The following commentary video from The Mysterious Mr. Enter plays into a discussion topic later this week here at the Spotlight so I thought it would be good to break out now. The treatment of cartoons/animation (depending on how far that broomstick is up your butt) by the Hollywood film machine and the live-action status symbol they’ve help perpetuate is why animation isn’t taken seriously as a medium. Yes, medium, not genre. Puppets are not a genre any more than costumes or make-up. Live-action is not a genre. The term genre is misapplied in other ways as well. Single camera or found footage aren’t genres, they either quality as a medium or a type of artistic filming, not really any different from using black and white whether a pre-color movie or just an homage choice.
I don’t have a problem with animation given its own category personally as sometimes I want to see what animation can do. I even have an “animation spotlight” category here at BW. There is a problem though with how cartoons are treated, which is why “anime” is often treated like a genre when it’s really just cartoons from Japan. It’s just that the Japanese don’t treat animation (which anime is short for…duh) as just kids stories or something to be subversive with, and don’t restrict it to wacky hi-jinks. They take animation as seriously as they do live action, while Hollywood purposefully acts against it getting the same recognition as the “real acting” of live-action. As Enter explains, this is what’s really holding back the animated movie. This came out in December of 2018, so what was recent then isn’t recent now.
Science fiction is a genre, but it’s one that can both use elements of other genres and itself be worked into another genre without making it science fiction. For example, ALF is a sitcom that happens to star an alien. You can even merge science fiction with fantasy, creating the science fantasy genre, like Star Wars or some of the more recent Final Fantasy stories. In fact Final Fantasy could rename itself Final Science Fantasy and only sacrifice a naming scheme and meta history. However, there are still limits that keep it locked in that genre.
Mr. Enter gave the example of Samurai Jack, an action-adventure series that borrow many science fiction, fantasy, and even martial arts elements. Taking out either of those elements would fundamentally change the show, but making it live-action would not. It would just visually limit what they could get away with, not because of special effects limitations but how we perceive the world between mediums. I’ll get into that in a later article this week. The animated world can get away with things the live-action world cannot, which is one of its strengths. At best you could use the term “sub-medium” but I’m not sure even that would be accurate.
As far as the common tropes that have come up with those who treat animation as a genre instead of a medium, speaking for myself at least I don’t think we need to get rid of those kinds of stories. Japan does them as well, though not with as many musicals. What should be called for is doing other kinds of stories in addition to the types of movies Mr. Enter was talking about, not simply subverting them for parody. I grew up at a time when there were a lot of different types of shows that happened to be done in animation, including stuff from the 1960s and 1970s, while I was born in 1973 and probably wasn’t paying attention to this stuff for another five or six years after that. We had the slice-of-life, the science fiction, the fantasy, the science fantasy, the crime dramas, the comedies, the parodies, superheroes, and all that stuff you only find in live-action or “anime” today. I grew up with more variety, and as the action cartoon seems to be taking a huge hit (especially on Cartoon Network where it doesn’t seem to exist unless it’s wrapped up in wacky hi-jinks, a problem the Netflix shows also have from what I can see) and the slice-of-life manages to hang on if they can make it funny enough, everything else has less and less an appearance. Only Disney and Nickelodeon are willing to try this stuff, even in their preschool “Junior” shows and I wonder how long that will last as “cartoons are for kids” continues to be the overall belief.
Will animation ever get treated seriously as a medium? Maybe not for a long time. As more and more people in the following generations get to see the advantages to the animated medium and that it can be more than the limits of a false genre there may be a chance. It will come only thanks to Pixar, Japanese animation, and maybe going back to see some of those cartoons I grew up with in a more positively light–which I’m not holding my breath on that last one–and not by limiting it to the same tropes and stories. I don’t think you have to get rid of them, variety is the spice of life and creativity. Do more with what animation can do and the worlds it can create and maybe it will have a chance. I don’t expect Hollywood to get that message anytime soon, especially when Disney itself seems to be turning its back on what made the brand in the first place and the “cool kids” continue to hamstring what animation can do.