The Current State of Animation and How We Got Here

It’s the New Year! Am I officially out of hiatus? Not quite. But I have gotten some inspiration back.

Animation has struggled to be taken seriously for a long time, but people forget at the very beginning it was seen as a legitimate art form. The Golden Age of Animation (1920’s and 1930’s) was a time when the medium thrilled audiences of all ages for its ability to show literally anything. You could show action sequences that would be impossible to do with real people, offer political and social commentary, and get away with showing more risqué or scary content. But as the decades passed a chain reaction led to animation’s current state of frequently being seen as kid’s stuff, at least in North America.

First, the Hays Code eventually started to enforce censorship on animation, neutering them. There’s a great Prezi on the history of animation and the Hays Code HERE. This affected feature animation as well. The earliest Disney animated films could get pretty dark, but as time went on they adopted a softer image that ultimately made the edgier theatrical short obsolete. When animated shows became more prolific on television during after school hours, parents groups demanded that they be as kid friendly as possible, launching a plague of cheap animation in the 1970’s. The reinforcement of animation as a kids medium began to rear it’s ugly head in the 80’s, with animated shows being made mostly to sell toys. Animated films were few and far between.

The 1990’s was probably one of the better decades for the medium, with Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. creating a plethora of well written and nice looking shows and movies…but they were all family friendly. There was also a distinct lack of competition during this time as well.

Come the 2000’s and there was a boom of cartoons from different studios. Some shows were crap, but there were also true classics like Justice League, Teen Titans, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai Jack, Kim Possible, Danny Phantom, and more. Again, though, they were all family friendly. The only animation for adults were crudely drawn comedies at night. Film animation was still struggling as it was mostly a battlefield between Pixar and DreamWorks.

As for our current decade of the 2010’s? I think it’s a mixed bag. Disney TV has proven successful, with hits like Gravity Falls, Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, Wander Over Yonder, and the new Tangled series. Nickelodeon has been dragging Spongebob Squarepants through the ground, and messed up the scheduling of the better received Legend of Korra. Cartoon Network is practically nothing but Teen Titans Go! aired ad nauseam. For some information on the state of TV animation, I highly recommend Saberspark’s videos. You can find his channel HERE, where he has info on the history and decline of the most prominent cartoon channels in America.

For animated films, it’s great that now there’s now a lot more competition than in the 2000’s, but I feel like since animation is more profitable than ever too many movies are made at too fast a pace. While Disney is doing better than ever and smaller animation studios are crafting some truly awesome films, Illumination, Sony, Blue Sky, and even DreamWorks have garnered a negative reputation for churning out mediocre to downright crappy films several times a year that offer no nutritional value for anyone over the age of 12. It seems that one year we’ll have a bunch of quality animated films only to be followed by a conga line of crap the next year.

At any rate, the damage has been done: too many studio executives see animation as something to make a quick buck out of kids and produce them as quick and cheaply as possible, not caring about actual quality. Now awards ceremonies and most of the general public see it as well.

I was originally going to make a list of animated films that are honest to god works of art to check out instead, but the list was getting too long! (Basically what you really need to know is that you need to forget everything bad you associate with DreamWorks and go watch The Prince of Egypt and Pinocchio is probably the best Disney animated film ever.) Instead, I’ll leave you off with this:

It will probably be several decades until animation is no longer considered cheap or kid’s stuff, so in order to make any real change, you have to actually SUPPORT quality animation whenever you can. Be selective of what you take your kids to in theaters, and don’t be afraid to buy the Blu Ray of that foreign cartoon. Don’t just complain on the situation and do nothing about it. Animation is a legitimate art form, and we need to make production companies realize that with your wallet.

 

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How Coco Succeeded Where Moana Failed

Okay since it’s the last day of 2017 I want to finish the year on a high note with what little writing inspiration I have. Be warned for Coco spoilers!

So, as I’ve made it abundantly clear, I don’t like Moana. At all. Whenever I watch Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 I cry over how they’re so much better and lament on how I was hoping Moana would join their ranks of my ultimate faves. Alas, it was not meant to be.

