Comprehending Horror through Animation: The Art of the Anti-War Animated Movie

Posted on February 7, 2023 By

by John Whitehead

Animation fascinates me. Like painters, animators can create images of stunning beauty. Being free from the limitations of human actors or physical locations, animators can also depart from strict realism and create images that are fantastical, metaphorical, or otherwise stylized.

Animation’s stylization can allow animated films to deal with darker, more serious topics such as war more successfully than live-action films. As peace activist and film critic Dwight Macdonald observed, realistic presentations of war or other violence can lose their impact by overwhelming viewers. “The first corpse is a terrible experience,” Macdonald wrote, “the second less so, and finally one becomes either immune by repetition…or, worse, morbidly fascinated by the spectacle” (from Dwight Macdonald on Movies, p. 447).

By taking a non-realistic, indirect approach to war, animation can perhaps get beyond such viewer defenses and by subtler means bring the horror of mass violence home. Many animated films, both shorts and feature-length films, have tried to do this.

Out of many animated films dealing with war, I have selected a handful that might make for interesting viewing for consistent life ethic or other peace activists. (These films can be found via the Internet Archive, YouTube, streaming services, or on DVD; check your local library for DVD versions.)

Short Films

Peace on Earth (1939)/Good Will to Men (1955). MGM’s Peace on Earth (featured in the 2011 edition of Peace & Life Connections) imagines a future, post-human world now populated by forest animals. An elderly animal recounts to some children his memories of humans and how they wiped themselves out in an apocalyptic war. Made shortly before the United States entered World War II, the film’s portrayal of human war resembles World War I-era combat, with soldier in gas masks fighting in trenches.

After World War II, the noted animation team of William Hannah and Joseph Barbera remade the short as Good Will to Men. While following essentially the same plot, the remake updates the war scenes to include flamethrowers, missiles, and ultimately atomic bombs.

The Hannah-Barbera version boasts more polished animation, but both versions are haunting in their portrayal of war. Both also end on hopeful notes as the animals build a new society and mark Christmastime with resolutions not to wage war again.

The Hole (1962). This Oscar-winning short was made by the husband-and-wife team of John and Faith Hubley. The Hubleys favored minimalist, abstract animation and that approach is on display in The Hole, where jagged lines, fuzzy borders, and bleeding colors make the film resemble a child’s drawing.

In the film, two New York City construction workers (one voiced by jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie) chat as they work below street level. Their conversation turns to nuclear weapons and the very real danger of nuclear war occurring because of technical malfunctions or other accidents. As the men continue talking about a possible catastrophe, the tension and sense of dread grows. The Hole finally builds to an ambiguous but unsettling conclusion.

We Can Do It! (1970). Anti-war animation was not limited to the American side of the Cold War. This Soviet-made film offers a call for world action against war and imperialism, with a distinctly Marxist spin.

Using stark black line drawings against colored backgrounds, We Can Do It! shows a monstrous bird of prey hatching and being nourished by an American general and a greedy capitalist. The bird takes flight and fires feathers from its wings like rockets, devastating the communities below.

However, the world’s peoples respond by rallying for peace and, in a sequence with memorable symbolic imagery, defeat the war bird. Those contributing to the bird’s defeat include a writer at his typewriter and a jazz musician playing a trumpet, in a nice acknowledgment of the arts’ role in peace making.

The Conflict (1983). Another Soviet-made film, The Conflict is less ideological than We Can Do It! and also the simplest film on this list. Directed by Garri Bardin, The Conflict shows a war between the armies of two rival countries, which are portrayed, through stop-motion animation, by two sets of matchsticks.

The conflict between the blue matchsticks and green matchsticks begins with a border dispute and escalates from there. Seeing walking matchsticks chop each other up is initially somewhat comical. When the war reaches its inevitable climax, though, and we see the aftermath, the effect is sobering and eerie.

