I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the film Watership Down, but I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten. I remember how my mother found it in a rental store and, having seen before sometime in the past, decided it would be a good movie to show the kids.
Needless to say, my siblings and I were rather unnerved by the scenes of violence that the film has become infamous for and ended up blocking it from our memories for the next decade or so. During that intervening decade, I grew distant from the Renaissance era animated films of my childhood like Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Prince of Egypt, writing them off as juvenile nonsense that was beneath the more “adult” tastes I was developing.
However, two things happened during my high school years that shook me out of this mentality. The first happened during a field trip I took with my school’s history club (probably to Washington D.C.) when our social studies teacher showed us Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. While literally everyone else on the bus was going, “What the fuck am I watching?!”… well, so was I, but there was a small voice in the back of my head saying, “Oh my God, this is the greatest movie I’ve ever seen in my life!”
As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, that was followed by me rediscovering Watership Down on YouTube, probably sometime during my senior year. My re-watch of that forgotten childhood memory undoubtedly changed my life. I began to pursue film and literature far more stridently and decided that my destiny was to become a creative writer. I ended up falling back in love with animation, recognizing the artistic potential in the medium.
At the same time, though, I began to recognize that the same antipathy I had developed toward the medium in my teenage years was a widespread problem that many animators struggled to deal with. Perhaps Scott Mendelson, writing for Forbes, put it best: “…American animated films are strikingly similar in that they are mostly G or PG-rated comedic capers with stories and characters intended to appeal to younger moviegoers.” It doesn’t matter when these films portray themes like an old man coming to terms with death (Pixar’s Up), racism and prejudice (Disney’s Zootopia and Warner Bros.’ Cats Don’t Dance), man’s relationship with God (Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt), or even discussions of genocide (Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda 2 or Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It all kiddie nonsense to a lot of people in this country.
Of course, the obvious question is… why? Why do so many people, especially in my home country, hold onto this misconception of what TV Tropes.com calls the “Animation Age Ghetto”? Many answers can be found in the history of how the medium developed in the United States.
History Pt. 1: 1920s-1970s
Animation first came to prominence in America in the 1920s, especially after the classic Walt Disney short Steamboat Willie premiered on November 18, 1928. The period between then and the early 1960s is often considered the Golden Age of Animation.
It became a tradition to play animated shorts starring the Looney Tunes, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, and others in cinemas as a prelude to the feature presentation. Prominent creators of the era like William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones stated that they had adult audiences in mind when creating the shorts. Indeed, Betty Boop (created by the Fleischer Brothers) was infamous for her provocative fashion sense and flirtatious attitude until the Hays Code caught up with her around 1934.
Walt Disney, meanwhile, proved that animation could be adapted into full-length feature films when Snow White and the Seven Dwarves hit the big screen on December 21, 1937. This would pave the way for future hits like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
However, after World War II, television slowly began to supplant cinema as the go-to form of entertainment consumption. Theatrical shorts were dispensed with as animation began to move toward the small screen. Animation fans often refer to the period between the early 60s and mid-80s as the Dark Age of Animation, and for a good reason. TV studios like Hanna-Barbera and Filmation were forced to use more limited forms of animation due to budget constraints. What resulted was what Chuck Jones once referred to as “illustrated radio,” characterized by an emphasis on dialogue over visuals and a generally lazier aesthetic that often only appealed to children. Fellow Looney Tunes artist Fritz Freleng was less charitable, describing TV animation during the Dark Age as:
“…such a monster. It swallows up this animation so fast that nobody seems to care whether it’s good or bad. These kids’ shows are badly done technically; it seems as though nobody really looks at them but the kids.Fritz Freleng
The fact that this era of animation came on the heels of a revival of conservative values in the 1950s certainly didn’t help matters. Parent groups were downright savage in attacking anything they did-not deem child friendly. They purged the classic Looney Tunes shorts of their trademark cartoon violence and piling on content restriction after content restriction until even conflict, the very soul of story itself, was excised. On top of all that, animation was often relegated to the now-famous Saturday morning block, which kids would watch while their parents often slept in from a long work week.
The result of all this was the bare minimum of effort being put into TV animation, especially in the 1970s. TV studios, endlessly restricted by the moral guardians, often resorted to cranking out endless sub-par clones of Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, etc. Some quality shows did manage to slip through here and there, like Fat Albert, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home and Schoolhouse Rock.
They were still vastly outnumbered by poor quality efforts, though. Even the king of animation himself, Walt Disney, expressed his frustrations with artistic restriction toward the end of his life. When he first saw the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, he reportedly told his colleagues, “Now this is the kind of film I wish I could make!”
A Light in the Black: 1970s-1990s
Fortunately, not everything was totally bleak for the medium during the Dark Age. Europe was still producing edgy, avant-garde features like Yellow Submarine, Fantastic Planet, and the aforementioned Watership Down. Meanwhile, Japan started experimenting with more adult series, moving away from kid-friendly fare like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Kimba the White Lion to epics like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam. Even America saw the likes of Ralph Bakshi, who made such raunchy, controversial, and, surprisingly enough, financially successful escapades as Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin.
Things began to look up for the American side of the medium as the 1980s rolled around. One of the most important factors in this revival was President Ronald Reagan’s rollback of broadcast regulations. This would spearhead the rise of toy-based cartoons like Transformers, My Little Pony, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. While these shows are often derided for being “half-hour toy commercials”…
… the fact was that these shows proved that animation could be profitable again. Artists and business investors quickly leaped at the opportunity, and the stage for the Renaissance Age of Animation was set. The Walt Disney Company helped kick-start a new era of quality television animation when the first cartoons of the Disney Afternoon block, like Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Ducktales, and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers first aired between 1985 and 1989. Television networks solely or heavily dedicated to animation like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon began to find a huge audience.
