[Spoilers for Man of Steel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Lion King, Arrow, Justice League: Unlimited, Batman: The Animated Series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Young Justice]
I’m sure you can all guess my answer based on frequent references to Avatar: The Last Airbender, Disney, and the DC Animated Universe. But then, perhaps I’m just immature, a wo-man child who can’t move past her adolescence and become an adult. After all, many adults of my age and older automatically dismiss anything animated as something for children that they’ve outgrown. Well, I should qualify that. They dismiss non-adult humor based animation. Characters snarking and making off color jokes is much more mature, you see.
Of course, I think this opinion is absurd, and there are several reasons why I think those who dismiss entertainment that’s both animated and not explicitly for adults are missing out on some of the best TV shows and movies out there.
First, let’s talk about animation as a medium.
Jame’s Cameron’s movie, Avatar, though I thoroughly enjoyed it in a popcorn munching way, irritates me for several reasons. The first is that the plot is so hilariously tired and cliche, one could probably substitute more than half the scenes in the movie with another movie like Last Samurai or Pocahontas and still completely maintain the central integrity of the plot.
Another thing that irritates me is that I now have to explain that I’m not talking about blue people when I talk about Avatar; I’m talking about a cartoon that had a much better story.
The final thing that irritated me, however, was James Cameron’s insistence that Avatar was not an animated movie.
The above link is to an Entertainment Weekly online post that features this lovely statement by its author, Nicole Sperling:
To prove the point that performance-capture relies on human actors just as much as computers, Cameron and Co. have put together a featurette illustrating the acting process Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver went through. It may not be enough to get these folks a Oscar nom but it should earn them more respect in Hollywood.
Now, I’d like to think Cameron was really just trying to defend his actors who did, indeed, put much more work than many big name stars do when they do an animated movie. I agree that actors who do performance capture such as Andy Serkis, whom I believe works much harder than the actors from Avatar and has much more compelling performances should be recognized for the work they do. That being said, voice acting, while an easy paycheck for some celebrities is an art of its own when done by professionals.Those guys are awesome, and they work their butts off, and people who imply they somehow work less than live action actors or deserve less respect need to go sit quietly in the corner and watch this video, and this one. However, what really irritates me about the clip and the above quote by Sperling is the implication that visual effects and animation are just soulless tools. Seriously, “performance-capture relies on human actors just as much as computers.” You know what also relies just as much on humans as it does on computers? Visual effects and computer animation. Just because they’re called “computer generated” doesn’t mean there’s just some person hidden away who types a few lines of code into their PC and then, magically, a fully functioning CG character is born.
Animators are not just some technicians buried in the deep recesses of Hollywood who produce movies without personal input or creativity. If you’re cool like me and listen to commentary on animated movies and TV shows, you’ll hear this word often thrown out to describe the work of animators: “acting.” You see, to animators, what they do is just as much acting as what voice actors do or even what live action actors do. And it’s not exactly easy. An actor doesn’t have to think “Okay, so now I’m going to furrow my brown exactly this much and be exactly this glassy eyed with a slight tremble of my lower lip” when they’re portraying sadness and then painstakingly create every element of that expression piece by piece over hours, days, and months.
Voice acting done properly is hard. Animation is hard. Both deserve just as much respect as live action work, and both can contribute to performances that are just as hilarious,exciting, or heartbreaking as live action. The medium is not inherently inferior.
So, if we go beyond the actual medium of animation, we have to deal with content. Now, I’d argue that, at its heart, animation is a medium NOT a genre, as any story can be told using animation. DC Comics, for example, has made some pretty good animated movies that display just as much, if not more, bloody violence and even nudity as are displayed in live action comic book movies. These movies are all rated PG-13. These movies also share a bit of a kinship with Harry Potter as, even though these DC movies are rated PG-13 and half of the Harry Potter movies are PG-13, they’re still often sold in the children’s/family movies section in stores.
