The following was commissioned by Flickering Myth
Henry Bevan wants to know when animation will get the respect it deserves…
With the live-action Beauty and the Beast breaking records this weekend, it appears Disney’s animated classics are still cherished. Yet, as the original was the first animated film nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, the remake’s success also highlights how Hollywood, and the wider public, view animation.
More times than not, animated movies are unfairly labeled as sub-par films for ridiculous reasons. After I published an article on LGBTQ representation in Disney movies, a commenter dismissed my analysis as being overly PC because “kids” movies shouldn’t be held to the same standards as “grown up” films. It seems there is a myth that cartoons can’t be serious cinema. This isn’t only wrong, but it also sets a dangerous precedent because the moral lessons taught in these cartoons are directly informing how a child views the world.
Whatever way you look at it, animated movies are another type of media with its own messages and morals. They do exist and they are in there. I disagree with the commentator that we should dismiss these messages because they are in a “kids” film. It’s common knowledge children are the most susceptible to media messages. If anything, this, and the fact the Disney version becomes the version of a fairytale, is the reason we should critique these films to the same standard. If we’ll grant column inches to the LGBTQ representation in the live-action remake, then why shouldn’t we discuss the representation in its cartoon counterpoint?
You could dismiss my defence of animation as arrested development, that I love animated movies because of nostalgia. But, as I’ve grown and developed a deeper understanding of filmmaking craft, I’ve noticed how animated films are some of the most thematically powerful, emotionally attuned, and visually arresting movies out there.
Last year, Zootopia gave us interesting takes on racism, sexism, and 21st-century city living. Moana did something most blockbusters still can’t do and gave us a positive female character. Your Name, a body-swap-time-travel comedy, was an interesting look at gender politics. These films approach complex “adult” themes with humour and sophistication. They never treat their audience as stupid. They understand what most adults don’t: that children are smart.
These thematic explorations segue into an emotional intelligence that doesn’t exist in live-action blockbusters. The Incredibles uses its superhero genre tropes to explore family dynamics, with each characters’ superpower reflecting each members’ role in the family and their arc. The Iron Giant teaches us that we are who we want to be, not what society believes us to be, whilst Spirited Away uses its fantasy world to explore the dishevelment children feel when they move house. The Toy Story trilogy is one of the greatest film trilogies of all time, and its story of growing up is touching and powerful. The toys maybe 30cm high, but their emotional capacity is bigger than the average human.
With Up, Pete Doctor showed animated filmmakers are expert filmmakers. The film’s near-silent opening is devastating because of the techniques the filmmakers use. The music subtly signposts our emotions, the framing shows Carl and Ellie’s relationship, whilst the sideways tracking shots suggest the passage of time. Apart from David Fincher’s direction of Zodiac, I can’t think of any director working in the 21st century who has a tighter control of their craft than Pete Doctor does in those opening minutes.
Beyond blockbuster animation, Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea reveals animated films have no physical limitations when telling their stories. Its unique backgrounds are vital to its story and are something live-action cinema could never achieve.
So, as Disney continues making modern updates of their animated classics — Aladdin, Mulan, and The Lion King are in the pipeline, among many more — we should start giving animation the respect it deserves. They may be made for children, but that doesn’t mean they’re not smarter than the films made for adults.