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The Growing Wave of Adult-Themed Animated Features from Europe

This year’s Cartoon Movie once again showed that the number of riskier, small budget animated feature film projects aimed at adult audiences continues to increase.

One trend was abundantly clear at the annual Cartoon Movie forum last month: In Europe, the number of feature animation projects aimed at adult audiences continues to grow. The films presented told a wide variety of adult-themed stories, from a Colombian guerilla leader's thoughts to life in a Palestinian refugee camp to Luis Buñuel filmmaking in the early 1930's.

Cartoon Movie, the annual co-production forum for the European animation industry, is an important place to pitch new animated feature projects. The two-day event, held this year in Bordeaux, France, brought together 850 professionals from 41 different countries to see the 55 projects selected.

The event, held annually since 1999, is organized by Cartoon, a European animation association based in Brussels, Belgium. Though most of the projects pitched are usually for children or family audiences, the number of pitched animation projects aimed at adults has been increasing in recent years. This year, a record one-third of the projects were targeted for either adult or young adult audiences.

Marc Vandeweyer, director of Cartoon, says that the big number of adult-themed projects isn’t due to their being favored in the selection process. "It reflects the situation -- the number for adult film projects is really growing.”

Animated features for adults tend to have smaller budgets - typically 2-4 million euros - than family orientated projects. With limited marketing resources, the films often end up being released in smaller art house cinemas and festivals. "Audience success is not yet there," Vandeweyer notes. "It would require more marketing and promoting, but I believe the audience can be reached."

The positive side of limited budgets is that they allow filmmakers and producers more creative freedom. When the producers can make their money back even with modest distribution success, it opens the door for experiments in content, animation technique and visual design. Films with such variety were clearly present at Cartoon Movie this year.

The Film That Changed Luis Buñuel

One of the most interesting projects presented is the Spanish 2D film Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles. In December 1930, film director Luis Buñuel premiered his film The Golden Age in Paris. The film was banned and Buñuel found himself without sponsor or work. His friend Ramon Acín promised to finance Buñuels next film if he won a lottery - he actually won one hundred thousand pesetas. Together they traveled to the poorest part of Spain to make a documentary film, Land Without Bread (1933).

"This is a film about friendship," says Salvador Simó, project’s director. He aims to shoot an enjoyable drama, not a documentary. Simó is an experienced animation artist. He started in 2D animation in 1991, working at companies like Disney in Paris and Bill Meléndez Productions in L.A. He has also been teaching animation at The Animation Workshop in Denmark.

Land Without Bread was an important milestone for Buñuel,” explains Simó. "The goal of this film was to change the world, but the film changed Buñuel. He moved from surrealism to realism." While shooting Land Without Bread, Buñuel also struggled to forget the influence of Salvador Dali and to find his own way.

Best Parts of Two Worlds

The new story is based on a graphic novel by Spanish comic artist Fermin Solis. The film is built more on characters than the comics, Simó says. "Each medium has its own way to tell the story -- the graphic novel was more surrealist." There is no documentation about what happened during the shooting of Land Without Bread. Simó adds, "We dramatize the events and build the friendship story."

The production team did comprehensive research. They met Buñuel’s son, visited the village Las Hurdes where the film was shot and talked to the local people. "I also read all the books I could find about Buñuel," Simó says. The film’s producer, Manuel Cristóbal, is an experienced professional known for the animated feature Wrinkles (2011), set in an old age home, which focused on topics like Alzheimer's Disease. Needless to say, it was also made for an adult audience.

"Animation is only a technique," Cristóbal says. "The Buñuel film is an arthouse and festival film that just happens to be animation. When doing an animated feature for adults, it is possible to take the best parts from two worlds: animation and drama. The film is an homage to Buñuel for a new generation. He is very current now and we want people to rediscover him."

And where does the name of the film come from? "The houses in Las Hurdes have slate roofs. They look like turtles," Simó replies.

Depicting Strong Women

Animation for adults does not live in a vacuum. It reflects what happens around us. Two film projects presented were connected with Afghanistan.

Czech director Michaela Pavlátová is known for her sharp and personally humorous animated films. She presented a project called My Sunny Maad. It is a story of a Czech woman named Herra who marries an Afghan man, Nazir, and moves to Kabul. They adopt a boy, Maad. "I want to speak about strong women," Pavlátová says. "This story happens in Kabul, but it could happen anywhere."

Daily life and family secrets are present in the film. "I've always been interested in relations between people, especially between man and woman. Living together with someone is not easy," she notes.

