The power of animation

By Janie Walenda

It’s a tale as old as time. Another animated kids’ film is released, with enough adult humor to make it tolerable for the parents. Animated musicals like “Frozen” or “Encanto” are infamous for being watched by kids to the point of annoyance for parents. Is animation just inherently childish? Or do children’s stories just have more fantastical elements, therefore making animation the ideal medium? Is animation defined as being a child-friendly genre, or is it far more versatile?

Professor Jeffrey Simon, who teaches multiple animation classes at Cedarville, believes that there are many reasons why children’s content may work better in animation.

“Animation can be better suited to children’s media because of moving holds and exaggeration,” Simon said.

A moving hold is a slight bit of motion that a character needs to have while in a pose. For example, even while holding still, a character will still be breathing.

While this may take more work in the animated format versus the live-action format, animation makes it much easier to manipulate a moving hold for a dramatic or comedic effect. A moving hold is a great example of how animation can push and exaggerate within its style, far beyond what live-action films can do. This exaggeration oftentimes leads to animated films being bigger, brighter and louder, and therefore more appealing to children.

Of course, it’s untrue to pretend that animated films are only made for children. Adult-targeted animation has existed for decades. However, it feels like there is no middle ground between the edgy, explicit animated content like “Family Guy” and “South Park” and the G-rated, kiddish family animation.  Within recent years, however, there has been a rise in animated projects that are clearly not marketed toward kids but also aren’t going out of their way to be inappropriate. An early example of this is the 2009 film “9.” Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the film is certainly dark and not meant for kids but not explicit in content. Just within the past year, projects like “Arcane” and “The House” have emerged that, while still having mature content, are not defined by how inappropriate and edgy they are.

It’s impossible to talk about animation, especially adult-focused animation, without talking about anime. For decades, anime has not specifically catered to family audiences. Even outside of the obvious, action-based anime, even slice-of-life animes tend to appeal more to an adult audience, rather than being kid-friendly. Anime could be the subject of its own article, but it shows that perhaps this idea of animation being a children’s genre is a specifically Western concept.

Even while the majority of animated projects have been made for children, there have always been those who saw its potential are a visual medium. The best films and television shows, whether animated or live-action, have deeply considered the best medium to tell their story.

Animation can be a huge asset to the storytelling process. Professor Sean O’Connor, Assistant Professor of Broadcasting, Digital Media and Journalism said “Film and TV is visual storytelling; with animation, you go so much beyond what we can actually see.”

Simon expressed a similar sentiment, saying “Animation displays things that just can’t be told with real-life actors; it can display truths and ideology, and connects with audience in a way live action movies can’t.”

Not only can animation push past the boundaries of live-action films visually, but the heightened reality of an animated world can also often be the perfect background against which to reflect important truths about values and the world around us.

However, while in the right context an animated film can create a deeper connection with its audience, all animated films have an uphill battle to establish these connections.

When we see real people on the screen it is much easier to immediately associate ourselves with them and to feel that their story is real, whereas with animated characters it is easier to feel detached.  However, with the overuse of CGI in live-action media – which when done poorly can be a huge distraction in a film – it is possible that animated movies, with one cohesive style, may feel more cohesive.

What decides if a story should be animated? As film franchises like “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and the Marvel Cinematic Universe prove, fantastical elements in a film don’t automatically mean it must be animated.  

O’Connor said, “Knowing what characteristics of your film will lend themselves to animation” is the key to making this decision.

All the franchises listed above have characteristics that would lend themselves well to animation. All these franchises have made animated projects at one point or another, but they also have characteristics that work better in live action.

Ultimately, it will all come down to storytelling. Simon gave several examples of potential questions to decide which medium to choose:

“What do I need to show visually in the storytelling?” “Which style will fit better?” “What is the source material coming from?” “Do the antics and exaggeration need to push beyond reality?”

Superhero stories are a complicated case study. Obviously, the source material – comic books – leads itself easiest to animation. While there were successful early live-action comic book adaptations, the superhero genre in the 90s was dominated by the iconic animated Batman, X-Men and Spiderman shows. It wasn’t until the release of “Spiderman” and “X-Men” in the early 2000s that superhero stories started to work in live-action.

While comic books can be most accurately adapted in animation, live-action comic book movies work well because of the realism factor. The moral of many superhero stories is to inspire positive change and action in their audience, something made easier with a live-action actor on the screen.  For this reason, superhero stories can work well in both mediums.

Neither animation nor live-action is better than the other. Both mediums have their storytelling strengths and weaknesses, and both can be visually stunning. A savvy filmmaker will know which medium will best serve the story they are striving to tell. And while animation is often the best choice for a child’s film, it can do so much more.

Both O’Connor and Simon had ideas about what they would like to see more of in animation going forward. O’Connor misses the days when Pixar had something to say and feels that they’ve been too on the nose recently. Simon misses the hand-drawn animation style and wants to see more films like “Into the Spiderverse” and “Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Films that utilize animation’s strengths to the fullest.

As for me, I want to see a larger variety of genres within animation. I want to see romantic comedies, dramas, sci-fi, fantasy, all of it. I want to see animation embraced not as its own, limiting genre, but as the powerful visual medium that it is.

Janie Walenda is a sophomore Global Business major and the A&E editor for Cedars. She is passionate about musicals, animation and cold brew.

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