Cartoons as propaganda: How two animated films in 2019 dealt with history
In “Elcano & Magellan” and “Abominable,” as in real life, it is the powerful who get to shape how history is told—and we’re left holding the bag
Nov 21, 2019
In China, an adolescent girl with wispy locks finds a yeti on the roof of her apartment complex. Christening him “Everest,” she sets off to bring back the cryptid to his family in the Himalayas.
Elsewhere, near the Moluccan coast, a pale man stands behind the wheel of a ship. A brown woman kisses him squarely on the lips.
“Abominable” is an animated adventure movie, an “exceptionally watchable and amiable animated tale” Glenn Kenny describes for The New York Times. It’s notable for being produced by both DreamWorks animation and Chinese studio house Pearl Studio, and for featuring Chinese talent—which, considering that it took Hollywood 25 years after “The Joy Luck Club” to make another blockbuster movie with a predominantly Asian cast, shouldn’t be ignored.
Of course, though, if you’re Filipino and you’ve been on the internet for the past two months, that’s not what you know it as. For you, and for me, it’s the film that upholds the illegal nine dash demarcation line, showing the map in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene.
“Elcano & Magellan,” on the other hand, is an animated adventure movie with a historical tilt. The as of yet unreleased film follows the journey of Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano to circumnavigate the world. By all looks of things, it’s a cheaply made film by a Spanish studio that rips off DreamWorks’ “El Dorado,” the kind of production scheme that the studio The Asylum lives off on.
But that’s not why we’re talking about this. We’re talking about it because it’s the Spanish film that portrays Magellan as a hero, that shows Lapu-Lapu and other pre-Filipinos as savages. We’re talking about it because it upholds the white savior trope (complete with a brown woman love interest!), because it upholds the narrative of Magellan’s journey as one of discovery (Look! The theories are true! The world is round!) without acknowledging that this Western journey also led to 300 years of colonization.
The backlash for both films came swiftly, although only “Abominable” came with real results, with the movie now banned all around Southeast Asia. In the case of “Elcano,” writers and historians have pointed out that some of the backlash was unjustified.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” historian Ambeth Ocampo called it in an article about blind patriotism. “It’s a movie, not a doctoral dissertation or a documentary film,” he wrote. “At the risk of sounding unpatriotic or, worse, biased in favor of the “colonizer,” the Battle of Mactan may be significant to Filipinos, but it is merely a detail in the larger story of daring, exploration and the first circumnavigation of the world.”
Sure. I understand his point. Maybe the vitriol was too much. Maybe it’s important to also contextualize the journey as one of circumnavigation. Maybe. As a non-historian, at times I’ve felt uncomfortable by how pre-Hispanic Filipinos are framed today in an almost fetishistic way by well-meaning citizens. But I think of that and I think of how, at a world event in Spain, a friend felt a growing sense of discomfort whenever the Philippine conquest and colonization was referred to, by the Spanish participants, as a meeting of cultures, of mere exchange and influence.
Ocampo ended the article on this note:
“When history is taught as civics, it instills blind patriotism rather than discipline, which results from engaging with primary source research. History teaches nuanced reading and analysis to come up with an oral or written presentation. Civics reduces the narrative to heroes and villains, good and bad, black and white. History teaches us to have a rational (“what do I think”) rather than an emotional (“what do I feel”) response to the turning points in the emergence of nation.”
And that’s where I draw the line in the sand. Because while the language of history privileges rationality (as it should!), the language of cinema is precisely one that asks, “What do I feel?” Movies are not history, cartoons are not fact. Criticism of a historical cartoon is not concerned with historical accuracy as much as it zeroes in on why something is being said, and how, and who’s watching it.
As a long-time fan of animation (to an admittedly embarrassing degree), I probably know a little bit more about the medium than the average watcher. Case in point: Did you know the only reason why (almost) centennial old animation studios were able to survive WW2 was because they made propaganda films for their respective governments? Did you know that North Korea has a bustling animation industry, one that thrives on cartoons that position North Korea as a strong, heroic nation and show what its citizens must do for it?
Cartoons are a really, really good medium for propaganda. “The most effective kind of propaganda,” Brian Anse Patrick, the author of “The Ten Commandments of Propaganda” is quoted by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu for Ozy, “subtly feeds your mind, and cartoons are “junk food for the soul.” But more than just being junk food, cartoons are effective ways of messaging because of its representation quality. “It has been said that when we watch actors, we watch somebody else having an experience, and that when we watch animation, we ourselves are having the experience,” writes Bilge Elbiri for Vulture.
“Children’s cartoons are an invaluable source of cultural analysis. Everything is simplified, distilled for the lowest common denominator. The messages therein represent the hopes and dreams of the previous generation,” opines Jules Suzdaltsev for Vice.
That’s what I think about when I think of “Abominable.” I think of cartoons and media and China and how the nation banned Peppa Pig for supposedly espousing rebellious activity. While simultaneously releasing propaganda cartoons. And then I think of media and China: how there hasn’t been any mainstream portrayal of Tibet since the ’90s, how Richard Gere believes that his career was stonewalled because of his support of the Tibetan struggle. I think about how Hollywood cares so much about what China thinks that it’s partly ruined the movie star industry, at least according to Marvel star Anthony Mackie. I think about the wide-scale suppression of the Xinjiang “re-education camps.” I think about how, if the Chinese deals ruin our country financially, we will have no recourse.
At the same time, I think about cartoons and media and “Elcano” and how people have said that because it’s a low budget cartoon, it doesn’t matter what it says, what it believes. Magellan and Elcano are good guys. Brown women fall to their feet.
An opinion piece on Rappler states: “Given that this is a film for children and teenagers, there are several stereotypes in order to create an engaging plot–among them, the typical division of characters between heroes and villains. Needless to say, the circumnavigators had to be necessarily the heroes.”
But shouldn’t it matter what you choose to flatten, what tropes you choose to portray? Shouldn’t it matter what you choose to shine a light on, who you lionize and who you vilify? Shouldn’t that matter more precisely because it’s a piece of media intended to be consumed by children?
In truth, the scariest thing about “Elcano” to me isn’t how children in our country will view it, if they do. The backlash alone shows that people are angry enough to talk about colonialism, that even if some of the anger is misplaced, we’re able to have that conversation.
I worry more about the children outside who will see it and identify with Elcano or Magellan or what have you. I worry about the children who see this and will not engage with Spain’s colonial past. And, well, sure: I worry about the kind of society that can make a movie about 18th-century voyage and sidestep the issue of colonialism, as if it’s not a beast we still have to contend with, as if the discovery of the round world is somehow more important than the fact that this directly led to the murder of many cultures, that jumpstarted this specific nation’s cycle of colonialism, do all that and say it’s okay because it’s only going to be shown to kids.
But you know, it’s just a cartoon.
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