Many American movie viewers instinctively label animated works as childish. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a perfect example of this instinct—even though the film is the highest-rated Spiderman work on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, many potential viewers haven’t watched the animated film because they believe it was made for kids. Due to this association between animation and younger audiences, most animated films are highly undervalued. But, a round-up of animated releases in 2020 alone is enough to prove animation’s exponentially rising value.
This year, the Avatar franchise saw an incredible resurgence in love and viewership, through both Avatar: The Last Airbender’s original fanbase and through new viewers who never watched the television show when it originally aired on cable. Although nostalgia has definitely contributed to the show’s popularity, its deeper messages about colonialism, industrialization, and feminism has made it a lasting relic worth watching over and over again. And because the show is branded as a children’s program, its poignant messages about harmony between nations can resonate deeply with and reach more critical audiences.
Avatar: The Last Airbender’s animated platform has also created beautiful imagery and symbolism that would be essentially impossible to replicate on a live action stage. The different ways in which humans bend nature to their needs, and the massive demonstrations of power from strong female characters like Katara (Mae Whitman) and Toph (Jessie Flower) simply cannot translate to any medium other than animation.
Some viewers have also gained a newfound appreciation for The Legend of Korra’s, a series that extends the storyline of one of Avatar’s central female characters—a groundbreaking work in diversifying the portrayal of sexuality on TV. In this case, The Legend of Korra’s label as a kid’s show on Nickelodeon actually works in its favor, as it exemplified a new way for all identities to be portrayed toward younger audiences. Arguably, The Legend of Korra opened the door for more animated shows that feature LGBTQ+ characters like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a sci-fi show centering on a female warrior protagonist, and Wolfwalkers, a cartoonish film exploring magic and folklore.
Animation is more effective than live action in part because the medium is underestimated. Because viewers believe animation is for kids, people often forget that this medium alone can portray any scene imaginable. This creative freedom enables storytellers to tackle more complex societal and philosophical issues.
As a recent example, Pixar and Disney’s Soul has provided a profound message about finding purpose in life to people feeling completely lost during the pandemic. Many audiences can certainly relate to the feeling of starting a Pixar movie expecting light humor and cute characters. But with Soul, Pixar proves once again that animation’s whimsical form actually enables storytellers to convey heavier, more meaningful messages. Following the life of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a pianist who loves jazz music, Soul enables viewers to experience newfound love for life and the never-ending search for purpose.
Beyond its beautiful story, Soul intermeshes technological and electric imagery with soft, ethereal settings. The movie visualizes amazing abstract concepts, from the world before life on Earth to “flow,” or the state people fall into when they really love something. When Joe enters flow for the first time onscreen, aurora-like waves of blue and indigo surround him and his piano, while small purple squares and triangles dance around his head. As Joe plays his heart out, even viewers who don’t care for music can almost see and feel, for a moment, what a true musician must feel as they fall in love with their craft.
Animation develops greater emotional depth not only through imagery and setting, but also through character design. Because animated works simplify how characters look, it’s often easier to relate to an animated character’s struggles than to an actor. Some actors are so closely tied to their celebrity identities that viewers cannot immerse themselves in the characters they play.
On the other hand, Soul’s Joe Gardner and his mentee, 22 (Tina Fey), look much more abstract; As animated souls, they take the form of luminescent, aquamarine ghosts with round faces and wide eyes. Their edges are blurred and gentle, and their cartoonish appearances make us more empathetic toward their struggles with finding purpose in life.
With how current American audiences view animation, oftentimes, an animated work has to be unbelievably lewd in order to avoid the label of “for kids.” Big Mouth, South Park, and Family Guy are just some examples of shows that use loud, crass jokes to be branded as “adult” or “worth the watch.” So many gems are discredited due to misconceptions about animation. In reality, animation enables storytellers to tap into so many different topics, from sexual identity to personal passions to connections with nature. Viewers would be foolish to continue writing off animation as simple or childish in 2021.
Featured Graphic by Meegan Minahan / Graphics Editor