The problem with both these movies and Harry Potter is that people who don’t know any better can’t divorce their pre-established assumptions about animation or Harry Potter from the reality of the material. Everyone remembers Harry from the first few books/movies and forget that part of what makes Harry Potter such a unique series is that it actually grew and matured, becoming increasingly dark until even I, reading these books for the first time at 22, was disturbed by the amount of darkness and death permeating the last two books.
Animation, similarly, will always be associated with its more innocent representations, as it is most known for its use in family movies and cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. That animation is as flexible as any other medium tends to be forgotten.
However, even if we do limit our understanding of animation to those “family friendly” movies and cartoons, I would still argue much of that material is just as high quality as entertainment made for adults, and can be enjoyed just as much by adults as it can be by children. Indeed, I imagine that’s why many retailers and distributors of movies choose the term “family” instead of “children’s” when describing much of their work.
I imagine, when many of us think of family entertainment, one of, if not the first, names to come to mind is “Disney.” Oh Disney movies, the fond nuggets of childhood that we remember with fondness and nostalgia.
Yes, they made us laugh. We bought all sorts of toys and stuffed animals. And we were emotionally scarred for life.
Seriously, what millennial can forget this?
I mean, holy crap. And it’s not just that Mufasa dies a violent death. Disney specializes in that. It’s not even just that Mufasa dies a violent death after being established as the coolest, wisest, funnest, most caring dad ever. No, Disney goes even further and forces you to watch Simba try to wake his dad up, and then, when that fails, curl up next to his father’s dead body for comfort. Oh, and to top it off, his uncle, whom Simba sees as nothing more than a caring, loving relative, tells this kid who just watch his dad die, that it was the kid’s fault thereby traumatizing a child for life.
You know, for kids!
In fact, animation seems to make an art of depicting disturbing and heartbreaking death scenes. Here’s one of my favorites from Batman: The Animated Series:
According to the episode commentary, which, as we’ve established, cool kids like me listen to, the original plan was to show Barbara hitting her father’s police car from the outside. The network, however, wouldn’t permit that, so the shot was changed to the inside of the car, which, as Bruce Timm and company somewhat gleefully point out, makes the whole thing even worse because now we’re seeing the death from her father’s perspective.
Now, I’d argue that death isn’t as emotionally devastating as Mufasa’s was, as viewers watching the episode most likely realized this was a dream or something like that pretty quickly.
In fact, that’s one of the problems facing many superhero comics and cartoons. Superheroes/villains are killed off and resurrected with such a frequency, that it’s hard for death to have much meaning. This may be seen as an example of why comics and cartoons are less mature than entertainment for teens and adults, but I disagree.
I disagree because, often, death is just as meaningless in films for teens and adults if not more so. Movies like Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel ended with large portions of major cities getting completely destroyed. Thousands, if not, millions of people likely died, but almost no attention is given to the greater cost. We are happy that our favorite characters didn’t die, but that doesn’t negate the fact that THOUSANDS IF NOT MILLIONS OF PEOPLE DIED. I mean, it’s even more funny when you think about the beginning of Into Darkness when the movie makes a point of subverting the “redshirt” trope, yet the deaths of the thousands of civilians killed when white-Khan (maybe I’ll call him “Con” like, it’s short for Connor) crashes his ship into San Fransico are treated with the same apathy most of those poor security and operations personnel got in Star Trek: Original Series.
