In the good ol’ days of primary school, back when we used to live freely with not a single care in the world, every student in my class would patiently await that one fateful day. The day when our homeroom teacher would wheel in an old television set equipped with a musty DVD player, to celebrate our commendable work and behaviour. There would always be a unique selection of titles to choose from on these occasional special days; a class vote was always conducted to settle any unwarranted disputes. Perhaps a war over Shrek and Finding Nemo was inevitable, but so is the power of democracy. Yet over the coming years, according to my friends and colleagues who work in the public school system, there seems to be a more lenient focus on film selections that predominantly focus on the educational over the more conventional blockbuster fare. It only seems right that a film such as Where is Anne Frank? would be distinguished with a title of this magnitude. Destined to become a new classroom favorite on vacant snowdays, Ari Folman’s latest animated adaptation is unfortunately strictly for the eyes of young children only.
From the director who brought the world Waltz with Bashir, the heartbreaking rotoscoped documentary focusing on the psychological toll of the Lebanon war and a Robin Wright acid-trip hybrid vehicle The Congress, the eight-year journey involving Ari Folman’s Where is Anne Frank? is riddled with various technical accomplishments. For starters, Folman had complete access to the Anne Frank Fonds Basel archive, in which he was able to provide a historically accurate recount of the Anne Frank story. Utilising a projection of Anne Frank’s imaginary friend Kitty to contrast the current refugee crisis with 1940’s Nazi Germany, Folman’s fantasy reimagining of the original diary text combines social allegory and fantasy as a vehicle for blunt animated entertainment. There’s no room for subtlety in Folman’s latest, where the film quite literally takes Anne Frank’s diary hostage to provide the clearest message possible for young adolescent viewers. The end result is a film self-contained with an overly preachy message; an accomplishment specifically reserved for bizarre Canadian PSA’s and other deranged government sponsored material.
Heavy-handed, eye rolling thematics aside, Folman’s film looks stunning as per usual. Settling for his typical rotoscoped style, the specific character design work is reminiscent of cartoon pro-war propaganda films from the Second World War. Especially when contrasting the big bulgy-eyed design aesthetic from pre-existing works such as Momotaro The Sacred Soldiers —a Japanese animated film infamously known for being a renowned piece of facist propaganda— it’s evident that Folman’s creative design choice can be interpreted as an ironic reclaiment of animation history. By infusing homage into a film that specifically denounces facism, against the design choice of pre-existing propaganda films; there is also an additional layer of subtext that comments on how Anne Frank and her imaginary friend Kitty perceives the current political climate.
Karen O’s return to the animated/children’s realm is also a more than welcomed effort. After composing music for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the Oscar-nominated composer’s single(s) provides an angelic vocal backbone against the forced semantics found within the film’s plodding narrative. With these songs, O discretely adds class and personality to a film that can be best described as style over substance.
It’s strange how both Folman’s latest and his previous film can both be connected with a similar issue. With both The Congress and Where is Anne Frank? suffering from a malignant case of underdeveloped ideas and forceful expositional dialogue, it seems as though Folman’s recent narrative ventures could have benefited from a few additional rewrites. His films are undeniably well intentioned and more than relevant in our current climate of escalating violence and facism. Yet, their execution and overarching purpose is dependent on the obvious and blunt; which would ultimately alienate elderly viewers from its initial appeal. It’s a great shame too, since there is something worthy of applause found within the dense fantasy tale of the film. But at the very least, it’s a film with a purpose — a children’s film in which its existence is not dependent on logtypes or merchandise, but rather the act of informing younger generations about world history and the repeating acts of multi-generational violence.
With hate crimes on the rise and other forms of violence finding itself in the limelight nearly every day, the world can appear to be a bewildering place to a young child. Perhaps that’s just the beauty of cinema. Whether at the Cannes Film Festival or in a packed homeroom class, even the most inaccessible of films can still capture the hearts and minds of any susceptible child.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival.