On Flee and Other Paragons of Adult Animation-Entertainment News, Firstpost
Danish animated documentary Flee is another reminder that adult animation has entered its renaissance phase and builds on the precedent set by some of the medium’s greats.
One of the first questions asked in front of Amin, the subject of Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary To run away (broadcast on Zee5 in India), is: “What does home mean to you?” Amin’s answer is simple and poignant: “Home is where you are safe”. To run away is a hugely powerful Afghan refugee story – Amin, a young gay man, escapes a regime that not only seeks him because of his sexuality, but also persecutes his family.
Rasmussen went to school in Denmark with Amin (their first meeting on the school bus is memorable and the two have a good laugh about it at the start of the film), and the early parts of the documentary establish that bond between them – from that moment. , the film is a seductive mix of memoir, real-time interviews, and more impressionistic footage about politics, sexuality, and family dynamics.
That large chunks of this documentary are fundamentally unclassifiable speaks to its originality and impact. I can’t think of any other movie of recent times that embraces hybridity in this way and deploys it in such a devastating way. In the English-dubbed version, Hollywood stars Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau serve as narrators (they also serve as executive producers on this version).
Among others, To run away is a great advertisement for the animated medium. Animation isn’t just a way to get kids to eat their morning cereal – it never was. And today it’s the medium of choice for artists looking to tell unique stories in a suitably distinctive way – it could be anything from a time travel hug involving an omnipotent mad scientist (rick and morty), a wordless story about returning home from memory (The arrival) or a gritty and uplifting war story set in Israel (Waltz with Bashir).
The Early Years: The Influence of Ralph Bakshi
The 60s and 70s were a very interesting time for American artists, especially comic artists and animators. For one thing, comic book sales were booming in the postwar years, and their cultural influence was more visible than ever. But all this commercial success also meant that some of the artists were quickly bored with the model nature of this endeavor – artistically speaking, they wanted to break free and create stories that didn’t involve superpowers and didn’t primarily address to a young readership. The underground “comix” movement began around the same time, in the late 1960s, with artists like Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins and Joel Beck at the forefront.
From this cultural landscape emerged Ralph Bakshi, an astonishingly original animator and filmmaker. Bakshi’s first work was based on a comic strip which had been published in some of the aforementioned “comix” magazines of the 1960s – Fritz the cat. Set in an anthropomorphized version of New York City, the comic and film starred the titular cat, an amoral, womanizing, deceitful antihero whose adventures tended to be quite explicit (and not just sexually, there had quite a bit of scatological humor as well). Over the course of the film, Fritz becomes a college dropout, hangs out with inner-city “crows” (African Americans were anthropomorphized into crows; they were also shown smoking marijuana onscreen, which was a big deal in the 60s and 70s) and in a wacky turn of events, ends up becoming a left-wing revolutionary.
The story was a critique of both the political order existing in America at the time, as well as opposing political forces, such as the counterculture movement and expressions of free love. But it’s really Bakshi’s quicksilver style and outrageous, profane protagonist that have made the film the cultural landmark that it is.
Creator after creator in the animation industry has spoken of Fritz the Cat’s influence on their careers – this includes the creators of The simpsons and South Park.
Mainstream television success: The simpsons, Futurama and South Park
The most successful example of adult animation is of course the iconic television series The simpsonscreated by animator Matt Groening (famous, the initials MG are hidden in the face of Homer Simpson, almost years).
It’s hard to overstate the outsized influence The Simpsons has had on pop culture. Homer’s signature “D’oh!” the exclamation is just one of dozens of words the show has contributed to the dictionary. Others include “cromulent” and “embeggen” (which has also been adopted by Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel as her own battle cry; she says this while using her powers to extend her fists).
But beyond the neologisms, the skilfully executed farce and the general attention to the spirit of the times that The simpsons displayed, throughout the 90s, the show operated as a simple, sweet family story in an era of change at a dizzying pace.
Recent seasons haven’t been as good, and yes, the racist portrayal of a secondary Indian character, Apu, has been acknowledged and corrected by the stars of the show, including actor Hank Azaria who voiced at the both Homer and Apu.
At 21st century, Groening also delivered Futuramaa clever parody of space operas (most notably, star trek) which, in its heyday, was an even better show than The Simpsons. This was also when Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park rose to prominence. Started in 1997, South Park became one of the most popular shows of the early 2000s – its signature irreverence and parody of political correctness, bureaucratic doublespeak and human idiocy in general, touched audiences around the world. As The simpsons, South Park is also still very present, but only as a pale shadow of those early seasons. Parker and Stone do have a new deal with Netflix, though, and it will be interesting to see what new directions they might take in the streaming era.
Rick and Morty and the Age of Adult Swimming
In 2001, Adult Swim began nighttime operations, i.e., after Cartoon Network’s target audience fell soundly asleep, the network triggered a switcheroo and became “Adult Swim”, which aired animated content intended for adults. One of the network’s starting points was airing popular and acclaimed ’90s animated films and shows, like ghost in the shell Where Neon Genesis Evangelion Where cowboy bebop (the very first animated show on the channel). These titles would be dubbed for US adult audiences and aired late at night on Adult Swim.
To avoid upsetting parents, especially those who felt safe on Cartoon Network for the benefit of their children, Adult Swim also added the following disclaimer prior to its programming: 18. These programs may contain material that many parents would find unsuitable for children and may include intense violence, sexual situations, foul language and suggestive dialogue.
In the late 2000s, Adult Swim played a significant role in developing or restoring the popularity of animated shows like family guy and Futurama.
In December 2013, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s animated series rick and morty aired its first episode on Adult Swim. Harmon was one of TV’s most beloved showrunners during this era, having created the brilliant comedy Community. Roiland, a talented animator and voice actor himself, came up with the idea of creating a parody of Back to the Future, which later became the core concept behind rick and morty– an omnipotent character à la Doctor Who, a mad scientist who travels through the galaxies with his teenage grandson, a shy guy who comes into his own over time.
Over the past 4-5 years, rick and morty has gone from strength to strength to become perhaps the most acclaimed anime series of all, alongside Netflix BoJack Rider. Its success has inspired so many other adult animated comedies, on mainstream television and streaming networks. Harmon and Roiland now have a new contract for 70 new episodes of rick and morty for an indefinite number of seasons; the fifth and final season airing in 2021.
Flee and his inimitable style
To run away has several moments scattered throughout its 80-minute runtime that are intensely suspenseful and keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. There are also several moments of innocence and frivolity, such as a scene where Amin’s mother is playing with Bollywood trading cards on her patio (“You’ve got two Anil Kapoors, give me one in exchange for Vivek Mushran and Mamik Singh”). The style of animation it deploys – rotoscope animation – has already been used very well in films like the adaptation of Philip K Dick Through a dark scannerwith Keanu Reeves.
But it’s actually a moment of simple, unbridled joy that I think will stick with me: it’s the moment we see Amin walk into a gay club for the first time in his life. Amin, who had known only contempt, discrimination and persecution for his sexuality; experiences acceptance and compassion for the first time. It’s a beautiful moment, beautifully brought to the screen and it’s a powerful reminder of the power of the animated medium.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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