Have We Forgotten The Point Of Animation?
On Saturday, I got the chance to see the new Spongebob movie Sponge On The Run. To put it simply, I loved it. I felt it was an energetic movie filled with funny scenes, memorable moments, and a good story to tie the entire thing together. Every second of the film was so filled with energy, absurdity, and craziness. It felt, for lack of a better word, animated — or cartoony if you will.
This was a breath of fresh air for animated films these days, many of which seem to be focused more on realism than anything else. Both Paramount and Nickolodeon clearly understand what animation is capable of and are willing to use it to its full potential. Browsing through the generous, although far from complete (still waiting on Catscratch, the rest of Rocko’s Modern Life, the rest of Ren And Stimpy, and the first two Spongebob movies), archive of Nickelodeon shows Paramount Plus users have access to, you’ll find that Nickelodeon always understood the power of animation and, even in their worse shows, tried to use it. This is the network that got started with Ren And Stimpy and has had Spongebob Squarepants as its number one show for over two decades.
This is what all the great animators, going back to the days of Winsor McCay, understood. When animation first got started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the films made had little connection to reality, and instead just wanted to show what animation is capable of. Tex Avery (of Warner Brothers fame), William Hannah and Joseph Barbera (of Hannah-Barbera fame), and — yes, despite the actions of his company today — Walt Disney (of Disney fame) understood that the point of animation was fundamentally to show things that one could not show in live-action. Just as the point of writing non-realistic fiction before was to tell stories that could not happen in reality, the point of animation was to create a non-realistic film. Just look at the most famous example of animation from that time, the Looney Tunes. They were just that — looney, taking their main characters through a variety of wacky circumstances (usually mutilating them along the way) which could never happen to people in the real world. For a point of comparison, just look at the slapstick-based Looney Tunes shorts and compare them to the also heavily slapstick-based Three Stooges shorts from the same time period. While The Three Stooges did have odd situations, and often absurd slapstick, they could never go as far as Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote could just because The Three Stooges had to worry about doing real damage to each other while the Looney Tunes were just putting drawings in fictional pain.
However, it seems like many have forgotten the point of animation. For example, over the past several years, Disney has been doing “live-action” remakes of their previous films. I put “live-action” in quotation marks because a good number of these films are not actually live-action, but they’re CGI animation on live-action backgrounds. (Odd Disney considers Dinosaures, a film made using the exact same method, to be animated but their remakes of The Jungle Book and The Lion King are considered live-action.) Many of these films are not actually live-action, but instead animated in a more realistic style.
Of course, the obsession with realism has objectively made these movies worse. Mr. Enter talked about this in his review of the 2019 Lion King remake, but basic things like reading the faces of a character and character differentiation are greatly harmed by the obsession with realistic animation. In the remake of The Lion King, the rather distinct designs of both Scar and Mufasa from the original have been replaced with the look of real lions — who are typically not all that distinct from each other. However, actual quality must be sacrificed to the Golden Cafe of realism that has taken over the animation industry.
And yes, it is a Golden Cafe. In 2015, Disney said they planned to remake the Night On Bald Mountain segment from Fantasia. Considering Fantasia was specifically meant to be animation set to classical music, doing a live-action version of Fantasia is missing the point of Fantasia so badly that it’s unbelievable.
This is not me saying that all animation must be absurdist (I wrote most of this post while watching Daria — I show that I love — which was rather down-to-earth), but it is me saying that it shouldn’t be fully realistic, nor should it be something that you aim for. You’d never see a fully absurdist film these days, because the animation industry has fallen face-first into the cult of realism above all else. But absurdist elements are the backbone of what makes animation animation, and the animation industry is simply forgetting that.
When I think of animated scenes that stick in my head, I do not think of the latest attempt to be realistic. I think of things like the animated segments from Pink Floyd: The Wall or the off-the-wall adventures of Ren And Stimpy. Animation can do serious things, it can also be artistic, and it can also be fun — that’s the thing that makes animation amazing, it can be anything you want.
Animation in films should be considered the same as the tools for abstract art, and realistic abstract art is a total oxymoron. In the same way, realistic animation should be considered equally oxymoronic.