But, I have found a new Disney movie that filled the void left by Moana. That film is Coco.

Image result for coco

For this movie I kept my expectations relatively low given the controversy surrounding it. Once it came out and it got a more welcome reception I decided to see it, and man, it is so good. Probably Pixar’s second best movie (after Up) and the best animated film of 2017.

So how did Coco fill the void Moana left?

Well, my biggest problem with Moana was the fact that the titular character is…kind of a Mary Sue. She lives a charmed life on an island where everyone adores her and she’s set to be the chief, is chosen to save the world, is able to outsmart and outrun monsters, and helps not one but TWO gods…but she feels like something is wrong with her because she wants to go sailing. Oh the horror. But don’t worry we’ll have contrived moments where we’re made to doubt about her legitimacy as a navigator and the chosen one, and she’ll turn out to be exactly right in the end.

Well, it turns out that the reason why her conflict is supposed to be so major is because, as one commentator pointed out to me, in Polynesia respect for your family and elders is paramount. You’re supposed to carry on the traditions of your family, and you need to be obedient to your parents. So, okay, that would make sense for Moana to feel conflicted if that was the case. The only problem?

THE MOVIE DOESN’T ESTABLISH THIS. Like for all the praise the movie gets for honoring Polynesian culture it couldn’t be assed to explain a VERY important custom and plot point. Because we, as the audience, aren’t informed of how important family piety is in Moana’s culture, her relationship with her father and her central conflict just come across as angsty for no reason. But again, Moana turns out to be EXACTLY right in the end because lo and behold navigating was part of her culture’s tradition all along.

And this is where Coco succeeds. We understand Miguel’s plight better because we know WHY it would be a huge deal for him. He has actual talent and passion for music, which has been forbidden from his family after his great-great-grandfather left the family to pursue it. And the movie shows us how important family is in Mexican culture in an organic manner because of how significant Miguel’s family members are to him (not just the one grandma who understands him). Therefore, we understand WHY his conflict is a big issue, and how it ties in with the story and world-building.

Adding to this, the characters in Coco are MUCH more likable than in Moana. Miguel is a sweet twelve year old boy who learns throughout the movie how important family and remembering the ones before him is, and is ultimately able to use music not to pursue his own interests, but to use it to bring his family together. Hector is a sympathetic and lovable companion who genuinely cares for Miguel and his family. Imelda starts off rather stubborn and strict but learns that reconnecting with your roots and loved ones is more important than holding a ban on music. And Ernesto is a chillingly realistic villain, who can be genuinely affable but ultimately puts fame and fortune above everyone else. And of course the character of Coco herself is the heart and soul of the movie. I can get attached to these characters more because Miguel’s central conflict is better established and goes through more natural development, and Hector isn’t an asshole companion.

You’re probably wondering why I feel it is necessary to compare these specific films. Well, that’s because they’re both meant to be authentic representations of non-white/non-American cultures made accessible to a worldwide audience. And because Coco actually takes the time to establish how significant family and music are in Mexican culture and weave it into the story, I walk out of the movie feeling like I’ve actually gotten a celebration of a different culture than mine. Moana felt like another by-the-numbers Princess movie with a different culture tacked on for diversity points. They’ll show you how they eat and dance and bits of their mythology, but they’ll spend most of the movie in the open ocean and not explore important customs that crucially explain parts of the story.

Happy New Year! Hope to get back to you soon to write about The Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse!

The Nightmare Before Christmas: A Holiday Classic

It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, so what better way to celebrate than by looking at a quintessential classic!

Originally envisioned by Tim Burton (but brought to life by Henry Selick), The Nightmare Before Christmas is a 1993 Disney film originally released under the Touchstone label. Notice how there’s a gap between Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994)? It’s not confirmed, but I think this was supposed to be a member of the Disney Animated Canon before the executives decided the film was too dark and scary. They probably did this to avoid the same disaster with The Black Cauldron, a Disney film that bombed dramatically and earned the ire of critics and audiences everywhere.

