The Problem With American Animation
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Last September, I participated in one of quarantine’s major events: family movie night. Not just any movie gets to be screened in the Visser household. Each film must pass a highly selective process, in which endless vetoes are cast and loud arguments ensue until someone suggests a film that miraculously manages to fit the bill for that particular night. On that September night, my parents came with a movie in mind: we were going to pay $30 to watch the new live action “Mulan.” Fortunately for our family, I bravely interjected and brilliantly argued the case for why we shouldn’t spend our time and money on the movie that The Spectator would later describe as “Exceptionally Awful, Shockingly Stupid, and Despicable.” Instead we watched the original 1998 animated feature, which my parents had never seen before.
Every family member enjoyed all 90 minutes, which left me with a question: why did my parents automatically gravitate toward the poorly reviewed live action remake over the beloved cartoon? They have both reminisced about their love for the animated movies and shows they watched as a kid and have shown me countless hand drawn classics from Disney and modern computer animated films from DreamWorks, Pixar, and more. It wasn’t love they lacked but respect for the medium. To them, animation was for children and live action for adults. They are not alone. Most adults in America don’t give the medium of animation the esteem it deserves.
The Disney live action remakes often appropriately draw the ire of movie fans for their lack of vision, as well as the fact that they better resemble an artistic con job than true craftsmanship, designed to con viewers out of their money and lure them with nostalgia and more realistic visuals. Disney, however, is and always will be a profit-driven corporation. They won’t stop repackaging their successful properties as long as movies like “The Lion King” (2019), “Aladdin” (2019), and “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) keep raking in billions of dollars. Remakes of “Peter Pan,” “The Little Mermaid,” and a second live action of “101 Dalmatians” are already in pre-production for next year. The problem isn’t Disney—it’s the adults who keep shuffling into the theaters with their families to feed on some more nostalgia in a form acceptable for those embarrassed for liking animation. The only way to end the shameless corporate remakes is for Americans to give the artform of animation the respect it deserves.
To find the answer to our problem, we should look overseas to Japan, where the art form of anime is loved by all ages. Japanese audiences unceasingly support original animated stories at the box office (five of their top 10 domestic grossing movies are animated) and are unsurprisingly rewarded with new stories from empowered creators sponsored by companies that respond to the same market incentives present in the U.S.. Equally unsurprising is that when American opportunists like J.J. Abrams see the success of an original anime film like “Your Name” (2016), they only see a chance to remake it as a live action movie for American audiences, nevermind the sheer idiocy of removing what is arguably the most beautifully animated movie of all time (not including other works from director Makato Shinkai, see Weathering With You) from animation. Hollywood executives like Abrams say they want to take a great story and make it accessible to the millions of viewers who have never seen it. That’s exactly the problem. Americans automatically prefer a film with recognizable actors than a dubbed anime.
Most American audiences think animation is for children, and in most circumstances, they are correct: animation is for the inner child in all of us. Our rational adult side wants to see things more literally. While as a kid we might have had no problem believing in Simba the talking lion, we now require a real breathing actor to connect with the characters on screen. This is just a misconception. Even those who may have lost most of their imagination can still anthropomorphize anything resembling a human face. I have seen adults for the two hours of a “Mulan” (1989) viewing truly believe that the drawings on the screen are real individuals. It’s quite magical. The best animation can activate childlike emotions as well. No one does this better than the master of mobile drawings, Hayao Miyazaki, who is responsible for some of the greatest modern movies ever made, such as “Spirited Away” (2001), “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), and “Princess Mononoke” (1997). His films allow viewers of any age to immerse themselves in his fantastic worlds with the awe of a child. Pixar has also rightfully won acclaim for being able to tell stories with mature themes for adults with a wonder and level of imagination only present in children.
Animation opens up the mind of not only the viewer, but also the artists who create the films. Many people argue that naturalistic art has stopped progressing and that visual art today is far inferior to the brilliant visual works of Van Gogh, Picasso, or Cézzane. Anyone making this absurd claim should watch “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya” (2013), “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” (2018), or the aforementioned “Your Name” (2016), all made within the last decade. These films are the work of not any single individual, but swarths of people working together to create some of the most beautiful and innovative visual art ever.
Just like in any other medium, the animated masterpiece is much rarer than the artistically uninspired duds only digestible by those under 10 years old; see “Emoji Movie” (2017) and “The Boss Baby” (2017). But when done right, animation can be better than normal live action for adults and children alike, for its only constraints are the artists’ and viewers’ imaginations. A film shouldn’t be less respectable because it’s a cartoon, and just because a film can be remade with realistic CGI doesn’t mean it should. In Hollywood, we vote with our wallets. So next time you’re in my family’s situation of choosing between watching a live action remake or the original, make the right decision.