Adult themes aren’t necessarily a new thing in the evolution of animated films. In fact, the vast majority of animated films are comprised of adult themes and messages that are discreetly conveyed to children as they view such films. They learn about morals and ethics, clap and laugh at the exaggerated moments of happiness, and sympathize with a protagonist who only wants a positive outcome in a dilemma that will more than likely result in such a way. Animated films such as 2009’s Up or 2014’s Big Hero 6 have indeed pushed the boundaries of animated film, specifically with the topic of death and grieving, but they are still fundamentally films that are aimed for children.
Why? It is because they are still part of the standard animated film formula, which is to present a likable protagonist with a situation, they meet quirky characters along their journey who typically provide laughs, and lastly, they either have an epiphany about the world or their quest meets a positive outcome. That is to say, an animated movie guarantees a form of entertainment. It guarantees a positive outcome and it guarantees laughs that will keep the film’s content light, even if the content of the film is dense. Up, for instance, beautifully tackled the theme of loss and death so poignantly that the film’s opening 15 minutes were universally talked about as one of the greatest montages in film history. Yet even with such a cruel reality represented within the film, Up’s primary plot about the ‘snipe’ (the rare bird the film’s protagonist seeks to save) is tailor-made for children consumption. The ‘snipe’ storyline provides laughs and reminds audiences that this is still an animated movie for children, but the difference was that adults could enjoy it too on a level that would be personal to them.
While there have been some examples of adult animated movies in the past, none came more close than 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. As evidenced by the TV show-turned-movie’s title, this film was intended, right from the beginning, to be a crude animated film that pushed the conventions of what animated movies were supposed to represent. In that regard, South Park succeeded. With its rated R rating from MPAA censors, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone went out of their way to make the film shocking and offensive, which meant the film was aimed for a primarily adult audience. Yet that didn’t stop adolescents from wanting to see the movie. I personally remember being 13-years-old at the time and managing to sneak into the theater to see the movie. The one takeaway I had during this theater experience was that I was watching an animated movie aimed for adults and was watching it with only adults. South Park, to some degree, changed the animated viewing experience.
However, the South Park movie, while adult in its intentionality, was none more than a gimmick film. The South Park film wasn’t aiming to reinvent adult animation. The movie was merely made to provide audiences with an uncensored version of a TV cartoon that was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable television. In that regard the South Park movie was a complete success. Its crude and offensive comedy was hilariously worked into the confines of a film that possessed an excellent plot that was ironically making fun of itself – an offensive movie about kids seeing an offensive movie and the hysterical parents attempting to censor it. South Park was brilliant by making fun of itself, but additionally brilliant by maintaining the integrity of what the show always was. Nonetheless, the South Park movie still fit, somewhat, within the confines of the animated genre. The movie still possessed quirky animated character tropes and even the singing-sequences, while aimed to be a mocking component towards other animated movies, still kept the overall film within the genre of being acceptable for kids (adolescents, really) and adults. It still wasn’t a genuinely serious adult animated movie.
This changed last year with Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. While the film has been accused of being pretentious as of late, it actually isn’t so. In fact, Anomalisa is a film that surprisingly cuts past the boundaries of the animated genre without us truly realizing it. The film is adult in every convention and actually rejects the tropes of animated films. Yes the film has comedic moments but it isn’t meant to be a comedy. The film avoids quirky characters. The film isn’t meant to entertain in the conventional sense. Part of what irks audiences with this film is that we have engrained what an animated movie is supposed to be and Anomalisa denies audiences that typical formula. The film’s sense of ‘nothing happens’ is part of this unconventional narrative that actually makes the film brilliant. Anomalisa isn’t a pretentious film, it is a groundbreaking film.
What makes the film groundbreaking is how adult its themes and conventions are. The film is a stop-motion animation film with marionettes that focus on the character Michael Stone (perfectly voiced by Harry Potter alum, David Thewlis), who is an author on a single-day business trip in Cincinnati. The character is burnt-out and sees the world and its interactions as being mundane and being the same. Of course, this changes during the night when he meets Lisa (voiced by the very talented Jennifer Jason Leigh) and it provides him with a sense of hope towards his future.
The film would seem primed for an animation style that could appeal to a child and adult audience, but Anomalisa is sure to avoid that. The adultness of the film is reinforced repeatedly in the film’s first 10 minutes with visuals that contradict the typical animation narrative convention. We see aggravation with the main character, who clearly hates person-to-person interaction, which makes the character unlikable. Instead of comedic moments, the audience is offered awkwardness. The first lines of the film is a declarative “Fuck you!” to the main character as he reads a letter written to him. Lastly, the audience sees something so simple, yet it defies the typical animated conventions: we witness Michael urinating in the hotel bathroom.
