The purpose of Animated Works
Philosophy, politics and other hidden messages in animation
Animation is something that most people can identify with since most of us have memories of our favorite cartoons growing up. These cartoons can bring feelings of nostalgia to anyone from any generation. Similar to film, animated works can serve many purposes, in addition to entertainment creation of animated works for documentaries (Wells) or political purposes (Herhuth) have also been studied.
It is generally accepted that animated works can service to entertain, inform, sell, or convey political messaging. But what goes on behind the scenes? Many animators, who have devoted their lives to their passion and had the confidence to enroll in a risky art program are unsure if they would end up having the artistic merit to land a job. But is that it? Animation is so much more. It’s about telling a story, balancing the charm of an animated world with real life problems and relatable situations, to quote Walt Disney “Animation offers a medium of story telling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.” The approach to animation has fluctuated over time, and will continue to do so.
While much of the current research focuses on either a specific purpose (e.g. documentary) or the value in terms of children’s films, I would argue that for entertainment, animated films is for all audiences. For instance take shows like Rick and Morty or Bojack Horseman both shows with controversial moments, adult themes as well as adult issues. Both of these cartoons share a similar genre. Mostly of a comedic nature, having silly and over the top characters. However, they also show dimension to the characters as they struggle with issues like depression or having an existential crisis and reflecting upon oneself. Both of these themes are presented in a realistic, but cynical way that the audience can relate to and identify with. In the case of Bojack Horseman, the show takes a satirical approach to the lives of celebrities and movie stars reflecting on the reality of their depressing existence in Hollywood.
On the opposite side, there are movies like WALL-E which may seem like a silly children’s movie at face value, but the movie takes place in a dystopian society where big-box stores have ruined the economy which is something children would not appreciate or even recognize in the first place. Animations like Wall-E are multilayered, one layer being evidently visible to children and the other catering to adults, the whole family can enjoy the movie no matter how old they may be. WALL-E has also been analyzed for underlying political themes and it’s lack of ethos that Pixar Studios champions (Herhuth). Another approach to making animation appealing to both children and adults are cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon from the year 2010 that set the tone for many cartoons to come. This cartoon was truly a game changer as its story and world building are incredibly planned and well thought out, not to mention the memorable multi-layered characters that never cease to captivate the audience. While there are academic publications that consider many facets of animation, they leave the question of how did these deep multi layered cartoons evolve and come to be? While it’s true cartoons may have started off minimalistic, over time the themes in animation have become varied. There are still minimalistic cartoons, but there are also cartoons for almost all age groups. In the words of Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, “There's always room out there for the hand-drawn image. I personally like the imperfection of hand drawing as opposed to the slick look of computer animation. But you can do good stuff either way. The Pixar movies are amazing in what they do, but there's plenty of independent animators who are doing really amazing things as well.” I think of it like a tree, while it may have started off as a sprout with only one branch, it has branched out into many genres and various targeted age groups. While research has been carried out that discusses the split between motion film and animation (Gaudreault), I will explore the evolution that occurred following this split. How did that tree grow? What cultural factors caused this? Where was animation when it was just a sprout making its way into the world? My paper will explore and address all these questions and issues in a chronological manor addressing the development pattern of animation as a whole. From art style to music choice to writing/script style, all of these are crucial to the development of animation and play an important role in what it has become today. But how did cartoons evolve to be this way? What cultural influences have shaped cartoons in the last twenty years?
Example of animated works
To order these questions I will be analyzing several animated selections from the past two and a half decades to see what exactly it was that changed animation from something so purely light hearted to a diverse landscape of many different themes and outlooks. To do this I decided that I would be using scholarly journals that touch on the subject, YouTube videos from fellow cartoon enthusiasts and my own knowledge of cartoons. To find YouTube videos, I tried to find videos from popular youtubers, who are respected in the animation community, and show how cartoons from certain time periods relate to the culture of that time. While there is a severe lack of academic articles pertaining to my topic, there is plenty of info from non-academic sources.
