Animation is not a genre, but rather it is a medium to tell a story. What separates the “Animated Film” category at the Academy Awards has always bothered me, because the only difference between a live action film and an animated film are the visuals used to tell the story. There was a recent article in Forbes that challenged how we view animated films. Disney is known for great fairy tale fantasies and Pixar for its action adventures; the majority of American animated films are comedies for children. The premise of each film never seems to stray from the safe, the clean, the whole family-friendly vibe.
Animation was not originally designed for children. One of the pioneers, Winsor McCay, was a vaudeville performer who created animations for his acts. His most famous was Gertie the Dinosaur. McCay would talk to Gertie and give her commands. As Disney became mainstream, the focus switched to children’s entertainment. McCay was disappointed with this commercial direction, eventually stopping his own work. At a party in his honor McCay said: “Animation should be art. That is how I conceived it. But as I see what you fellows have done with it, is making it into a trade. Not an art, but a trade.”
Animation on TV has been allowed to cover more genres than feature animation. From Fox to Adult Swim to Disney, there is a wide variety of stories being told for a variety of audiences. Cartoon Network and Disney Channel still aim for the PG-crowd, but Adult Swim and Fox’s animation block shows that adults can connect with animation and separate themselves from the live action shows. Would the Simpsons have lasted this long if Bart and Lisa were actors and in their 30s right now?
In school, we were always asked “why animate?” Animation tends to be more expensive than live action, especially for dramas. My film was viewed as one that could be done cheaper and faster with live action. My advisor and I argued that the visual style was important enough to the story that live action would not have the same emotional strength. But the question “why animate?” is a big part of why there are so many fairy tales and talking animal movies in animation. If you have a story about a guy who is overprotective of his son and then loses his son and goes on a trip across the country to find him, then there’s not much reason to animate it. Make those characters fish and now you’ve got a reason to animate it.
Although mainstream movies and studios follow this formula, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost for animation. Indie and student films are more likely to push the envelope and hopefully their work is seen and noticed.