Like any other form of media, animated film has the power to inform and shape public perceptions. This CAI paper considers how animation has shaped western perceptions of Africa in the past, and explores how animation can be used to tell audiences different stories about Africa. The successes of African-produced animation are discussed and upcoming African animation projects are highlighted. by Puseletso Nkopane
The contested origins of animation
Animation is a series of moving illustrations compiled and presented as a story. The origins of animation are still a contested issue, as evidence of early animation has been found in various parts of the world. Most people assume that the origins of animation lie in Asia, particularly China and Japan, and evidence of early animation found in Africa is barely mentioned in such debates.
The pioneers of African animation are considered to be David and Shlomo Frenkel, two Egyptian brothers, who were reportedly inspired by the first Disney studios 'Mickey Mouse' animation. Unfortunately, the first animated film the Frenkel brothers created was destroyed in a fire in Cairo. However, their later works are still preserved in various museums in Egypt. Besides the Frenkel brother's animated films, early animation found in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo proves that Africa has a long and rich animation history.
Walt Disney Animation studio is an American animation studio founded in 1923 by brothers Walt and Roy Disney. The first full-length animation feature produced by the studio was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The feature was a huge success upon its first release in 1938, and so the studio continued releasing other beloved animated classics such as Bambi, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
Many of Disney's earlier animated films were adapted from European folklore tales. The earliest documentation of the studio's relation with narrative concerning Africa, is the book Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday. Released in 1948, it tells the tale of one of Disney's most recognised cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse, and the premise of the book is: "Mickey gets a crate full of West African bananas, and finds an African inside! Ha! The savage soon is confused by Mickey's human lifestyle and commits acts of random violence."(2)
To date, the most successful animated Disney film about Africa is the tremendously popular film The Lion King. The plot of the movie is a coming-of-age story of the main protagonist, a lion named Simba, who ascends the throne when his father dies. The film held a star-studded cast including James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg and Jeremy Irons. It also won numerous awards and its success spurned an equally successful theatrical adaptation on Broadway. As much as The Lion King can be applauded for introducing audiences to the Swahili proverb 'Hakuna Matata' and to the music of South African composer Lebohang 'Lebo M' Morake, it is problematic that "... Disney's imagineers, did not see fit to include a single African human being."(3) In this way, it is intensifying western notions of Africa as a 'wild' place filled with animals and jungles and (strangely) lacking humans.
Disney's other animated feature relating to Africa is the 1999 box office hit Tarzan based on Edgar Rice Burrough's novel Tarzan of the apes. Like The Lion King, the main protagonists in this movie are animals, except for Tarzan and Jane, who are both European. Disney's two animated movies on the African continent created an impression for young audiences of a scenic Africa filled with wildlife, and this seems to be formula that was adopted by other animation studios. In 2005, DreamWorks studio released Madagascar, a tale of Central Park Zoo animals who end up on the African island of Madagascar. Likewise, this also depicted Africa as devoid of Africans.
Michel Ocelot's Africa
Michel Ocelot, a French animator who is widely recognised in Francophone countries, spent much of his childhood in Guinea, West Africa. Ocelot is a pioneer in animation, as his films represent a vastly different African narrative than Disney's. Although he had directed many short animated films, his 1998 feature film Kirikou and the sorceress made him a renowned figure in animation. Kirikou and the sorceress is an animated film inspired by West African folklore. The plot revolves around the adventures of the main character Kirikou, a resourceful and ingenious African boy. The film won numerous accolades and rave reviews, especially for its soundtrack, composed by Senegalese singer Youssou N'dour. The overwhelming success of Kirikou spawned not only a sequel but also a Broadway adaptation of the film.
Ocelot's fourth animated feature Azur and Asmar: The princes' quest also derived inspiration from Africa, specifically North African countries and featured African protagonists using their wit and intellect to overcome adversaries.
