The Disrespect of the Animated Medium
Cartoons, moving drawings, computer graphics. These are just some of the various descriptors of animation. And in a way, they are all true. They describe different types of animation. And there are many different types of animation. From the hand-drawn 2D style of the 20th Century to the computer generated 3D animation of the 21st Century, to everything in-between. Animation is an amazing way to tell stories and entertain, but for some reason, animation (the medium) and animated products don’t get the same level of respect as live-action products.
Animation has been around for a very long time. It has existed in some form or another since the 1800s. Over that time it has birthed iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Popeye, and Pink Panther to name just a couple. Animation also gave us what is now the largest media conglomerate in the world. The Walt Disney Company was founded in 1923 as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, and today Disney owns multiple theme parks, 6 film studios (including Marvel and Lucasfilm), and has a market cap of over $300 billion.
There are other instances of animation studios being successful, such as Pixar before being bought by Disney, and to a lesser extent DreamWorks. Less successful studios include Blue Sky, makers of the Ice Age Franchise and Rio. The success, or otherwise, of animation studios is generally dependent on Disney, but that’s not what this piece is about.
I want to talk about the opinion that is often trotted out anytime animation is the topic of conversation: “it’s just a cartoon.” For some reason, many people believe that because something is drawn, or computer-animated, then it automatically is lesser than a live-action movie or TV show. And this leeches into reviews of such works. You can often hear things like “it’s good, for an animation”, and similar sentiments. It has always frustrated me because mental framing like that leaves the watcher unable to fully appreciate the story being told. And they can be amazing stories. Disney made their billions telling immensely compelling stories. Lion King, Mulan, Frozen, Tangled, Moana. The list is endless. Pixar, ever since Toy Story in 1995, has made it their mission to play with you heart with every movie. And it’s not limited to movies, either. Animated TV shows can be some of the most compelling TV ever, in some cases (ahem, DC) even better than their live-action counterparts. Shows like Avatar are some of the best TV ever made, but it will hardly ever come up in that conversation because “it’s just a cartoon.”
Flowing from the point up there, is the idea that because it’s animated, it can’t be compared to a live-action movie or series. A while ago, I wrote about how the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy is the best trilogy ever. You can read it here. Just saying that is considered to be a radical view because “how dare you compare a cartoon to the plethora of live-action trilogies that exist?” (for no reason, my order for best trilogies is: HTTYD, LOTR, and Spider-Man) Saying that a certain animated film or TV show is better than a live-action film or TV show will raise gasps. The mere mention of an animated production in comparison seems to be a blasphemous act, and I do not know why. There is nothing that can be done in a live-action production that can’t be animated. Nothing. Conversely, there are so many things that are either better done in animation, or that can only be done in animation. There are stories that can only be told via storyboard and rigging. There are emotions that cannot be captured on film, they have to be drawn and voiced. And we don’t have to look too far. Disney has been on a live-action remake kick recently, and the only one that I believe is equal to, or better than, its animated older brother is The Jungle Book (2016). The rest vary from good but not on it’s level (Maleficent), to just disappointing (the Lion King remake comes to mind).
One final point on the lack of respect for animation is the lack of respect from major industry awards. Now, the validity and credibility of the awards is suspect, but again that’s a story for another day. Awards for Best Animated Film (in whatever form it is called) only began to be given in the 21st Century, the oldest being the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film which started in 2001. Since 2001 (when the Oscars added the Best Animated Feature category), only two animated films have ever been nominated for best picture, those two being Pixar’s Up in 2009, and Toy Story 3 in 2010. In addition to the fact that animated movies as a whole get only one category while live-action movies have everything but that. And in certain instances (like the score, and screenplay categories), they have to tussle with live-action movies and they rarely win out. I will forever maintain that How To Train Your Dragon should have won Best Original Score over The Social Network.
Animation is a brilliant medium, capable of amazing things. It allows us to tell stories that, in most instances can’t be told in any other way. It is capable of moving the audience in ways that can astound. But, sadly, it will probably never get the respect it more than deserves.