It takes a certain skill to make an animated film both educational and entertaining. However, this style of “edutainment” seems to come naturally to Anne-Marie Fleming, director of “Window Horses“. Under Fleming’s creative vision, “Window Horses” compellingly navigates dense thematic terrain, exploring history, culture, and politics through the experience of a young Canadian woman’s journey to Iran.
The protagonist of the story is Rosie Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), a young Canadian who works in a fast food restaurant but has a casual interest in poetry. As a long-time Francophile, she, therefore, decides on a whim to self-publish a book of poems titled “Eyeful Poems: A Collection of Poems by a Girl Who Has Never Been to France”. Shortly after, she receives an unexpected letter in the mail. It turns out to be an invitation to a poetry festival in Iran, based on someone’s recommendation of her book. Having never traveled outside of Canada, the opportunity entices Rosie. And after initial reluctance from the grandparents who take care, she is sent off on an adventure which will change her perspective on her family, her Iranian heritage and by extension, herself.
Born and raised in Canada with a Chinese mother and Iranian father, Rosie makes for an inherently fascinating protagonist. As such, it would have been easy to make her into an ideal, worldly citizen. Fleming takes a less obvious and ultimately more rewarding approach, however. Indeed, despite her multi-cultural heritage, she is largely unaware of her parents’ indigenous language or culture.
Due to this naivety and her inexperience with poetry, Rosie’s presence in Iran is that of a “fish out of water.” And the animation further emphasizes this too, as her stick-figure design contrasts with the other more recognizably human characters. The script thus generates easy laughs out of her various faux pas. Most notably in her decision to wear a full black chador, which stands out against the less conservative hijab worn by most of the women she meets.
Thankfully, Rosie is also a curious individual. And as she gradually learns about Iranian language, culture and history, “Window Horses” is able to deftly break down various stereotypes of Islamic and more specifically, Iranian culture. Far from the rigid oppression often projected in the West, the rich tradition of Iranian poets is celebrated for example. Meanwhile, religious practices are depicted with equal beauty. One of the most memorably animated sequences involves the morning call to prayer, which is accompanied by bursts of colors that permeate throughout the land.
Such expressive animation is a consistent trait of “Window Horses”, as poetry recitals and historical tales are visualized through captivating animated montages. Among these stories are sobering accounts of politics and war, which serves to educate Rosie and audiences alike. Admittedly, the level of detail in these sequences strays into didactic “history lesson” territory, taking away some of the focus from Rosie’s journey of self-discovery.
But the historical insight also becomes increasingly personal for Rosie, leading towards a highly emotional conclusion. And though it may sound cliché, the rich cultural specificity of the narrative ultimately gives it universal relevance. Satisfying on both an emotional and intellectual level, “Window Horses” is an animated film any family can enjoy.
“Window Horses” opens in select theaters September 29.