Friday, June 19, 2015

Editorial: We Still Have A Long Way To Go...


I saw Inside Out on Tuesday. If you haven't read my spoiler-free review on here, here is the skinny: I absolutely loved it and I think it's in the same wheelhouse as Pixar films like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. It's very ambitious, it feels more like a film for adults that just happens to be suitable for the young'uns to watch, and it tries to push family-friendly filmmaking - animated or not - forward. It's very much like one of Walt Disney's first five films...

However, will we move forward?

While many critics have given the film excellent reviews, a good number are acting surprised - as pointed out in animation historian Charles Solomon's great review - that an animated family film had such depth... As if animated family films in the past never had such depth...

Solomon ends his review with this telling sentence...

"Many critics seem surprised that animation can handle such deeply felt material, just as they were surprised by the depth of Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Spirited Away."

Nothing new, for I heard some critics acted this way back when the Disney Renaissance kicked off. I also heard that when The Fox and the Hound came out in 1981, some reviewers were shocked to see a "Disney cartoon" even go for the themes it tackled. There are reviews of Walt's films complaining that they were too frightening for kids, even back during the Golden Age!

One tired thing I keep hearing in this day and age is something along the lines of "Animation has come a long way. It's become more adult and mature these days..."

It always was "mature" or "valid". Walt Disney didn't make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for children only, in fact Walt set his sights on general moviegoers, mainly adults. He did the same for the frightening Pinocchio, the wildly experimental Fantasia (in my opinion, no American animated feature since has come close to this film's ambition), the heart wrenching Dumbo, and the majestic Bambi... Very few people had the gall to call these films "kids' films" back in the day. In fact, it could be argued that "kids films" simply didn't exist in the 1930s and 1940s, during the Hays Code days where you couldn't put in content that was deemed inappropriate by the office...

Content that would make a film a hard PG or PG-13 film today...

Walt was making motion pictures like everyone else, they happened to be fantasy stories that captivated young audiences and moved adult audiences. Snow White didn't become the highest grossing film of all time for nothing before the juggernaut Gone with the Wind was released nearly two years later. Snow White's world premiere alone moved many contemporary Hollywood celebrities to laughs and tears. Pinocchio received excellent reviews when it was released, while Fantasia confused and even rubbed people the wrong way! One critic for The New York Times said the film was the same thing as Nazism!

Imagine that! Walt was something of a bad boy back then! Fantasia kind of is a "bad boy" kinda picture, what with its scary imagery and nudity and bold ideas. Today, it seems tame, but in 1940? It certainly wasn't in any way, shape, or form. That's part of why it didn't catch until much later, it was too much for general moviegoers. Some have said that Walt didn't hit any spot with it, as it was too highbrow for audiences and too lowbrow for the high art crowd. Many classical music enthusiasts and musicians found the film to be an absolute insult.

Today, it's hugely regarded as a masterpiece, and rightfully so. Fantasia wouldn't turn a dime at the box office until its psychedelic-themed re-release in 1969, three years after Walt's passing...

Dumbo was highly popular and received better reviews than a particular film that opened the same year, Citizen Kane. Imagine that! It's still highly regarded, and had the attack on Pearl Harbor never happened, it would've been a blockbuster at the box office and Dumbo himself would've been featured on the cover of TIME Magazine.

Bambi, like Fantasia, was more polarizing. Some thought it was too "realistic" to be a cartoon, one reviewer saying "Mickey wouldn't be caught dead in this." Some argued it was too cutesy. Nowadays? It's ranked as one of the biggest tearjerkers in film history, and just a masterpiece altogether. It has a quietness and subtlety that you won't see in many animated films today.

Walt and his crew hit that sweet spot with most of their films, but what he was doing in the 1930s and 1940s was unheard of, groundbreaking, earth-shaking! Sometimes controversial! Walt's first five films are all important films nowadays, as they are rightfully looked at as classics by open minds...

For every current writer who writes about Walt's films with respect, there are many who don't. I see all these editorials and overblown think pieces that talk about how great today's animated films are, how more "adult" they are, how they've come a long way, how "complex" they are... I just roll my eyes. As if Walt's films weren't just that. For instance, Forbes' movie critic - in his review of Planes: Fire & Rescue - dismissed every pre-1989 American animated film as "strictly for kids" stuff. And that's not even considering the films of Ralph Bakshi and others! Also, that's say nothing of every cartoon short from the Golden Age! I think those get overlooked in many ways, too, whether it's Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry.

Articles and pieces like that, to me, define how many people see animation of the past. It makes me wonder if many of the writers even paid attention when watching classic animated films, or if they even watched them to begin with. (If you think Cinderella is dependent on a man to save her, chances are you haven't watched Walt's film or didn't pay attention when watching it.) Animation has indeed come a long way from its doldrum days (the 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s), there's no doubt about that, but we have simply returned to the way it was during the first Golden Age of Animation. All the mainstream features don't go above PG, very rarely do any go for the PG-13 and most of the time they don't go over well when they do. To me, American feature animation coming a "long way" means more adults-only films and films tackling all different kinds of subject matter. Look at European animated features, other foreign works, to say nothing of what Japan does!

We are not there yet. In a day and age where there is no Hays Code, it's kind of frustrating that we haven't gotten there. I'm not saying Disney Animation or Pixar should turn around and make a PG-13 or R-rated film, I'm saying someone else should. Someone should heavily jumpstart adult feature animation here in America, smart adult feature animation, not raunchy stuff that'll easily get the majority of animation-avoiding teens into the theater. This is another story for another day...

Then again, there are people who clamor for animation to be more "grown-up", yet there are people who would prefer if animation remained "childish"...

Which brings me to Inside Out...

