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Toons are growing up at last

A NEW brand of animated films is coming to the big screen — and there's not an ogre or talking donkey in sight.

To any parent who has ever pacified their child with an umpteenth repeat viewing of Toy Story or Shrek, it will probably come as no surprise that animation is big business. We're not just talking cinema tickets here. There are the DVDs, the tie-in toys and the branded merchandise, from pyjamas to wallpaper. This year, four of the top-10 highest-grossing films at the summer box office are animated. Leading the way is the superlative Pixar sequel Toy Story 3, which at the time of writing had grossed a staggering €553m globally after just five weeks on release.

Following the success earlier this year of How to Train Your Dragon, and with the current triumph of Shrek Forever After globally and Despicable Me in the US, if the likes of Disney and DreamWorks ever decide to animate their AGMs, you'd see the shareholders' eyes leap out on stalks and turn to dollar signs. The problem is these films are not primarily meant for us -- the target audience of your typical Hollywood animation has always been the under-10s.

Which makes recent developments in the world of animation all the more heartening for grown-ups. This month sees the release of Sylvian Chomet's The Illusionist, a beautiful story of a magician eking out a living on the dying music-hall circuit. Chomet's hand-drawn film is a lyrical, wistful tale that's about as far from the neatly polished CGI world of Pixar as you could wish to get.

"I think people have started to realise that animation can touch adults," says Chomet. "Drawings and expressions speak to us. But animation has been frozen for a very long time by the people who created this beautiful art form, Walt Disney Studios."

Chomet admits he's been looking to change all this. His 2003 debut Belleville Rendez-Vous was a frenetic, hilarious and often macabre story in which a club-footed old lady set out to rescue a cyclist kidnapped during the Tour de France. Yet here was a film that, for once, adults were dragging their kids to see, rather than the other way round.

While manga classics such as Ghost In The Shell and Akira found audiences over here, adult animation produced by Western filmmakers is very much in its infancy. Not surprisingly, it's Europe and not America that has led the way in bringing it to the fore, though not always successfully. Take Renaissance, the 2006 cyberpunk detective story directed by Christian Volckman. Despite attracting a voice cast that included Daniel Craig and Jonathan Pryce for the English-language version, it flopped.

Yet the successes have been notable -- not least Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed 2007 adaptation of her graphic novel about an outspoken Iranian girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution.

US producers are gradually waking up to the fact animation isn't just for kids. Much of this is thanks to Richard Linklater, whose meditative Waking Life and Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly were both produced using "rotoscoping", where live-footage is "drawn" over and animated.

With Howl, Heavy Metal and The Goon all in various stages of production, it seems Americans are finally ready to ditch Disney for something a little more substantial.

The Illusionist opens on August 20