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Windshield Wiper and the case for adult animation

You must have missed Spanish filmmaker Alberto Mielgo’s brief but passionate speech after picking up the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It was one of the categories the Academy misguidedly kept off the live transmission of the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony. You would have to track it down on social media to hear his words: “Animation is an art that includes any single art you can imagine. Animation for adults is a fact. It is happening. Let us call it cinema. So, I am very honored because this is just the beginning of what we can do with animation”. 

Animation is an art that includes any single art you can imagine. Animation for adults is a fact. It is happening. Let us call it cinema. So, I am very honored because this is just the beginning of what we can do with animation

Mielgo and collaborator Leo Sánchez picked up the award for their work on The Windshield Wiper. The movie starts with a question asked to a man seated in a cafe by an unseen person. The inquiry gives way to a series of vignettes that portray anonymous characters either looking for, enjoying, or suffering out of love. Almost no words of consequence are spoken. We only hear the drone of ambient conversations. Lovers exchange meaningful glances on a beach, two hipsters swipe candidates on a dating app while facing each other, and a young woman commits suicide by jumping off a skyscraper. The style is hyper realistic but stylized. Imagine Patrick Nagel by way of a very adult Pixar.

I was able to see it at my local art-house cinema in one of those roadshow presentations programmed in the buildup to the Academy Awards ceremony. Nominees of each short category are screened together in a standard two-hours or less show. Documentary shorts filled two shows. 

Robin, Robin was the early favorite. The latest work from Aardman Studios is a classic example of popular animation. This charming comedy follows a little bird adopted by a family of rats, who discovers his true nature while scavenging for food in human houses. It is sophisticated enough for adults but at heart, it is a children's movie. At this level, stars are obligatory. Gillian Anderson voices a ferocious cat, and Richard E. Grant plays a magpie. You can see why the programmers placed it in the opening spot. It eases you into the show.

Things get darker with Boxballet. The romantic comedy follows the tender romance between a boxer and a ballerina. It does not shy away from the violence of their occupations. Anton Dyakov’s work reminded me of soviet-era animation, both in style and in its frankness around adult themes. As a child growing up in 80s Nicaragua, I caught some rather memorable shorts on TV, thanks to the mindless apparatchik who thought that because they were cartoons, they were for kids.  

The shift in tone between the first shorts was somewhat jarring, but things were about to get real. A text appeared on-screen warning parents that the upcoming content was inappropriate for children. They were not kidding. Bestia was upon us. Chilean filmmakers Hugo Covarrubias and Tevo Diaz used stop-motion animation to craft a searing edge-of-your-seat political thriller. The beast of the title is Ingrid Ölderock, a brutal female torturer working for the Pinochet dictatorship. Her stand-in is a zaftig china doll, unhealthily devoted to her German shepherd dog. The violence of her crimes is elliptically conveyed but clear. Even more graphic is the portrayal of her inclination for bestiality. Ambushed by vengeful gunmen, a gunshot leaves a permanent crack in her porcelain head. You may be an adult, but you will be disturbed.

After that, the grotesque social satire of Affairs of the Art seemed positively wholesome. Imagine Bill Plympton adapting a Mike Leigh film without empathy for its characters. The Windshield Wiper closed down the show on a warm, dreamlike note. I could have bet that Bestia would take the prize. It is the most memorable of all five nominees. The juxtaposition of childish scale models with horrendous violence is one of the most piercing displays of how normality coexists with terror in societies governed by dictatorial regimes. But it is also easy to see how it could put off Academy voters.

Would you like to see these short films? Guess which one is available easily. You can log into your Netflix to watch Robin, Robin. Aardman's deal with the streamer has turned it into the prime destination for its most recent productions, a load of content centered on Shaun the Sheep, first seen in the Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave (Nick Park, 1995). If you would like to see any of the other nominees or the winner, you are out of luck.

That is why Mielgo’s speech is most welcome for those cinephiles convinced that animation can tell complex stories in any genre. There are pockets of resistance, like the healthy following of Japanese manga. But by and large, there is a fixed idea, both in audiences and distributors: animated films still equal content for children. Whenever an adult-oriented animated film comes up, cognitive dissonance kicks in. This attitude hinders the development of the market and perpetuates these prejudices.

Examples of adult animation that breaks through multiplexes are few and far between. Richard Linklater pushed rotoscoping animation forward with Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). In 2009, Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) became the first animated film nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. We waited for 11 tears to see it happening again. Flee (Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 2021) reached that milestone and earned nominations for Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary. Even though it went home empty-handed, it makes a case for animation as a medium capable of conveying real-life events compellingly. The movie dramatizes the memories of Amin Nawani, a refugee from Afghanistan whom Rasmussen befriended in Denmark. It is currently available for streaming via Hulu.

For every success story, many fall through the cracks. I present you with Cryptozoo. This wildly imaginative film by filmmaker Dash Shaw was one of the best finds at Sundance 2021. Almost a year later, it debuted with nary a sound on Hulu.  

From funding to theatrical distribution, Animation films for adults face an uphill battle every step of the way. That is why the decision to push the category out of the live telecast seems so petty. Oscar visibility can make the difference between awareness and oblivion. Try to see them whenever you can. And watch them after the kids go to bed.

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