One positive review for the film put the following out:

"This is heady stuff - a more natural fit for a black-and-white Bergman than a kiddie caper."

Inside Out is supposed to be a kiddie caper? Says who? Certainly not the filmmakers behind it. Pete Docter himself emphasized in the Q&A at the special screening that Pixar - like Walt Disney - aims their films at all ages and not just kids. And what's wrong with something more family-friendly tackling this kind of subject matter? As if family-friendly entertainment or anything that can be for children shouldn't try to have that kind of content. Or it's unusual that some try. Okay then...

Movie Web's review sounds like it was written by a parent who wants animated family films (which she calls "kids films") to be like, I don't know, Despicable Me...

"Inside Out is a sad, emotionally loaded film that drains any initial exuberance like a faucet. Note to Pixar and Disney, please go back to making films that are more fun than not. I don't want to be bummed out watching a kid's film."

Reminds me of friends I had who said they hated Up because it was "too sad". The reviewer has every right not to like Pixar's latest, but it's not a "kids film". Perhaps if she didn't have such a narrow-minded view of family entertainment going in, maybe she would've appreciated it more or realized what it was trying to say...

It's like watching Bambi and saying, "What? This is a kids movie! Why is it sad?!" No, you only do that when watching Barney with your tykes and it gets dark all of a sudden...

Some reviews keep bringing up kids. "Kids won't get it", "the little ones probably won't understand it"... So what?

Plus, why should kids only be shown shallow entertainment? Kids aren't mindless, and it's quite sad to see that many adults seem to think that kids need to be shown dumbed-down entertainment or aren't intelligent enough or aren't up for something like Inside Out. That's how little some value of children. Sure, kids may like stuff we see as bad or not for us (like say, a kiddie show on Nick Jr.), but that doesn't make them mindless. Kids deserve great art and entertainment, too, so long as it's not too, too much for them.

When I was a little one, I didn't understand the deeper themes of Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. To say nothing of Fantasia! All I saw was imagery in that one! Just because some ideas go over the kids' heads doesn't mean they can't enjoy it, I certainly loved Pinocchio and Bambi for different reasons as a kid, and even if many kids don't enjoy something... What's the big deal? Critics, I think, should be talking to adults, adults who want to know about the film they are going to watch or already saw. If it's great and you think adults should love it, why the frig are you worrying about what the kids will think? They aren't paying for the tickets. Heck, if you're a parent and your kid loves it, that's just a bonus cherry on top.

Does anyone dare say such things about films like The Wizard of Oz? Or Star Wars? Or E.T.? Or It's a Wonderful Life? Or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?

Animation's "kid factor" is still stuck to it. It's been stuck to it since the 1960s, and here we are, 2015... We're still trying to get it off, as if it's super-glued to the medium. There are other factors exacerbating animation's American image problem, too.

Worst of all is one of the few negative reviews of the film, from a reviewer who I feel no need to mention. Anyways, he began his review with a condescending dismissal of animated family films, saying that they are made to quiet talky 10-years-old and that's that. He even sounded like it was a chore to even see the film, let alone write about it. Sounds like a cartoon-hating preteen who is trying to be "adult" wrote this. The reviewer seemed to be insulted at the film for attempting to be something more than your average family film, and he said it made him miss the days when kiddie films "pandered"...

So animated family films have to be on the level of silly giggly yellow creatures and funny talking snowmen? They can't aim for the high levels Inside Out goes for because you don't like it? Because you think animated family entertainment has no right to aim for such levels? I would like to think that someone who appreciates cinema would know better. A good many people would love to see animated family films like to Inside Out, and again, you would think that those who love film would advocate that... Apparently these "lovers" of cinema don't.

Some people just can't, and don't want to, realize that these films are not designed to be mindless babysitters. They are films, intended to entertain whoever watches them. A simple goal, really. I wouldn't mind if the reviewer wasn't so dismissive of animated family entertainment (again, he sounds like a middle school boy who is trying to grow out of cartoons, Disney, and Pixar films because society told him to do it), or if he didn't spit on those who would like the film. There are some rather unnecessarily condescending passages in the review...

But the review, along with other blurbs, shows that some - even film critics - are still not ready to see animated family films as legitimate motion pictures. It's hard to gauge whether they think that way about family films in general, because few good-to-great live-action family pictures come around, and when they do, they seem to get praise without any mention of the kiddies or how kids will be affected by it. Then again, live-action is still seen as the only legitimate form of moviemaking. There's a reason an animated film won't win Best Picture...

Basically, we still have a long way to go. Some people don't think animation as a medium alone is as valid as live-action (or "real people" movies or whatever), and many find some kind of fault with an animated family film (or in their minds, a "kids flick") aiming high. Nothing new, really. This has been an issue since the post-Walt years and the days when a barrage of kiddie-kiddie Saturday morning cartoons dominated the American animation scene. Things are better than they were back then, but again...

We still have a long way to go... Thankfully we're closer nowadays, what with open minds and those discovering the brilliance of good animated family films, and the brilliance of the medium itself...

1 comment:

  1. YOU UNDERSTAND ME. Everytime this comes up, it aggravates me to no end! As if animation has never had such depth before??? It just boggles my mind how even the best of the critics say things like this when in reality thousands of amazing animated films have come out with sophistication and storytelling skills that surpasses many live action as well. However, if films like Inside Out comes out often, we can definitely move past.

    but unfortunately, the next film is Minions. Kung Fu Panda 3 hopefully will bring out as much sophistication as the last 2, Zootopia sounds like its dealing with racism and stereotpe, and Moana hopefully will put another impact into animation.

    its no longer Disney's world. Every animation studio needs to come together to elevate animation status, or this will continue for a long time.

    ReplyDelete