Q: What’s happening with diversity in animated films?

A: Animated films and series that have been lauded for diversities of race, gender, and sexuality (recently: Hair Love, Steven Universe, She-Ra) are presented as PG entertainment. While it’s lovely that those options exist for youth (or anyone who isn’t up for intensely existential content), there have been some rumblings about slim pickings for adult animation. I agree with these rumbles. I’d like to watch more animation that explores adult sexuality sans moral flagellation, crude comedy, heavy irony or sly innuendo (meaning: dissimilar from any iteration of Dante’s Inferno, Bojack Horseman, Archer, Family Guy, Futurama, etc.).

In animation’s ability to redefine physical and logical boundaries, there lies so much potential for unforeseen sexual intimacies. Can you imagine the revelation of sex scenes with bodies that can do anything their animators visualize — stretching, shrinking, contorting, transporting, disassembling, retexturing, and so on?

I’ll examine three feature-length animations that have already skimmed this potential: Chico y Rita (dir. Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando, & Javier Mariscal, 2010), Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, 2015), and An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (dir. Terence Nance, 2012).

*Light Spoilers Below

Chico y Rita (2010)

Spanning the mid-to-late twentieth century, Chico y Rita is an Afro-Cuban odyssey. Flitting between Havana and New York, it’s score is a jumble of musical influences (jazz, boléro, hip-hop) that Cubans have touched and been touched by.

The film’s romance is established from the very beginning. An aged Chico (Eman Xor Oña) recalls his youth, and we’re taken to the moment when he’s smitten with Rita (Limara Meneses): She mounts the stage at an outdoor party, singing a broody jazz number, and her presence distracts him from American tourists who clamor for his attention. Chico and Rita feign indifference toward each other, but their attraction is undeniable. He’s the first to concede his interest (hours later, at a popular nightclub), and she returns his desire when she sees him improvise on a grand piano.

After fleeing an angry tourist in a wild car chase, Chico and Rita make their way to a closed bar. In near-privacy, Rita twirls seductively to Chico’s piano music, ruffling yellow fabric around her hourglass silhouette. She’s a pastiche of twentieth-century performers and sex symbols: Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Rita Montaner, and Celia Cruz.

Chico and Rita make love for the first time in his upper-level  apartment, and the film spares no detail of their bodies (though Rita bares more than Chico). They share a sweet morning-after, complete with a musical duet. This initiates a torrid romantic and artistic partnership.

*This film can be streamed / rented on various platforms (YouTube, Prime Video, etc.)

Anomalisa (2015)

True to Kaufman’s form, Anomalisa is cutely misanthropic. Almost everyone Michael (David Thewlis) encounters across age and gender has Christian Slater’s face and Tom Noonan’s voice. All humans in this universe (including Michael) are unwitting, stop-motion puppets, as signified by the conspicuous panels on their faces.

Michael is understandably shaken when he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anomalous woman who, like him, has a unique face and voice. They flirt through an awkwardness that’s achingly realistic — neither party quite believing the other is real.

After stumbling through a series of bashful interactions (including a tinny performance of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun), Michael and Lisa have sex in his hotel room. They move with a confidence they lacked when they were bumbling strangers, easily disrobing, caressing, and instructing each other in pleasure.

This climactic scene achieves a rawness of mood and detail that spatially-limited, live-action films often lack. In the sex scene, we’re shown the brush of Michael’s lip against Lisa’s hem, the temporary imprint of a waistband on her midsection, the soft bulges of their bellies and chests, and so on. These are clumsy-but-real impressions that are usually omitted from live-action scenes.

In addition to the visual gains of animating this sex scene, I’d wager that not having to direct live bodies on set made time for more sound experimentation. From moans to salivation, Anomalisa’s erotic soundscape was wonderfully textured — much like the characters’ shimmering, clayish skins.

*This film can currently be streamed for free on Pluto TV

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

“This really happened,” Her Beauty teases amidst impressive opening credits, which insert drawings of Black women between frames of text.

Nance’s semi-autobiographical protagonist is stung by “a young lady he knows, and a-little-more-than likes.” His problem is that he can’t figure her (Namik) out, and he doesn’t realize he’s not supposed to. However much he wants them to be simple, his objects of affection are complicated enough to get lost in — inspiring 1.5 hours of edited material that ponders relationships, love, independence and attachment.

Her Beauty is distinguished by frayed and otherwise interrupted footage. Interloping segments mingle staged and confessional scenes with ethereal animation. These media are pressed into a narrative by polyphonic voiceovers.

Her Beauty hosts direct animation (physical manipulations of film frames) and standalone animation (hand-drawn and stop-motion segments that don’t incorporate live bodies). These animations range from topical edits (censor scratches, dapples of light) to conceptual sketches (Nance’s head and body in the clouds, scrappy caricatures, invasive kisses).

I’m in awe of the “brief exegesis” that begins at Her Beauty’s 29-minute mark. Two protozoa-like blobs of color evolve into a mural of animated love stories, wherein nude bodies are filled with thermal emotion — shaded by primary colors. This segment includes a sapphic entanglement: One of Nance’s love interests forgoes him for someone with a body like hers, and they grow in each other’s embrace — alternately small and large. When their lips and limbs entangle, they transform, becoming as vibrant and powerful as the sun.

Her Beauty is packaged with viewing instructions that resonate with the emotive capacity of animation. At its one-third mark, the film advises: “Consider the emotions… What actually happened is not important.” My translation: Animation has always captured truths and senses our physicalities can’t translate. We won’t ever know the fidelity of Nance’s romantic recountings, for instance, but we do recognize the sentiments in each image he and his team created.

*This film can be streamed on The Criterion Channel

Conclusion: These films are each mind-bending in their own right, offering surreal glimpses of mature sexualities. Not to be a broken record, but I hope to see more women and queer people at the helms of adult animation. Not everyone knows it yet, but our insights are indispensable to the medium’s future.

Further Reading:

TEXT / AUDIO: ‘“Chico And Rita” And All That Jazz’ by Bob Mondello

TEXT: ‘Fernando Trueba on “Chico y Rita”’ by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

TEXT: ‘Showing the Seams in “Anomalisa”’ by Mekado Murphy

TEXT / VIDEO: ‘Charlie Kaufman on weirdness, failure and his new puppet noir’ by Jonathan Romney

TEXT / VIDEO: ‘Anomalisa review: a masterpiece about the human condition – with puppets’ by Peter Bradshaw

TEXT: ‘AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY: The Power Of Metacinematic Poetry’ by Matthew Roe

TEXT: ‘Review: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty’ by Ina Diane Archer

TEXT: ‘An Oversimplification of Her Beauty review’ by Ashley Clark