Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant, eds. Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018, 322pp, £105)
Reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova (Michigan State University)
From its opening pages, Fantasy/Animation lays out the stakes of its own critical intervention with clarity and conviction. As Holliday and Sergeant point out, even though ‘the wealth of animated fantasy film and television produced within different national media industries supports the notion of a fundamental connection between fantasy and animation, […] there is a correlative relationship between studies of fantasy and animation that has yet to be established in existing academic discourse’. To address this gap in existing scholarship, Holliday and Sergeant propose to approach fantasy and animation as ‘reciprocal media, mediums, and genres’ while refusing to ‘take for granted their interrelationship or degrees of synonymity’. Such a project is certainly ambitious, but also timely and essential.
While scholars such as Jack Zipes, James Walters and David Butler discuss animation and visual effects in broader studies of fantasy media, and animation books often point to the important place that fantasy narratives and aesthetics have historically occupied in the animation canon, Fantasy/Animation stands out as the first volume dedicated to the formulation of critical frameworks that place animation and fantasy in dialogue ‘in ways that do not hierarchize or prioritize the parts of the animated fantasy whole’. Featuring research by fantasy cinema and animation specialists alike, this volume is relevant to both academic disciplines and of particular interest to scholars and teachers looking for a multifaceted and careful interrogation of the resonances and tensions between these closely interconnected areas of cultural production.
Fantasy/Animation is divided into three parts: ‘ontology and spectatorship’, ‘authors and nations’ and ‘culture and industry’. The breadth of these categories reflects the range of subjects, case studies and methodological approaches used. The volume opens with a theoretical section offering a rich variety of methodologies – from traditional adaptation studies (represented by Paul Wells’ analysis of multiple animated versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books) to Meike Uhrig’s interdisciplinary use of cognitive and evolutionary psychology in her study of animated characters’ faces in relation to spectatorial empathy. Lilly Husband’s elegant, illuminating study of experimental animator Bret Battey’s abstract computer piece Sinus Aestum (2009) argues that abstract animation engenders ‘fantastical empathy’, which she defines as ‘the imagined yet felt sensation of identifying with phenomena that are unrecognizable and/or not readily commensurate with ordinary bodily experience’. Another highlight of this section is Ben Tyrer’s chapter which draws on – and reframes – neo-Lacanian film theory in order to unpack the relationship between fantasy, reality and visual effects in Game of Thrones.
Part two highlights moments in animation history ‘wherein a natural fantasy/animation dialogue has emerged within filmmakers’ responses to the specific socio-political concerns of their respective national filmmaking contexts’. This section has a dual aim: to revisit the work of key animation figures – such as Lotte Reiniger, Ralph Bakshi, Ladislas Starevich and the studio Ghibli – vis-à-vis its relevance to fantasy studies and, conversely, to examine the central role of fantasy in lesser-known examples of animated media. It succeeds on both counts, presenting a solid model for expanding both disciplines’ critical scope and vocabulary through well-curated case studies that challenge traditional readings of fantasy and animation classics. For instance, Sergeant demonstrates that Bakshi’s Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978), often considered less subversive than the animator’s main body of work, speak to his signature counter-culturalism through their connection to 1960s and 1970s genre fantasy ‘that was adopted by youth culture to express an anti-establishment rejection of conservatism’. Carolyn Rickards studies the ‘fantasized presence of animated visual effects’ in Electricity (2014), a British social-realist drama, drawing an illuminating parallel between the film’s depiction of epilepsy and its metaphorical associations with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. By unpacking visual effects’ introduction of fantasy elements within a traditional realist framework, her chapter achieves its goal of ‘broaden[ing] the understanding of what fantasy and animation can mean outside the definitional confines and constraints commonly applied to both categories within wider critical or popular discourse’.
Part three situates the volume firmly within mainstream studio discourse and contemporary Hollywood studies. Notable emphasis is placed on popular high-budget fantasy franchises (Avatar, How to Train Your Dragon, The Hobbit), as well as Disney and Pixar features. Here, the volume’s project of teasing out points of resonance between fantasy and animation worldbuilding yields fascinating new perspectives on well-known popular texts. In his astute analysis of the complicated relationship between Disney and Pixar, Holliday examines Brave and Wreck-it Ralph (both 2012) in the context of industry discourse, reading the intersection between fantasy and animation as an ‘index of studio identity that is informed and guided by Hollywood’s current animation industry’. In another standout chapter, Sam Summers unpacks How to Train Your Dragon’s (2010) approach to the ‘ultimately constructive merging of two apparently oppositional aesthetics’, namely high fantasy tropes and DreamWorks’ signature style of computer animation.
Part three’s focus on contemporary Hollywood, as productive as it is in offering fresh perspectives on familiar texts, also underscores the volume’s main weakness: its Western-centrism. The majority of case studies and intellectual traditions drawn upon in this collection come from Europe and North America. Even Susan J. Napier’s chapter on Ghibli often compares the Japanese studio’s output to mainstream American animation. At a time when both fields are taking up the long-overdue project of highlighting understudied texts and underrepresented viewpoints (see, for example, Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature and Nicholas Sammond’s Birth of an Industry), this feels like a missed opportunity to celebrate and interrogate fantasy/animation’s diverse creative genealogies.
Despite this limitation, Fantasy/Animation remains a valuable, versatile resource. Thanks to its dual academic focus, it has the potential to become a useful cross-disciplinary text for a variety of courses. The range of methodological approaches and case studies presented in the volume could open up new approaches towards teaching fantasy in film and literature, adaptation and audience studies, animation history and theory, and contemporary Hollywood. While the research presented across the various chapters is consistently rigorous, the overall style of the collection is accessible enough to function equally well as a scholarly text and a productive catalyst for classroom discussion. Its key contribution lies in elucidating the need to reconsider the relationship between the two and providing a provocative, engaging model for doing so. Overall, Fantasy/Animation is a timely, insightful intervention that not only contributes new knowledge on the theoretical, aesthetic and cultural intersections between fantasy and animation, but also confidently sets the tone for future research on the topic.