In the past twenty years there has been a shift in the attitude of cartoons, and the average outlook on what life is and isn’t. In the 90s, the general outlook on life was rapidly changing. Shows like Daria capture the nihilism and pessimistic outlook that emerged. Many people were rejecting the idea that all American ideals and politics were inherently good and better than other cultures. Daria is detached from the rest of her classmates and has a very pessimistic point of view but is overall a sensible person that captures the views of the newer generation.
“The Simpsons” is without a doubt the decade’s most popular and influential TV cartoon. One of its biggest success factors was an abundance of pop culture references and satire in animation. Illustrating their trend towards pop culture, Warner Brother’s Animaniacs incorporated a lyric referencing then-President Bill Clinton’s saxophone playing skills in the show’s theme song. Shows like “South Park” highlight the prominence of satire in animation during as this period, a trend that would continue to present day. When viewed through the events of that time, these shows reflected the culture that was undergoing a mini-revolution. The world wide web was just getting started and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were peaking in popularity while at the same time the country was entering the first war it had been in since Vietnam, there was a lot going on and these shows provided an outlet for young people use satire to laugh at society. The 90’s also ushered in the idea of adult themed cartoons, with shows like the Simpsons and South Park. These were unique in that they appealed to a different audience than what animated shows were traditionally focused. The number of subsequent shows leveraging the Simpson’s formula, such as “South Park” and towards the end of the decade “Family Guy” is evidence of animated satirical shows being a winning strategy.
Whereas the 1990’s was a decade of introspection and questioning cultural norms, the 2000’s brought about a more a society that strived to be more in touch with emotions and injustices in society. This is particularly evident in the awareness of environmental issues such as global warming, pollution and recycling programs. Layered on this new sense of righting these wrongs, was the mass acceptance and prolific use of the internet as a means of communication and source for “news”. The ability for a society to have any viewpoint they wish to hold immediately validated has had massive changes to the definition of normal. It also allowed cultural trends to almost simultaneously come in and out of fashion. Several of the feature length animated works of the 2000’s captured these shifts in society.
Wall-E is a critically acclaimed Disney movie but is also so much more. One of the most notable things about this movie is the fact that there is no specific bad guy but instead focuses on a corrupt system. It focuses on a world where humans have left earth due to pollution and have made a new home in a spaceship. The humans are pictured as fat, lazy and compliant with the corrupt system in place, being the big box stores controlling everything. The people are not pictured as the enemy, the system is. It is a more realistic story that is easy to imagine, as our future as human beings could very easily go the direction the movie depicts. It is a reminder to all of us not to lay back and watch society destroy itself, but we must in fact keep fighting corrupt government and not let it get the point where we are completely complacent in it. In the movie the robot is the hero of the movie and seems to be the deepest character with the humans portrayed as shallow and mindless. Although designed as a waste disposal unit (Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class) and left on earth to clean up the mess that a fleeing human race left, he spends his day collecting human artifacts such as musical recordings and Rubik’s cubes; ironically, for Wall-E acting robotic is a sign of his death. During the movie Wall-E falls in love with EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who through a series of events, repairs Wall-E after he was badly damaged, and after some time is able to restore his humanness. In this way the film suggests that being human is a defined by behavior and a state of consciousness rather than biology.
Different approach to making animation appealing
Bojack horseman is one of those shows I was hesitant to watch, some elements of the show, were quite frankly very weird. One of the main characters, Diane is married to a Labrador dog, it doesn’t get much weirder then that. This show however, executes it in such a way that it is well done and is easy to forget that half of the characters are animals. The protagonist is a washed up celebrity from the 90s that battles alcohol and drug addiction and wants desperately to stay relevant and be remembered. Much like Daria, Bojack Horseman is a show that has a protagonist with nihilistic tendencies, strongly seeing life as somewhat meaningless, and sees through the phoniness of others.
