Awards season is in full swing now, with every news publication and film nerd discussing the best pictures of the previous year. Unfortunately, animated films that are just as good as the films nominated for bigger categories like Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, or Best Director are regulated to the single category of “Best Animated Feature Film.” The entertainment industry and society as a whole views animated films as “just for kids.” This is not only untrue but insults the vast heights of creativity animated films reach, their power to impact diverse audiences, and their invaluable themes and messages.
Animation is Full Creative Freedom
There are so many reasons to enjoy animated films, but perhaps the most compelling is that the artist has unlimited freedom. Not only is the scope of an animated film only bound to the creator’s imagination, but the medium is more flexible than live-action. Take this year’s Oscar favorite, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Quite simply put, the film only works as an animated film. The film doesn’t hide the comic book aspect of being a comic book movie, it embraces it. It’s not washed out like many Marvel movies, or overly dark and blue like many DCEU movies. The film is a color show; a living, breathing comic book with beautiful panels and enough snappiness to keep you eagerly awaiting the next page. The movie features multiple spider-people from different dimensions, each with different animated styles all blended together including anime, black and white noir, and Looney Tunes animation style. All the different styled animated characters interact with each other and are placed in the spider-verse world which looks as though you have stepped into a 1950s classic comic book. Despite the different styles of animation, nothing is visually jarring, which is a testament of something that could not be done in live-action. The action in animated movies is unique to the medium as well. You can have characters leap off of buildings and swing across the NYC skyscrapers without it looking like unbelievable, cheap CGI. By comparison, the best picture superhero film, Black Panther falls flat when it comes to its use of CGI in its third act.
Animation Connects With Everyone
If you were to list the things people of all ages can enjoy together, animation would be at the top of the list. If people took the time to actually analyze the animation films that are considered ‘family friendly’ they would realize that animated films do cater to adult audiences, but do so in more subtle ways. A lot of people of all ages and backgrounds watch animated films for different reasons contributing to the wide appeal of the medium. Someone may want to escape from the harsh reality and drama of real life and be swept back into the nostalgia and relatively safe world of animation, given that most animated films are rated G or PG. Others may watch animated films to appreciate the art style. People may watch animated films to learn how to successfully talk about difficult subjects in a palatable, gentle, and safe way.
As Ryan Walsh of The Artifice explains, “There’s a reason why ‘family’ is a target audience; there is something there for everyone of all ages. Movies are made for our entertainment. So, as long as a movie is entertaining it shouldn’t be labeled as a “kids only” movie. Since animated films have a proportionally larger audience of younger people, they are generally lighthearted but the themes in them are often deeper than most people realize. Animated films have to be multi-layered since parents and other family members will inevitably end up seeing the movie. The creators of films realize this and strive to make something that both children and adults can be enraptured by. Take Dreamworks’ Shrek as an example. The Hollywood creators know that the ultimate film is one that audiences of every age and type can sit through. The even more convincing argument to appeal to a wide audience is that if the adults think there is something in it for them, they may even be more sympathetic to the shameless wave of merchandising. “Shrek was seized upon as a turning point in that it had very definitely one kind of a text for kids and definitely a subtext for adults,” says Justin Johnson, head of the Children’s Film Program at the British Film Institute. Johnson continues saying, “Shrek was not the first to have jokes aimed at adults, but the sheer volume and the self-consciousness of the tactic stood out to reviewers. The fact that animated movies have such diverse audiences gives animated movies the unique power to educate the masses.”
