A review requested by Thor Rudebeck, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not going to be anybody's first answer to the question "name a country that makes animated films" - probably not even the people who live there. The United States had Walt Disney to create the model for its animation industry, Japan had manga artists moving into motion pictures, Canada had the invaluable NFB, the USSR had a burning desire to compete with America on all cinematic fronts including cartoons, continental Europe had a tradition of comic books to draw from, and the UK had diddily squat.

Yet while the production of animation on those islands has been incomparably modest, by a curious wrinkle of fate, the small number of British animated features is disproportionately important, and disproportionately adult. It was in England that the world's first feature-length sound cartoon for a strictly grown-up audience was made, a 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm - which, in an even more interesting development, was financed by the CIA in the hopes of smuggling some fun animated anti-Soviet propaganda into the Eastern Bloc. Decades later, as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, a production team led by director Martin Rosen adapted a pair of books by Richard Adams, Watership Down and The Plague Dogs, giving the world its finest pair of anti-Disney epics of realistic talking animals faced with the unspeakable cruelty of red-toothed nature and human arrogance, respectively. And in 1986, where we now land, Jimmy Murakami directed an adaptation of Raymond Brigg's anti-nuke graphic novel When the Wind Blows, resulting in one of the great sucker punches in all the annals of the animated film (and a far cry from the previous Murakami/Briggs collaboration, the adorable, sentimental short The Snowman). It's a roly-poly comedy about two ultra-English old people, Hilda (Peggy Ashcroft) and James Bloggs (John Mills), who bumble about in confused dotage as they prepare for a nuclear bomb according to the helpfully dry hand-outs provided by the government. They are everybody's mom and dad, or grandma and grandpa, who not only still have "12:00" flashing on the VCR, they still have a VCR in the first place. And we watch and laugh at their silly bickering, at their misunderstanding of geopolitics, and at their lingering death from radiation poisoning.

It seems downright quaint now that we know how absolutely devoid of resources the Soviet Union was in the 1980s, but it speaks to the utter pants-shitting terror people were feeling as that country roared through its death throes that two of the best animated features of the second half of the 1980s are both about people dying in the wake of nuclear combat. The other one is Takahata Isao's monumental Grave of the Fireflies from 1988, one of the great achievements in hellishly bleak audience punishment, and I suppose just by virtue of being unremitting, that film is ultimately more depressing than When the Wind Blows. Though something inside of me wants to declare that When the Wind Blows is actually the more sobering achievement, by virtue of its soul-destroying tonal shift in the second half.

It starts out as a sweet-minded comedy of manners set in the most generic, idealised version of the English countryside that could be summoned up, rolling hills in the softest pastel greens, darling little cottages, and all. The style, derived without deviation from Briggs's book - to a great extent, the film is little more than the book set in motion, though it has a couple of key points of superiority that we'll be looking at shortly - is unutterably childish, characters drawn as big circles with little pin-dot eyes and thick body parts. The dialogue is bogged down in old-timey English slang to the degree that it's hard not to assume that it was a parody: certainly, by the fifteenth time we hear James exhale "crumbs!" in a perfectly mortified tone of voice, it has gone past local color and straight into surrealistic goofiness.

Speaking of line deliveries, there's also the matter of Ashcroft and Mills themselves, two of the most perfectly-cast actors in the history of the medium (this is one of those points where the movie can't help but trump the book - hearing the old couple talk gives them warm, ditsy personalities that speech balloons cannot possibly match). Their voices are so British; soft and lilting, full of pride and remarkably confused, but indefatigably high-spirited in their confusion. James is a man of absolute gung-ho confidence in stating things he barely understands but which have been vetted for him as proper, Maggie is equally confident in writing off anything she can't immediately comprehend as of limited or no utility, and both are warmly proud of their and their country's ability to withstand Germany during the Second World War, the conflict they keep helplessly analogising to the Cold War. They're comic, dopey figures, but lovable for their visual and auditory softness; this is a gently mocking tribute to the older generation, but one suffused with love.

