Earlier this year, there were numerous think pieces and reviews on Disney’s March release, Zootopia, and the mature themes with which it dealt. People were astonished and mesmerized by its social commentary, from stereotyping to the use of profiling on a police force to “othering” in society. The same thing happened with last year’s Pixar juggernaut, Inside Out, as it explored the mentality of children, and topics like depression. Most of the astonishment stemmed from the fact that these are both animated children’s movies. As a fan of both these films, I was more than pleased with the warm receptions they received — both financially and critically. However, they made me wonder: why can’t animated films like these be the rule, and not the exceptions (especially in recent years which have seen animation perform well at the box office)?
It’s an accepted notion that Pixar films are for kids and adults alike. Parent company Disney has been falling into that category more and more with each new film they release as well. But outside of the Mouse House, the landscape of mainstream animation couldn’t be more different.
Halfway through the year, the biggest animated films have easily been the aforementioned Zootopia, the animated Pixar sequel Finding Dory, and Illumination’s surprising hit The Secret Life of Pets. Otherwise, we’ve seen more lackluster animated flicks like Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Angry Birds Movie or the downright abysmal Norm of the North, Ratchet and Clank, and Ice Age: Collision Course throughout the year’s first seven months. There is a clear divide amongst the quality of these films, as there are with any group of films, but in the world of animation, there are certain caveats that cannot be applied to other genres.
It’s easy to conflate animation with children’s movies, and for the purpose of this article, animated family films are what I’m going to be focusing on in the larger world of animation. With this conflation, there’s a tendency to downplay audiences, sometimes to the point of disrespecting them. After all, aren’t animated movies for kids just meant to amuse them for a handful of hours and nothing more? Tell that to the numerous psychologists and counselors who used the concepts and characters of Inside Out with their own patients.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a movie existing to entertain. One of the most important aspects of movies is that they’re a form of escapism. And if a movie can provide happiness, even for a little while, that’s great. However, entertainment and art (or depth, depending on how you view it) don’t need to be mutually exclusive. But one of the troubling trends in the world of children’s animation is the separation of these two traits, and the way films can complacently fall into the trap of not doing enough to bridge the gap between them. It’s almost as though the people behind animated films are nervous about introducing depth and complexity into films intended primarily for children but here’s the thing — that’s really selling kids short.
Children are far more perceptive and open-minded than some movies give them credit for. People can wonder if Inside Out was too complicated for them, but all I remember when I saw it multiple times in theaters were children enjoying themselves immensely and talking about their own emotions and experiences as they walked out during the credits. Not to mention that, at such an impressionable age, media means something. Media — whether it be films, television, books, music, theater, etc. — influences us throughout our lives, especially when we’re growing up and may not understand everything a piece of art is commenting on or saying. By that logic, it’s even more important that animated family films not be afraid of pushing the boundaries, both in terms of creativity and content. Audiences, especially children, deserve at least that.
Luckily, there are studios beyond Disney and Pixar who are putting out quality work. DreamWorks can be hit or miss, but they have true gems in films like Shrek and Shrek 2 and the How to Train Your Dragon franchise and Rise of the Guardians (to say nothing of their earlier, and far more clever films like The Road to El Dorado and The Prince of Egypt). They are, at the very least, stepping out of Pixar’s shadow and starting to really prove their standalone merits.
Another company that has done this for years is Japan’s Studio Ghibli, co-founded by director Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. While it’s relatively well-known Stateside, it still doesn’t quite have the level of fame or mass appeal that its films deserve. From Kiki’s Delivery Service to Howl’s Moving Castle to Spirited Away (which has won Ghibli’s only Oscar so far) to the most recent When Marnie Was There, Ghibli has consistently made films that are captivating, mature in themes, and breathtaking. They help further prove the idea that animation that is appropriate for and aimed at children need not be dumbed down or simplified in any way.
Television tends to have similar gaps when it comes to animation, although it has also been able to push boundaries and explore more complex ideas. Most recently, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s Nickelodeon shows Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra excelled at creating a near-perfect balance of animated storytelling that is all at once appropriate for children, original, deep, and enlightening. They are series that are beloved by children and adults alike and have set a high precedent for animated television. The same can be said for Cartoon Network’s miniseries Over the Garden Wall, which, from the outset, has surprisingly dark and layered morals throughout. It has its share of silliness for children, of course, but when I first watched it, I was completely blown away by its intricacies and depth, perhaps more than any other animated series. But shows like these can also highlight the gaps of this genre, making the output more frustrating at times.
The disparities don’t end with just content. One of the most telling ways to look at the treatment of animation in Hollywood is via the Oscars. The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature first appeared in 2002 for the films of the year prior and this top prize went to DreamWorks’ Shrek. Since then, animated films, both aimed at children and adults, have been given their spotlight to shine — but why are these films limited to just this category? Only three animated films have ever been nominated for Best Picture: Beauty and the Beast (1991), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010). There have been criticisms lobbied at the Academy for using the Best Animated Feature category as an excuse not to nominate animated films in the Best Picture category and with films like WALL-E and Inside Out, there is foundation to these criticisms. Perhaps Academy members are not doing it intentionally, but certainly, there must be some complacency surrounding animated films having their own category in the belief that’s recognition enough. It is also worth nothing that Disney and Pixar tend to dominate the Best Animated Feature category and while their nominations are typically warranted, it would be nice to see the category broaden its horizons as well.
Animation has been given a disservice in several ways throughout the years — thinking it’s a genre largely for children, and therefore just to serve as entertainment; not allowing other studios and artists to break into the general mainstream; and, for the most part, not being recognized as it should be. This isn’t something that will change overnight, but I hope it’s something that can at least change over time. There are several wonderful animated films out there and not all of them are Disney and Pixar (which is not to downplay either of them — their work is nothing short of astounding, and they have done so much for the world of animation at large) and hopefully going forward, they can be noticed more, and be examples for other filmmakers in the genre to push the boundaries of creativity and content.
Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor