Over the course of the 20th century, the thematic scope offered by mainstream animated features in the U.S. remained sorely restricted. Few will debate the historical importance or artistic merit of Walt Disney's contributions to the animated form, but consider also the strict limitations ushered in by his creations, such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, and more so by the creations of Disney's successors, such as Walter Lantz and Don Bluth. On a cultural level, these artists inadvertently tied pop-culture animation to family entertainment and only family entertainment, thus dramatically forcing viewer expectations into a set mold. The conventions are not unbreakable, but they are strong. Even a film such as Ratatouille, as brilliant and as profound as it is, never really leaves the sphere of family-friendly -- for better or worse.
As sex- and violence-filled Japanese anime continues to demonstrate, however, the remainder of the world cannot make the same claim about their indigenous animated features. Consequently, the first dramatic strides in this area originated not in domestic but in overseas efforts. One shining example, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis -- adapted from Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel -- pushed the envelope further than it had ever gone in prior domestically released theatrical films. Don't let the scenes of a young, animated Satrapi (which frequently verge on the adorable) mislead you; this is, at heart, an impenetrably bleak, heavy, and difficult film about a young Persian girl's coming of age in the period surrounding the rise of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- a film that grapples with themes completely unascertainable by young audiences. As a result, one cannot possibly overestimate the film's historical and cultural vitality. It marks the first animated feature to meditate on the psycho-social impacts of extremist political and religious oppression, the Middle Eastern fascination with Western culture (and need for sexual liberation, evident in part via the Iranian characters' surprisingly explicit dialogues), and the concept of ethnic and cultural identity as both a reassuring source of self-identification and an immense, emotionally crippling burden.
On that note, Satrapi and Paronnaud's decision to cloak nearly 80 percent of the film in black and white constitutes a masterstroke; we never once feel depressed by the film, but it does feel aesthetically and stylistically oppressive -- as oppressive as any film in memory, in fact. The black and white functions as a nearly constant reminder of the difficulty of Satrapi's coming-of-age experiences, engendered in part by the confusing nature of the tumultuous events whirling around her and by an unbearable period in Iranian history. How telling that even when the adolescent Satrapi leaves Iran to experience life in and around Vienna (aside from the prologue and epilogue), scenes never take on color. Everything is filtered through her eyes, and we remain a prisoner of her perspective -- just as she, in turn, is inextricably tied her history, culture, and background. To put it another way: the filmmakers have conjured up a nearly perfect visual metaphor for the permanence of sociocultural identity.
Perhaps realizing the dangers inherent in the story (material this daring and challenging could easily risk becoming unwatchable, if created with an inept or insensitive hand), Satrapi and Paronnaud wisely attempted to leaven the story on two separate planes. First, they cloak the film in brilliant visual invention that veers on the indescribable -- animation of shadows, overlays of semi-transparent, chalk-like animated images, and a host of other aesthetic innovations that find their origins in unusual and obscure sources. The filmmakers also interweave liberal doses of humor throughout the narrative. This is where the motion picture begins to falter very slightly; in terms of drollness, it really only soars when it uses jocularity as a thematic comment on young Marjane's attempt (and the attempts of all Iranians) to deal psychologically with the ramifications of losing freedom of expression. In what are arguably the picture's finest, most amusing and courageous moments, for example, the young Satrapi attends art classes, where she and other pupils study Botticelli's Birth of Venus with the breasts and pubic areas obscured, then attempt to sketch the female form with the model obscured and turned into a formless, shapeless, inhuman enigma via an Islamic cloak and veil. Less successful and interesting are the frequent nods to Western culture that provide easy laughs, such as an inclusion of a montage set to the Rocky III theme, "Eye of the Tiger," and a couple of nods to Bruce Lee. While these beats are admittedly entertaining (and do help the filmmakers meditate on the aforementioned theme of Iranian fascination with Western mass culture), they do little to depict humor as a coping mechanism amid the oppression of the environment that we are handed.
This is a minor quibble, however, and anyone with a serious interest in the art of filmmaking (able to free themselves from the notion that animated films must always be light, fun, and easy to swallow) will invariably feel mesmerized by the work. Collaborating with Paronnaud and an enormous team of animators, Satrapi has taken a full personal history, with all of the twists, turns, blind corners, and contradictions that life handed her, and has ingeniously reinvented it structurally and formally, while projecting remarkable levels of self-reflexive and sociological insight.