Small screen successes
Animation created by Africans has yet to leave its mark on the big screen; however, animators from various African countries are slowly establishing themselves in animated TV series. Tinga Tinga Tales, an animated television series for children, is a collaboration between Kenyan multimedia production company HomeBoyz TV and British production company Tiger Aspect. Tinga Tinga art from Tanzania and traditional African folklore tales inspire each episode. Parents and children have received the series well and merchandise from the show is a commercial success.
Nigerian animator Adamu Waziri's hit television series Bino and Fino follows the daily adventures of two Nigerian siblings' in the city of Abuja. Unlike Tinga Tinga Tales, which uses animals as central characters, the cartoon "re-imagines Africa as a modern urban landscape, compared to the picturesque jungle shown in many American films."(4) Due to the enormous popularity of the series in Nigeria, the show is currently broadcast in several other African and western countries. Waziri has also created popular merchandise based on characters from the show.
An exciting year ahead
Two animated movies related to African themes will be screened in cinemas around the world in 2012. Jean-Christophe Lie's first feature film recently premiered at the Berlin International Festival, which took place from the ninth to the 19th of February. Lie's film, Zarafa, is the story of two friends, a ten-year-old Egyptian boy named Maki and a giraffe named Zarafa, who journey from Sudan and Egypt to Paris.
The most anticipated animated film of 2012 is an adaptation of Marguerite Abouet's critically acclaimed graphic novel Aya de Youpougon. Abouet, an Ivorian woman, created a graphic novel titled Ayo of Yop City after she moved to France, which follows the daily life of an ambitious nineteen-year-old Ivorian woman Aya and her friends in the city of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The graphic novel became an instant success and has been translated into various languages. The comic presents "a different sort of Africa, one that illustrates daily life outside of the typical war, famine and disease narrative."(5) Fans of Abouet have taken to internet forums and blogs about the first animated feature with an African woman in the lead role.
Lessons from Japan
The animation industry in Africa has the potential to change the continent's international image. More specifically, the industry has 'soft power', a term coined by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye. It refers to "a nation's ability to obtain desired outcomes through the attraction of its culture, technology or policies..."(6)
Japan, once a pariah because of its imperialist history in Asia, is a good example of soft power. Animation has been one of Japan's most recognisable industries ever since it was introduced to western countries a few decades ago. Osamu Tezuka, a revered figure in the Japanese animation industry, created the most popular animated character of all time, Astro Boy, who was the main character in the Astro Boy Comics, and due to public demand later became a television series. Tezuka's success revolutionised the Japanese animation industry, inspiring the works of other great animators like Hayao Miyazaki, who later co-founded Studio Ghibli, an animation studio that has produced many classics including Academy Award winner for best animated feature, Spirited Away. Since the late 1980's many Japanese animated TV series, such as Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon have graced television screens all over the world, capturing audiences of all nationalities and ages. The selling of merchandise such as video games, collectible trading cards and DVDs, has contributed to a billion dollar industry.
The Japanese animation industry has altered the post-WWII image Japan used to hold. No longer is it a distant island associated with the traumas of war, but rather a visually spectacular, awe-inspiring nation with multiple narratives. The Japanese government, realising the power of its animation industry, has incorporated the industry into its foreign policy and cultural diplomacy agendas. "The projection of soft power is a conscious, focused and highly prioritised effort by the Japanese government to exploit the country's popularity among young people worldwide -- multitudes of whom share a passion for Japanese fashions and fads -- and to create a broader sympathetic image in the host country."(7) African animators and governments can do the same: create other, more realistic, awe-inspiring images of African countries as dynamic sites of creativity and change.
A burgeoning industry
The animation industry is growing. Up and coming young animators across Africa are using the internet not only as a means to learn new technical skills, but also as a platform to display their own animation and to form collaborations with other animators. African animators are using Africa as an inspiration for their animation to tell African stories to broader audiences. Of course, animation also provides an avenue of artistic expression and employment for many creative minds in Africa.
There is a reported lack of creative space for animators to showcase their projects to an underdeveloped market and financial constraints are also inhibiting creative expression through animation.(8) However, the continuous passion and dedication of animators throughout Africa is slowly creating a small but formidable industry, astonishing fans internationally.