In my entry called Criticism, I mentioned "the films I constantly return to." In the comments, Sean LeBlanc asked me what those films are. I've been thinking about it and I've come to a disturbing conclusion. Few of them are animated.
I mention this because over at John K's blog, there's a discussion going on about whether the only people who can write for animation are cartoonists. I'll let you read it and come to your own conclusions, but when I think about animation vs. live action in terms of their effect on me, my conclusion is that the content in animated films is rarely complex enough.
I know that theatrical shorts were handicapped by their length and by having to generate laughs. Certainly, there are several that manage to transcend these limitations. Bad Luck Blackie and Duck Amuck are two that succeed as entertainment while leaving you with something more to think about. Independent animation like Hubley's Moonbird and Ring's Anna and Bella evoke emotions that most other cartoons ignore. Mike Sporn has tackled themes that other animated film makers haven't touched.
And I know that the majority of animated features have been child-friendly, which limits the type of content that's acceptable. There are a handful that speak to larger concerns for me. Pinocchio and The Iron Giant are two that dwell on personal responsibility, a theme I respond to. Spirited Away deals with issues of maturity and opening yourself up to the world.
However, I can name a dozen films by John Ford that I'd rather watch than any of the above. And there are films by Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra, Frank Borzage, John Huston, etc. that are also more attractive to me.
I'm not implying that my taste is better than anyone else's. We all respond to different things. I certainly admire the craft of the best animated films. I enjoy studying the work of animators and animation directors. But from a content standpoint, the number of films that I would defend against live action is relatively (maybe pitifully) small.
I don't doubt that the writers John K. has been forced to work with have been less than the best. The economics of Hollywood being what they are, anybody capable of writing for movies or live TV does so because it pays better and carries more prestige than writing for animation. But maybe the problem with animation is that cartoonists write it. That's not to imply that bad writers are preferable, but what would animation look like if it was written by Samson Raphaelson, Robert Riskin, Dudley Nichols, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Frank Nugent, Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Towne, William Goldman, Francis Ford Coppola, or Charlie Kaufman? And what about TV writers like Steven Bochco, David E. Kelly, Aaron Sorkin, Phil Rosenthal, and Larry David? I can name works written by them that are at least as good as any animated film I'd champion.
Whoever ends up writing animated films, the bar has to be set higher.