A fresh look at Anne Frank’s legacy from the perspective of Kitty, the imaginary friend to whom she addressed so many of her diary entries, director Ari Folman’s latest outside-the-box animated feature (after “Waltz With Bashir” and “The Congress”) suggests that the Jewish teen’s legions of admirers have largely missed the point of her sacrifice. That conclusion is framed not as a reprimand so much as a reappraisal of the tragic young author’s worldview, summarized here as “do everything you can to save one single soul from harm.”
Published posthumously, “The Diary of a Young Girl” made personal the experience of those persecuted by the Nazis in World War II. “Where Is Anne Frank,” on the other hand, uses the Kitty character to launch a more contemporary critique. Since the worst of Anne’s suffering took place after her final entry, Folman flirts with the idea that Kitty might not know how the story ended at Bergen-Belsen. Ergo, Anne’s fate is treated as a mystery that Kitty is intent on solving, blending World War II history with more kid-friendly Carmen Sandiego-style action as she scampers down side alleys and across rooftops.
The movie opens with a freak accident at the Anne Frank House — now a world-famous museum, preserving the place where Anne (voiced by Emily Carey) and her family hid from the Nazis. The disruption frees Kitty from the cloth-bound diary, like a genie from its bottle, cueing chimes as she materializes in a cloud of ink and smoke. The museum guard and its guests can’t see the blue-eyed, redheaded girl (“Bridgerton” star Ruby Stokes), who exists only in close proximity to the diary, drawing strength from its pages.
At first, Kitty stays in the secret annex, the private apartment above Otto Frank’s Opetka workplace, observing as tourists (including Tom Cruise and a Chinese sports team!) crowd into Anne’s tiny bedroom. Kitty’s understandably confused, but little by little, incidents in the present inspire flashbacks, as classic scenes from the diary play out for audiences who may be just now discovering the book.
When Otto first relocates the family to the hideout above his office, an imagined advertisement in which a cartoon cat gets its head stuck in gelatin provides a playful touch, linking the film’s vintage style to early 20th-century animation. The rest of the film more closely resembles that famous Merrie Melodies short “Hollywood Steps Out,” with its gallery of recognizable American stars. Anne and her family have been designed in a similarly appealing way, but rendered strangely, such that the bright eyes and buoyant hairstyle easily recognized from a million book covers now float freely on her face. (They all speak fluent English as well, while supporting characters — including the immigrant-hassling local cops — sport an odd mix of foreign accents.)
Hand-drawn vignettes from Anne’s life demonstrate that she was a precocious girl with a promising life ahead of her at the time the Nazis started passing anti-Jewish legislation, which first rolled back certain rights and soon led to the arrest and internment of kids like her. This part of Anne’s story has been told countless times, but it’s also the most solid aspect of Folman’s film. The filmmaker strives to offer a more authentic account of the incidents described in the diary, as if to suggest there’s more to be discovered between the lines of previous tellings.
Kitty’s there to keep him honest, even if she’s an imaginary character appearing in the more expressionistic medium of animation. As a character, Kitty has an advantage over Anne: She’s free to leave the house, meeting a young refugee (named Peter, like the boy who shared the Franks’ apartment) and developing romantic feelings for him, complicated by the rule that she starts to fade if separated from the diary for too long.
When Kitty steps out, she must take the book with her, which sparks a national panic as the authorities assume that someone has stolen what’s been deemed “the biggest spiritual treasure this country has produced since Rembrandt.” The film’s title — “Where is Anne Frank?” — appears on wanted posters all over Amsterdam, printed with the same red-checked pattern as the diary cover. The question is also a philosophical one, which Folman levels at Europe at large. Yes, Anne Frank’s name can be found on a bridge, a museum, a theater and more, and yet, her lesson appears to have been forgotten as Kitty observes the police rounding up immigrants in the present, suggesting that they’re the latest minority group to be scapegoated and mistreated.
So where is Anne Frank? She’s in the spirit of these refugees, this kid-targeted cartoon argues, serving as a critique of anti-immigrant policies. It’s a false parallel — although the Franks may have fled their native Germany, refugees are not being exterminated in Europe today — but a tough one to challenge after Folman uses the trumps-all debate strategy of comparing the other side to Hitler or the Holocaust. The film’s grand finale, in which Kitty threatens to destroy the diary if the police don’t cancel a mass deportation, leverages Anne’s sacrifice for a more contemporary agenda. All these years, readers have taken passive comfort in Anne’s words, tweaked here as: “It’s amazing that after everything we’ve been through, all the human evil, I still believe that deep inside, human beings are good.” Through Kitty, Folman offers a more urgent point of view.