Unlike The Black Cauldron, which only managed to gain a small following and gets a pacing glance from its parent company, The Nightmare Before Christmas has grown in stature, becoming a beloved classic for Disney fans and detractors alike and a marketing juggernaut.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with this film. Like, this movie was the Holy Grail of my childhood for a long time. It was just so creative, unique, and full of life compared to a lot of other films and shows for children being pushed out at the time. Now, even after Big Hero 6 took over my heart, I will still snatch up The Nightmare Before Christmas merch whenever I can.

Does it still hold up now like it did when I was young?

Well, while it does have some silly parts (I love how Sally just has a convenient jar of ‘fog juice’ under her floor; you know, just in case), it still holds up remarkably well. I watched it again recently and I first thought maybe it didn’t, but later that night I couldn’t stop thinking about the world of Halloweentown and the adventures of Jack and Sally and all their friends, what Jack’s origin might be…yeah, it still gets me even now.

The music rightfully gets lauded as some of the greatest ever. Danny Elfman didn’t just compose the music, he also wrote the lyrics and provided the awesome singing voice of Jack. The result is a true testament to his talent. I still have no idea why this movie hasn’t been adapted into a Broadway musical yet, it would make a fantastic show.

The animation is spectacular. The detail and fluidity is almost par for quality CG animation, but with a unique enough style to stand out/make it clear that it is still in fact stop motion. There are some truly beautiful moments, especially when the characters are on top of the spiral mountain in front of the moon (Jack’s Lament and when Jack and Sally kiss).

The characters are a lot of fun. Of course I love Jack a lot (I especially appreciate how he is able to realize his mistake and know the proper way to appreciate Christmas in a positive way without being too angsty), but I think Sally is probably my favourite. She’s very clever with just the right amount of sass and concern. But I also love how close knit the community of Halloweentown is. They all seem like one big family. I guess I like how even though they’re a bunch of scary monsters, they all have the capacity of of being loving and caring (in their own way of course).

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a short, simple, but superb story that doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is. I think that’s one of the reasons that makes it so enduring. It certainly is to me. While I wouldn’t want a sequel (because it would likely not be stop motion), I would absolutely love some shorts or books detailing the world of Halloweentown. As it is, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a masterpiece of animation, rightfully taking its place as one of Disney’s most iconic classics.

Understanding My Fave (and Least Fave) Characters

Being as huge an animation fan as I am, I’m starting to realize that the more I like the characters, the more I’m likely to love their respective media. Consequently, if I absolutely despise the main character or too many characters, I’m not going to like their series one bit.

I love Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender because of how fleshed-out and likable all the main characters are. I like The Legend of Korra because even though I have some problems with the show, I do really love Asami and Korra. I don’t have the most comprehensive knowledge of Overwatch but I really love the character of Symmetra because she’s a beautiful and powerful autistic woman (and really all the women of Overwatch are beautiful and powerful how can I not love it). Cybersix is an okay show itself but Cybersix herself is amazing. And I have a lot of fave Disney heroines either from nostalgia or from personal empowerment (Belle, Mulan, Pocahontas, Vanellope, Honey and Gogo, and even Aurora). But I hate Steven Universe now because I really dislike most of the main characters (ESPECIALLY Steven, who’s become a mouthpiece for the writers) and the characters I DID love have been regressing into tropes (Garnet is mostly just Ruby and Sapphire in a trench coat and Peridot is nothing but comic relief).

So when it comes to my absolute faves, Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph, it’s probably not a coincidence that Hiro Hamada and Ralph are actually my fave characters of all time.

File:Wreck it Ralph pose transparent.png

Why is that?

Because, as someone who is autistic, has struggled with mental illness, has a limited social network, and is only NOW really starting to figure out my place in the world, I relate to these characters so, so much. Not to mention they’re brilliantly well written too.

