Monday 17 June 2013

Editorial: "Kiddie-Fare": Why Animated Films Need to Be More Than Just 'Fun'

With the recent releases of The Croods and Epic, I think it's time to reflect on a nagging question that keeps bothering animation enthusiasts around the world: Why isn't animation taken more seriously? After all, animated films are almost guaranteed moneymakers for studios. One animated film can expand into sequels and endless merchandise that turn into billions in profits. Gone are the days when we had one animated films every three years or when we just have one or two animation studios in the world. No, now almost every major studio has an animation division and they're not releasing one animated film per year but two or even three. We are saturated with animated films and yet, when awards season comes, animation almost never receives the recognition it deserves. I mean sure, we have a Best Animated Feature Category and a Best Animated Short category; we also have the Annies and other awards, but animated films get shut out in other categories like Best Director and, until recently, Best Picture.

More importantly though, it's still the prevalent opinion that animated films are "children's films" or just "good for the kids" and are taken as passable entertainment instead of serious cinema. We (and by we I mean animation lovers of all ages) get angry when this happens because we know better. We know that animation is a realm of infinite possibilities where wonderful stories are told and many of these films are much better than any live action film in any year. We know how much hard work an animated film requires, just to be dismissed so easily as "light-hearted cinema". I'm happy to admit, though, that animation has made some progress in getting recognized. Until 3 years ago, the only animated film ever nominated for Best Picture was Beauty and the Beast and that was considered a rarity. True, the field expanded to 10 nominees but at least that gave room to Up and Toy Story 3 to get nominated and I don't think anyone will dispute that they deserved those nominations. And yet, after lots of years of fighting, the majority of people just keep seeing these films as simple cartoons. And we, animation fans, keep asking: Why does this continue to happen? Well, I blame the studios, and us.

Let me begin with the studios. Now that most of Hollywood is doing animated films, studios seem all too happy to create light-hearted animated comedies that will guarantee success at the box office. Just take a look at Epic this year. This mediocre effort has very polarizing opinions, but in the end, Rotten Tomatoes labelled it as "solid family entertainment" and many critics and bloggers gave it a "it's nothing new but it was fun" kind of review. These kind of opinions are what is encouraging studios to play it safe and releasing animated fare that is not up to the standards of a 21st century audience. Take a look at other animated films (The Lorax, Hotel Transylvania, The Croods, Megamind, etc.) and you can see why animated films are still labelled as "kiddie fare". Now of course, there are studios that take their audience seriously and in the forefront is Pixar of course. Their animated films are tons of fun but they're much more than that. They are not meant only for children but for everyone, and anyone can enjoy them and come away utterly satisfied. Walt Disney Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation have also started taken their audience more seriously. DreamWorks have shifted from their sitcom-esque phase with fantastic films such as How To Train Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda 2 and Disney is undergoing a spectacular comeback with great movies like The Princess and the Frog and more recently the amazing Wreck-It Ralph. All these films can be labelled as "fun", but are much more substantial; they're great films, and great films are great whether they're animated or not.

That's something that every studio should strive for, but unfortunately these kind of films are the exception and not the rule. It's much easier to play familiar ground than to try something new. The studios know that as long as they get a G rating and have colourful characters, kids and their parents will come. This kind of disrespect to the audience shouldn't be tolerated or encouraged, but sadly it is. Parents shouldn't endure a movie for their kids, they should enjoy it alongside them (or sometimes even more than them) and they should be mesmerized by what they're are watching on the screen, instead of looking at their watches wondering when it'll be over. Only with good quality animated films can this can be achieved, but unfortunately studios nowadays are more concerned with quantity than quality.

Now onto us (and by us I mean animation lovers, enthusiasts, bloggers, etc.), I think we too are partly to blame in this situation. Of course we're not the decision makers in terms of whether an animated film is done and how it's done. But, thanks to social media, our opinions are important (at least I like to think that) and since we share a common passion for animation, I think it is our duty to demand better films from the studios. Again, Epic is a clear example here. Like most films, some people liked it and other didn't, but I felt that many reviewers accepted the film even if it wasn't good. Most people commented that even if it had some problems, it was "fun". I've seen that word being used in very uneven films such as The Croods and Hotel Transylvania, films that sure, have some "fun" moments but were pretty forgettable in the end. By using the world "fun" loosely, we're giving the impression that these films are good when in fact they're far from it. I think "fun" shouldn't have to be mentioned and should be an implicit requirement of every animated film (why would you see a movie if it's not fun?). What we, as animation lovers, should do is look past the "fun" and see what else the film leaves us. How well structured the characters were, how good the story was, if the characters' arcs were believable and emotional, etc. Just take a look at what I consider one of the finest films of all time: Toy Story 3. That film has everything I mentioned before and no one can deny it was fun, too. What separates Toy Story 3 from films like Epic is that the first is not afraid of challenging the audience to think and feel instead of going with dumbed down characters and cheap laughs.

That is the type of animated film that we need at a constant rate if we ever want animation to be taken more seriously. With this, I'm not saying which films you should like. After all, taste is subjective and if you liked Epic or any other film that's fine and you will have your reasons for that. What I'm saying is that we need to be more demanding with animated films and start analysing them as we would analyse any live-action film. If we start saying that every animated film is "fun" then the bar will lower and sooner rather than later we will be perpetually swamped with "kiddie-fare".

Related posts: Check out William's guest post for The Rotoscopers, Why Animation is Wrongly Disregarded as Children’s Entertainment, here.


  1. damien henderson18 June 2013 at 04:16

    I find that the subject can be apply to film in general. I mean, there are lots of action movies animated or not, that are called fun. I don't mind the use of the word, because I find fun to be a another way to say entertained by a film. And if makes a large factor on me liking a film or not, depending on the film, and I judged it fairly as such. I do think it's bullcrap to called animated films kiddle, and you make dozens of good arguments. This is just my own personal take on the subject though.

  2. I realise this is an old post but I just found it... And I want to say THANK YOU for writing this! I'm not deeply into animation (simply because I don't watch movies that much...), but I do really enjoy watching it when I do simply because the visual styles and film techniques possible with animation often appeal to me much more than with live-action.
    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this post, and I've actually been wanting to make the same kind of point when I talk to people about Skylanders and how downhill its storytelling has gone each game, but I think I'll just refer people to this post now, because you summed up what I wanted to say way better than I have :P