Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Borge Ring's Anna and Bella
(May 15, 2006)

Borge Ring's Anna and Bella is one of my favorite animated films. I'm going to end up writing about it in somewhat technical terms, but what makes the film great are the feelings that it evokes.

The design hits the sweet spot between realism and caricature. The designs are realistic enough to support the emotions and events in the story, but still caricatured enough to allow for cartoonyness in the acting and the timing.

One of the things that make shapes appealing in animation is their pliability. Flesh yields. We hug things whose surfaces are pliable, whether it's other humans, pets or stuffed toys. We don't hug rocks. There's a softness to how these characters are drawn and move that's enormously appealing.

I'm especially impressed by this film's use of visual metaphor. You've got blooming flowers tied to puberty and boys as bees flying towards the flowers as a way of communicating sexual attraction. You've got floating and flying to the moon as metaphors for romance. One sister shatters like glass as an expression of shock and pain. The jealous sister transforms into an ape, a jackal, a pterodactyl and a shark to show the animal rage she feels towards her sibling.

We've all seen cartoons where a character's spirit separates from its body and somebody stuffs it back in. Usually it's played for comedy, but here it's played for desperation. This and the shattering glass take could easily fit into a Tex Avery cartoon with very different results, which shows how flexible the idea of visual metaphor can be and how powerful animation really is as a medium. We've got tools, but we tend to do the same things with them over and over again. This film shows us that the tools are more versatile than we know.

Which leads me to what I admire most about this film: its emotional range. Animated shorts have a tendency to be all one thing. They're humorous or satirical or political or tragic. Often, an entire short is a build-up to a single ending gag. This film manages to encompass many moods and emotions in less than 8 minutes. Furthermore, they're emotions that are universally understood. This film talks to everyone, not just animation fans.

The time and effort required to make a cartoon forces independent animators to be miniaturists. They're stuck putting their stories on a small canvas. Anna and Bella shows how much is possible to fit on that canvas and I wonder why we so often settle for less.