Death is often used in more “mature” entertainment as a cheap tool for producers of content to convey that their content is more grown up, as it is more “unpredictable,” “gritty,” and “realistic.” CW’s show, Arrow operates under this premise, as did the failed Wonder Woman pilot NBC made. Now, Arrow has its fans, and I can see its appeal–it at least acknowledges a greater DC universe that is ignored by the movies (even as it seems every Marvel character and their plucky sidekick is getting a movie these days), but what turned me off the show (aside from the fact that, at least for the first good chunk of it, they took Black Canary and turned her into a rip-off of Rachel from the Dark Knight movies) was how they treated Huntress, a character who has been known to skirt the line between heroism and over-the-line vigilanteism. You see, because CW made Oliver Queen’s vigilante “darker” and “grittier” AKA “he kills people,” the show decided to push her character over the edge that she had tip-toed on. The fact that she was willing to use lethal force was no longer enough to mark Huntress as a black sheep, so they pretty much pushed her into an outright villain. Also, they changed her motivation from the murder of her family to the murder of her boyfriend…because women can have no other motivation in their lives. (Right, Oz: The Great and Powerful?)
In fact, the trend of darker superheroes, mostly in movies, has been getting increasing commentary lately. Cracked.com brings it up every few months, and Dan Olson AKA The Foldable Human released an uncomfortably scathing examination of the lengths to which we both allow and admire the abuses of power and the collateral damage caused by superheroes in movies.
I encourage you to watch the above video, though, if you really enjoy many of the superhero movies that have been released recently (as I have), and/or if you don’t like political criticism about the failures and arrogance of America, it may make you uncomfortable.
The reason I bring these movies and criticisms up is not only to show that entertainment created for more grown up audiences is flawed too, so we shouldn’t judge family entertainment that much. No, I bring these issues up because I have more than once seen these issues dealt with with much greater pathos and thought in cartoons.
The potential abuses of power by superheroes, for example, is examined throughout the DC Animated Universe cartoons, taking center stage in the main story arc of the first season of Justice League: Unlimited. In that season, it was revealed the government had begun monitoring superheroes and actively developing measures to take down an overgrown Justice League were the super humans ever to turn on society or overreach its largely self-appointed authority. Where the show really succeeded in this story arc was that they presented this possibility as more than just power-grabbing, prejudice, and paranoia on the part of the government. The show demonstrated that, in many ways, the government was right to be afraid. The Justice League hadn’t just amassed an unprecedented number of superheroes to their side; they actually were overstepping their authority in some cases. The League even had a weapon of mass destruction on their satellite, The Watchtower, that was aimed at the earth. Even though the show eventually concludes that, in a world with super villains, there will always be a need for superheroes, it also acknowledged that mistakes were made, and that being Superman or Batman doesn’t give one ultimate authority.
Other animated shows have shown similar thoughtfulness and self-reflection. The epic finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender took a large chunk of its time examining wrestling with and debating whether or not it was the Avatar’s duty to kill the Fire Lord (the guy whose current plan was to burn the majority of the world to the ground so he could rebuild in his image). Miss Martian’s character development in the second season of Young Justice largely centered on her abusing her mental powers to interrogate and punish others, an action she justified because “They’re the bad guys.”
Now, these shows are some of my favorite shows on television, so it might stand to reason that they would be superior to the rest of their peers in family entertainment, but I’m not so sure. I think part of what makes them superior is their grounding as family entertainment.
Family entertainment done well usually involves teaching kids how to become better humans. Anyone who thinks they weren’t effected or that their morals weren’t in some way shaped by what they watched, read, or even listened to as children is probably lying to themselves. Personally, I can honestly say Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, specifically the song “God Help the Outcasts” greatly impacted my personal understanding of religion.
I think, in many ways, these family entertainment asks such difficult questions is because we’ll allow it to. While some entertainment not made for kids is willing to address challenging issues, the reboot of Battlestar Galactica did so pretty successfully, in much of our “grown-up” entertainment, we reject moralizing. We don’t want to be preached to, or, if we are preached to, we want it in quick bites that we can easily digest and move on. We like moral ambiguity, because we’ve learned that life isn’t black and white.
And that’s okay. I think the problems with adult entertainment come when moral ambiguity becomes the accepted, easy way to tell a story. I believe there’s still a place for heroes in our world that has become increasingly obsessed with anti-heroes, and I believe, in many cases, cartoons are where those heroes can be found.