Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Animation's Lack of Consequences
(August 18, 2017)

I recently read Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American '70s by Charles Taylor. The following quote from the introduction struck me for how it relates to animated features, though Taylor ignores animation entirely.

"The best genre movies, no matter how rooted in the conventions of Westerns, detective stories, adventure stories or noir, have always involved adult emotions: temptation, guilt, sexual desire, the pull of responsibility. The violence in those films is wrought and suffered on a scale far more direct than the explosions and anonymous mass killings of today's big-budget action spectaculars. In the best genre films, we're immersed in a world where decisions have to be made and consequences have to be endured."

Family films are also a genre. And they're defined, in large part, by the lack of consequences that have to be endured. It is this lack of consequences that ultimately make family films so lightweight. No matter what danger the characters are exposed to, in the end there are no consequences. Since the majority of animated features are family films, they are caught in this trap.

This isn't true of every animated feature. Bambi, Princess Mononoke, Pom Poko, The Wind Rises, Princess Kaguya (sense a pattern here?) don't conform. Some Pixar films develop consequences early (Finding Nemo's death of the family, Up's death of Ellie) but they occur so early in the film, they're more inciting incidents that consequences that must be endured. By the time the films end, the survivors have triumphed and all's right with the world.

By contrast, in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Frodo loses a finger and is pained by an injury he received during the quest. The elves leave Middle Earth, knowing that their time is past and the age of men has arrived. In Coppola's The Godfather, Michael starts out saying he's not like his family, but in protecting his father, he is pulled into the family business. Contrast that with Moana, where everyone is happy at the end and there is no downside for any of the characters.

Victories have a cost in life and in many movies, but rarely in animated family films.

Audiences are happy with animation as it is. It's light entertainment, safe for the kids. Executives are happy with the status quo as the films are lucrative. So animation artists are stuck honing their craft rather than expanding their content. While people change intellectually and emotionally as they age, animation artists have to put their evolving perspectives on life on the shelf. They have to deny their own experience and manufacture fictions where truth may seep into the cracks but can't be central to the stories they tell.

It's hard for me to stay an animation fan as I age. I want entertainment that speaks to my experience of life, not the experiences of a child. For me, craft is not enough. Yes, I can admire the design, the direction, and the animation. I can admire the construction of a story (though not often enough these days), but the story itself fails to connect to me.

Not every genre is for everyone, but the family film starts out excluding adult concerns. Charles Taylor thinks that the modern tentpole blockbuster has done the same, so maybe the family film is just being pulled along with the general drift. While cable and streaming TV have created drama series that have captured large audiences and critical acclaim, TV animation hasn't even dipped a toe into that water.

Young animation artists are happy to create work similar to the work they loved growing up. But as they age, there's nowhere for them to grow in their medium. I don't see that changing, though I wish it would.