Fantasy and the Re-Animation of Othered Cultures

Fig. 1 - In  Big Hero 6 , San Francisco's steep topography and characteristic cable cars sit side-by-side with Japanese architecture.

Fig. 1 - In Big Hero 6, San Francisco's steep topography and characteristic cable cars sit side-by-side with Japanese architecture.

The intersection of fantasy and animation is increasingly also an intersection of nationalities and cultures. The world’s best known animation studios often look beyond their own cultures for inspiration, exploring and representing people, mythologies and folklore from across the globe. Japan’s Studio Ghibli, for example, frequently adapt Western sources, creating fantasy-inflected variations on European countries (Howl’s Moving Castle [Hayao Miyazaki, 2004]) or indeterminate settings bearing both Japanese and European influence (Kiki’s Delivery Service [Hayao Miyazaki, 1989]; Arrietty [Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010]; When Marnie Was There [James Simone & Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2014]). Disney Animation Studio’s Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams, 2014) pushed animation’s potential for amalgamating cultures and spaces with a more overt mash-up that collided the architectural features of San Francisco and Tokyo, creating the fantastical and futuristic San Fransokyo (Fig. 1). Animation’s exploratory representation of other cultures, then, is by no means a phenomenon limited to Asian cinema. Dietmar Meinel (2016) considers Pixar’s films to be in “persistent conversation with American culture” (Holliday 2018: 88), yet the studio’s output is increasingly marked by exploration of other cultures. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) takes place in the gourmet kitchens of France; Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) and Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton, 2016) are set within Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; and Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012) re-imagines medieval Scotland.

Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017).

The interaction between animation, fantasy and the representation of foreign geographies and cultures is now so prevalent that of the five films nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award in 2018, just one is set in the country that produced it. While DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby (Tom McGrath, 2017) parodied corporate America, the two other US-produced nominees – Blue Sky Studios’ Ferdinand (Carlos Saldanha, 2017) and the eventual winner, Pixar’s Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017) – are set in Spain and Mexico respectively. Two international co-productions completed the field of nominees, neither representing the cultures from which they emerged. Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, 2017) was a product of collaboration between the UK, US and Poland yet takes place in rural France, and Afghanistan-set The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2017) was co-produced by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon and companies in Canada and Luxembourg.

Coco and The Breadwinner represent a subset of international exploration in 21st century Western animation. Focusing on non-white societies and their cultural histories provides fodder for the building of fresh fantasy worlds distinct from those imagined by and represented in Western storytelling. As Christopher Holliday points out, Meinel’s book “deliberately or otherwise overlooks [Pixar’s] most recent films,” so ignores this development to the studio’s output  (Holliday 2018: 89). And it’s not just Pixar; other recent American-produced examples include Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016), Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson, 2018) and the Kung-Fu Panda franchise (2008-2016). Coco and The Breadwinner, though, don’t just focus on non-white societies – an endeavour that invites critiques of colonialist appropriation – they use particular kinds of fantasy to re-animate specific cultures that have been subjected to xenophobic stereotyping and demonization by Western (especially right-wing) media. By sympathetically representing Afghan and Mexican families and embedding culturally-specific fantasy and storytelling, The Breadwinner and Coco offer ideological and representational amelioration for the cultures they portray. 

The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey, 2017).

Released during the seventeenth year of the U.S./Afghanistan war, The Breadwinner centres on an impoverished family in war-torn Kabul. From its opening the film also embeds a secondary narrative made up of stories told within the family (see right). These meander through the region’s history, gradually relating the fantastical story of a boy fighting a dragon to ensure the livelihood of his village. The first story introduces what is now Afghanistan as a ‘fractured land’ and presents its inhabitants as victims of enduring unrest; collateral damage to centuries of empire building. The father recalls a brief period of peace during his childhood, and how it was interrupted by ‘a coup d’état, then an invasion, then a civil war’. In the present, 11-year-old protagonist Parvana lives under Taliban rule, and when her father is imprisoned finds herself in the unorthodox position of breadwinner for the family. The Taliban soldiers are certainly antagonists within the film (though not entirely without nuance), but it’s The Breadwinner’s central family who offer an antidote to the broad brush strokes of media representations of the Middle East.

Fig. 2 - A family dinner in  The Breadwinner.

