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Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Ever Happened to the Wonderful World of Animation?

This post is really just a rant.  I saw a movie this weekend that I really wanted to write a review for but I felt the review would require some context.  This intention of this bitchy little post is to shed some light on what I feel is the creative deficit in animation today.  It is not a review or even really all that much of an opinion (some is).  It really is meant to be an argument for where animation is and what happened to it over the last few decades.  This is the medium that is to shape the imaginations of the youth.  Will there not be any one film to inspire them?  Or are animated films these days nothing more than really, really expensive pacifiers?

I am not a huge fan of most animation these days. I grew up in the era of the late-80's and early-90's and on the films of Walt Disney. The animation from those years were more often than not lush, vivid and colorful works that were captivating and expressive. Then, in the 90's, something happened. The advent of fast, thrown-together works for television made weak art an acceptable element of animation. After this point even Disney got lazy, with movies like Lilo and Stitch that lacks the artistic spark that was so prevalent thirty or more years before its release. Traditional animation seems to have taken a backseat to 3D computer-animated movies from the mostly less-than-stellar works of Dreamworks animation to the occasionally-stunning imagination of Pixar.

The last bastion of truly high-quality traditional animation seems to be the strange and often spectacular world of Japanese animation, known affectionately as “anime”. I am sure that I'm preaching to the choir here, but to make a long story short, anime has been a regular source for inspired and creative storytelling and vivid artwork, and while I am not exactly an anime “fan”, there are many that I enjoy and among those are the works of Hayao Miyazaki. His past works include the Oscar-winning film Spirited Away and the beloved epic Princess Mononoke. Both of these films would rank among my picks for the greatest movies ever made. Period.

That said, ever since the early 2000's, there has been a growing disparity between quality animation designed to inspire awe and the quickly thrown-together crap that is made for kids that “just do not know any better”. Lazy animation companies are using Flash and sloppy art to make a quick buck at the expense of the genre. These low-rent hack cartoons have lowered the standard for animated movies everywhere and are unforgivably responsible for the declining quality of Western animated films. If American companies are not churning out crap for a quick buck, they are jumping on the anime bandwagon by making faux-Japanese animation, copying their stylizations while missing the spirit of the genre entirely, they are merely cashing in on the popularity of the medium.

More and more I see weaker quality in the animation and stories that are dumbed-down, quick fixes for cheap humor and stupid, pointless violence. I can trace this turning point back to the early 90's and the advent of Nicktoons, Nickelodeon's foray into the lucrative world of original animated programing. The art in most of these programs was pretty... well... bad. The character designs in Doug were lazy and sort of strange-looking, and Rugrats was just hideous. Ren & Stimpy did have good art, however and as such it was definitely the odd-one-out among its peers. While some of the work of the animators from this time was obviously meant to resemble a more traditional comic strip style, the art is still lackluster. Other programs like the Simpsons and much later the Family Guy also suffered from this deficit though the characters on the Family Guy are hardly as hideous as those on much of the early Nicktoons stuff.

I guess what I am saying is that the way animation looks matters. When one produces a cartoon, the writing and art both have an impact. One can matter more than the other, sure, but when only one (or neither) works, there is a big problem. Truthfully, most kids do not mind if the stuff they are watching looks like crap. This is an acceptable excuse made by less talented animators and studios to generate mediocre or utterly pathetic material for mass consumption.

The moral of the story is simple: Demand better. You vote with your wallets, and your money determines what the studios continue to produce. If you go to see crap, they will continue to make crap. If you take your kids to the multiplex to see a piece of garbage because it is the only thing out, then you are contributing to the steady decline in the quality of cinematic animation as a whole. If you absolutely have to sit your kids in front of a movie, stay at home, pop some popcorn, and watch the Lion King. Watch Toy Story. Watch one of the dozens of truly great pieces of animation that are both inspiring and artistically stunning. Chances are you have, or know someone who has, any one of these movies and the one you chose is likely much, much better than what you are planning on seeing at the theater and it is a lot cheaper than going to the movies.

Now, after that long-winded rant about the endless decline in the quality of animated cinema, I present the light at the end of the tunnel. Earlier in the article I referenced animation master Hayao Miyazaki and a few of his movies. His films seem to be the last bastions of true quality traditional animation in theaters today and his latest film, the Secret World of Arrietty is among the most entertaining and beautiful animated films of the last twenty years and I will give you my full review in the next post.

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