Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Genre? Or Medium?

Are animated features a narrow (and pretty specific) type of movie, or not?

... Animated films like Dreamworks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon, Warner Bros.’ The Iron Giant, Disney’s The Lion King, or Blue Sky’s Ice Age (all of which I consider to be pretty great movies) may have weighty themes and adult thematic elements around the edges, but they are still specifically constructed to at least be marketed as for-all-ages action-comedies, with comical supporting characters, kid-friendly plot elements, and/or narratives that can skate by with a PG at worst. There are some exceptions, usually in the harder-action entries like 20th Century Fox's Titan A.E. or Lionsgate’s (insanely underrated) Battle For Terra, but they usually die badly at the box office while the latest funny-animal caper cleans up at the box office. ...

Until animation truly diversifies itself, until films like Watership Down, Cool World, Walking Life, and arguably Rango become at least a little more commonplace, we must unfortunately discuss the financial aspects, if not artistic aspects as well, of animated films as a genre, rather than merely a medium to tell all different kinds of stories in all different kinds of genres. Those who produce animated art and those who enjoy animated art don’t have to like it. I don’t like it much either, and we can encourage a change, but it’s the truth as of today. Until we have a wide variety of American animated films being produced for mass consumption, in different genres and aimed at different audiences, American animation is unfortunately a category unto itself. It arguably shouldn’t be the case and certainly does not have to be the case, but for now, it most certainly is the case.

I get where Scott Mendelson comes from as regards "genres," but here's my problem.

Back in Hollywood's "Golden Age" (1930-1950), the aim of every movie studio was to rope in as many segments of the viewing public as possible. If there was a Gable picture, they gave Clark a leading lady for the women in the audience. Comedies usually had a young, romantic couple and several older character actors to broaden appeal.

"Casting a wide net" was the strategy. And after the Motion Picture Production Code got some regulatory teeth (around 1934), it became a necessary strategy, because nudity, suggestive behavior, and raunchy language were not allowed. So you could best describe most of the product coming out back then as "family pictures" because it had to be.

And most movies of that era were aimed at the broadest demographic possible. There wasn't any television to compete with the theatrical films, no porn streaming on demand, no smart phones or video games or iPads. Movies were the entertainment option of choice, and most people chose them. And movie moguls tried to rope in as much of the viewing public as they could.

And that is pretty much what animation studios -- with some exceptions -- are attempting to do here in the 21st century. If cartoon makers make "genre movies," then the genre they're creating is the "Golden Age" live-action archetype that tried to corral all of the film-going demographic during the 1930s and 1940s.

Come to think of it, that was the same broad demographic that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was chasing in 1938. There was a reason that SW was the highest grossing film of its year. Disney wanted everybody to see his animated feature, not just kids. And that first time out, the strategy worked like gangbusters.

8 comments:

Grant said...

I'm all for diversity. OR at least a laugh. But cartoons like the bland watership down, the complete mess cool world, and the awful rango didn't make money. And that's what these large features are all about. None of the aforementioned is as mature or adult as a film like The Iron Giant. Sadly, it bombed, too.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

I suppose you guys have good points here. I suppose it's all wishful thinking for those of us who want to see animated features taken as serious as their live-action counterparts than to be pigeonholed into a specific genre and stay there as it is.

Mark Mayerson said...

Steve, your description of older Hollywood films is a gross simplification. They may have been aimed at the widest possible audience (and that's a generalization), but they were definitely in different genres. There were comedies, mysteries, musicals, action pictures, war pictures, westerns and women's films. There's no way that a Bette Davis film was aimed at the same audience as Gunga Din or Brute Force. There were also major budget differences between B movies like The Bowery Boys and prestige pictures like Ben Hur, based on the size audience they expected to attract.

I would be thrilled if modern animated features had the range of subject matter that Hollywood used to routinely deal with. Rewriting Hollywood history to justify the narrow focus of current animated features is letting animation studios off the hook.

Kenneth Elliott said...

I am all for more "adult" animated features, and I don't mean "adult" as in "more crude humor." If you look at films from the late anime master Satoshi Kon, (Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, and Paprika,) this is the direction America should go...

...of course, fat chance this will happen. Every time America tries to release something adult-oriented in animation form, it disappoints at the box office (Final Fantasy, Beowulf, etc...)

^ And Grant, Watership Down was not "bland," it was a very good film.

Kenneth Elliott said...

I am all for more "adult" animated features, and I don't mean "adult" as in "more crude humor." If you look at films from the late anime master Satoshi Kon, (Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, and Paprika,) this is the direction America should go...

...of course, fat chance this will happen. Every time America tries to release something adult-oriented in animation form, it disappoints at the box office (Final Fantasy, Beowulf, etc...)

^ And Grant, Watership Down was not "bland," it was a very good film.

Steve Hulett said...

There's no way that a Bette Davis film was aimed at the same audience as Gunga Din or Brute Force. There were also major budget differences between B movies like The Bowery Boys and prestige pictures like Ben Hur,

Yup. Guilty of simplification. And I thought of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis films ("women pictures") when I was typing away. Golden age films had big differences in subject matter.

But couldn't we argue the same point as regards animation? Up is different from Madagascar 3, and both are different than Beauty and the Beast or Lion King or Prince of Egypt. The main thing they have in common is that they are animated, and have a "G" or "PG" rating. They contain way different subject matter.

Which is a lot like live action films from the thirties and forties (and fifties?). They share a "G" or "PG" rating, and (often) not much else.

I side with Brad Bird on this one. Lots of animated features are considerably more than "kiddie films," and they encompass lots of different themes and subjects.

Grant said...

Actually, Watership down is crap. There are a few moments of things that are visually appealing, but as a motion picture, it's crap. Like most japanese cartoons are. Some are OK, but most are aimed at horny teenaged girls and perverted middle aged men.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

I can see why that is Grant, I don't care for the approach taken in the film namely given how it's producer wanted things to be a certain way (what we would probably refer to as uber-realistic, talking animals aside), this carried over to "The Plague Dogs" as well.

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