Not only is Hiro absolutely adorable, but he’s also a brilliantly well written teen boy character. It would have been very easy to just make him another whiny teenager, but he’s not. At the start of the movie he becomes enthusiastic at the idea of bettering his life, even if he needs some encouragement. When his brother dies he doesn’t become all brooding and angsty, he becomes seriously and realistically depressed. He has trouble letting people in at first, but his world brightens up when he makes close friends and becomes a superhero. He hits a road bump when confronting the villain, but he’s able to let out his grief in a peaceful manner, is comforted, and gets back on the right path. Eventually he’s able to rebuild his closest friend and start his road to a promising future. For me, that kind of parallels my own life: how I was in a horrible mental stage for almost two years before this movie came out, and how I started my path to recovery. Now, for the first time in 22 years, I no longer feel like killing myself, I have a wonderful friend, and I’m determined to get a job as a social service worker. (Have you figured out why this movie is my absolute fave yet?)

And Ralph, man, he’s just such a good hero. He goes through a LOT of character development (going from a lonely but still kind of selfish ‘bad guy’ to a true hero who’s willing to sacrifice himself for the only person who was ever nice to him) and is someone I wouldn’t mind actually being with. Like I know a lot of people find Tadashi Hamada attractive, and while he is, I don’t really know Tadashi well enough. But Ralph? Not only is he big and burly and very cuddly, but you know he’d never leave you behind and would do anything for you, and you’d have a lot of fun with him.

But I think there’s another major reason. Both characters have their flaws. Ralph, being a bad guy, doesn’t always do the right thing or have the best sense of morality (he takes obvious enjoyment out of interrogating Sour Bill for information). Hiro initially wanted to partake in dubious bot fighting and was at one point enraged enough to actually kill a man. But despite their mistakes, they’re fundamentally good people and actively make an effort to change. They TRY to be better people.

The same cannot be said for some of my absolute least fave characters, Anna from Frozen and Joy from Inside Out, movies that I cannot stand.

Joy is just…a bully. I’m sorry, but she is. She is obsessively controlling over Riley’s brain and making sure she only feels HER emotion, nothing else. But she always pushes the blame on Sadness. On their road trip Joy is consistently rude and condescending to her, and even at one point is willing to let Sadness DIE just because “Riley needs to be happy”. It’s only when Joy realizes that Sadness is useful that she goes back to get her, but even then, she never actually apologizes to her or acknowledges that she was wrong. That just constantly made me uncomfortable and made me feel the wrong way.

And Anna…ugh. Anna literally makes everything all about HER. She constantly disrespects her sister’s boundaries, even when she’s trying to ‘help’ her. But does Anna actually love Elsa? Of course not. When Elsa kicks her out of the ice palace Anna doesn’t even acknowledge her sister until she’s literally about to die. I know I’m supposed to feel sorry for Anna and find her sacrifice meaningful but, like, it’s your sister, of course you’re going to want to save her. That doesn’t mean you actually LOVE her. I understand I have a HEAVY bias against Anna because I identified with Elsa and was upset that she wasn’t the main hero, but…yeah I don’t like Anna.

But you can see why I hate their specific type of character (cheerful quirky girl protagonist): they feel like the universe revolves around THEM. Hiro and Ralph have to realize that other people matter, too. They have actual character development and give a damn about others. Anna and Joy are ‘perfect’ and only care at the very last minute.

Anyway, this was slightly more personal than my other posts, but I felt like it was important to share.

Light and Color Symbolism in “Big Hero 6”

Disney is well known for its use of color symbolism in their animated movies. In Aladdin, the color blue represents good, red represents evil, and yellow represents neutrality. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle wears blue to show that she stands out from her village and that she is good and pure, whereas Gaston wears bright red to show he is evil; the Beast at first wears red but eventually switches to blue costumes to show him getting closer to his humanity.

I think a recent Disney film that stands out in its color symbolism (as well as light symbolism) is their 2014 hit Big Hero 6.

Let’s take a look at the main characters in their costumed form:

Everyone is bright and colorful; their colors really pop. And they all have some meaning behind them.

Baymax is white, a color associated with purity, simplicity, cleanliness, peace, innocence, and humility. In other words, extremely appropriate for Baymax’s character. In his superhero form, he wears bright red, which is associated with power and strength and is sometimes used as a heroic color. However, red can also be associated with rage and evil, which is illustrated clearly when Baymax loses his healthcare chip and attacks the villain. His suit also has a little purple, which corresponds to Hiro’s suit (which also has a little bit of red).

