Isle of Dogs Megacity skyline.jpg
A still from Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, USA, 2018). Photo: Fox Searchlight.
Stories & Ideas

Wed 12 Aug 2020

Different cultures in mainstream animated movies

Animation Film Pop culture Representation
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Faithfully and sensitively representing non-Western cultures in movies has been a challenge for filmmakers, but recent efforts suggest we're headed in the right direction.

Wes Anderson’s Isle Of Dogs (2018) was not only set in Japan, but aesthetically every aspect of the film – from the woodcut storyboards to the colour palette – was heavily inspired by Japanese culture. The line between appropriation and appreciation is a delicate one to walk and it’s something the filmmaker has been criticised for in the past, with The Darjeeling Limited (2007). In the words of Vulture writer Emily YoshidaIsle of Dogs is a kind of perfect artifact for our current-day conversation around cultural appropriation, if it can even still be called that. It’s hard to call it offensive, exactly, and yet, it’s not devoid of a kind of opportunism. It’s not a crime, but it’s certainly something to unpack.”

It’s also certainly not the first – or the last – mainstream animated feature to heavily reference different cultures. Disney had back-to-back issues with Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998), the former which had the controversial songs 'Savages' – part one and part two – that contained lyrics like “their skin's a hellish red, they're only good when dead” sung by the villains when referring to Native Americans. The latter came under fire for the character of Mushu – voiced by Eddie Murphy – who was named after the Chinese moo shu pork dish.

ISLE OF DOGS | Making a World: Megasaki City & Trash Island | Official Featurette. Video via Searchlight Pictures UK.

On the flip side, directors John Musker and Ron Clements clearly learned from their movie Aladdin (1992), which was a box-office hit but criticised widely by groups such as the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee for perpetrating Orientalist stereotypes. When they released Hercules (1997), the Greek cultural influences were seemingly handled with more caution, with design elements recreating the aesthetic of traditional Greek pottery. The musical interludes acted as a breakout, with the Muses seperate to the action and literally springing off vases to explain the narrative through song.

Over a decade later, Disney would collaborate with Marvel on the animated feature Big Hero 6 (2014) which saw an amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture to create something new: San Fransokyo. In the film San Francisco is destroyed so many times by earthquakes that when it’s eventually rebuilt, it’s done so by Japanese immigrants who fuse aspects of the two cities together. To do this, key members of the art department travelled to Tokyo under the direction of Scott Watanabe (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph) to study details of the bustling metropolis: both micro and macro. Everything from cartoon characters that decorate manhole covers and anthropomorphic traffic cones were plucked from the real city and transplanted into their fictional one, which still maintained the geography and landscape of San Francisco. “We embarked on an ambitious project to recreate the whole city,” visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt said during an Academy Awards screening. “We had our art department create very typical designs that would fit our art direction style, this mash up.”

Visual Effects Supervisor Kyle Odermatt at the Academy event “Deconstructing Big Hero 6” on April 23, 2015 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Video via the Oscars YouTube channel.

In the words of production designer Paul Felix, “When you get to the downtown area, that's when you get the most Tokyo-fied, that pure, layered, dense kind of feeling of the commercial district there. When you get out of there, it becomes more San Francisco with the Japanese aesthetic.” With Tokyo-esque skyscrapers alongside San Francisco’s iconic hilly landscape, more than 83,000 buildings were created for the final product.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) from Laika set out to be a “stop-motion samurai epic" according to director Travis Knight, with the story inspired by the works of iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). Like Isle Of Dogs, the film looked to specific Japanese artforms such as traditional woodblock prints and artworks like <I>Takiyasha the Witch</i> and the <I>Skeleton Spectre</i> by Utagawa Kuniyoshi which was the influence for the movie’s final villain. Like Anderson’s film, it too was criticised for a lack of Japanese artists working on the project, including voice actors.

When Moana (2016) was released that same year, the cultural intricacies passed through the Oceanic Story Trust, which was a group of key Polynesian creatives, experts and elders employed to approve or veto different aspects of the film on a cultural basis. Original designs for the demi-God Maui had the character bald, which was changed following consultation so that he would have a head of flowing hair to reflect his immense mana (power).

Storyboard artist David Derrick travelled to Samoa during his research on the film, incorporating his grandfather’s own tapa cloth into the design of the movie. “Part of my ancestry comes from Samoa and so for me, I had to go back to Samoa,” he said. “Took my whole family on my own time and dime too, to kind of immerse ourselves and feel the culture.”

Naturally Moana didn’t come without its critics and criticism, as Doug Herman wrote for the Smithsonian: “as should be expected whenever Disney ventures into cross-cultural milieus, the film is characterised by the good, the bad and the ugly.” The movie and studio also came under fire for a Maui “brownface” costume – which was quickly pulled from shelves – with prominent Polynesians such as Taika Waititi (who also consulted on Moana) speaking out against culture as a costume.

– Maria Lewis

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