Animated Movies as Crucial Teaching Tools
Fairy tales, and their modern-day equivalents (movies, books, computer games etc.) have always sprung from the imagination of adults. Therefore, it is not surprising that animated films touch on more adult experiences, themes, and life lessons. Moreover, fairy tales were originally made for entertaining adults and later turned into kid’s tales to teach them important values through engaging stories. This is why if you read the original Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen versions of your favorite disney movies they go dark fast. The classic fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and The Ugly Duckling have taught generations to not trust strangers and to see the beauty from within, respectively. Even what are considered “outdated” Disney films like Snow White and Cinderella teach the important lesson that kindness, humility, and hard work will be rewarded when you least expect it. Yet, what makes newer animated films more appealing is that storytellers recognize that animated films have a draw in a diverse audience and have adjusted those lessons accordingly. At first glance, Zootopia may seem to only be a standard comedic buddy cop movie. However, underneath the punny titles and anthropomorphized animals comes a sensitive and well-developed discussion of internalized racism. Inside Out tells the very complex lesson that maybe joy, as much as we all want it in our lives, is not the single most important emotion that we experience. The answer is actually to embrace the complexity of emotion and acknowledge that each plays an important role. In order to be happy and have healthy relationships, you need to embrace sadness. Joy cannot exist without sadness. This lesson albeit very mature is something both kids and adults need to learn. Up and Big Hero 6 teach lessons about letting go of the past and extending kindness towards others who are with us. While Coco is a love letter to Mexican culture, the film has a universal conflict of the choice between following your dreams and doing what your family wants you to do. The fact that animated films have such complex mature lessons and often portray those lessons better than movies that aren’t considered “just for kids” proves that the medium of animation is just as sophisticated as any well-respected cinematic masterpiece.
Walt Disney himself always intended his films to appeal to audiences of all ages, for he knew that they would have been doomed to fail if they focused only on one target demographic. When asked about his reputation as a modern “Aesop”, Disney much like how fables’ originally belonged to the oral tradition and told to audiences of all ages; Walt did not really consider these tales, or his films, “children’s stories.”
“We’ve never actually been trying to appeal to children,” Walt said. “All of our situations and things like that were things that adults could enjoy without feeling that it was something that was built to appeal to the small tots. The best way to express it, is that we’ve always pleased ourselves, you know? Adults are interested if you don’t play down to the little two- or three-year-olds, or talk down. I don’t believe in talking down to children. I don’t talk down to children. I don’t believe in talking to any certain segment. I like to just talk in a general way to the audience.”
The Industry’s Outlook on Animation
However, the question still remains: why are films with all the right tools to appeal to all ages, made with sophistication, still considered “just for kids”?
One of the more eye-opening views I read when it came to this debate was The Hollywood Reporter’s article titled “A Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” published before the 2014 Oscars. The year was dominated by Disney’s Frozen, but even this longtime member of the Academy’s 377-member directors branch didn’t have time for any animated film. The director writes, “I have seen none of them. I have no interest whatsoever. That ended when I was 6. My son dragged me to a few when he was 6; I would seat him and go outside and make phone calls.”
When the people we put in charge of judging a year’s worth of content in this medium believe that animation is for kids or isn’t worth their time, the stereotype is reinforced. Animation isn’t rewarded during awards season. Consequently, filmmakers are discouraged from using animation as their medium for “general” films because animation is seen as immature. Despite there being many films that bring new techniques or ways to use animation in films, such as Loving Vincent or Kubo, Disney Pixar has won the category 12 out of the 17 times. That is not to say those films didn’t deserve to win. Given the fact that many academy members don’t care about the category or don’t have the time to watch the animated films, they may simply vote for the animated film that is most talked about in the media. The films that are the most talked about are often a Disney Pixar film. As a result of the Disney bias, studios who haven’t been rewarded for pushing the boundaries of animation may feel discouraged from ever doing anything different. At the same time, Disney Pixar who have been rewarded for doing the same thing may be inclined to never take any risks. Consequently, the entire animated film industry suffers, it’s a lose-lose situation especially for audience members who are excited about the prospect of where animation could take us next.
The entire entertainment industry’s decision to segregate this medium onto an island by itself is a disservice to the workers at Pixar, Disney, Sony Animation, Studio Ghibli, Dreamworks, and Laika, not to mention to the art that is cinema. To put it bluntly, even the so-called entertainment experts incorrectly believe that animation is a genre not a medium. However, animation is a medium because it can encapsulate any genre whether drama or comedy, romantic comedy or melodrama, western or arthouse film.
By treating animated films as children’s films, it negates the power that animation can bring to audiences of all ages. Since animated films have a wide target audience, they hold a special power in that their messages are deeply impactful to the people who watch the films. The process of creating an animated film and the film’s ability to explore sophisticated themes and societal problems in a palatable way makes animation one of the most artistic, complex, and innovative ways to create a film. It’s time to start treating animated films with the respect that they deserve. It’s time to start treating animation as one of the most powerful mediums in the film industry.