Year in Review 2006
For all the lip service given to the notion of sophisticated audiences, the fact is that most animated features in North America are produced for the eight-to-tween set. Nods to adults are just throwaways that keep parents from becoming completely catatonic. Like gamblers encouraged by the occasional low-yield win, adult audiences and studios seize on these moments and believe that real sophistication is lurking right around the next frame. It's common to hear some variation of "That one must have gone right over the kids' heads," when recalling a particularly clever zinger, but the same thing is true of every Sesame Street instalment of Monsterpiece Theater hosted by Cookie Monster (as Alistair Cookie). It's clever and funny, but it doesn't mean Sesame Street isn't for toddlers.
This approach also invalidates the studios' claims that they're making more family fare. As there's only superficial engagement for the older members of the audience, "family movies" has become code for "something the kids can watch while adults get a chance to catch their breath."
In contrast, most of the family-friendly features I saw at festivals and special screenings this year lived up to the label, even though they all violated rules that are taken for granted here. The twin spectres of war and death hang over the Thai Khan Kluay as the title character, a wild elephant who searches for his missing father, ends up following in his footsteps as a war elephant. The Danish Pettson and Findus: Pettson's Promise tells a gentle Christmas tale without a single wild chase scene or mugging eccentric character. And the breathtaking Japanese The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is set in the recognizable present, almost entirely focusing on the everyday aspects of an ordinary girl's life.
These are films that adults can enjoy with no reservations—though, like the best family films, Khan Kluay and Pettson's Promise work best when young and old watch them together. More remarkable is that they speak to segments of the audience that are rarely spoken to here. Khan Kluay is entirely driven by a wartime family's grief over a missing parent, who may be alive or dead; Pettson's Promise is ideal for people who value the quiet joys of the Christmas season; and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an acknowledgement of all the minor and major uncertainties of adolescence.
For a while, American features tapped into this notion. I remember watching Aladdin within a fortnight of its release at an 11:00 p.m. showing. The audience was almost entirely made up of adults, and the laughs were as enthusiastic as for any live-action movie. Teenagers who would otherwise be too cool to catch a cartoon lined up for Beauty and the Beast because it was said to be a great date movie. Many adults will happily cite Toy Story and The Incredibles as some of their favourite films. These titles are already recognized as classics, while I doubt the same could be said of this year's domestic roundup. It's not impossible to make thoughtful, engaging and financially successful animated features in North America, but for some reason they weren't on the radar in 2006. Here's hoping for better in 2007.