We’re well into the Oscar season of 2018 and there’s not a whole lot to show for it, despite high anticipation. Perhaps we’re being too eager and the big studios are playing this one close to the chest (i.e. eyeing Christmas/late December releases), but then again, Get Out set a standard for early-released films making it to the Oscars last year which was unprecedented. This late into the year, people are still talking about a Best Picture nomination for Black Panther! If anyone needs a reminder, that was released all the way back in February. Don’t worry though. If it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination, it can still certainly win a Best Popular Movie award. Hooray! Classic criticism is dead and the governing cinematic body has decided to hand out awards like you would a popularity contest. Oh wait, what’s that? The actually nixed the popular film category because the people actually didn’t want that after all. It’s so exhaustive to be in the business of award-giving. The Academy is over, but the cynicism I hold for it’s choices only grows. My movie-going has slowed so much lately, because I frankly have yet to see the kind of captivating stories that I’m used to this time of year. I’ve been forced to reflect on all the older films I’ve seen instead. Rewatching? Not usually as fun as the fresh film experience. That being said, one of the beacons of positivity in lieu of a yet-to-be-exciting awards season? Animation.
Animation manages to be a genre impervious to the same criticisms modern films struggle with. They tend to avoid sequel culture (save for Pixar and Despicable Me), they avoid remake culture by the very sobering fact that re-animating an old movie would be a laughable, repetitive exercise for both the studios and the animators, and they don’t typically dwell on the more contentious current issues. In other words, they tend to be original concepts (not always original ideas) which have a broad and inclusive appeal. That can be true of every animated movie from The Emoji Movie to Isle of Dogs. It’s also what makes them so special. Take a look at some of the films from Disney’s golden era, for example. Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King all were original films (albeit adapted from books), none of which were sequels (and except for The Lion King, even had a sequel made), and all were based off some kind of fable or lore, which made their purpose not so much socially relevant as it ended up being philosophically relevant. Let’s take Aladdin. You have a poor, beggar in ancient Arabia who stumbles into a magical cave, where he is gifted with a magic lamp hosting a genie who has the ability to grant wishes. And the philosophical conundrum ensues. If you had had the power for anything to instantly come true, would you use your powers for good or for evil? The premise is simple, digestible, but thought-provoking and most importantly, it isn’t immediately tinged with an inherent bias. It’s a solid film with an enduring lesson. And enduring is the key word here! Because these films from Disney’s golden era have moral lessons which transcend our current zeitgeist. Whether it is a lesson in preserving your identity when transitioning from rags to riches, or standing up to an establishment that tries to oppress you, or that great leaders sacrifice for their people, there’s plenty to be gained from these stories no matter how old you are or what year it is. They are still considered the original masterpieces, which have inspired generations of animators from various countries. The disclaimer here, of course, is the “original” label. All of these stories came from a different oral or literary source which predates animation entirely, some are more than a millennia old. But as they say, there’s no truly original story in Hollywood! The format it was presented in, was however, a unique interpretation. In the early twentieth century, there were cinematic interpretations of Beauty and the Beast, but none of them were animated. And putting these stories in a two-dimensional habitat brings a distinct flavor to them. It grounds them in a world outside our own, one we are familiar with, but know is not reality. It’s that dissociation that makes animation so unique from the beginning. Because we aren’t looking at real people or real situations, we are disconnected from them by one degree, which is advantageous as an audience member because there is automatically a subjective filter added to the entire film, allowing you to be one step removed and therefore one step less involved.
Which is why animation is perfect for kids. It sets out to establish a distinct boundary between that which is real and that which is not. As we all know, kids say the darnest things! They also can be pretty impressionable. From the moment they’re able to open their eyeballs and process exactly what is going on in the world, we inundate them with whatever relevance we find on a screen. This process can be difficult and unnerving. When you’re watching live people onscreen for the first time in your life, you’re not going to know that it’s not true. As a toddler, you’re going to assume that Sharknado is just as real as The Tonight Show or CNN. But you know what’s not real? That colorful monkey on the TV! Or that talking sea sponge that can transform his body into all sorts of ridiculous shapes. The creation of this distinction is important, because it really is the formation of “the fourth wall”. Which is a slow slog when you’re dealing with young, formative minds – hence all the breaking of the fourth wall by talking directly to kids in these animated TV shows. Once that distinction is made, animation serves another important feature: it introduces you to broad, relevant themes in life. Kids that watch GlenGarry Glen Ross aren’t going to comprehend a lot of the nuances that go into the world of sales. But the world of sales is itself a platform for some more generic themes – the changing of industry, the pitfalls of capitalism, and the Sisyphean nature of greedy businesspeople. All of these ideas are important for the masses to understand, but there’s a sort of rite of passage to enjoying a film like Glengarry Glen Ross, it requires you to understand a certain amount about the world to understand it and it’s themes. Fortunately, we have more accessible ways of conveying information for those that are chronologically challenged. For instance, Disney’s Tarzan covers many of those themes and manages to utilize the soothing vocals of Phil Collins the same time! And more importantly, the message is translated. But that’s the thing about animation. There’s something in it’s very nature that’s accessible for all ages, not merely children. I think that it strangely comes from this sense of detachment that people are able to have from themselves and the subject. By removing yourself and your preconceived notions from a given topic or subject, you are able to enjoy the thematic elements of these films without any sense of attachment. And that’s a good thing.
