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The Danish documentary ‘Flee’ is the latest reminder that animation doesn’t have to be just for children

Amin and his mother in "Flee."Final Cut for Real

For almost as long as there have been movies, there has been movie animation. The lion’s share of animated movies have been aimed at children. Partly, that’s the legacy of Walt Disney. More than that, it’s how animation lends itself so well to the fantastical. Animation is analog CGI. The presence of numerous whistling mice, dancing hippos, and talking toys has encouraged animation being considered child’s play, figuratively as well as literally. Animators sit at the kids’ table.

From "Flee."Final Cut for Real

The new Danish documentary “Flee” reminds us that that doesn’t have to be the case. On the Oscar short-list for both international film and documentary feature, “Flee” uses animation to tell the story of Amin, an Afghan refugee, and uses it very effectively. In terms of content, this is most definitely not animation as child’s play.


From "Waltz With Bashir."Criterion Channel

Animation offers two particular advantages to documentary filmmakers. “Flee” benefits from both. Animation enables the visual presentation of events for which no footage is available. Yes, reenactments allow for that, too. But reenactments are fiction that present themselves as fact. Animation, by its very nature, announces itself to be an imagined version of fact.

A scene from the 2016 film "Tower," directed by Keith Maitland.Kino Lorber

The other advantage is how animation can make grim subject matter less overwhelming. That’s the case with two other animated documentaries: “Waltz With Bashir” (2008), about the Arab-Israeli conflict; and “Tower” (2016), about a 1965 mass killing at the University of Texas. It’s hard to get less child’s play than those two.

Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder in "A Scanner Darkly."© Warner Bros

Actually, much footage exists of the sniper shootings in Texas. It’s to make the subject endurable that the filmmaker, Keith Maitland, went the animation route. The specific form of animation he chose, rotoscoping, draws on that footage. Rotoscoping involves drawing and painting over a live-action image. It’s used to excellent effect in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” (2006). Rotoscoping, with its visually destabilizing combination of live action and animation, is like a pre-CGI version of the uncanny valley. That instability very much fits Dick’s story of drug use begetting paranoia and vice versa.


Sam, Frodo, and Gollum in the 1978 animated film "The Lord of the Rings," directed by Ralph Bakshi. Globe file

Probably the feature director most associated with rotoscoping is Ralph Bakshi. He used it for several features in the ‘70s and ‘80s, most notably an adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings” (1978) — yes, pre-Peter Jackson — and “American Pop” (1981). The latter braids together 20th-century social history, popular music, and family saga. Bakshi’s best known for having directed the first X-rated animated feature, the R. Crumb adaptation “Fritz the Cat” (1972). That’s definitely not child’s play, nor is his subsequent film, the race-relations “Coonskin” (1975).

From left: Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Snowy in "The Adventures of Tintin." Paramount Pictures via AP

Bakshi has specialized in animation. Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson are examples of live-action directors who’ve brought their talents to animation. “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011) was an animation one-off for Spielberg. Anderson thinks animation’s so nice he’s done it twice: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) and “Isle of Dogs” (2018).

From left: Edward Norton as "Rex," Jeff Goldblum as "Duke," Bill Murray as "Boss," Bob Balaban as "King," and Bryan Cranston as "Chief" in the 2018 animated film "Isle of Dogs," directed by Wes Anderson.Fox Searchlight Pictures

Actually, Anderson’s done animation three times. His most recent movie, “The French Dispatch” (2021) includes an animated car chase. It doesn’t happen often, but live-action features have been known to include bits of animation. It’s a different version of mixed media. (Conversely, “Flee” includes some live-action footage.) In “Annie Hall” (1977), Woody Allen includes a brief take-off on “Snow White” — speaking of child’s play — and Pedro Almodóvar uses animation to detail the health issues of Antonio Banderas’s character in “Pain and Glory” (2019). That’s another example of using animation to soften grim subject matter.


The title character (center) and Bob Hoskins (right) in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."Merlin Archive

A different different version of mixed media, movie-wise, is when live-action and animated characters appear within the same frame. The 1945 musical “Anchors Aweigh” features the dance duo of Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse, of Tom and Jerry fame. In “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), sharing the screen is central to theme as well as plot. The relationship between animated characters and humans is a metaphor for race relations.

From "Up."Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures

“Roger Rabbit” was a landmark, but one that ended rather than began. In the ‘90s, Pixar ushered in a new era in animation. The studio’s achievement is most often seen in terms of technological innovation. What can get overlooked is the sophistication of Pixar storytelling. Is there as visually compelling a dystopian vision, anywhere, as the Earth scenes in “WALL-E” (2008)? Or a more economical, more moving, example of narrative skill than the four-minute marriage montage in “Up” (2009)? Animation may still be the kids’ table. The Pixar revolution has meant adults not being embarrassed to sit there, too.


Flee is at the Coolidge Corner and Kendall Square.

Waltz With Bashir is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Tower is available via Amazon Prime and Roku.

A Scanner Darkly is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kanopy, Vudu, and YouTube.


The Lord of the Rings is available via Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube.

Fritz the Cat is available via Amazon Prime.

American Pop is available via Amazon Prime.

Coonskin is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

The Adventures of Tintin is available via Amazon Prime and HBO Max.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is available via Amazon Prime, Disney+, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Isle of Dogs is available via Amazon Prime, Disney+, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

The French Dispatch is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and Vudu.

Annie Hall is available via Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Pain and Glory is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Anchors Aweigh is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is available via Amazon Prime, Disney+, Google Play, iTunes, and Vudu.

WALL-E is available via Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Disney+, Google Play, and Vudu.

Up is available via Amazon Prime, Disney+, Google Play, and Vudu.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.