The summer of 2013 has been an enjoyable season for movies. Moviegoers have been treated to sequels, reboots—both gritty and otherwise—and quite a few animated films. It's these feature-length animations that are of special interest. Twenty years ago, the only big-budget animated films treated seriously were the annual offerings from Disney, along with the occasional odd duck. "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" were traveling about the speed the movie industry was comfortable with for animated movies.
All that began to change, however, in the mid 1990s; filmmakers began to experiment with new animation techniques, creating the next generation of kid's movies. The gigantic blockbuster machine known as Pixar was just the tip of the iceberg. Around this period, anime hit the mainstream, and even movies pitched to adults began to experiment. Feature-length animated films such as "A Scanner Darkly" and "The Animatrix" were winning awards, generating buzz, and—most importantly from the studios' point of view—turning serious profits.
This animated efflorescence demonstrated that cartoons were almost inevitably going to achieve top billing as major summer blockbusters. But to say that a movie made a lot of money isn't the end of the story. Even the fact that animated films have taken their rightful place alongside huge live-action films, and are now a respectable draw unto themselves, misses the point of what animation's real strengths have always been.
The great advantage that the animated film has always enjoyed over actors and sets is the relative ease with which a filmmaker can put a wholly imaginary world onto the screen. Tim Burton has always been a notoriously eccentric director, but what he lost in casting live actors for "Sleepy Hollow" and "Alice in Wonderland," he more than made up with the absolutely gorgeous scenery and the impossible costumes of "The Corpse Bride." Animation, handled well and liberated from the strict ghetto of children's fare, can set free the filmmaker's imagination and create a rival world full of color, expression, and characters that could never be mistaken for an actor in a latex mask.
In 2013, this awareness seems to have dawned on filmmakers large and small. The summer films on offer include "Despicable Me 2" from Illumination Studios, which is quickly becoming Universal's life preserver as its more traditional films lag behind. The summer has also seen the requisite Pixar kid's movie, "Monsters University," as the sure-fire smash hit it was destined to be from the very beginning, and don't forget "The Wolverine," which isn't technically a cartoon, but which features enough watery CGI to rate an honorable mention.
None of these, however, should really be rated as the standout animated film of the summer. While it's true that their individual takes at the box office exceed the GDP of a few small countries, mere profitability really shouldn't be the stand-in for artistic quality and overall merit. For that, it will be necessary to look to the smaller, less commercial markets—overseas markets are ideal for this and have been since the Cannes festival began giving awards to animation—as well as to the overlooked market for mature adults who aren't necessarily looking for jejune morals and scripted character growth, but who prefer to be challenged by a new movie.
By this standard, the stand-out animated film of the summer of 2013 might well be "Le magasin des suicides," which was released in France in 2012 but only reached a stateside audience in June, 2013. This film, which was marketed in America as "The Suicide Shop," is a delightful breath of fresh air for an audience that's tired of the same old fare.
The film follows the trials of a normal, healthy family that runs a normal, healthy business—selling depressed people the implements of suicide. It's a profitable business, and one with few moral qualms, since the proprietors aren't actually killing anybody themselves, but merely assisting people who are already resolved to do the deed.
However, trouble enters this charming dystopia as it gradually develops that the couple's new baby is—well, a bundle of joy. Into this twisted, upside-down world, that only animation seems capable of creating, the happiness the new baby brings actually creates a moral crisis for the family, which makes its living from doom and gloom.
It's exactly the kind of moral reversal that movies, at their best, have always been able to use as a mirror to the outside world. "You see?" it seems to ask, "In a world that thrives on suffering and anger, the joy of new life is, itself, subversive." "The Suicide Shop" has taken a tremendous risk in trusting its audience to be mature enough to handle deep moral complexity wrapped in an adorably macabre shell. The success of the experiment bodes well for the future of the form.