Hiro’s predominant colors are purple and red. Purple has traditionally been used to denote royalty and high status, which shows his position as the team leader. Purple is also associated with mourning (his grief over Tadashi), transformation (his character development), and arrogance (his more cocky and impulsive side as seen at the beginning of the movie). Red can show both his status as a hero as well as his anger towards those who wronged him.

Gogo also wears a little bit of purple (both in her hair and in her civilian form). In her case, the purple can mean temperance and wisdom. Her yellow costume was chosen because it is associated with eggs (in the comics, her last name was tomago, a corruption of tamago, the Japanese word for egg) but can also represent energy and friendship.

Honey Lemon’s color coding is more blatant. In her civilian form she wears bright yellow, representing friendship, happiness, optimism, and other positive emotions. Her hero costume is pink, a very feminine color.

Wasabi wears green mostly because of his name, but green can also be associated with youth and growth, health, service, and generosity.

Fred wears blue and orange. Blue is a more masculine color (and a color common in a lot of amphibians and reptiles), and orange represents energy and enthusiasm.

All their colors allow them to stand out and denote that they are heroic, positive characters, in contrast to the villain, Yokai:

File:Yokai Full Body.png

He wears all black, a color traditionally associated with death, darkness, despair, evil, detachment, anger, mourning, and other negative emotions. His mask has the colors white (coldness, and can also represent death in Eastern cultures), red (anger), and yellow (dishonesty, betrayal).

All the super characters wear bright, bold colors while the civilian characters (including Aunt Cass and Tadashi) wear more muted colors. Tadashi is usually seen wearing more down to earth neutral colors of brown, white, and black (notice how he wears a black shirt on the night he dies), but when he successfully builds Baymax, he is seen wearing a bright red shirt, similar to the reds Hiro and Baymax wear.

There are also some instances of light symbolism. A great example would be whenever Hiro is mourning over Tadashi. When we first see him after Tadashi’s death, his room is darkened:

Aunt Cass comes in to try to shine a little light, but Hiro immediately pulls the blinds. But then, as soon as Baymax wakes up, the room instantly brightens up:

Later, when Hiro and Baymax are alone after the confrontation with Yokai, the scene is very dark:

But gets brighter when Baymax comforts Hiro with how Tadashi is always with them.

In the more intense moments (Hiro and Baymax escaping the warehouse, the car chase scene, and the villain’s reveal), the scenes are all low lit to show the gravity of the situation. For the final fight, once the heroes have a better grip on their powers and teamwork and are able to successfully defeat Yokai, the scene is brighter lit.

And of course, when Hiro and Baymax are reunited and share a loving hug, the scene is very bright, light, and warm:

There’s probably more, so if you know any other examples, let me know. But all this symbolism shows some of the amazing detail that went into this movie to make a stunningly beautiful and meaningful film.

Big Hero 6: The Secret Pixar Film?

Sometimes when I’m watching or reading something Big Hero 6 related, the movie will be erroneously called a Pixar film. Even diehard Disney fans and people who extensively research and review animated films make this mistake from time to time. I know back in 2012 people made comments on how Wreck-It Ralph felt more like a Pixar film than Brave did, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Disney film actually mistaken for one.

Does this mean Big Hero 6 is good enough to BE Pixar?

Pixar’s early movies (up to Toy Story 3) are best known for the following: beautiful animation, creativity, heart and humour, intelligence and originality. Big Hero 6 has amazing and detailed animation that is able to create a whole new world, it looks at hypothetical uses of technology and takes them to incredible heights, and it has amazing heart and humour (when I went to see it in theatres there were lots of parts where the audience laughed out loud). It’s not QUITE as smart as some of Pixar’s offerings (some people noted it is a bit predictable), and it isn’t wholly original (it is based on an obscure comic and does fall into some superhero conventions) but it certainly not safe and boring and dumbed down.

