”Animation is not a genre…. A Western is a genre; animation is an art form, and it can do any genre…. Next time I hear ‘Oh, what’s it like working in the animation genre?’ I’m gonna punch that person.” That’s director Brad Bird on the DVD commentary for The Incredibles, and he should know: He won Oscars for animated films that defy easy categorization (lest we forget, Bird’s Ratatouille was about, among other things, the role of the critic in modern society).
Judging by 2007’s sweeping, lyrical PERSEPOLIS, Marjane Satrapi shares the same ethos. Adapting her own graphic-novel memoir (with codirector Vincent Paronnaud), Satrapi tells of growing up a teen rebel in repressive Iran, loving Iron Maiden as war raged between Iran and Iraq; becoming a woman in Vienna, while shedding her Iranian identity in favor of European disaffection; and returning home to an even more totalitarian Tehran and a harrowing bout of depression. Most of this is presented in lush black-and-white animation that shifts and flows and swirls together with the seamless, inexorable pull of memory. And as Satrapi explains in the almost-entirely-in-French DVD bonus materials (Persepolis is a French-language film), animation was the only way she’d make the movie. ”If we used real images, it would be a few Arabs in a country,” she says, on one of the DVD’s many subtitled docs. ”But drawings, with their abstract quality, emphasize the universal.” And Persepolis was a universal smash: Another extra documents a Q&A at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where the film nabbed the Jury Prize.
Perhaps the most notable DVD feature is the English-language dub (the disc contains both this and the original French versions of the film): While Chiara Mastroianni and her mom, Catherine Deneuve, reprise their roles as Marjane and her mother, Satrapi supervised actors like Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands, and Iggy Pop (you’d never even know he did the voice work if one of the docs didn’t show him, shirtless, at the mic) as they took over the roles of Marjane’s father, her grandmother, and her uncle, respectively.
Animation for adults is nothing new — puerile cult hits like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal have been titillating for more than 20 years — but widespread exposure is relatively recent. Richard Linklater’s vignette-based dreamscape Waking Life hit the indie cognoscenti square in the id back in 2001. Where Waking Life was about verbose philosophical musings, The Triplets of Belleville (2003) was a virtually dialogue-free jazz adventure in which three faded French pop starlets set out to rescue a kidnapped Tour de France cyclist.The films prove that challenging, rewarding cinematic experiences can come from anywhere…even from an artist’s brush.
Waking: B+ Triplets: A-