10 International Animated Films That Showcase World Cultures – Dana Ziyasheva reports

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The United States has always been a culturally diverse country, and it will become even more so in the future. In 2019, more than half of Americans under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority for the first time – so not really a minority after all! Young audiences want to relate to what they’re watching, explore their heritage, and learn about their friends’ cultural background. And Hollywood has started to take notice: Moana, Mulan, Coco, and Encanto added ethnic diversity to Disney/Pixar’s time-tested formula, with action-packed, broad-stroke narratives centered on their title characters’ identity search.

As a parent, I want my kids to see the world as a dazzling array of cultures, a rich and varied tapestry woven by the creativity of humankind. Families can use movies like the ones below to begin or continue essential conversations about cultural codes, biases and stereotypes, cross-cultural communication, and inter-faith dialogue. Ranging from the 1922 version of Cinderella to 2019’s The Knight and the Princess, these non-English movies provide a glimpse into the history of animation around the world. Created in the now-defunct Soviet Union, The Crocodile Gena and Cheburashka offer subtle expressions of social opposition. Others, like the Egyptian Knight and Princess, are a labor of love and cultural statement by their creators. Bouba & Zaza Protect the Earth, Pachamama, The Legend of Buddha, and Kirikou are the dazzling result of international cooperation and contribute to global conversation on sustainable development.

The 10 films on this list were selected according to the following criteria:

  • High aesthetic quality and artistic value
  • Entertaining, easy-to-understand stories
  • Introduction to a specific culture and era through exposure to language, values, and traditional way of life, as well as visual references to material culture, such as architecture, landscape, and clothes
  • Presence of behaviors and shared human experiences that occur universally in all cultures, such as finding food and safety; birth, survival, and death; friendship, love, and family
  • Relevance to today’s challenges of saving our shared home, the Earth
  • Tips for parents:

    Preparing your child to watch an international cartoon is somewhat akin to taking them to a ballet performance or an opera. You may need to screen it beforehand to figure out the story and drum up excitement for the premiere! And some films, such as The Knight and the Princess (available on Netflix), and the remastered Geese-Swans (on YouTube), aren’t dubbed, only subtitled. So be ready to assume the role of storyteller: Convey the gist of it and let the stunning imagery do the rest. When kids see you going that extra mile for this shared viewing experience, they, too, might be more willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone.

    And if, despite your best efforts, international films don’t take off in your house, it’s still OK. Somewhere down the road, this improvised crash-course in world culture and history could make for an interesting presentation at school. That said, if your kids do like these films, they may be eager to watch more. Happily, many of the movies on this list have sequels, and there are other great choices out there, too.

    Be ready for content outside the Hollywood mainstream. International animated films, especially those of an older vintage, are more concerned with authenticity than getting a G or PG rating. In Kirikou, the title character wears only his birthday suit, and women go about their daily routine bare-chested. Don’t be alarmed if your child suddenly starts running around the house naked in the middle of winter. There’s no better life-lasting antidote to racism and xenophobia than a kiddo identifying with a resourceful, smart character from a completely different culture.

    Judging older movies by present-day social standards might be tricky. Rather, think of it as an archived screenshot of a certain time and way of thinking. That’s the beauty of cultural diversity: It’s as much about awareness and acceptance of other cultures’ realities and norms as it is about trust. Trust in other people’s ability to decide for themselves when and how they want their values to evolve.

    Don’t hesitate to “serialize” any of these films. If your kids are losing interest or you need to do something other than reading subtitles, end on a cliffhanger and pick up again later. Remember, timing is everything! When you sit down to watch the rest of the film, your child shouldn’t be tired, hungry, or overexcited. International animation fares better with a fresh mind and a keen eye.

    Now, on to the films!

    Kirikou and the Sorceress – 1998, West Africa, France (available on Amazon Prime)

    In this West African folktale, the newborn Kirikou saves his village from the evil sorceress Karaba. Guided by his grandfather’s spirit, Kirikou removes a poisoned thorn from Karaba’s back, freeing her from pain. To thank him, Karaba helps Kirikou grow and undoes her evil magic.

    Conversation starter: Was Kirikou’s choice to show kindness to the evil sorceress instead of punishing her the right one? Do you know anyone who behaves like Karaba?

    Crocodile Gena and Cheburashka
    – 1968, Soviet Union (available on YouTube)

    This Soviet stop-motion animation follows the adventures of mild-mannered crocodile Gena and Cheburashka, a tiny furry animal. Their friendship and good citizenship irritate a con artist named Shapoklyak. All three are social misfits who help each other feel less lonely in a big city.

    Conversation starter: Would you be as chill as Gena and Cheburashka if somebody constantly annoyed you and ruined your day? What do you think about Shapoklyak’s motto “Good deeds won’t make you famous”?