So, yeah, it definitely could be seen as Pixar quality (I know my Mom thinks so, and she’s pretty picky about what movies she likes)!

But I think the major reason why Big Hero 6 is sometimes seen as Pixar film is that it’s rather unique from Disney’s fare. Disney is best known for making Princess films (like Frozen) and talking animal films (like Zootopia). The movies that are different (like Wreck-It Ralph) tend to fall under the radar after awhile. To put it into perspective, both Zootopia and Frozen raked in over a billion dollars and have huge fanbases; Wreck-It Ralph made only about $470 million and does not have a big following anymore (we’ll see if a sequel revives it).

Big Hero 6 is different. It’s a superhero film (a new genre for Disney) that was able to be both a critical and commercial success (not as successful as Zootopia but much more so than Wreck-It Ralph) and is still quite popular. People know it’s connected to Disney, but since it’s a huge hit that’s not a Princess film, a lot of people assume it must be Pixar (which dipped their toes into the superhero genre with The Incredibles).

I also think a major reason for people making this assumption is because a lot of ACTUAL Pixar films coming out right now haven’t really been as well received. The sequel/prequel films have gotten a mixed reception and within this decade, there have been only three (yes, three) original Pixar films: Brave (dismissed as a generic Princess film), Inside Out (that actually was successful) and The Good Dinosaur (the less said about that film the better). You can tell that people might look at an original animated film that’s so well made and think “that HAS to be Pixar. They HAVE to be making movies like the ones of my childhood. They HAVE to still be good”.

I just find this very interesting. A little frustrating (I don’t like it when people get animation companies mixed up, it can be seen as a lack of respect for the genre), but still, interesting. And ultimately, as someone who loves this movie with all my heart, I’m glad it’s considered by some to be on the same quality as movies like Up and the Toy Story films. 🙂

To end this off, let’s look at some important and excellent lessons Big Hero 6 teaches us:

In a Heartbeat vs Bad Animation Oversaturation

The 2010’s feels like the best and worst decade for western animation. While (CG) animation is more profitable and prolific than ever before and more people are finally realizing animation can be honestly amazing, it seems that the only people taking the craft seriously are Disney, Pixar, and, to an extent, Warner Bros. with their LEGO movies. DreamWorks, in the light of their falling revenue, has started to dumb down their projects to make a profit, and studios like Sony Pictures Animation and Illumination seem to see the medium as a way of making cheap entertainment squarely for children and nothing else.

This year, in particular, has not been very good, with films like The Boss Baby’s memery encapsulating why so many people don’t take animation seriously and The Emoji Movie becoming quite possibly the worst animated film of all time. Anything else this year has been met with a resounding “ho hum”. Unless Coco turns out to be a surprise hit, the only animated movie that seems to have had any positive impact is The Lego Batman Movie, and that came out much earlier.

But, despite animation not doing well in theatrical full length films this year, there has been one animated short that has captured the hearts of people all over the world.

That short is In a Heartbeat.

Image result for in a heartbeat

When I first heard about the short as it was in development, I didn’t think much of it, but when it was released recently, I decided to give it a watch. And boy, am I glad I did. It tells a sweet, simple, but VERY powerful story.

In the short, Sherwin (the red haired boy in the picture above) is in love with Jonathan (the brown haired boy), but is in the closet about it. He prevents himself from pursuing his love, but his anthropomorphic heart decides to take matters into its own hands. What follows is something that will make you cry, but also warm your heart.

The short has amassed over 18 million views (and counting) on YouTube and, with the exception of hardcore religious and conservative groups, has gotten almost universal acclaim and an overwhelmingly positive reception. And it deserves it. The animation is very good (especially considering it’s a low budget college film), the music is excellent, and it tells an innocent but effective story that doesn’t rely on dialogue.

The makers of the film, Esteban Bravo and Beth David, are considering making this into a full length movie, and I hope it happens. Again, considering how there are so many animated films but only a fraction of them are really that great, we could use a film like this. One that doesn’t rely on low brow humour and cheap gimmicks and tells an emotional story about the love between two boys.

Please support this short any way you can. You can start by watching it below.