Meanwhile, after languishing in the doldrums for several years after Walt Disney’s death in 1965, animation in American cinemas found a new savior in the form of ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, who introduced a high quality to his animated features that had not been seen since the Golden Age. Features like the cult classic The Secret of NIMH led to financial successes like An American Tail and The Land Before Time, both executive produced by Stephen Spielberg.
This inspired Disney to step up their game, leading to financial juggernauts like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid. This led to animation regaining much of the artistic respect it had lost in the Dark Age, to the point that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast even became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards.
On top of all that, Japanese animation started to develop a fanbase in North America due largely to the gritty and intense adult drama of films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell and the sheer artistic beauty of Studio Ghibli’s filmography. Anime TV series like Sailor Moon, Dragonball, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop only further cemented its popularity.
A New Downturn: 1990s-2000s
Unfortunately, all of this failed to break the Age Ghetto’s death grip on the American psyche, especially as the Renaissance Age gave way to the Millennium Age around the turn of the century. Many animated films toward the latter half of the 90s started to rely increasingly on the Disney “formula,” resulting in many films that recycled the I-don’t-fit-in characters, “I want” songs, wacky sidekicks, pop culture jokes, and other tired tropes of the time. Warner Brothers’ Quest for Camelot, released in 1998, is often considered the absolute nadir of this trend.
Economic downturns throughout the 2000s also led to a decline in quality television animation, to the point that Cartoon Network actually stopped airing cartoons for a brief period in the late 00s. This proliferation of subpar TV shows may have convinced 90s kids who grew up on Ren and Stimpy and Animaniacs that they had outgrown the shows of their childhood.
It certainly didn’t help that adult animation shows started their own toxic “follow the leader” mentality. They became what I would refer to as Family Guy and/or South Park turned up to eleven in all the wrong directions, overusing edgy and offensive vulgar humor while ignoring the smart political/social satire that made both those shows so beloved in the first place. Thus we received schlock like Brickleberry, Drawn Together, and Allen Gregory that can be better described as adolescent rather than truly adult.
A New Renaissance: 2000s-Present
As the current decade reaches its twilight years, however, there have increasingly promising signs that America may finally be putting the ghetto mentality out to pasture. One sign of this reckoning is the massive popularity of creator-driven cartoons spawned from the successes of such shows as Disney’s Phineas and Ferb in 2007 and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time in 2010. Other shows like Regular Show, Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Gravity Falls, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and many others have gained massive fanbases even among adults.
Speaking of which, adult animation has also received shows this decade like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Bob’s Burgers, and Moral Orel that have shifted the focus away from vulgar shock humor and put the spotlight more on character development and more relatable adult issues. Some adult series like Castlevania, Primal, and the Samurai Jack revival even moved away from comedy entirely, becoming dark fantasy epics focused more on story than being as offensive as possible.
The more diverse animation offered by Japan has also exploded in popularity in the States thanks to series like Fullmetal Alchemist, My Hero Academia, and Attack on Titan, largely thanks to the Internet. As the world has grown smaller and more connected, fans of animation have grown closer together and have been able to assert themselves in the public eye more easily and have easier access to content that might interest them.
Sadly though, the ghetto still retains one last stronghold: the Hollywood studios and their executives. Especially as capitalism reaches its late stages, the big studios have grown extremely risk-averse. Since adult animated features have not proven themselves to be financially successful among moviegoers, the executives are hesitant to invest in them. The ghetto mindset is especially frustrating when it comes to how it affects the Best Animated Feature award at the Oscars.
Many anonymous interviews with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences members responsible for deciding the Best Animated Feature have revealed contempt for the art form, viewing it as lesser than live-action. Many interviewed individuals even admitted to having their kids watch the nominated films instead and based their vote on what their kids liked best. One particularly infamous comment from the 2015 voting season had one voter complaining about The LEGO Movie not even being nominated…
…but then they go on to complain about “these two obscure freakin’ Chinese fuckin’ things that nobody ever freakin’ saw” being nominated over it. To add insult to injury, this voter could only have been referring to The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Song of the Sea, which are Japanese and Irish, respectively. I can see why the Oscars are such a laughingstock among serious filmgoers.
Even on this front, though, there is still cause for optimism among animation fans. In 2016, Sausage Party became the first financially successful R-rated animated feature film to be theatrically released since 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. It grossed over $140 million over $19 million budget and earned an 83% approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes. The film’s creator, Seth Rogan, has since expressed a desire to create more animated adult films in the future. Sony Pictures, the company that released Sausage Party, has also announced several more adult films in development as we speak. While not as financially successful as Sausage Party, Wes Anderson’s PG-13 rated Isle of Dogs, released in 2018, was also very well-received by critics and audiences, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
C. S. Lewis once had this to say about people who appreciated artistic works for the sole reason of them being “adult”:
Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a form of approval, instead of as merely a descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown-up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish: these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children
If I could get the average American filmgoer to understand one thing about animation, it is this; you are not stupid for liking the movies or TV shows your kids like. If anything, the adult who enjoys animation is far more adult than the one who enjoys animation is far more adult than the one who mindlessly insists that live-action is inherently superior. Lewis went on to state the following:
Not only do the elites in Hollywood need to follow Lewis’ advice, but maybe it wouldn’t be out of line to remind them that Walt Disney holds the record for the most Oscars won by a single person (22, to be exact). I mean, the Academy Awards is the place where the very best in film is honored, right?