Reading Visuals: An Ode to Animation
“Thank you; animation is cinema, animation is not an honour,” were the words used by Guillermo Del Toro when accepting the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for Pinocchio in 2023 to exemplify over a hundred years or so of animation’s existence and fight for recognition. I would like to draw a similarly explicit distinction: animation is a medium, animation is not a genre. Animation has largely been, and continues to be, addressed as a genre of storytelling aimed at children; one that is dismissively defined by its disproportionate characters, cartoonish humour, and simplistic storytelling.
Animation finds its place in its own category of awards as international cinema is homogenised within the ‘Academy Award for Best Feature Film’ category. This results in animated works competing against contemporaries that are often vastly different in type of storytelling from one another. This ill-fitting comparison routinely prevents animated films from receiving due recognition on the most widely-acclaimed platforms. In nearly a hundred years of the history of the Academy Awards, animated films have only been nominated thrice; all of them were American-made films (but we’ll put aside the xenophobia for now). Not a single animated work has ever been felicitated as the Best Picture. The same is true for more diverse award shows such as Cannes, Toronto International Film Festival, Hong Kong, and Venice as well, all of which have introduced animated award features as cursory attempts at appeasement.
In popular imaginaries, to speak of animation is to think of Disney or Pixar, and, if you find the occasional weeb, anime. The industry has tried hard to distance itself from this ‘kiddy pool’, trying to jump into the deep end of storytelling by writing “explicitly mature” shows built for an older audience. The past decade has seen a rise in such stories, the pinnacle of which many would consider the show Bojack Horseman.
Bojack is an excellent series, but much of what makes it so successful is also what seems to separate it from the medium of animation altogether. Apart from occasional gags built off of the cast of characters being animals, there is nothing about Bojack that would affect the viewing experience had the show been shot as live-action. Bojack is relatable because the world he exists in feels (and is constructed as) deeply human. The characters of Bojack exist in a world that fits neatly into our own: our societies, jobs, and social roles all comfortably fit into the universe that has been created within the series. We are not watching animated creatures on screen, we are watching anthropomorphised animals, trying to find their way in their very human society with their very human problems.
Such an anthropocentric approach to our review and consumption of animated works is infuriating. We feel that in order for things to matter they must seem ‘realistic,’ that is, what we recognize as human. The failure to appreciate animation’s narrative style means that its ability to use visual play as a tool to delve into the absurd is overlooked. The medium plays with elements that are capable of telling a much deeper story. Paprika by Satoshi Kon, when compared to Nolan’s Inception, is a clear example of the difference in how animation adds and makes use of visual elements. Inception employs the visual to aid in the understanding of its dream world but Paprika’s visuality, when used in scenes showing melded characters, its theatrical portrayal of the dream elements, and the overall visual style of storytelling, is remarkably different.
Paprika does not fit the dream world within human understanding but treats it like its own playground of emotion and expression that feels out of this world. Animated films have, since the foundation of the medium, found themselves exploring absurdity in their storytelling — this phenomenon isn’t nearly as novel as many of its critics seek to express. The world that animated films ultimately create is one that feels limitless and unbound to earthly ideas; it is this expression that defines the differentiating factor of the medium.
I would call myself a fairly big fan of One Piece: I’ve read all of the manga and watched all of the anime (I even have Shanks’ bounty poster up on my wall). When the live-action version of One Piece went into production last year, my first response was dread. It’s a shounen that at its premise is quite simple; the writing isn’t exceptional and the characters are well-developed but no masterpieces. What makes One Piece so memorable is its ability to tell stories visually: its characters are wacky in design and cartoonish in their powers, and a large part of this is made possible through the style of animation and drawing that mangaka Echiiro Oda has employed thus far.
The live-action version of One Piece is well-made in the sense that characters largely feel authentic to the way they are portrayed in other media, but it continues to compromise on the element that makes it great. Luffy’s ridiculous attacks, for example, are not just a gag. They are a reflection of his ability to imagine beyond his powers and unlock a potential within himself that had otherwise been hidden. Not ‘only’ an important plot point, this translates very tangibly into his interactions with other characters in the series. The showrunners' inability to do justice to this dilutes the quality of the narrative. It is crucial to our understanding of the story and the character, of why he does what he does, and thus, of what his powers mean to him. His powers, and the manner in which he expresses them, are a reflection of his personality and of his character arc. Here lie the limitations of live-action: in compensating for what the filmmakers might see as a “weak” or uncompelling story, they make the action sequences explicitly violent. Adaptations of animated works try to appear more "serious" when they're not able to translate this very potent power of the visual. The style's meaning-making is undermined by the desire to live up to popular ideas of emotional and narrative depth.
The association of animated visuals with a kind of childishness is further detrimental to our understanding of animated films. Tangled becomes “just” the children’s story of a princess instead of a wonderful adaptation of the original (and significantly complex and multi-layered) Grimms Brothers’ tale. Questions of agency, found family, and the way we live with loss are just some of the incredibly thought-provoking themes within this movie.” These films have never suffered from a lack of thematic nuance. They fuse these themes into a fantasy experience to tell stories in an unconventional way. Their tone and brighter visuals are not meant to detract from the importance of their narrative issues but rather to explore them in ways outside of a simplistic or conventional anthropocentric understanding. The issue, therefore, is not to understand these contexts when analysed; it is our inability to question and withdraw from the presupposition that animated films can tackle socially and culturally important subject matters in a cohesive way, without compromising their style of storytelling.
Does this mean that every new Disney or Pixar movie that comes out should be treated with a greater degree of critical analysis? No. It is that we must recognise how much more there is to animated films than we’ve been told, that they use what meets the eye to accomplish beautiful, intricate and impactful things. Recognising this — giving the medium of animation the consideration and appreciation that it is long overdue — would do wonders for advancing our understanding of filmmaking and enhancing the viewing experience.