This concept of animation having a correlation with a normal, average human being is surprisingly so alien to moviegoers that it can be somewhat off-putting. By representing the character as true-to-life, it places tremendous limitations of what the character can actually do. This goes back to narrative style, which Anomalisa enforces as true-life within an animated film and actually defies the animated genre. Nonetheless, true-life gives this animated film the opportunity to explore regular, ordinary occurrences, yet because we are seeing them in an animated style, they appear brand new and almost iconic to see. We not only witness Michael urinating, but we also witness him flirting with women, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, showering (we even view his genitalia during this), and of course, there is a graphic animated sex scene. These components we’ve seen before many times over in other films, yet they come off different and somewhat exotic within Anomalisa merely because we are viewing it from an animated narrative. This likens back to Michael seeing everything as the same, but hoping to see or experience something new. These instances we are viewing are inherently the same, but their presentation is entirely new.
What all of these components achieve is not only conveying to the moviegoer audience that this is truly an adult film, but it frames the narrative in a way that we are supposed to view this film as mirroring real-life. The stop-motion animation challenges this narrative, but that is the point of it. The animation puts us in a narrative dilemma where we become unsure of our visual environment, which inadvertently syncs us with the main character’s dilemma of being immersed in a world that he no longer comprehends.
Part of what makes the film unconventional is how this animated movie is presented to the moviegoer. Part of what inspires a person to sit down and view an animated movie is for the experience of a lively, farcical, even exaggerated representation of life. Animated movies allow us to suspend our disbelief and embrace this extraordinary world as potentially real (at least while we are watching the film). Anomalisa denies us this opportunity. For instance, the usual, lively characters who are the embodiment of animated films are nowhere to be seen in Anomalisa. Instead, all characters outside of Michael and Lisa are voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. This is especially interesting because Noonan, regardless of who the character is – male or female – is voiced with the same dull, almost bored sounding voice. This keeps the entire world within Anomalisa within the confines of reality because we are being denied embellishment. This not only spells out to the viewer that this film is grounded in reality, but it also functions as an extraordinary narrative device to emphasize how Michael sees everyone as the same and predictable. By all characters being voiced by the same actor, it somewhat puts us within Michael’s world without ever asking us to identify or sympathize with him.
This leads to the topic of likability within Anomalisa, which has been said to be a flaw of this film. Actually it isn’t. Moviegoers have built this internalized notion that they must identify with a character in order to appreciate a film’s message. Again, Anomalisa denies moviegoers that. Michael Stone is arrogant, self-absorbed, a narcissist, and completely selfish. These are qualities we cannot look past because the character is deeply flawed with no sign of change anywhere on the horizon. Even when he meets Lisa, who is a beacon of fresh air within the film, his fascination with her is due to his obsession with finding something new. Moviegoers aren’t supposed to relate to him, but rather witness a fragmented individual dragging his feet through life. He sees everything and everyone as the same when it is actually him who has changed over time. The mundane is a direct reflection of how he views himself and his life. It’s not his environment that has changed, it is him who has depleted the excitement and adrenaline from his life. For moviegoers, this can be seen as pretentious because it is a deviation from the typical narrative. Yet when one observes the intentionality of the narrative, one cannot deny the sheer brilliance and courage the film takes with this deviation.
It is unlikely that another animated film of this type will be made soon and it can be agreed that this film is not for everyone. Therefore it is important to recognize what Anomalisa has achieved as far as narrative presentation. This film functions as filmmaking evidence that adult animation is a possible genre, one that can actually embellish an average story, such as Anomalisa’s story about the mundanity of life. It can be argued that moviegoers who cited this film as pretentious are those who experienced a narrative-shock when the film defied typical conventions an animated movie is supposed to provide. Anomalisa is an animated film because the animation contributes to the plot of the film. This isn’t a film that decided upon being animated and then the plot was subsequently written around that premise. It is important to note that regarding this film. Therefore, Anomalisa has inadvertently broken down tremendous barriers of what animation is supposed to or allowed to present to audiences. This is filmmaking bravery, but with the complexity of the film’s plot, this pushes the film past being a potential gimmick. Anomalisa is, in fact, a masterpiece.