    Grave of the Fireflies – 1988, Japan (available on Roku, Vudu, iTunes)

    This heart wrenching Japanese anime classic chronicles the slow death from starvation of two orphaned siblings in WWII Japan. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s full of poetic realism that shows children paying the price of adults’ war games.

    Conversation starter: What would you do if you were faced with the same situation as Seito and Satsuko? Why do you think people around them chose not to help?

    Cinderella – 1922, Germany (available on YouTube)

    In this silent 12-minute short, pioneering German animator Lotte Reiniger uses her signature hand-cut silhouette technique to bring the Brothers Grimm’s version of Cinderella to life. Well worth the watch for its intricate, quirky, and sometimes macabre spectacle.

    Conversation starter: Did you know that shadow puppetry began 2,000 years ago in China? Do you think making an entire film with scissors and carboard is easier or more complicated than, say, drawing it?

    Pachamama – 2018, Andean countries of Latin America (available on Netflix)

    When a sacred statue is taken from his Andean village, 10-year-old Tepulpai and his friend Naira go on a brave mission to retrieve it. They witness the fall of Cusco, the capital of Inca Empire, to gold-crazy conquistadors. The end twist reveals the true meaning of treasure.

    Conversation starter: What, in your opinion, is Pachamama — a goddess, karma, or a way forward for humanity? Who, in your mind, possesses the true riches: the Inca King, conquistadors, or Tepulpai and people from his village?

    Uproar in Heaven – 1964, China (available on Amazon, YouTube)

    In this partial adaptation of the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey to the West, San Wukong, a mischievous super-monkey, proclaims himself equal to Heaven. The heavenly bureaucracy shows itself unable to stop San Wukong’s relentless march to power.

    Conversation starter: What drives San Wukong and makes him indestructible? Who deserves power more, San Wukong or the Jade Emperor?

    Bouba & Zaza Protect the Earth – 2012, Pan-African (available on YouTube)

    “Bouba & Zaza” is a children’s book collection initiated by UNESCO and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa. In this engaging animation, Bouba, Zaza, and their family and friends grow vegetables, recycle, and prioritize harmony with nature over material gains.

    Conversation starter: What issues are important to African children? Do you find similarities with what worries you?

    The Legend of Buddha – 2004, India (available on Amazon, YouTube)

    Imitating Disney style to the point of giving green eyes to maharajas in 600 BC India, this 2004 take on Buddha’s life hits all of the milestones of his transformation from a sheltered prince to The Enlightened One.

    Conversation starter: Why does Prince Siddhartha decide to leave the palace and his loving wife? What is the Middle Path that Buddha chose?

    Geese-Swans – 1949, Russia (available on YouTube)

    In this Slavic folk tale, a peasant girl named Masha fails to watch over her younger brother. To save him from a pack of geese-swans and Baba Yaga, a child-eating witch, Masha braves the forest and finds unexpected allies in nature.

    Conversation starter: What does this folk tale teach us about responsibility for our younger siblings? Do you think this lesson is applicable today?

    The Knight and the Princess – 2019, Egypt (available on Netflix)

    This is a 7th-century true story about a 16-year-old knight Al Qasim, who rescues women and children captured by pirates in the Indian Sea. He then takes on the powerful overlord and his devious sorcerer and finds love with a Hindu warrior princess.

    Conversation starter: Why does the princess helps Al Qasim, even after he married someone else? Who would you rather be buddies with, Al Qasim or Aladdin?

    The 10 animated films and where to find them:

    Kirikou and the Sorceress – 1998, Amazon Prime
    Crocodile Gena and Cheburashka – 1968, YouTube
    Grave of Fireflies – 1988, Roku, Vudu, iTunes
    Cinderella – 1922, YouTube
    Pachamama – 2018, Netflix
    Uproar in Heaven – 1964, Amazon, YouTube
    Bouba & Zaza protect the Earth – 2012, YouTube
    The Legend of Buddha – 2004, Amazon YouTube
    Geese-Swans – 1949, YouTube
    The Knight and the Princess – 2019, Netflix


    Dana Ziyasheva is a filmmaker and journalist. She published her first film review at the age of 14, while covering the XIX All-Soviet Film Festival in her hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan. A graduate of the Journalist Department of the Kazakh State University, she contributes to several online publications. Dana wrote, directed, and produced the dystopian fantasy film Greatland (2020) and indigenous drama Defenders of Life (2015), which helped outlaw underage marriages in Costa Rica. She’s worked with China Central TV and Film Group on children’s programs, as well as the feature film Kung Fu Man co-produced by Keanu Reeves. Her mission was to give voice to the voiceless and build Knowledge Societies in countries such as China, North Korea, Iraq, Russia, Honduras and Costa Rica. She is currently developing The Art of InfoWar, a documentary about media coverage in Ukraine. Dana keeps her eyes open for art-house gems from around the world.

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