When Saudi Arabia opened up it’s cinematic doors last years for the first time in decades, they decided to screen only one movie: The Emoji Movie. Now, why on God’s green earth would they choose that one? Anyone’s guess (studio money). But a simpler answer lies in the neutrality of animated movies in general. What film did you expect them to begin with? Moonlight? Call Me By Your Name? The Shape of Water? Hell no! If you haven’t watched a film in over thirty years and your first exposure to the greater cinematic world is a strange fish creature passionately embracing a mute woman you’re going to burn that theater straight to the ground. But if you’re watching these non-human digital entities trying to navigate the greater internet universe with “terrible” obstacles like certain emojis becoming outdated, you’re going to feel like this whole ‘movie’ thing isn’t that frightening after all. Baby steps people. In twenty years, maybe you work your way up to Human Centipede, who knows! The point is, the choice was deliberate. The Emoji Movie isn’t exactly a prime example of wholesome, thought-provoking cinema. I’m doubtful it has the same thematic value you may find in Disney’s Golden Age. But it’s still foundational. If you’re going to dwell on the moral conundrums facing humanity as a whole and translate it in a universally palatable way, in a way that a country which has banned cinema for decades would be okay with, you are going to use the most generic, stock entities you can to begin the process of re-integration. In terms of cinema-going, Saudi Arabia is experiencing it through newborn eyes. Now that they’ve opened the floodgate, there are many more opportunities to expound upon these themes. And the key to getting there was to show them moving pictures in the way most of us first experienced them in childhood: through animation.
Earlier this year I saw Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Admittedly, it was more of a complex animated movie than say Oliver and Company, but then again it didn’t narrow itself so much as to exclude younger audience members. In fact, Isle of Dogs really puts everyone in the audience on the same playing field for a good portion of the film. From the earliest moments of the movie, we find out that the vast majority of human interaction in the film is going to be spoken in Japanese without subtitles. Unless you know Japanese, it’s up to context clues and intuition to figure out what the heck is going on for a third of the movie. It levels the playing field for viewers young and old. By creating this distinct barrier between your human characters and your human audience, save for those proficient in Japanese, they rely on a connection with the only beings they can understand. In the case of this film, that happens to be dogs that sound like Bill Murray and Walter White. And making that connection is exactly what you need to rid yourself of any preconceived notions of a location or a set of people. Everyone is forced to relate to these non-human characters, which prevents them from introducing any preconceived notions about the characters. I have to note that in Isle of Dogs, there is a translator character who serves as an English-language guide to whats going on from the perspective of the Japanese, which gives you an awareness of the villain’s intentions, without providing an emotional connection or bias towards them. She serves as a kind of aperture into the typical audience interaction you might be used to when watching a foreign film. Isle of Dogs is a bit of a tightrope walk when it comes to balancing style, substance, and audience expectations. On the surface, Wes Anderson’s movie looks like an over-articulated, scrambled mess. There are so many creative decisions which prevent the audience from associating with certain characters, at times it can feel like a director trying to display his juggling abilities, rather than one who is trying to focus the audience’s attention on the important aspects of the film. But it retains that ever-important tenant of animation: a raw palatability that helps convey a message effectively and poignantly.
And modern films could learn a lot from that. Oscar season is now all about film “campaigns” to capture the hearts of the Academy members. But while “campaign” is a cute way to refer to a pitch to judges for an award, it has morphed into something much more political. The context of the real world has become so important in selling your movie. But executing those themes that now require a symbiotic relationship with reality, has become a huge chore. Too many films simply sell out and exploit the most common concerns and fears of the world, rather than using them to build on motifs. They try and dissect contemporary situations to find appealing themes (even when they may not really be there) as opposed to beginning with the theme itself and building the story around that. Look at what happened to The Front Runner. Relevant? Yes. Requires a bit of contextual knowledge to understand the deeper complexities behind it? Yes. Poorly executed? Yes. Devoid of most of its substance? Yes. Animation keeps it simple. It removes a layer of association, providing the audience the guts of what film really is. Other films would be wise to take note. As cartoonish as reality seems to be, the heart of cinema is not – but maybe the best way to get to the foundation of cinematic reality is through none other than animated cartoons. That’s all folks.