Feature Films

Major US animation studios such as Disney and Pixar have generally steered clear of making anti-war movies. However, other countries have produced powerful films on this theme.


Anti-war animation

Barefoot Gen (1983; in Japanese with subtitles). Japanese “anime”-style animation about war could fill an entire article by itself, given Japan’s thriving anime industry and searing experience of warfare, including atomic warfare. I will limit myself to one anti-war anime film, though.

Based on a manga (comic book) series by hibakusha Kenji Nakazawa, Barefoot Gen follows a young boy, Gen Nakaoka, living in World War II-era Hiroshima. The film shows Gen and his family’s daily life, what happens to them when the United States drops an atomic bomb on the city, and the family’s struggles in the bombing’s aftermath.

Barefoot Gen stands out among anime movies on war partly for its sheer power. The portrayal of the Hiroshima bombing is not for the faint of heart: the movie shows the carnage in all its horror. Being rendered in exaggerated, somewhat goofy-looking animation prevents the bombing scenes from being conventionally gory yet the contrast between the child-like form and the devastating content underlines the enormity on screen.

The movie also stands out and recommends itself to consistent life ethic activists because its concerns extend beyond war to other threats to life. The humanity and well-being of the poor, children in the womb, and people with disabilities all receive some attention. (For a more detailed discussion of the movie, see this piece for Rehumanize International.)

Waltz with Bashir (2008, in Hebrew with subtitles). Israeli filmmaker Ari Holman grapples cinematically with his experiences as a soldier in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Suffering from memory problems, Holman tries to piece together what he witnessed and specifically what he saw on the night when Lebanese forces allied with Israel perpetrated a massacre of Palestinian civilians.

Holman interviews fellow veterans and both the interviews and the veterans’ remembered experiences are recreated using multiple types of animation. Waltz with Bashir’s combination of pop art-style drawings and a limited color palette makes the resulting movie feel like an animated film noir. This look suits the various gritty, downbeat tales presented on screen.

We watch veterans go through harrowing, often surreal, episodes of combat and get occasional moments of respite that are sometimes no less grotesque. We hear them talk frankly and thoughtfully about what they did and saw and the resulting trauma. We also see the many terrible ways civilian life is destroyed in war’s chaos. (Note: Viewers should be warned that Waltz with Bashir concludes with a wrenching, non-animated sequence in which we are shown documentary footage of the Lebanon War’s real-life consequences.)

The Breadwinner movieThe Breadwinner (2017). Parvana, an Afghan girl with a knack for storytelling, lives in Kabul, under Taliban rule. When misfortune befalls her family, Parvana must become their main source of support. Because unaccompanied women are not allowed to leave home, she disguises herself as a boy and tries to help her mother and siblings as best she can.

A production of Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, The Breadwinner rejects any attempt at a realistic visual style, instead embracing a flatness of imagery reminiscent of a children’s storybook. This style is especially pronounced in fanciful depictions of Parvana’s imagined tales, which use paper-cut-out-like characters and brighter colors than are used in the drabber real-world scenes. The filmmakers also rely on an indirect approach to events, often implying what is occurring rather than showing it. This paradoxically makes such moments more resonant.

War hangs over the story. The legacy of the Soviet invasion and subsequent civil war is present in the wreckage of tanks and the continuing threat from land mines. Later, the 2001 US invasion begins and creates a climactic crisis for Parvana and her family. Through it all, she tries to endure, using her storytelling as a coping mechanism. The conclusion is appropriately bittersweet—and seems even more poignant in light of Afghanistan’s ongoing suffering today.

All these animated films, short and long, have the ability to haunt viewers and inspire reflection on war’s toll. Consistent life ethic activists and others interested in peace should consider watching them, perhaps by hosting group screenings with discussions afterwards.


For more of our posts on art, see: 

It’s a Wonderful Movement 

Right-to-Life Issues in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature

Dickens (Christmas literature)

Recognizing Humanity: Orwell and the Consistent Life Ethic


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