The Animations That Changed Cinema: The Groundbreaking Legacies of Prince Achmed, Akira, The Iron Giant & More

Ani­ma­tion is child­ish. So believe those who nev­er watch ani­mat­ed films — but also, on anoth­er, deep­er lev­el, those who hold up ani­mat­ed films as the most com­plete form of cin­e­ma. What­ev­er our gen­er­a­tion, most of us alive today grew up watch­ing car­toons meant in every sense for chil­dren, and often artis­ti­cal­ly flim­sy ones at that. But even on such a low-nutri­tion view­ing reg­i­men, we could now and again glimpse the vast pos­si­bil­i­ties of the form. Or per­haps it was just our imag­i­na­tion — but then, as Stephen King once point­ed out, noth­ing is “just” our imag­i­na­tion in child­hood, a time when we occu­py “a secret world that exists by its own rules and lives in its own cul­ture.”

In order to nav­i­gate this real­i­ty apart, where noth­ing is entire­ly for real and noth­ing entire­ly pre­tend, chil­dren “think around cor­ners instead of in straight lines.” The best ani­ma­tors retain this abil­i­ty into adult­hood, har­ness­ing it to cre­ate a pur­er kind of cin­e­ma that reflects and engages the imag­i­na­tion in a way even the freest live-action films nev­er can. The work of such ani­ma­tors con­sti­tutes the sub­ject mat­ter of “The Ani­ma­tion that Changed Cin­e­ma,” a new essay from The Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy. In just over half an hour, the series’ cre­ators Lewis Bond and Luiza Liz Bond explore ani­ma­tion pro­duced all over the world over near­ly the past cen­tu­ry in search of the films that have widened the bound­aries of the medi­um.

Though most video essays from The Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy and its pre­de­ces­sor Chan­nel Criswell have focused on con­ven­tion­al film, Bond has already demon­strat­ed his pro­found under­stand­ing of ani­ma­tion in video essays on Stu­dio Ghi­b­li co-founder Hayao Miyaza­ki and the acclaimed cult ani­me series Cow­boy Bebop. “The Ani­ma­tion that Changed Cin­e­ma” spends a great deal of time on oth­er works from Japan, the one coun­try that has done more than any oth­er to ele­vate the ani­mat­ed film, includ­ing that of Miyaza­k­i’s Ghi­b­li part­ner Isao Taka­ha­ta, Per­fect Blue auteur Satoshi Kon, and Kat­suhi­ro Oto­mo, whose Aki­ra per­ma­nent­ly changed much of the world’s under­stand­ing of “car­toons” as cin­e­mat­ic art. But as with The Cin­e­ma Car­tog­ra­phy’s pre­vi­ous “The Cin­e­matog­ra­phy that Changed Cin­e­ma,” the cul­tur­al-geo­graph­i­cal man­date ranges wide­ly.

Among these vision­ary ani­ma­tors are sev­er­al pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture: the Ger­man Lotte Reiniger, cre­ator of the all-sil­hou­ette The Adven­tures of Prince Achmed; Euro­peans from far­ther east (and pos­sessed of wilder sen­si­bil­i­ties) like Jan Švankma­jer; Amer­i­cans like Don Hertzfeldt, the Broth­ers Quay, and Wes Ander­son (whose fil­mog­ra­phy includes the stop-motion The Fan­tas­tic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs). That last group includes even Hol­ly­wood direc­tor Brad Bird, now best known for Pixar movies like The Incred­i­bles and Rata­touille, but here cel­e­brat­ed for The Iron Giant, a pic­ture that sank upon its release, but in the two decades since has come to be appre­ci­at­ed as just the kind of work of art that, as Bond puts it, “makes us for­get that we’re watch­ing mov­ing draw­ings” — what­ev­er age we hap­pen to be.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

What Made Stu­dio Ghi­b­li Ani­ma­tor Isao Taka­ha­ta (RIP) a Mas­ter: Two Video Essays

The Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Cow­boy Bebop, the Cult Japan­ese Ani­me Series, Explored in a Thought­ful Video Essay

How Mas­ter Japan­ese Ani­ma­tor Satoshi Kon Pushed the Bound­aries of Mak­ing Ani­me: A Video Essay

The Cin­e­matog­ra­phy That Changed Cin­e­ma: Explor­ing Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, Stan­ley Kubrick, Peter Green­away & Oth­er Auteurs

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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