Friday, July 5, 2013

Stunted Growth

“Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” 
- Max (age 5)

Slate recently published an article comparing how children and adults rated Pixar features.  The children focused on different things than the adults did.  The above quote refers to Cars 2, not any adult's favourite Pixar film.

The article exposes the paradox that is the family film.  It must be acceptable for small children and still keep the attention of parents.  It's a compromised enterprise from the start and I think it's the major obstacle preventing animated features from maturing.

I have nothing against children's entertainment, but imagine if every medium other than animation had to conform to the same standard.  What if every book written had to be acceptable for a five year old?  What would be the attraction for adults?

While animation fans and professionals insist that animation is a medium and not a genre, Hollywood treats it exactly like a genre.  Animated features made for the North American market are the equivalent of books read to children at bedtime.  They're all cut from the same cloth: comical fantasies suitable for young children.  They differ in terms of their characters and settings, but the content is sharply proscribed.  The majority of adults would never choose these films as entertainment for themselves; they tolerate them only because of their children.  When alone, adults are far more likely to tune in HBO than pull a Pixar film off the shelf.

For all the advances on the technical side, the computer animated features in theatres this summer would fit comfortably into the 1990s in terms of their stories.  Computer animation may have displaced drawn animation as the technique of choice, but it has fully embraced the content of animated features dating back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Economics, as usual, control the situation.  Contemporary animated features cost anywhere from $75-200 million.  With budgets that high, nobody is willing to take a chance and so long as most of the films are profitable (and let's not forget the additional revenue from merchandise), there's no incentive to change.

Japan and Europe haven't fallen into the same trap as North America.  Their animation budgets are lower and the range of content is far wider than North America will accept.  When these films are imported, they receive critical praise but barely register at the box office.  Hollywood has trained the audience well. 

Steven Spielberg is negotiating with John Steinbeck's estate for the right to remake The Grapes of Wrath.  I'll bet that Spielberg would think it a ridiculous idea to do the remake in animation.  Most people would.  And that's the point.  If animation is a medium, it should be able to tackle any subject matter.  Animation will never develop or attract or keep great directors unless they are free to express whatever they want to, whether it's suitable for a five year old or not.

The family film will bring a lot of joy to audiences and make a lot of money for studios, but it will also keep animation a second class medium.  Pixar let Andy grow up.  Too bad the studios won't grow up themselves.

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