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Where Is Anne Frank (2021)

Where is Anne Frank [sic] isn’t an adult animation. Indeed, it feels targeted more specifically at younger viewers than most Hollywood cartoon features are now. However, as its name suggests, the film has a real-world subject, which Hollywood cartoons won’t countenance except in very limited ways. In Disney’s Encanto, for instance, the characters are Colombian refugees, but Disney keeps that detail mostly in the backstory. In contrast, Where is Anne Frank is emphatically about refugees, and the film is equally emphatic about counting Anne among them.

Anne’s story has been dramatized innumerable times, including two anime (1979 and 1995). The new film uses a dual narrative, cutting back and forth between its strands. In one, Anne’s story is indeed retold, with a focus on her imaginative life, the dreams that free her from the annex where she hides with her family. In particular, we see many of Anne’s conversations with Kitty, the smart imaginary redheaded girl to whom Anne addresses herself in her diary (“Dear Kitty”). We see the animation literally amalgamate Kitty from icons such as Ava Gardner and Veronica Lake.


The other story strand uses an even bigger fantasy conceit. In Amsterdam “one year from now” (though such nominal distancing seems unnecessary), Kitty magically emerges from the ink of Anne’s diary. She finds her friend’s home has become a defamiliarised, affectless space; the Anne Frank museum, where blank-faced crowds regard the rooms where Anne lived and loved, as if it’s just ancient history.

At first Kitty is invisible in the museum. However, when she takes Anne’s original diary with her, she can walk into Amsterdam like a time-traveller, people looking curiously at her 1940s fashions. (She gets a makeover later.) However, Kitty periodically dives back into the diary, where we get the retelling of Anne’s story – though, being the avatar of the diary, Kitty doesn’t know about the tragedies following Anne’s last entry.


Where is Anne Frank is directed by Ari Folman, who previously made the quasi-documentary Waltz With Bashir, about Middle East atrocities, and the more fantastical The Congress. Unexpectedly, the latter has the stronger thematic foreshadows of Where is Anne Frank. In The Congress, an actress (Robin Wright playing herself) signed away her public image for studios to create an immortal simulation of herself, while the real woman dwindles into obscurity. Where is Anne Frank argues the same has happened to Anne herself. She’s world-famous, her name is everywhere, but what the real Anne was and meant has been buried under the “Anne Frank” brand.

It’s a given in criticism that a work’s quality is not measured by its subject’s importance, or by the worthiness of its message. But that aside, Where is Anne Frank is hard to judge on a simpler level – will it absorb youngsters in 2022? I’m far outside that demographic, but I doubt it will. The film feels far too pedagogic, its lessons stilted, though conversely it works well in depicting Anne’s own perspective – a gifted child but a child still, trying to understand the adult horrors that imprison her. But when the film is also making meta-comments on Anne’s legacy, and how we’ve let that legacy down today, then it becomes hopelessly unwieldy.


The switches between the two strands – Anne in the 1940s, and Kitty manifesting in the present – are blunt and arrhythmic, and pull us out of the stories of both girls. The interweaving is simply misconceived. The story would have worked better split into two chronological halves, or with the present-day material as a prologue and epilogue to Anne’s story. Or the present-day scenes might have been presented as Anne’s prophetic dreams in the 1940s.

If that last idea sounds crass, then the film already has Anne dreaming of Greek gods and Hollywood heroes vanquishing the Nazis; dreams and cartoon can do anything. The Nazis themselves are shown in the film as masked monsters, inscrutable and uniform symbols of hate, redolent of the fascist symbology in the animated The Wall. Even near the end of Anne’s story, where she enters territory unspeakably beyond life as we know it, her imagination invokes Greek myth again – the dark land of the dead.


But as for the present-day material, it would have been better in live-action. The point that Folman wants to make concerns how we treat refugees in 2022, how rich nations block and blank them, showing we have indeed forgotten Anne Frank. Two or three minutes of real news footage could have made the point as powerfully and eloquently as the feeble narrative Folman presents instead. (Folman used live-action in both Waltz With Bashir and The Congress, but eschews it here.) In the film, Kitty meets refugees who are no more than Tiny Tim cut-outs, made worse by some exceptionally flat “uplifting” dialogue in the English dub. Any young viewer would do better with Flee, a far more dimensional portrait of modern refugees.


The characters in Folman’s present-day story haven’t an iota of the reality of those in the 1940s, where Folman frees Anne from secular sainthood, showing a girl not far from the pubescent Mei Lee in Pixar’s Turning Red. This Anne pictures herself in a confetti-strewn parade of all the boys who liked her; she wonders about the foolishness of her parents’ love, and sits with the only boy in her prison-home, pondering the mysteries of the male body. Next to that, all Kitty can offer are lame ice-skating scenes and a curt downer denouement that confirms her story is a wan shadow of Anne’s,

Visually, Where is Anne Frank has fantastical grace notes, but nothing to compare with the far wilder imagery of Folman’s adult films, or the expressionist highlights in the clunkier-looking Flee. It feels like a “traditional” 2D cartoon, and that’s at least broadly fitting. Anne’s story is of a child full of hope and radiance, menaced by bottomless shadows. Those are precisely the extremes that animation shows so vividly, especially the darker Hollywood cartoons that were made around World War II. For instance, there’s Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio, where the puppet boy is trapped in a wooden cage while a storm rages, screaming to be let out. It’s an image that Anne Frank might have dreamed herself from the confines of the annexe in Amsterdam.


IN A NUTSHELL: Unusually, this is a family animation which attempts far too much; it works best as a tribute to Anne Frank's humanity and her dreams




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