After the bombs fall (probably the Russians, in a desperate bid to knock the legs out from underneath the West, though the film raises the possibility that it could just as easily have been an errant American missile), the characters keep on behaving the same way, which is the shock that pushes When the Wind Blows into something very much like horror. The fun that the movie has poking at the characters turns harsh and bitter as we see them start to suffer from the effects of fallout. The bulbous character designs go from picture book illustration sweetness to something very like body horror as we see their nonexistent eye sockets sink in and turn red, their pencil-line lips turn blood red, and their stumpy limbs covered in bright lesions; and through all of it, Mills keeps flogging the England Can Do It spirit with an increasingly wheezy, exhausted voice. It is legitimately terrifying and appalling, all the more so since the film lulled us into such a complacent state with its domestic comedy about old folks barely able to interpret relative straightforward if misleadingly bloodless government documents.

Taken all as a whole, it's a fearlessly bleak satire of the British government's placating attempts to suggest that nuclear war can be survived with a sufficiently stiff upper lip, and of the population that mindlessly accepts that message. That aspect, at least, remains razor-sharp even after the film's other main target, an unblinking depiction of the hell that befalls those who survive a nuclear explosion, has lost most of its existential urgency. Still, even in its now-dated aspect as a story of what would happen if we blew up The Bomb, When the Wind Blows is among the most potent examples of that subgenre, maybe even the single most potent: the fact that it's animated gives it a sickening force, a mismatch between form and content that feels absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong, in way that even documentary footage of the effects of a nuclear explosion can't quite muster up.

It's a pretty ingenious piece of animation too, brashly stylised, but in uniformly restrained, subtle ways, if that makes sense. It's status as a conceptual art object is present in every frame, but always in a very focused way: how does this work? What does it do for the story? And that's how we get the frequent use of scratchy, pencil-sketch interludes representing the characters' fantasies or mental dialogues or memories, rough images that flow out of the softer "present tense" animation, and sometimes actively interfere with it, as when Maggie has a distressing vision of James, at his age, forced to march to war, right in her living room.

The more omnipresent and exceptional twist of style comes in the sets, and I do mean "sets": When the Wind Blows combines cel animation in the character and most of the props they interact with, with an actual physical model of their home, brought to life in stop-motion animation (and occasionally, just in regular old film footage). This should be intrusive, but it's almost exactly the opposite: twice now I've seen the film, and both times it snuck up on me after several minutes that the house was three-dimensional and the characters were not. It works on a subliminal level, rather than a stylistically aggressive one, giving the home the hand-made feel of a doll's house, snug and filled with little details that impart a lot of personality and lived-in clutter. Basically, it adds to the film's sense of realism, which makes little sense while you're watching the movie, right up until the explosion happens, and the full weight of that realism falls hard upon the movie.

The last thing that one must talk about is the music: When the Wind Blows has one of the most offbeat, effective scores of the 1980s as a whole, provided by Roger Waters, late of the iconic prog-rock band Pink Floyd. It's the kind of thing that sounds impossibly strange at first, but in practice is exactly right: Pink Floyd's music, to a great extent, is based on filtering English sensibilities and English musical forms through a harsh synthetic wringer, and the When the Wind Blows score feels more than a little like a more pastoral version of the music from The Wall. At times it's soft and bouncy, with just enough synthesizer music in the orchestration to remind you that this is from the '80s; at times, it's a full-on electronic drone, undercutting the characters and stressing out the listener with the atonal throbbing that sounds exactly right as the soundtrack to a post-nuclear wasteland. (There's also a theme song by David Bowie which is fine and all, but not really worth talking about - it's not top-tier Bowie, and it doesn't interact with the movie in the same ways that the Waters score does).

All in all, a pretty dismal night out at the movies, especially given that the light comedy which makes large chunks of it actively fun to watch are a weapon that the film turns against the audience, rather than legitimate comic relief. But by all means, don't let that turn you off of it. As a time capsule of '80s political paranoia, as one of the great one-off experiments in animation aesthetics, and as a vessel for two of the most interesting characters in animated movies, When the Wind Blows is gripping compulsively watchable cinema. Political documents from prior generations can't help but lose their force, and yet this is just as powerful now as it ever could have been; that kind of thematic longevity is rare as hell (it is the only "nuclear terror" film I've seen besides Dr. Strangelove that feels like it hasn't lost a meaningful amount of its intended effect), and it's enough all by itself to prove that whatever else this is, it's an outright masterpiece.