Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Is It Time For Hollywood's Animation Industry to Grow Up?

This year's Best Animated Feature Oscar category proved to be rather controversial. Despite having what is widely seen as one of the strongest line-ups in recent years- with or without The Lego Movie- the result provoked disappointment for many. By selecting Big Hero 6, the argument goes, the Academy continued to propagate the idea that animation equals Disney (or Pixar). Anonymous interviews revealed that some Academy voters looked down on animation as kid's stuff and were as likely to vote based on advertising and their own preconceptions over watching the films themselves. Factor in the lack of respect shown in the presentation of the award itself (with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson's "animation is a genre" gaff) and one thing's pretty clear. Animation has a perception problem.

The concept of animation as a children's medium is one that has become firmly ingrained- at least in the English-speaking world. It wasn't always so, and it's widely known that the classic Looney Tunes shorts were aimed at a general audience and played before mainstream live-action features in their time. So successful and all-prevailing was the output of one Walt Disney however that animation would become seen by US audiences as entertainment for children for generations. And so it remained for well over half a century- a few outlier adult animations aside. This way of thinking has stayed commonplace with the older generation- the demographic that makes up most of the Academy voters, as it happens.


Fast-forward to today and we have a generation raised on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. The younger half of the population are typically less prejudiced on animation and much less likely to write it off as "just cartoons". So it has come to be that today's animated features coming out of Hollywood are much more nuanced and sophisticated narratives than in previous years. They need to appeal to adult audiences as much as children to really make a splash at the box office. Mainstream film audiences can declare The Lego Movie or Toy Story 3 their favourite film of the year without fear of ridicule.

At the same time though- all the animated features competing for the major awards this year remained family films. We'll exclude Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea from our discussion for the simple reason that they were produced outside the US system. Even with those two foreign films removed the nominees show off the wonderful variety currently found in the feature animation field. Yet despite their increasingly mature storytelling, animation directors continue to be hamstrung by the need to be aimed at a younger audience.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting Disney or Dreamworks need to be producing 'adult' features full of sex and violence. I'm not expecting the next Pixar film to be a sophisticated grown-up drama either. Instead I'd like to see animation studios take a chance on films aimed at a more general audience. The same audience that most mainstream blockbusters (think the Marvel movies) are aimed at. These films don't exclude children at all- they're just not aimed primarily at them. It'd at least be a start.

It's a subtle distinction. It's a shift between making mainly  G-rated/U certificate films to PG and PG-13. You want an example? Think Princess Mononoke- it's a richly detailed mature work but doesn't have anything to make it unsuitable for older children. Animation and sci-fi/fantasy are made for each other. The Japanese know it. The French know it. But Titan AE flopped so Hollywood never tried again.

Just imagine if today's best animation studios were let loose on a full blown fantasy epic, or Star Wars-esque space opera. How amazing could that be?

The feature animation scene today is a beautiful thing. We without question are now seeing some of the finest animated work Hollywood has ever produced. But the perception of animation as a children's art-form continues to hold it back. Isn't it time the industry was allowed to grow up?
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