Thursday, July 10, 2014

Fighting Dragons

"If your ever want to get out there to fight dragons, you need to stop all...this."

"But you just pointed to all of me."

-From How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks, 2010)

A phrase that really bugs me is one usually said in conjunction with any animated film, but especially Pixar: “It has elements that both adults and kids can appreciate.”  Or, as a variation of that, “It has jokes in there only adults will get…”  While not, figuratively, untrue, it’s a bit insulting on a few levels.  First, it’s implying that Pixar makes movies for children and, as a mercy stroke for parents it throws in some subversive winking so that they will have a laugh all for themselves.  Second, it exposes the inherent fallacious thinking that modern American culture has towards animated film––that they’re only for kids.

The first one is a problem because it undermines the types of stories that Pixar wants to tell.  Sure, there are movies that are just for kids and there are movies that are made with more mature audiences in mind, but a majority of movies are just stories anybody can enjoy, as long as it’s a story someone wants to consume, no matter of age, creed, or gender.  Pixar takes advantage of its medium, creating worlds, characters, and visuals that can’t exist in the real world.  They want to tell adventure stories and comedies and fantasy and science fiction stories––none of which require catering to a specific age.

However, as soon as most people see that it’s animated, they assume that something like Wall-E––a very funny, complex, emotional, and thorough science-fiction cultural commentary––is just for kids because the protagonist is appealing, because the music is emotional during emotional scenes, and because the ending is mostly “happy.”  Then again, so are most Steven Spielberg movies.

For years, the only animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The American view of entertainment tends toward compartmentalism.  Sometimes––such as with genre divisions of a medium––this allows potential consumers to find entertainment of the exact timbre they desire.  Horror movie fans shouldn’t have to wade through a selection of romantic comedies if they’re in the mood for a fright, for example; hip-hop fans shouldn’t be bombarded with ads for country music albums when listening to Pandora, either.

Overall, I would say that this compartmentalization is a good thing.  However, when new media comes along, they must endure a vetting process, the overarching culture must decide (actively or not) what this new thing is.  An unfortunate anomaly that can form from this process, however, is that a medium can be so mired in a specific type of product that it becomes classified as a genre unto itself.  That is, whatever audience the medium’s popular and successful products seem to be aimed at could, in the eyes of our culture, become the only audience that this medium can satisfy.  With children’s products, especially, this can be damning.

Such is the current fate for any animation in America, despite our best attempts.  Exceptions such as South Park or The Simpsons or any show on Adult Swim are notable but seem to be more niche deviations rather than cultural sea changes for the medium.  This is mostly still the same for comic books despite the average age of a regular buyer ranging somewhere between thirty and forty-five.  Video games were relegated to children as well, but in the last eight years or so they have gone through (or are still going through) a veritable puberty and are much more accepted as the vehicle for a wider variety of audiences.  Without falling into eye-rolling fetishization of European and non-western countries and cultures, the fact is that the United States is one of the few places that still infantilizes media like animation and comic books.

Why The Iron Giant wasn't at least nominated for Best Picture is a travesty to cinema at large.

Legendary animation director, Brad Bird (the mind behind Pixar’s The Incredibles and the brilliant The Iron Giant, among many other wonderful works), has been a vocal advocate trying to get greater American culture to view animation as what it actually is: a medium––a method of visual storytelling––rather than as a genre––a format that dictates audience, tone, and content.  His argument boiled down to the fact that Disney, for decades, was pretty much the only game in town––and they got rich from making all-ages material.  What also helped was that Disney was very good at what they did––their animation was standard-setting––and anybody that tried to tell more mature or complex stories (in America, again) couldn’t approach the material with the same level of quality that Disney brought to the table.  Therefore, any attempts to push the medium forward, culturally, was swept under the rug beneath Disney’s feet at no fault of their own.

Nowadays, however, a bushel of studios are making top notch animated films (and television), but they are still churning out products that are, ostensibly, aimed at younger audiences.  Of the aforementioned infantilized media (animation, comics, and video games), American animation seems firmly locked in its place while the others are arguably “growing up,” and it makes me wonder why.

Years ago, I was hoping with the rise of home video––and especially digital distribution––that the dwindling box office numbers would allow big studios to either a) experiment more with their creativity or b) support the endeavors of the more experimental independent creators.  The internet has basically eliminated the second option and, with the success of things like RealD cinema and the new reign of blockbuster explosion movies such as any Marvel movie or the Transformers, these big-budget investments are what dictates creativity; for animation, that means Pixar-type movies.

Toy Story 3's effective meditation on mortality and friendship.
But it's just a "kid's movie."
Luckily, (for the most part) Pixar does not look content to sit on its duff.  Movies with daring storytelling such as Toy Story 3’s “we’re all going to die” scene, Wall-E’s poignantly lonely and silent opening, and Up’s devastating first ten minutes have shown that American animated films can be as affective as any other movie on the market.  But my hope is that, someday, if people were to categorize Up, their answer wouldn’t be a “kids movie” or an “animated movie” because those terms don’t dictate content.  With the amount of green-screen, CG, and digital replacement, the Star Wars prequels basically count as animated movies, but we don’t count those, for some reason.  The same goes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Until our culture recognizes how blurred the lines really are between animation and live action, the best I can do is keep waiting for animation’s mile maker like The Last of Us has been for video games or Maus was for comics.  Meanwhile, as adults go watch their R-rated action movies that are really only satisfying the rebellious twelve year-olds that sit quietly in their souls, I’ll gladly go to the next Pixar movie or the next How to Train Your Dragon movie to satisfy the adult in mine that craves sophistication, craft, and story.  And also dragons.

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