I’ll just come out and write it, clear as crystal:  American animation needs to move past comedy and children’s fodder in order to reclaim relevance as a medium. It’s a thought that’s been the bread and butter of so many conversations I have had with my friends, among them actual employees in the animation industry. While our interests are wide and diverse, we all correlate in our interest regarding animated storytelling.

What is so amazing about animation is the near limitless potential for storytelling of all genres and themes it possesses. Simultaneously, it seems to be a fallow medium slaved to the genre of comedy because that’s all anyone seems to think it’s good for. Nothing could be further from the truth but it’d be a miracle convincing most average folks of that notion or that animation isn’t *just* for kids.

The faces of animation

For the sake of conciseness, this piece will avoid discussing Japanese animation. This is due to the fact that this is a completely separate can of worms due to distinct cultural differences. Hence, this would derail from the issues regarding excessive comedy and children’s programming. These are the main problems plaguing American animation today.

These things have their place and certain works, despite being comedies or for children and both more often than not, can still say something profound and of actual lasting human value. First, it is important to address certain culprits in the current state of American animation, chief among them being Adult Swim.

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Adult Swim

Adult Swim is a platform for up-and-coming animators and one of its most positive aspects is the fact that it actively promotes experimentation. While that sounds like a place fertile with narrative possibility, it’s become something closer to an assembly line for stoner humor productions and vapid comedies rooted in the same. While there was a time when a show like AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE (2000-2015) could be seen as groundbreaking, that time is long past.

Curiously enough, around the heyday of ATHF, Cartoon Network was releasing JUSTICE LEAGUE and, soon after, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED. Those shows, apart from being brilliant continuations (and eventual conclusions) to the DC Animated Universe, the shows dealt with themes of power, authority and issues regarding responsibility, all of this within the superhero framework. Ultimately the shows, while still fondly remembered, never became watershed moments in the world of animation.

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That being said, the trends established by Adult Swim have infiltrated other animation blocks. This has made it more difficult to find something praise-worthy in the realm of animation. This is all the more astonishing when we take into consideration that allegedly, Adult Swim actively pushes the writing over any actual quality animation.  The near-worldwide appeal of something like ADVENTURE TIME is elusive at best as is the cynical attraction of something like RICK AND MORTY.

A cynical parody of Back to the Future.

The former isn’t particularly humorous and I find the latter a petty exercise in teenage nihilism with occasional observations worthy of the descriptor of intelligence. I have taken the time to watch other shows like REGULAR SHOW and yet again, whatever value they might convey is murky and honestly, comedy is something is best left not looked for.

The greatest strength of comedy is rooted in its spontaneity and improvisation. The fact that so many of these shows are called comedies, black comedies and otherwise, feels like a contradiction. Which leads me to my next point regarding a failure in animation: animated sitcoms.

THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY

The longest running animated show in America, THE SIMPSONS is best described as an institution. But is it an institution that should still continue? It’s the model by which most shows are measured due to its iconic characters and formerly biting satire. I say formerly because any aspect that made the show distinctive has been assimilated and done better by SOUTH PARK but that’s beside the point. As of this writing, THE SIMPSONS is still ongoing and for reasons that defy logic.

The same could be said of FAMILY GUY. Seth Macfarlane’s animated sitcom has a bit more edge but suffers from ADD levels of humor, with random references for the simple sake of them and dark humor for no other reason than to simply have it. To make the attempt to find depth in these shows at this point is frankly a waste of time.

Meet the new family. Same as the old one.

Whatever benefit or positive impact they might have had for animation, they’ve long overstayed their welcome and exist solely for the sake of existing. Pointless seems hardly an adequate descriptor for these shows. Mostly because their nature as animated productions hardly shines through. There is nothing visually appealing about them that demands anything of them as animated products.

The great tragedy of this is the fact that both these shows are essentially the “face” of not just animation, but “adult” animation in America and yet do nothing to push its technical and narrative frontiers. Instead, they rely on their legacy and most importantly on the indifference and excessively low standards of mainstream audiences.

Read: Interested in a more profound analysis of animated shows? Read this piece about ADVENTURE TIME!

Animation: The medium cursed as a genre

Due to the trends established by Adult Swim and animated sitcoms, there has been no influx of dramatic shows. Only a handful of dramatic action shows have emerged in the last 16 years. It’s almost embarrassing to say that besides JUSTICE LEAGUE (UNLIMITED), AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, its follow-up THE LEGEND OF KORRA and the Genndy Tartakovsky produced STAR WARS: CLONE WARS and its own 3D follow-up, these were the only dramatic shows around and while they certainly have their fan base and presence, they’re ultimately exceptions rather than the rule.

