Opinion: Is Animation Strictly a Children’s Medium?

Toy Story 3. © Disney and Pixar

Toy Story 3. © Disney and Pixar.

I’ve spoken to a surprising number of people who deride animation, deeming it “kid’s stuff.” Many individuals scoff at the idea that animation can be anything more than a way to keep their hyperactive children occupied for a certain period of time.

Are they right? Is animation only for kids? As popular as this opinion is, it could not be any more wrong.

Animated films can be just as emotional, mature and thought-provoking as live-action films. (Shameless plug: if you’d like to see a few examples of this, see my article, “Three Animated Films that Treat Kids Like Adults”)

Quality is not limited to the realm of live action. In fact, Walt Disney, founder of one of the most well-known and successful animation studios in the world, holds the record for the most Academy Awards won by any living or dead individual. Many of these awards are for his animated films and film shorts. And for many individuals, Oscars are the go to source for judging a film’s quality.

walt-disney

Walt Disney, a man who possesses 32 Oscars.

Many animated films are written just as much for adults as they are for children. This is where most Pixar films, Don Bluth films, and the Disney Renaissance films shine. These films are written for all ages, possessing storylines, humor and characters that are equally accessible for both children and adults.

Moreover, some children’s animated films possess content and plotlines that seem more suitable for adults than for kids. For example, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm contains a dark, violent, and mature plot that focuses on a murder mystery, along with Bruce Wayne’s romantic relationship with a woman. Another animated film, Shrek, contains numerous innuendos and adult references throughout.

Not only are there children’s animated films written with adults in mind, but there is another category of animated film that is aimed solely at adults. Princess Mononoke is one of the prime examples of what I am talking about. This film involves a complex storyline, complex themes involving industry vs. nature, as well as a considerable of violence and gore. Other adult-oriented animated films include Ghost in the Shell, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf.

Princess Mononoke. © Studio Ghibli

Princess Mononoke. © Studio Ghibli.

This begs the question: why do people stereotype animation as a children’s medium? First, let’s look at the historical side of this mentality. In the 1920’s through WWII, theatrical cartoons were created for a general theatrical audience, which primarily consisted of adults. Popeye, Betty Boop, and even Looney Tunes were initially aimed at adults, containing humor and material that kids simply would not get. However, somewhere along the line, American filmmakers transitioned the emphasis of animation from adults to kids.

Why? Money was most likely the culprit. Filmmakers realized that they could generate a larger profit if they aimed their animated films at children rather than adults.

We can see this in today’s society as well. Frozen and The Lego Movie, generating 1 billion and 390 million respectively, blow the adult-oriented Beowulf’s 190 million out of the water. Moreover, studios are aware that they can sell much more merchandise when aiming their animated films at children rather than adults.

Consequently, the presence of commercials, toys, and other products – all aimed at children – perpetuate the mentality that animation is solely a children’s medium.

Sadly, this mentality will continue to be the predominant one. It’s best to ignore the naysayers and continue to enjoy the fantastic realm of animation. Have a friend who thinks animation is only for kids? Take my advice and show him or her Princess Mononoke.

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Three Animated Films that Treat Kids Like Adults

Note: this list is purely opinion. Contains minor spoilers.

Good children’s animated films should never patronize children. In many cases, especially when watching a movie, kids want to be treated like adults. Though children’s animated films should never reach the extent where the plot is too complex, the ideas and themes should not be dumbed-down. Said themes should be handled maturely, while simultaneously being accessible to kids. The following films, though completely accessible to kids, do not talk down to them.

3. The Iron Giant

Director Brad Bird is fantastic at creating stories that are simultaneously complex and simple. In the midst of the cold war, a fifty foot robot crash-lands on earth, eventually befriending a young boy, named Hogarth. The military, wanting to locate the Giant, sends an agent, who is determined to find and destroy it.

The best aspect of this film is it plays as a straight up live-action film. It never feels like a kid’s cartoon. It feels genuine and real, which kids can appreciate, even without realizing it.

Though this film has a very straightforward narrative, it never once patronizes children. It provides very deep themes, such as choosing who you are instead of letting others judge and define you. Overall, it’s a great film that treats kids as though they are intelligent adults.

2. Up

Pixar films are known for their ability to provide fun, endearing characters, while providing mature stories and themes that enable kids to feel smart and grown up. Out of all the Pixar films, I think Up is one of the best at exhibiting this.

The film centers around a bitter old man named Mr. Fredrickson, who obsessed over the loss of his wife. To avoid his home being taken, he ties thousands of balloons to his house and takes off for his dream home location in South America. He meets many fascinating, eccentric characters, such as a boy who accidentally boards his home, an excitable, talking dog named Doug, and a colorful bird.

Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, we see the development of the relationship between Mr. Fredrickson and his wife beginning from childhood into marriage, and beyond. We see hardships they face, such as a miscarriage and the death of Mr. Fredrickson’s wife.

Not many films provide such an intense, emotionally charged opening as this film does. Moreover, there is no dialogue. It’s completely done through visuals and the musical score.

The film accepts that these kids are mature enough to handle these issues, and can understand the narrative purely though images and music.

On the surface, the rest of the film looks very surreal and silly. Besides the floating house, there are dogs that talk though communicators and fly airplanes, along with a goofy, colorful bird. However, underneath the surface are some very strong, dramatic, and touching elements that treat kids in mature way.

Like the beginning of the film, one of the ways that the film treats kids like adults is through its relationships. For instance, the relationship between Mr. Fredrickson and the boy develops into a protective, caring surrogate father and a son.  The film’s perfect mix of ridiculousness and drama enables children to absorb the deeper elements, while never once patronizing kids.

1. The Secret of NIMH

Director Don Bluth is one of the best at creating children’s films that treat kids like adults. He never dumbs down the themes or ideas within his films in fear that children may not understand them. Bluth’s policy for children’s films is that as long as the film has a happy ending, a child can take virtually anything a film throws at him or her.

The film centers around a widowed rat named Mrs. Brisby, whose home is threatened and child is very ill. She searches for help, eventually finding N.I.M.H., a secret society of immensely intelligent, genetically-altered rats.

Upon becoming intelligent, the rats realize with great power comes great responsibility, including a good sense of morality. Moreover, the film centers around the conflict of nature, science, and magic.

These seem like very complex and deep ideas to be giving children. However, the film keeps these ideas simplistic enough to where they never go beyond the comprehension of a child. The film keeps these ideas complex enough to where they never feel dumbed-down.

Overall, these films provide intelligent yet accessible themes for children and are definitely worth a view.