These cartoons appeal to pathos, making us feel a little bit less alone, and in Bojack’s case there is also some type of pity we feel for him. These cartoons show the both tragic and realistic side of humanity. Daria and Bojack both make fun of certain social hierarchies, what it means to be popular in school or a popular celebrity in Hollywood and how those things aren’t always so great. The show’s success is attributed to the way in which it able to combine an alternate universe where humans and animals live side by side interweaving their lives in a way that reflects the themes in a sitcom found on any evening re-run, and interjecting a healthy dose of silliness. The show itself is a parody of the Los Angeles life style and has seemingly gained favor with that portion of society that finds all things celebrity both interesting and repugnant at the same time.
Cartoons like Bojack Horseman are loved for their unique representation of mental illness, forward thinking ideology and overall relatability. Like Bojack’s great representation, many other shows have improved in that department as well. With the Daria reboot just around the corner, there has been some talk about Daria’s foil Jodie Landon, a young black woman that is the opposite of Daria. She is a conformist in every sense, and is the worker bee of the show, and is often faced with racial injustice but despite that she tries hard to be a role model. Black characters in animation were not always represented in such a positive light, however. One of the most visually evident forms of racism is in older cartoons, often these cartoons contained “black face” a racist caricature of black people, throughout the years there has been so much progress. Black characters have changed from being overly done stereotypes to more realistic depictions of average people, in most recent cartoons, the amount of black people is usually more representative of society. Disney Junior’s series “Doc McStuffin” is about a girl who can "fix" toys, with help from her toy friends. Shortly after Disney Junior produced an exhibit to promote the show, a group of female Afro-American physicians was so moved by the exhibit that they formed the movement “We are Doc McStuffins”, this same group evolved into what is now the Artemis Society, having a membership of 4,700 female physicians of color from around the world. One aspect of black characters in animation that has received criticism in recent years is the use of white actors to voice over black animated characters. The assertion is that a white person will use an internally biased voice of the way they think a black character is “supposed” to sound. Whereas a black actor would be able to impart the doses of reality and empathy based on their experience living as a black person. While there is obviously still much work to be done, it is evident that much progress has been made.
The evolution of Animation
In the 2010s, cartoons have not only made great progress in featuring races beyond just their stereotypes but have had other progressive thinking attributes. The cartoon that really set the tone of many to come in the 10’s is undoubtedly Adventure Time, with its minimalist, brightly colored art style, bizarre characters, and the random humor that was all over the internet in the early 10s it’s undoubtedly one of the biggest influencers for many of the cartoons that came after it. One of things it is most remembered for is the complex and dynamic relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen, even early on, the writer indirectly suggested they were ex-girlfriends by having them fight in a way that only people involved romantically would, however they would not confirm this until many seasons later, when cartoons with lesbian characters had already came out. The show that gets credited with having the first lesbian relationship is Legend of Korra, Avatar: the Last Airbender’s successor. Their relationship started at the very end of the show, and was to say the least, a bit unnatural and rushed, however it was a stepping stone in the right direction, after those two stepping stones we finally a healthy and complete feeling lesbian relationship on the critically acclaimed show Steven Universe.
Looking at cartoons throughout the decades is one of the most obvious ways to see the progression in society. Cartoons show where the people were at the time, what they thought was funny, and what aspects of pop culture were relevant at the time. It’s easy to see just how much we have changed over the years with techn too! all our favorite TV shows in great quality, and with 3D animation on the rise, it seems like each year I find it harder to separate animation from reality. However, no matter what generation or decade each cartoon that airs on television and gains significant popularity inspires a new artist to create a cartoon, no matter what genre it may be, or art style. Cartoons are an artist’s voice, and an artist’s chance to be heard in a world of people unfocused on the arts. I believe animation will always be important, as it is the bridge between mainstream media and art. Whether it’s an important part of your childhood, or an important part of your career, animation has a special place in many people’s hearts.