We haven’t seen something like this in over 10 years

At this point, the only studio consistently producing more serious animated fare is Warner Bros. Animation and they only do so in direct to video productions that come out two or three times a year. It’s almost as if asking for serious animated fare is a premium service that appeals to only a certain niche market. Which, again, seems to reflect how the culture at large seems to take animation as a genre as opposed to a medium.

Rather than push the technical limits of animation to new boundaries through inventive stories in the genres of action and adventure, comedy reigns supreme. The stigmas endemic to animation almost forbid the notion of animation being used for anything other than a laugh. What’s worse is how genuine brilliance is overlooked precisely because it’s wrapped in the aforementioned characteristics of comedy/children’s content.

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Diamonds in the Rough

One of the absolute worst sins of Adult Swim and animated sitcoms is how they are hailed as adult animation. But upon closer inspection, it is easy to see that the word “adult” is little more than a stand-in for things like general vulgarity, cursing and depravity and usually for their sake alone. This criticism sounds awfully puritanical but nothing could be further from the truth.

SOUTH PARK is a prime example of having all those characteristics and yet consistently shines through with its sharp wit and absolute refusal to compromise its goal as a satire for fear anyone might get offended. One may dislike or disagree with what they say, but the simple fact that they rustle people’s sensibilities is argument enough that what is being said *needs* to be said.

Yet there are many works that easily fall under the umbrella of comedy and children’s content and are entirely more than the sum of those parts. A key example of this would THE LEGO MOVIE. THE LEGO MOVIE is a triumphant piece of animation. On paper, the film is basically a capitalist disaster, little more than a ploy to sell toys with a one hour and 30 minute commercial.

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The producers could have easily not imbued the film with a giant heart and a brilliant metaphor regarding the importance of imagination and the movie would still have been successful. But here’s a movie that is about as close as we’ll ever get to a Flex Mentallo movie, complete with uses of metafiction and the exaltation of the power of imagination.

Who saw this coming the first time they saw it?

Other works that stand out are INSIDE OUT and GRAVITY FALLS. Despite their differences in presentation (one is a feature length film, the other a TV show), they both deal with themes that would be entirely lost on the target audience (children). They both ultimately deal with the loss of childhood and the innocence intrinsic to that time of one’s life.

INSIDE OUT is a particular standout in this regard since it truly utilizes the medium of animation to truly convey its setting, characters and most importantly, its metaphors. Could something like INSIDE OUT work as a live-action film? It might, but much of its poignancy would be lost.

Could you picture this in Live-Action?

WRECK-IT RALPH would be another work that deals with a very strong theme, that of inadequacy. It’s conveyed by its title character, an adult and in the co-protagonist Vanellope. They both struggle to fit into their worlds, Ralph’s case being especially arduous. He’s been the villain of his game for over 30 years and is relegated to that role by the other characters inhabiting the game world even when the game is not active.

Conclusion

There’s a place for kid’s animated films and shows. Humor of any kind is not inherently bad. Films like the aforementioned films THE LEGO MOVIE and INSIDE OUT are clear examples of this. But animation is capable of so much more and its problems stem from the stagnant approach of its usual subject matter to its perception as a genre as opposed to a medium. The stigmas it has collected as children’s fodder or a platform for cheap laughs have undoubtedly cost it much and there are no signs of such approaches even beginning to slow down.

One needs to look no further than the recent SAUSAGE PARTY film to see what audiences consider groundbreaking (an R-rated animated film in the Pixar mold!). This is, bluntly speaking, unacceptable. In the same way that 1990s superhero comics struggled to be seen as something other than a juvenile medium full of sex and violence, the realm of animation needs to move past these stigmas. But the problem is a two-way street.

Creators need to be motivated to create something other than children’s comedies. Audiences need to embrace the fact that animation is not a genre. Creators like Genndy Tartakovsky, Bruce Timm and Pete Doctor are only a handful of creators in the animation industry who seem to break from the mold and have had considerable success in their endeavors. Perhaps instead of looking to the influence Matt Groening and Seth MacFarlane have had, it would do both audiences and creators alike much good to look outside the institutions these men have created.  The culture needs to collectively begin to demand something more substantial from creators if the medium of animation is to ever to reclaim some dignity.

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