More than cartoons

In the darkness appears a flickering image: a flower blooming. Crude as it is, this grainy film from the 1890s is the start of a journey that has led to creations as diverse as Waltz With Bashir, the Creature Comforts ads and the T-rex from Jurassic Park (my childhood nemesis).

Animation might be a relatively new art form but it's one with a surprising reach - and not just among children. "Watch Me Move", the exhibition running at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, chronicles its diversity and artistic possibilities. The early animations - projected to great effect in a dark-walled room illuminated by UV light - show its rapid evolution, and unexpectedly dark themes. Opposite an 1897 Lumière brothers reel of a "dancing" skeleton is an 1929 update on the idea by Walt Disney, the man who later brought us Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

The second main room, a huge white hall, contrasts more recent animations from east and west - the elegant, poignant, myth-making work of Japan's Studio Ghibli versus the broad, comedic style of The Simpsons.

The serious side of animation is also discussed, from 1989's Going Equipped - which features the real-life voice of a teenage thief over claymation - to Tim Webb's award-winning A is for Autism, which uses words and drawings by those affected by the condition.

Elsewhere, there is a series of screening rooms where you can relive the gaudy 1980s magnificence of Tron or the melancholia of Tim Burton's early stop-motion work Vincent. Diehard fans of the genre will also appreciate the inclusion of Pixar Studios' very first project, Luxo Jr, featuring the two quarrelsome lamps that now precede Pixar blockbusters such as Up, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

As an unabashed geek, I loved the huge collection of action figurines by the exit - a pointed reminder that, for all its stylistic innovation, animation is big business.

Still, this exhibition makes a decent case that there is more to this medium than raking in the cash. Oh, and that the T-rex in Jurassic Park is still scary, 18 years on.

“Watch Me Move" runs until 11 September. For more details, visit:

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold