No More Mickey Mouse: Animation for Adults

Courtesy of DreamWorks

This Friday "Shrek the Third" will swagger into theaters, its eye on the prize of seizing its predecessor's crown as the most successful animated film in history. A few days later, with far less fanfare, "Paprika," the work of Japanese animé master Satoshi Kon, will also be unveiled. It happens to be one of the most wildly (and disturbingly) inventive animated films I've seen, but will anyone notice? Unlike "Shrek," it's not conceived as fun for the whole family. "Paprika" is made for grown-ups.

Great animated movies, of course, obliterate the distinction between adult and kids' movies: think of Pixar's brilliant "Toy Story" movies, Miyazaki's peerless "Spirited Away," the "Wallace and Gromit" shorts or the sassy and ebullient first "Shrek"—all of them marketed to kids, but only adults can savor them on all levels. Yet in this country we think of animation only as child's play. Is it because cartoons colonized our little minds when we were kids, and so will always be consigned to a realm whose deities are named Mickey and SpongeBob? Is it because we consider the fantastical to be less "mature" than realism? Is it simply because there is more profit in movies that reach the widest demographic? Whatever the reason, to find an animated feature that isn't "family entertainment" you have to go outside the mainstream to Richard Linklater's experiments in morphing live actors into animated figures in "Waking Life" and "A Scanner Darkly." Neither made a dime, no doubt confirming Hollywood's bias against breaking the animation mold.

There's no reason the imaginative freedom that animation allows shouldn't be unleashed on adult themes, especially when graphic novels have entered the literary mainstream and when CGI has blurred the line between live action and animation in films like "300." Outside the United States, animators are not so likely to be confined to the ghetto of kiddie movies. Think of the marvelously macabre French hand-drawn gem "The Triplets of Belleville," or the work of the Czech director Jan Svankmajer ("Alice," "Faust"). Or, most conspicuously, Japanese animé, which is as likely to be made for 30-year-olds as for tots.

These questions ran through my mind as I watched the new "Shrek" and "Paprika." "Shrek the Third" is, like the first two, relentlessly clever and inventive. It had me laughing at the get-go, when the obnoxious villain, Prince Charming, is seen re-enacting his mythic deeds to the jeers of a dinner-theater audience. But its slightly snarky wit (banner in a medieval high school: JUST SAY NAY) is aimed almost entirely at parents, and it wears out its welcome. Where the first "Shrek" left me elated, this one never touched my heart or got under my skin. It's a movie at war with itself: a kiddie movie that doesn't really want to be one. Why would little ones identify with Shrek's new panic about impending fatherhood? This is a very skillfully made corporate product, but I wonder who, exactly, will be fully satisfied.

The stunning sci-fi mind-bender "Paprika," on the other hand, is far too unsettling and dense for children (and may prove too challenging for some adults, too). Kon, who made the one-of-a-kind "Millennium Actress" and "Tokyo Godfathers," may be the most exciting Japanese animator since Miyazaki. "Paprika" is part detective story, part thriller, part surrealist fantasia and a meditation on how we live out our subconscious lives through dreams, the Internet and movies themselves. The plot centers on a machine that allows psychotherapists to enter, and alter, the dreams of their patients. But when a prototype of this new invention, called the DC Mini, is stolen, havoc ensues: dreams collide and overtake the dreamer; the barrier between reality and nightmare is torn.

"Paprika" takes its name from the "dream detective" who is the alter ego of the research psychotherapist Dr. Atsuko Chiba. She's the shrink's emissary into her patients' unconscious, and now she must voyage into the unknown to discover who stole the DC Mini, and to save the world from going mad. "Paprika" is so packed with ideas and visual fireworks, it requires more than one viewing. It expands your notion of what animation can achieve. You wake from it as if from a dream: spooked, provoked and exhilarated.