Fig. 2 - A family dinner in The Breadwinner.

A drab palette of browns and greys is used to animate Kabul, creating a sombre backdrop for the many scenes in which Parvana struggles to buy food, or in which the family sit down to meagre meals (Fig. 2). The fantasy segments become a celebration of this will to survive; the boy hero completes a series of challenges, accruing material rewards which prepare him for the ultimate fight against the dragon that stole seeds from the villagers. The circumstances of Parvana’s life in Kabul can be mapped on to the embedded fantasy narrative; the dragon might represent the Taliban who imprison her father, with Parvana venturing out like the boy in order to win back what has been taken. The Breadwinner’s sensitive focus on Parvana’s family enables emphasis of the toll war and conflict has on civilians, and allows the Middle East to be re-animated free of negative media stereotype. The fantasy narrative also enacts a parallel recuperation. The family are haunted by the absence of their eldest son Sulayman, who was killed by a landmine. Ultimately, fantasy and primary narrative converge as this name is also given to the boy in the fantasy. Parvana’s storytelling literally re-animates her dead brother, allowing him to symbolically rescue the family, a role he would have played in Parvana’s place if alive. This provides some healing or closure for the family, who are ultimately reunited following Parvana’s rescue of her father from prison.

Fig. 3 - The Rivera family  ofrenda .

Fig. 3 - The Rivera family ofrenda.

Coco, too, is characterised by two parallel story realms; the ‘real world’ of Santa Cecilia, where 12-year old protagonist Miguel Rivera lives with his family, and the underworld animated through Pixar’s fantastical use of the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). By centring and positively representing the Mexican Rivera family Coco, the first Pixar film released during Donald Trump’s presidency, flies vehemently in the face of anti-Mexican rhetoric used by Trump and his administration. (See, for example, his justification for sending U.S. troops to the Mexican border in October 2018 [Smith: 2018]). Coco’s development predates Trump’s presidential run, so the timeliness of its political commentary is perhaps merely coincidental, yet the fact that it premiered and was released in Mexico before playing domestically seems a telling condemnation of Trump’s ideology. The industrious Riveras, who own and operate a long-running family shoemaking business, undermine the stereotype of the lazy Mexican. Coco’s screenplay weaves in Spanish words and phrases to texture its representation of Mexican culture, yet the visual context always makes this dialogue intelligible for English-speaking audiences. As in The Breadwinner, the characters in Coco are steeped in their cultural and familial history. This is most obviously represented by the ofrenda, a kind of altar which depicts and memorialises deceased Riveras (Fig. 3). Via the plot’s fantasy machinations, these dusty black and white photographs are literally re-animated as fully realised characters, enabling Miguel to reunite with and meet many family members for the first time, and to develop an increased knowledge of his family’s culture.

In The Breadwinner, Sulayman’s fate is gradually revealed through Parvana’s fantasy storytelling. In Coco, too, painful truths come to light via the fantasy plot. Via his adventures among the living dead Miguel uncovers a web of lies and secrecy which had deceived his family into the belief that music is a curse. Miguel’s discoveries recuperate the reputation of his long-lost great-great-grandfather Héctor, bringing him back into the Rivera fold. Hence Coco, like The Breadwinner, ultimately celebrates emotional healing alongside a reunion of its central family. Arguably, by focalising their stories through the child characters, both Coco and The Breadwinner appeal to and engage a family audience – a mainstay of fantasy animation – who might resemble that depicted on screen. Family audiences are encouraged to empathise and recognise the similarities between themselves and the Mexican and Afghan families each film represents. Critiques of the extreme right, warmongering and racism are usually implicit, but are authorised and given weight by the specific global contexts into which each film was released.


Holliday, Christopher. “Book review: Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of American Myths and Symbols,” animation: an interdisciplinary journal 13, no.1 (March 2018): 88-90.

Meinel, Dietmar. Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of American Myths and Symbols (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Smith, David. “Trump further stokes immigration fears by saying he'll send 15,000 troops to border,” The Guardian (October 31, 2018), available at:


Rachel Brook recently completed an MA in English (with a healthy dose of Film Studies smuggled in) at King’s College London. She works in marketing within the arts and academic publishing, and writes about film at