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Localising animation movies for a worldwide audience

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

We can all agree that there are some things in life that can be enjoyed by all ages, and animation movies are definitely one of them.

From Finding Nemo to Toy Story, Despicable Me to Inside Out, Frozen to Luca, countless animation movies have gained a special place in our hearts – I’m not sure about you, but UP has me crying within the first 15 minutes. Beyond the jokes and imagery, these films deal with profound subjects, such as death and the meaning of life, and can even educate you on unlikely topics, like languages.

Whether you’re from the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal or any other country, chances are you’ve watched these movies in your native language.

As the animated film industry has become an increasingly global one, more and more multimedia content is being made available to a worldwide audience. Just to give you an idea, most Disney productions are officially dubbed into more than 46 global languages after appearing in English!

However, as you can imagine, there’s far more to this than simply dubbing and/or subtitling a movie into a different language and promoting it in a foreign country with lots of good publicity. That would not be nearly enough to land it a special place in viewers’ multilingual and multicultural hearts.

To tackle this exciting (yet complex) challenge, multimedia translation comes to our rescue.

Multimedia translation (also referred to as audio-visual translation) is probably one of the most creative branches of translation, making localised changes to specific movie scenes, in this case, so that they better fit a particular country’s cultural context. Prepare yourself to be blown away by some of the techniques involved!

Although not the case in the past, when the very first animation movies produced in the US were launched, language and culture are now heavily focused on, even as early on as when the original film is being created, thereby enabling and facilitating localisation. In contrast to pure translation, localisation involves adapting the content to suit the target audience, and is usually done so well that the viewer doesn’t notice it.

In fact, most of us are actually unable to identify which localisation approaches, strategies and tricks are used in movies – at least not all of them. In addition to language, there are also a number of visual elements that are regularly used in order to have a big impact on the viewing experience.

I bet you’re thinking, “I’ve never noticed that!”

It might seem a paradox, but if you do not notice the localisation… it most likely means it was successful, as that is precisely the ultimate goal!

Buzz Lightyear in front of the US flag or a globe

So, let’s see some of these localisation techniques in action. Take the screenshot on the left from Toy Story 2, for instance.

In this scene, delivered to a US audience, Buzz Lightyear gives an inspiring speech in front of the American flag. However, in the international version of the movie, the flag is replaced with the image of a globe. This clever solution helps non-US viewers relate better to the speech, which would otherwise be less impactful with a US flag in the background.

Riley eating broccoli or green pepper

Let’s see another example, taken from Pixar’s Inside Out:

In most countries, viewers would see the top image, where little Riley is being forced to eat broccoli. All children hate broccoli … right? Apparently not everywhere they don’t!

When watching this scene, viewers in Japan would see the bottom image, with Riley being forced to eat green pepper, something Japanese kids tend to dislike the most. In this way, the kid’s disgusted reaction is retained, but the cause of her disgust (broccoli vs green pepper) changes depending on the country.

Moana vs Oceania

As mentioned earlier, language obviously plays one of the biggest roles in localisation. In a previous article, we discussed how film titles can be freely translated to convey the story concept in a powerful way in the local language. Yet, when the title is the name of the main character, as is the case with the movie Moana, you may wonder why some local markets like Italy felt the need to change it.

This time, Disney renamed the Italian version of the movie Moana to Oceania. The reason for this is that in Italy the name “Moana” instantly makes people think of one of Italy’s most famous adult film stars. “Oceania”, on the other hand, refers to the region of islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean and perfectly fits the context.

If you’re keen to check out some more examples of localisation in the animation industry, we recommend watching the video below:

The world of movie localisation is definitely an exciting mix of creativity, cleverness, out-of-the-box thinking, cultural knowledge and linguistics. It also makes us realise just how skilful a translator must be to successfully ensure that their tremendous efforts remain completely invisible to the target audience’s eye, while conveying the deeper message to linguistically and culturally-diverse audiences around the world.

Many may think that because children are the main target audience of animated films, in-depth knowledge of cultural references is not particularly relevant here. On the contrary, in pretty much the same way as children’s literature, animated films are also often considered an essential element of children’s cultural foundations, and there are some details and aspects of movies that can only be understood by a very young audience if these are completely clear, so as to avoid running the risk of misunderstandings. For this reason, it’s vital that these films are localised, taking into account the culture of the target country.

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