to us. But animation has been restricted and has been frozen for a very long time by the people who created this beautiful art form, Walt Disney Studios. They started from just saying, 'Animation is for children, so therefore we're going to make fairy tales.' And for a long time they were the only company to do films like that, because they're very expensive."

Chomet admits he's been looking to change all this. His 2003 debut Belleville Rendez-Vous was a frenetic, hilarious and often macabre story in which a club-footed old lady, her pet dog and a song-and-dance trio that once performed with Fred Astaire set out to rescue a cyclist kidnapped during the Tour de France. Not surprisingly, given the artistry behind the film, Chomet was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Animated Feature. Yet here was a film that, for once, adults were dragging their kids to see, rather than the other way round.

With The Illusionist, Chomet has gone one step further by designing a film about love and loneliness as moving as any live-action drama. It's what he's always dreamed of, he says. "I remember when I started in animation, and I said, 'I want to do animated films for adults.' And people would say, 'Oh, you want to do pornographic animated films?' And I'd reply, 'No, no – animated films for adults! Not porn!'" Doubtless such a reaction arose in the wake of the increasing popularity of certain forms of Japanese manga, which has long catered for adult tastes with an eye-popping mixture of sex and violence.

While manga classics such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira found audiences over here, adult animation produced by Western filmmakers is very much in its infancy (assuming you consider Ralph Bakshi's 1972 take on Robert Crumb's lewd comic strip Fritz the Cat as an anomaly). Not surprisingly, it's Europe and not America that has led the way in bringing it to the fore, though not always successfully. Take Renaissance, the 2006 black-and-white cyberpunk detective story directed by Christian Volckman. Despite attracting a voice cast that included Daniel Craig and Jonathan Pryce for the English-language version, it flopped – arguably because it favoured style over substance.

Yet the successes have been notable – not least Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed 2007 adaptation of her loosely autobiographical graphic novel about an outspoken Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution. Such was the impact it made, Satrapi is now in pre-production on a live-action version of her 2006 book Chicken With Plums, set to star Isabella Rossellini and Mathieu Amalric. Arguably even finer was Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir (2008), in which the director reconstructs his memories of fighting for the Israeli army in the 1982 Lebanon war.

Like Belleville and Persepolis, Folman's film wound up with an Oscar nomination – though curiously not in the animation section, but for Best Foreign Film (suggesting that Hollywood insiders can't quite place a film as political as Waltz with Bashir alongside the likes of Kung Fu Panda). Even so, US productions are gradually waking up to the fact that animation isn't just for kids. Much of this is thanks to Richard Linklater, whose meditative Waking Life and drug-fuelled Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly were both produced using "rotoscoping", where live-footage is "drawn" over and animated.

With Howl, Heavy Metal and The Goon (see sidebar) all in various stages of production, it seems Americans are finally ready to ditch Disney for something a little more substantial. Back in 2009, the Sundance Film Festival proved this by programming Adam Elliot's superlative claymation feature Mary and Max as its opening-night film. An Australian production – though with a voice cast that included US star Philip Seymour Hoffman – the honour accorded it by Sundance was partly due to the cachet Elliot already enjoyed in the States (his 2003 film Harvie Krumpet won an Oscar for Best Animated Short). Yet Mary and Max, which will open in the UK this autumn, takes things to a new level.

Based on Elliot's own communication with a US pen-friend that he's had for years, the film tells of the epistolary relationship between a neglected eight-year-old Australian girl named Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) and a grumpy 44-year-old New Yorker, Max (Hoffman), who has Asperger's syndrome. If the clay form makes you think of Britain's own Nick Park and the cosy world of Wallace and Gromit, think again. Mary and Max deals with alcoholism and suicide, illness and death, albeit underlined with a grim gallows humour.

Elliot admits he is worried his film may fall through the cracks and is uncertain how Mary and Max will fare. The film followed Sundance with an appearance at the Berlin Film Festival, in the Generations section for children – yet in truth it's not for that age bracket. "I don't think it's for little children," he says. "Probably teenagers will get something out of it. I don't know. We'll find out. It's going to be a hard film to sell. It's not a Shrek or a [Finding] Nemo. Yet it's not Waltz with Bashir or Persepolis either. It's somewhere in between. It's not a comedy. But it's not completely bleak and dark and tragic."

Though Elliot has an American agent, he admits the sort of uncommercial material he wants to make is likely to alienate him from most studios. "They know that a film like Mary and Max won't make the money of a Shrek or a Nemo. So they're not that keen to get into bed with us," he says. Even so, Elliot hopes this current trend for adult animation continues. "I think they're needed. They're the antidote to all the other CGI stuff out there. Audiences do go and see them. They know about them. It's means it's not just a constant stream of formulaic family-friendly films. Animation is finally evolving."

'The Illusionist' opens on 20 August. 'Mary and Max' will be released in the autumn

Sex and surrealism: The next wave of adult animation

'Howl'

Opening Sundance earlier this year, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film about the obscenity trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg's infamous 1956 poem "Howl" blends live action with remarkable animation. Edited to a hypnotic reading of the poem, the surreal visuals perfectly illustrate the nightmarish intent of this Beat classic. As Epstein puts it, "The poem lives through the animation."

'The Rabbi's Cat'

First published in 2003, Joann Sfar's whimsical 1930s Algeria-set comic book series about a rabbi and his talking cat (which eats a parrot and insists on studying the Kabbalah) has sold 700,000 copies in France alone, and has been translated into 15 languages. Having just seen his live-action feature about Serge Gainsbourg hit cinemas in the UK, Sfar is now leading a 100-strong animation team adapting his script for the big screen.

'Heavy Metal'

Begun in 1977, the cult sci-fi/fantasy magazine defined by its dark blend of violence and erotica has already spawned two animated portmanteau films – the much-lauded 1981 original and the widely trashed 2000 sequel. Yet word has it that Fight Club 's David Fincher is trying to get a third off the ground – with such heavyweights as Avatar 's James Cameron and Watchmen 's Zack Synder all set to direct segments, in 3-D no less. Expect lashings of sex and gore.

'The Goon'

Another Fincher project, and like Heavy Metal set to be animated at Blur Studios, The Goon is based on the paranormal Dark Horse comic-book series by Eric Powell. Based around a mob enforcer named The Goon (voiced by Clancy Brown, the lead guard in The Shawshank Redemption ) and his buddy Franky ( Sideways star Paul Giamatti), it deals with their misadventures in a monster-filled town. With aliens, mad scientists, skunk-apes and ghouls galore, Disney this ain't.

'Mary and Max'

Did Up begin a trend for age-gap alliances? Adam Elliot's latest takes it to another level, as an eight-year-old girl with an alcoholic mother and an obese 44-year-old prone to anxiety attacks become pen pals (see main feature for more details). JM

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