In a recent article profiling Inside Out, the new film from Pixar Animation Studios, New York Times journalist Brooks Barnes wrote the following regarding the state of modern animation and the burden that Inside Out bears in the industry: “The rival DreamWorks Animation has struggled badly in the time Pixar has been absent, leading to chatter that the computer-animation genre is in a funk.” There is a troubling word in that sentence, one that has been a pet peeve of many animators and animation junkies over the years: “genre.” Animation (of any kind, not just the type created on computers) is not a genre; animation is a medium. Try repeating this a few times; turn it into your very own mantra. The distinction is important and necessary to clarify; if a writer for The New York Times is making such a gaffe, then it is clearly a widespread issue in need of fixing and clarifying.
Correcting an error in an article is easy, but distinguishing animation as a medium in modern cinema is far more challenging because the perception extends all the way to the people greenlighting the films in question. To say that animation isn’t just a genre is to implicitly say that animation isn’t just for kids. But for every Fritz the Cat, there are 10, 20, or even 50 The Croods or Despicable Me or, arguably, even Toy Story. Pixar is widely and correctly seen as the high watermark of mainstream animation in the twenty-first century, and their films traffic in adult themes. But none of their films are intended for adult eyes only. If journalists as well as many fans look at feature animation (there’s far more storytelling diversity in TV animation) as a genre, it’s as much a fault of the major distributors such as Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, and Sony as anything else.
It’s not hard to find criticism online—though perhaps in visual and GIF form—that suggests a distressing sameness to modern animation. Consider the Internet meme known as the DreamWorks face, wherein savvy folks have pointed out for several years that the majority of DreamWorks’ lead animated characters, from Shrek to Po in Kung Fu Panda to Jerry Seinfeld the Bee in Bee Movie, all make the same smug, smirky face in posters and other marketing for the respective films. One may be an ogre, another a panda, and another a bee, but despite the difference in species, most of us can recognize a possibly unconscious throughline in the character design present in these pictures. The same goes for critiques of recent Walt Disney Animation Studios films such as Tangled and Frozen, suggesting that the film’s lead characters look not so much like sisters as identical twins.
These arguments, though, extend beyond the image. Even if DreamWorks Animation’s characters didn’t all smirk the same, there would be enough familiar elements to identify: a pop-culture-reference-heavy script, a soundtrack full of pop songs, and big-name celebrities playing even the smallest parts (Seth Rogen in Kung Fu Panda comes to mind) simply to boost the marketing. Disney animation is now typified by the so-called Princess Movie, even though before the Disney Renaissance was kickstarted by The Little Mermaid in 1989, the company had only released three Princess Movies in the past 50 years. The films of the Disney Renaissance aren’t all focused on young women—Aladdin and The Lion King feature male leads and only female supporting characters—but they all feature a number of tropes as similar as anything in DreamWorks’ output: comic relief, Broadway-style songs, a story heavily inspired by a fairy tale or other iconic literary work (everything from Greek myth to Shakespearean tragedy), and so on. These films are the bedrock of modern animation, either because they directly influenced future animated efforts from American-run studios or because studios felt the need to rebel against them. Shrek was a calculated and subversive parody of fairy tales as well as the Disney-fication of love stories. Many of DreamWorks’ other animated films feel like direct responses to or echoes of the Disney/Pixar empire—this includes even their best film How to Train Your Dragon. Even Pixar’s filmography, save the unabashedly Princess Movie-esque 2012 film Brave, is as much a rebuke against the classical style of animation, both visually and verbally.
Pixar’s films may be targeted at families—considering that the studio is part of the Disney conglomerate, it’s hard to imagine them ever making something rated even PG-13, let alone R—but its storytellers are capable of telling stories that don’t belong to a single genre. Many people rightly consider The Incredibles to be among the finest superhero films ever made, just as Toy Story is among the best buddy-comedy films, sitting alongside Midnight Run and 48 Hrs. Leaving aside these specific examples, animation is able to accomplish infinitely more than live-action can. In any Pixar film, the impossible becomes real; green-screen technology isn’t necessary to accomplish the feat of a bulky and paternal hero facing off against a gigantic robot, or of a sentient robot sailing through space, or of an old man lifting his house up on balloons.
And yet animation gets taken for granted as a genre instead of a medium—even the genre-bending work from Pixar. It’s been happening for a long time, per a nearly 20-year old interview with Brad Bird during the production of The Iron Giant. At one point, he bluntly specifies, “… Animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling … It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals … it can do anything. Because Disney has been the only one that’s lavished any care on it, people think it’s the only kind that can be told successfully.” This last point is the key to the problem: While animation is a medium, it is so frequently utilized in the United States in the same way that enough people begin to assume it cannot progress beyond the familiar. International animation studios and filmmakers are more prone to breaking barriers, with examples like Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and the early Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. Even the less emotionally devastating Ghibli films feel less interested in catering to younger audiences on principle.
“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,” wrote Scott Mendelson at Forbes nearly two years ago. There are counterexamples that Mendelson cites, such as Waking Life and Beowulf, but these remain exceptions to the rule. Even Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf stands alone compared to his far more family-friendly motion-capture animated pictures like The Polar Express and Mars Needs Moms. The release of Inside Out this week has been greeted with extraordinarily positive reviews, and the plaudits are well-deserved because the film is a remarkable mix of giddy, goofy invention and mature themes revolving around a person’s mental health. But by setting its main events inside the head of a 12-year-old, the film won’t be able to fully convince audiences about the possible depth and breadth of animation beyond what is considered palatable for children. Pixar’s films, at least, are almost universally high-quality efforts, but no matter how many tears they wring from adults, they remain a family affair. Animation is unquestionably a medium, not a genre; this is and has always been true. But to mass audiences as well as most members of the media, the only way to prove that will only ever be via actions, not words. For animation to break free of these shackles, it must free itself.