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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

My reflections on animation

Published: April 3, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

I grew up with cartoons. As a kid, I was so fond of moving pictures on my TV screen that I would snub any entertainment with real people in it. My current ethical foundation is based on whatever morals TV networks could pack into individual half-hour episodes throughout my childhood, save a few commercials in between. I am a devout fan of old-school nineties Nickelodeon, and am firmly set in my belief that ‘toons from back in the day—shows like “Hey Arnold,” “Doug,” “Rugrats,” and the like—are of a much higher caliber than the drivel they stream for kids nowadays.

But television cartoons aside, there is much more to be said about today’s animation produced for the big screen. Over the past decade or so since Pixar released “Toy Story” (1995), the first animated film using only computer-generated technology, there have been many attempts to reach the initial success of this feature. Accordingly, Pixar and DreamWorks (the leading companies in computer animation) have produced several computer-only animated flicks appealing to G-rated audiences.

After seeing enough of these adorable features, however, I started to notice a pattern that was rather unsettling for a cartoon-enthusiast like myself, giving me a sickening feeling of déjà-toon. Basically, after sitting through about the twelfth talking animal movie, those snarky one-liners they all seem to have stop being funny and start being painfully predictable. The humor is geared towards the parents of young audience members but is constricted to G-rated boundaries. Thus, none of the jokes are ever actually funny for either demographic. It also seems to me that screenwriters of this genre follow a very concrete formulaic method to reel in box office bucks while sacrificing quality cinema.

The formula is simple: some cute animal characters with eccentric personalities, voiced by A- or B-list celebs, enduring some sort of zany plot twist while leaving enough room for mild drama, comedy, conflict, and romance; all coming full-circle to a satisfying happy ending with bouncy music over rolling credits, in the span of a delightfully succinct 90-minute time slot. Joy. Applause. Smiling kids. Yawwwn.

The reason that “Toy Story” was so successful was because it displayed groundbreaking animation technology alongside an enticing plotline that was simple and original for the genre. Simple, cute, and not done before (Not in this medium, anyway. We all know bedtime stories involving talking toys, albeit none that are quite as peppy as Tom Hanks). Talking animal movies are anything but original at this point. “Shrek,” another tremendously popular cartoon flick, had the talking animal factor but was also very unique (I for one had never seen a friendly ogre before then. And one voiced by Mike Meyers? Instant success!).

But there’s another factor why my beloved cartoon cinema has gone awry. I can sum this up with a single word—nay, a single name—that encompasses all of my girlhood hopes, dreams, and musical preferences. I’m talking about the head honcho in G-rated entertainment, at least throughout my childhood. I’m talking about Walt Disney Pictures, of course.

Ah, yes, those illustrious Disney movies. Sure, they were all predictable (no Disney movie could ever possibly have an unhappy ending, even if it involved tweaking the original fairy tales a bit). But in all their predictability they still managed to produce amazing soundtracks that appealed to all age groups. Disney music had created a genre in and of itself, so much so that a couple of Broadway musicals have been spawned as a result.

But besides the catchy tunes every Disney movie exhibited throughout the nineties (what I consider to be the Golden Age of Disney movies) they all had one other important factor: stunning animation. Perhaps computer-tweaked, but initially all of my favorite girlhood films were hand-drawn. Something about good old-fashioned animation makes it so much more pleasing to the eye, and more natural looking. Or maybe that’s just me.

There is something else about Disney movies, though, that also seems a bit formulaic. Mainly, those pretty princesses. You know, most of those Disney flicks had them. They’d all create an elaborate musical around a classic fairy tale plot line, making sure to conjure up a gorgeous female protagonist or supporting damsel in distress. This was all very appealing to me at the tender age of seven, for much the same reason that Barbies and American Girls dolls were.

Disney understands this appeal, which is why they created a whole “Disney Princess Collection” based on these diverse beauties. Dolls, clothes, and stickers have been created in their names, and marketed to innocent little girls like I once was. But when I say diverse, I do a double take, and notice that those politically incorrect fools up at Disney had forgotten to represent a major ethnicity among its Princesses. That is to say, there is no black Disney Princess!

But have no fear, Disney Princess enthusiasts. We won’t be let down. As a matter of fact, Disney is working on this problem right now. The newest (traditionally animated!) Disney feature will have an African-American female protagonist. “The Princess and the Frog,” set to be released in December 2009, is a fairy tale about on a young girl named Princess Tiana who lives in New Orleans’ French Quarter during the Jazz Age. So we can rest easy at night knowing that now every ethnic group has been represented…or has it? They don’t have a Hispanic princess, do they? Better get working on that, Disney.

So wherein lies the future of my beloved cartoons? The world of American animation, like every other form of entertainment, is constantly being innovated and changed. Nevertheless, I will be on the lookout for promising animated features, though I won’t have the patience to sit through another talking animal movie for a long time. And if American cartoon movies continue to be disappointing, there’s always anime, right? Yup, now that’s entertainment.