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Media & Technology

The Animation Myth

Written by George Taylor

Animation has been around for many years. We’ve seen the medium used to bring many ideas to life. Whether it’s a battle for the throne between a lion and his uncle, or the story of an ogre with a big heart, it seems animation has told an infinite number of stories. In some ways, animation can achieve more than live action. There’s nothing stopping an animator from creating an entire ocean of anthropomorphised fish, whereas the live action equivalent may prove to be a little difficult. Animation thrives on endless possibilities and something for everyone. Yes, that’s right: everyone. Too many times, I have seen people dismiss animation as a medium just for kids, but this isn’t the case at all. It shouldn’t be. While it is true that some animated films are made just for children, there are plenty of features that deal with mature and complex themes that can simultaneously be appreciated by adults. The myth makes no sense considering that mature animation has been around a while. I think of Watership Down as an earlier example of an animation that disguises itself as a child friendly adventure, but the film is packed with themes of slavery, colonialism and death. Show the image of two rabbits trying to maul each other as blood races down their fur to any child and they won’t sleep for a week. Or how about the haunting imagery of an entire burrow suffocating to death? That’s enough to keep them up for a year.

“While it is true that some animated films are made just for children, there are plenty of features that deal with mature and complex themes that can simultaneously be appreciated by adults”

More recently, Spider-Man swung into theatres again to bring us Into the Spider-Verse – a Sony animated feature in which a myriad of Spider-people from different dimensions are thrown together and must work with one another to get back to their own world. If I was a child when this came out, I would have loved it. It delivered all the spectacle my younger self desired with its stylish action and fantastical plot. But because I am an adult, I think I loved it even more. What I adored the film for doing, is treating its characters as characters, and not just props to propel the plot. It sounds trivial, but a lot of animations do have underdeveloped and poorly written characters. A previous Sony animation, The Emoji Movie, is guilty of this. The hero of Spider-Verse, Miles, is flawed; he has an unfulfilling relationship with his father and rebels against parts of his life. Yet his youthful nature and optimistic heroism make him likeable and relatable. Even the art style suggests the filmmakers cared about the property from an artistic standpoint. Instead of the typical 3D animation style we’ve been accustomed to since Toy Story, the film combines 2D and 3D animation as well as various unconventional techniques, such as motion blur, to make the film feel visually authentic to a comic book. The effort paid off, with the film winning the Best Animated Feature Film award at this years Oscars.

A more child orientated franchise, like Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon is also surprisingly deep and rich in strong storytelling, appealing to an adult audience. The films tell the simple story of a boy and his pet… except the boy is a Viking and his pet is a dragon. It sounds basic, but the filmmakers execute it in a mature way. Despite their grand scale, these films are about quieter themes, like family. The main character, Hiccup, wants to be just like his dad, Stoick The Vast – a fearless dragon killing Viking. However, when the chance for Hiccup to kill his first dragon arises, he fails. Instead he releases the dragon from captivity noticing it has lost a tailfin in combat. This begins their heart-warming friendship. Unlike other films, in which the two would likely be friends immediately, multiple scenes are devoted to organically building their friendship. Eventually Hiccup and Toothless (the dragon) prove to the other Vikings, and most importantly Hiccup’s dad, that dragons and Vikings can coexist, and cease their fighting. Instead of making Hiccup’s dad a typical villain, we see a great level of depth to him. Even though he is disappointed with his son initially, we see his internal struggle as it pains him to shun his son. By the end of the film, he puts his tough guy persona aside to tell his son he is proud of him. I also appreciate how the films have actual consequences. At the end of the first film, after a huge climactic battle, Hiccup loses a leg. For the rest of the series he must operate with a prosthetic. This injury brings Hiccup closer to Toothless and draws more parallels between them. In the second film, a major character is killed which greatly effects the plot going forward. These smart storytelling choices set How to Train Your Dragon apart from its peers. Well written characters and a deep storyline make the series a welcome surprise for adults. 

Of course, there are some animations directed solely at adults. Charlie Kauffman, writer of Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and more, wrote and co-directed the stop motion film Anomalisa. Those of you familiar with his previous work will know instantly that Anomalisa is a dark and deeply unsettling affair. It tells the story of Michael, who is having a midlife crisis. He views the world as unfairly mundane and sees everyone as the same person. The only exception is Lisa, who he cheats on his wife with. The film is complex and layered with though-provoking metaphors. The story is small scale and introspective. It is a character study of a man who is a hair away from losing it completely. There is nothing for children to enjoy here: no creative world, funny characters or action set pieces. Anomalisa is a haunting drama, meant to be consumed by adults.

While most animated films may have vibrant colours and fantastical worlds, there is still room for intelligent plots and believable characters. Animation can be as multi-layered as live action and, in some cases, the metaphors can be executed even smoother. The next time you or someone you know dismiss an animated film as a kid’s cartoon, just remember that you could be passing up on a deep and rich experience that only has a childlike exterior. Of course, some animated films will be just for children, but the potential for them to be mature is as present as any other film, never forget that.

“Animation can be as multi-layered as live action and, in some cases, the metaphors can be executed even smoother”