Review: ‘Flee’ documentary breaks animation boundaries

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the narrative of “Flee” tells the story of Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee who has made his life in Denmark. (Neon/TNS)

Directed by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the narrative of “Flee” tells the story of Amin Nawabi, an Afghan refugee who has made his life in Denmark. (Neon/TNS)


With Oscar nominations for Best International Feature, Documentary Feature and Animated Feature, “Flee” is now in the Academy’s record books as the first film to be honored in these three categories.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a movie that teaches us what animation can be. Since Mickey Mouse first rode down the river in the Steamboat Willie, we have expected movies once drawn by hand, and now usually generated by computers, to exaggerate reality by inventing what we see. While technology may change the artistic process, the best of these films still stretch what the mind imagines. And, most often, they accomplish this while telling conventional stories. Often fairy tales.

“Flee” follows a different path. This inspirational interpretation of an actual story rethinks every expectation we may have by redefining what animation can be. Instead of creating an imaginary world — as with most animated films — moviemaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen tells a true tale through drawn imagery. The result is a striking approach to how the camera can bring real life to the screen with an impressionist approach to the visuals. By daring to draw the film, Rasmussen enhances the truth in the narrative he shares.

With a series of voices, “Flee” tells the story of Amin, a young man who savors his childhood in Afghanistan. Supported by a caring family, he relishes a happy child’s life, with little indication of turbulence to come. In this unstable country, however, daily life quickly turns frightening and, when Amin’s family feels threatened, the young boy flees to Denmark to start over. As Amin later confronts truths about his world and himself, Rasmussen brings his words to life through a series of voices reading the man’s actual words accompanied by striking visuals from the moviemaker’s imagination. Rarely have we seen animation used in such a striking way.

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Film Summary: Flee

Content: High. Moviemaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen's journey through the world of animation reinvents what a traditional medium can achieve.
Entertainment: High. Rasmussen's daring use of drawn images enhances the truth in a fascinating narrative.
Message: High. Because Rasmussen enhances our understanding of one man's life, he makes the issues faced immediately accessible.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to learn from people we may never meet can help us understand those we do meet.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie can prompt conversation between you and your older children about how people can learn to face the truth.

Perhaps, considering the scope of this story, this may be the only way to capture its complexity. Still, it’s a risky choice. Other than the darker scenes in “The Lion King” or “Bambi,” we rarely see “cartoons” consider serious topics. Instead we’ve been trained to expect fairy tale endings to animated films that resolve whatever challenges the exaggerated characters face. Even with advances in computer imagery, these films rarely tell actual stories. They tend to celebrate fantasy.

“Flee” is brutally real. And, because its narrative can be so harrowing, the use of animated visuals enables us to imagine what happens in ways recreated sequences may have felt artificial. Rasmussen, daring to enhance reality through what he imagines, making truth seem more authentic by inspiring us to visualize what may occur. This frees him, as a filmmaker, to reach subjective conclusions; as viewers, we are freed to imagine the actual. The combination is magical, as if the filmmaker begins the sentence and invites the audience to complete the thought. No surprise this is a top Oscar nominee.

 “Flee” runs 1 hour, 29 minutes. It is Rated PG-13 for thematic content, disturbing images and strong language.