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‘Tales of the Night,’ ‘The Dark Knight Returns,’ and the Problem of Animation for Teens

It’s rare that I’ll single out a distributor for its excellent taste and, moreover, for the important cultural function it serves, but with GKIDS I have no choice. If you’re not familiar with the superb films it releases theatrically, then check them out here; chances are, you’ve at least heard of acclaimed animated films such as The Secret of Kells or A Cat in Paris, which pretty much belong in the kids’ video section of any library (as does an offbeat, thoughtful charmer like Mia and the Migoo). And while decidedly not for kids, titles such as The Rabbi’s Cat and Chico & Rita help bring true artistry to North American audiences that otherwise might not see such fare outside of film fests.

Ah, but therein lies the beginning of the problem alluded to it in the title of this post. Why in this culture do we still think of animation as something primarily for the pre-teen set… or, at the other extreme, as an “edgy” (or quasi-edgy) format per things like Adult Swim? Sure, I have no doubt that many, many teens watch Adult Swim, just as countless teens enjoy entertainment products that are labeled “restricted” or “mature”: for some, that’s part of the appeal.

But I guess I’m wondering what animation exists out there that’s regularly screened in schools or shelved in libraries that’s the equivalent of MG or YA lit—feature films (not TV shows) that speak to young people but not to children.

If I’m simply blanking on obvious answers to this, please let me know, but other than anime, what are we talking about? Not that I want to marginalize anime or deny its appeal/merit, but I’m concerned that it shoulders too much of a burden in this respect. And of course there are plenty of teens who simply don’t like anime for stylistic or thematic reasons. What’s out there for them?

One answer that I’m tempted to give, because it undeniably represents high-quality feature-length animation, are the titles in the DC Universe of Animated Original Movies. These are not really about teens to be sure, but with their “hard” PG-13 ratings, they’re certainly not for little kids either. A prime example of all this is Part 2 of The Dark Knight Returns, which releases today. This very dark, at times horrific, sequel to 2012’s initial adaptation of Frank Miller’s famous graphic novel (for which I presented some critical thinking questions), is just the sort of thing that should be enjoyed by teens who can handle the bleakness… as well as “read” closely all the juicy subtext. Offering an exciting (if disturbing) storyline complemented by thoughtful gender politics (along the lines of last year’s surprisingly refreshing Dredd 3D) as well as stunningly timely (if depressing) riffs on spree shooting and U.S. military incursions abroad, this DCU release deserves to find a wide audience that includes teens. Still, superheroes—even in a boldly revisionist context like this—are never everyone’s cup of tea, and the fans this is geared to may well be in their early twenties… or much older, fogies like me who recall the impact Miller made on the comics world with his original 1980’s vision. Besides, although public libraries might do well to acquire this title, I can see there being too much push-back in school libraries.

So, where does that leave us?

I’d contend with Tales of the Night, which also happens to release on video today. Michel Ocelot’s beyond-gorgeous, yet slightly iconoclastic, aesthetics and the pronounced literary flavor of the tales are two reasons I encourage you to check out this film with teens in mind. And did I mention that each of the tales is centered on young love, or young torment, usually both? Okay, here’s a better question: will everyone love all six of the stories presented herein? I highly doubt it. But the nice thing is, there are six of them to choose from since each one might stand on its own for screening with a particular curricular objective. I also happen to find the frame story, which includes a very librarian-like mentor figure who guides two teens in research before they write/act out the different segments, to be quite apropos for in-school use.

In any case, here are the trailers for both of the films recommended in this post. Please take a look and decide for yourself—and then don’t forget to tell me what I’m missing in terms of current animated releases that might be half as compelling or as on-target for teens.

About Peter Gutierrez