Friday, August 18, 2017

Animation's Lack of Consequences

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.

Audiences are happy with the genre 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.


David Nethery said...

Thanks for posting this , Mark. It's an important essay. I've had the same thoughts . It's difficult to stay engaged with most of the modern animated films (and the live-action/cg tentpole comic book franchise films) for all those reasons mentioned . There's nothing of substance to engage with.

David Nethery said...

Most of the films , even if they are mildly entertaining at the time I'm watching them don't stick with me , I never have any desire to see them again or even think of them. I'm struck by one of the quotes you included in your review of "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness" :

"I believe many works in this world are unnecessary.  I think there are a lot of them like that.  At one point, I thought if I had the time to be making anime like that, I'd rather devote my energy somewhere else.  A Takahata-san movie will be a masterpiece for 10 years, 20 years.  I figured it would be a work you'd want to see again and again. 

Create 100 things in 10 years or create 1 thing in 10 years." 

-Yoshiaki Nishimura ,
Producer of ‘Princess Kaguya’

from the DVD extra ‘Ushiko Investigates!’ on the
DVD of the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,

Unknown said...

Hey Mark! I feel the problem here is you're falling into the trap of connecting the style to the genre. Tisk tisk! As you pointed out, several anime films have consequences. Not every film can be Reservoir Dogs, or Seven, but I definitely agree that the West puts out too many Emojis and Hotel Transylvanias.

I'm hoping you've seen "Grave of The Fireflies". I just saw it last week for the first time. I think it would have you a good dose of consequence.

In theaters RIGHT NOW is "In This Corner of The World". If you missed "Your Name" definitely check it out too.

I've been enjoying working through Mamoru Hosoda's filmography. "Wolf Children", "Summer Wars", and "The Boy And The Beast" were all satisfying to me.

I hope the West can start making more serious productions. Films like "Up" do it for me better than Titan A.E. though.

AddiePray said...

I agree with what you and David are saying, although it seems you are somewhat conflating "consequences" with "death" (as in Bambi, Nemo, and Up). I think Iron Giant does a nice job of this, since although the Giant's death is not final from the audience perspective, it is to the boy, and is an outgrowth of the film's overall themes of violence, death, and the ability to choose. It is interesting that children's literature readily wrestles with this-- Bridge to Terebithia, even the Harry Potter series as a whole (the movies less so). But it's difficult- in the kids book series I co-wrote (the Books of Ore) Disney let us explore heavy themes of morality, death, the consequences of our everyday choices, etc, but the books did not find an audience. I don't know whether that was because of the weight of the themes or for some other reason. But as someone who tries to tell stories of weight and purpose beyond surface pleasures, I am also tired of the frivolity of most animation. I guess we just have to embrace the Kaguyas, Red Turtles, etc when they come along.

Mark Mayerson said...

Hi Addie. I'm not conflating consequences with death. For example, 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, which I just watched, 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.

AddiePray said...

I see what you are saying. I suppose it is why I have had not the slightest interest in Moana, but recently cried while showing City Lights to my 6 year old (a movie I have seen at least 50 times)

John Celestri said...

I agree with you, Mark. Animation has become nothing more than commercials for merchandise; and visual pabulum for the masses...I just can't stomach, I'll just work on my own material.

Shane Skekel said...

This post reminds me of a Go Nagai statement in an interview: Having said this, the war experience surely affected my whole childhood and the formation of my personality. Even if I have not experienced any bombing or fighting, all the adults around me kept telling me horrible stories about the war, so I grew up with [the awareness] that my works should deliver a message of peace.

I was particularly saddened when I found out that in many countries I was considered to be an author who loves to depict battles and destruction just for the fun of it. [] The reason why I depict the effects of war in my comics is because I strongly believe that a person should learn from childhood how war can be destructive and how much people and societies may suffer from it, just the same way I learned it from the stories of adults around me when I was a little child. If we raise a child telling him only the nice and happy things of life, he will be unable to cope with all the hardships he will inevitably meet in his adulthood; if he doesn't know the devastating effects of violence and repression, he could […] cause incredible damage and suffering to the people around him.

I guess this is one of the reasons why Japanese people, who have been raised for the last 60 years reading comics that some people abroad have labeled as hyper-violent, chose not to be involved in war after 1945 and have stated in their very constitution that they renounce war, as opposed to a country like the US, which has strong censorship against violence in animation and programs for children, but has been at war for most of its recent history.

Jessica said...

Thank you for this, I have to agree with you. Animation isn't being used as the wonderful medium it is, but rather it's stuck as a genre retelling the same tale.

Chris Walsh said...

I remember being pleasantly surprised in the first How To Train Your Dragon, when the lead character winds up with an artificial leg in the film's conclusion. Not that I enjoy seeing pain inflicted on animated characters (unless it's a Ren and Stimpy!), but it lent a (modest) bit of depth/nuance to the character, and makes the point that life isn't about "everything ends up great" but rather "you will face some things that will hurt you... but you will go on".

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree. American animation hasn't grown up. When the most "adult" we're allowed is Ralph Bakshi or *shudder* Family Guy, there are major problems. But that isn't just animation-- it's most mainstream American movies these days. It's a deeper problem.