The film is based on a novel by Czech journalist Petra Procházková, who lived for six years in Kabul after marrying a local man. My Sunny Maad is highly personal though big events of the time are present. Pavlátová summarizes the main topics of her film: "Family relations and secrets, love, humor, strong women, human touch."

From Afghanistan to Denmark

Another film project with a connection to Afghanistan is Flee by Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. While Pavlátová’s film is a drama, Poher Rasmussen’s is a documentary. Flee is the story of one boy’s five year life on the run. The main character is Amin, the director's friend since they were teenagers and went to high school together. "But he never told me how he came to Denmark,” Poher Rasmussen notes about his friend, originally from Afghanistan, who is now 35 years old.

The film is based on an authentic audio tape where Amin describes how he made the long journey from Afghanistan to Denmark between the ages of 11 and 16. "We will hear about prisons in Russia and Estonia, boat trips over the Baltic Sea and human traffickers," Poher Rasmussen describes. The film also includes authentic newsreels about events from that time.

Why make this an animated film? "We use animation to include more feelings, atmosphere and artistic vision," adds producer Monica Hellström. "Animation is also a good way to protect people who could have problems being in the film."

In the Guerilla Leader's Mind

Raúl Reyes was the number two man in the Colombian guerilla army known as FARC. He was killed during a March 2008 Colombian military operation in Ecuador. Soldiers seized three of his laptops that contained thousands of e-mails and documents.

This is the starting point of the French-Swiss co-production, The Red Jungle. "The material in the laptops is unique," says co-director Juan Lozano. "And everything is real." The film is built around Reyes and his thoughts about daily life in the jungle. What the laptops revealed was not public propaganda but personal issues, Lozano stresses. Reyes was in charge of all negotiations concerning hostages taken by FARC, "and everything is there, on the laptops. The film will be Reyes own diary. We see everything with his eyes. You are in his skin, you are with him, surrounded by war hardened soldiers."

The film shows how Reyes gradually become isolated as people distanced themselves from the revolutionary army. According to co-director Zoltan Horvath, “Animation is the best way to tell how jungle that once provided shelter turned destructive and haunting.” The film’s animation technique is partly based on rotoscoped live-action that is then painted. "We chose this because we wanted a realistic style that looks like jungle," he continues.

Lozano says the film is for adults, but one does not have to be a specialist in geopolitics to watch it. "The film takes you by the hand and goes into to the jungle."

Art, Politics and History

European animation does not turn its back on its own society, history, art and politics -- all four meet in the French film project Josep. The director is comic artist and animator Aurélien Froment, better known by his artist name, Aurel. Josep Bartoli was an illustrator and painter born in Barcelona in 1910. In February 1939, he was one of the half million Republican refugees who fled to France from Spain, displaced by Francisco Franco's dictatorship. 

Bartoli was kept in seven different French camps before he fled, in 1943, from a train headed to Dachau, the German concentration camp, ending up in the United States in 1945. In New York, he worked as an illustrator and painter. Bartoli drew unique pictures about life in the camps, published later as a book. He also made sets in Hollywood before he was placed on Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist.

"As I am a cartoonist, I am interested in what went through the mind of a cartoonist in a concentration camp," Aurel says. "I wrote this film about Bartoli's little known story back in 2010, but today, topics like immigrants, refugees and wars are current," he explains as to why make the film right now. He hopes that the film will be ready in 2019, on the 80th anniversary of the defeat of the Republic of Spain. The film is fiction, Aurel stresses, not documentary. "But there is a real story behind it."

Why so Many Animated Features for Adults?

Why is there a wave of animated features for adults in Europe right now? One reason might be that the market for mainstream family-focused animated features is quite full. Producers are ready to invest even in smaller productions that aren’t just like other competing films. Obviously, many filmmakers and producers also believe that in this post-truth era there is a need for stories that say something about topics that aren’t merely for entertainment. For a long time, Europe has tried to break U.S. dominance in major animated features without much success. European producers perhaps consider adult-focused animated features an area in which they can be more competitive.

Animation techniques have also matured considerably and producing an animated feature is now cheaper than ever. The costs of an animated or live-action drama are very similar. And finally, Europe has something the U.S. doesn’t have: public support for animated features. This provides filmmakers and producers considerable freedom to make auteur-driven films on topics that are riskier and more experimental artistically.

Heikki Jokinen's picture
Writer is a freelance journalist and art critic based in Helsinki, Finland.