Sunday, March 1, 2015

Animation and Genre


Apparently someone at the Academy Awards referred to animation as a genre and this provoked a large negative response from many of my friends of friends on Facebook who are animators or in the animation business. They all unanimously thought that animation was not a genre. The person who made this comment originally during award coverage may have been an actor.

Remember, before we begin, that the motion picture industry, like many other industries, feels perfectly entitled to take any word in any language and give it a new meaning when it is convenient. So what genre means to someone in the motion picture industry might be very different from what genre might mean to a film studies professor at the university.

In film criticism, a genre generally refers to similar story elements and conventions that are common between films which are said to be a genre. For example, most westerns have a climactic shootout in which good confronts evil and the matter is decided by a gunfight. In most spy movies with an evil genius, there is often a scene in which the evil genius explains to our hero their plan for world domination. In certain fantasy quest stories, the plot often contains a section in which the hero searches for a special weapon to use in fighting evil. Time Travel was considered to be a genre that had no commercial potential until Back to the Future became a hit series.

Genres are often mixed, many films today are likely to have a romantic subplot no matter what the genre.

Genres tend to bring with them advantages and disadvantages as both a commercial property and also creatively. It is generally easier to market a genre film than a film that has no overt genre or which cuts across genres. The disadvantage is that generally a genre has limitations and requirements that the audience expects and you can not easily violate these expectations except with great skill and risk. A famous counter-genre element is the ending of Shane in which the hero is wounded, possibly fatally, in the climactic shootout. Anyone who violates genre expectations runs the risk of displeasing a part of their audience.

Hollywood often screws up genre when it tries to cash in on a film that is successful. Everyone wants to be first to be second. Most of the original imitators of Star Wars were pathetic in their gross misunderstandings of what made that film successful. Its always important to remember that many of the top people in Hollywood are not too smart. That is why they get paid their small salaries in the low millions.

So is animation a genre?

The first thing to realize is that the person who made this comment was an actor. Actors have always hated animation. Why? Because what they want is more films to be made that star actors, of course. Voice over with celebrities is a new phenomena, and besides, its not the same thing. The politics of the situation means that they are in general opposed to animation. The same is true for writers, directors and producers, because generally speaking the people who write animation are drawn from a special list. People who direct animation rarely make the crossover to live action (a recent exception to this is Brad Bird). Same issue with producers, generally speaking. Jon Davison is famous for producing “pop corn” movies, but when he tried to produce films outside his “genre”, e.g. Robocop and Starship Troopers, he did not get the approvals and support he sought. Now Jon loves animation, it turns out, but many producers who produce live action most certainly do not.

This is also the same reason why it is extremely hard for an animated film to win best picture. The academy is made up of actors, directors, producers, etc, and most of them do not make animation. They dont understand it and they dont like it, so they dont vote for it.

But there are other reasons why animation could be considered a genre. Animation generally falls into two categories when it comes to marketing films in this country: one category is so-called family entertainment, and the other sometimes called kid-vid, or animation for very young children. Now this is a cultural issue, and does not necessarily apply to other countries. In Japan and the far east, there is another category of animation which we might call “young adult”. In this category, we can have much more violence and it is much closer to action adventure films. But animated films in this category have never done well among general audiences in this country, although there is a very loyal and committed set of fans here. They do not have the economic clout.

By far the most desirable of these categories in this country is “family entertainment”, which generally refers to films that are for the most part intended for young audiences but which can be enjoyed by adults as well. Thus the parent of a child or group of children can take them to see a movie and not be bored to tears or wait out in the lobby. In the case of more pure kid-vid, its the sort of thing one might want to rent from the video store, use it as a way of performing day care for the children, but go and do other things while they watch.

Generally speaking, a successful film that qualifies as family entertainment is going to contain elements that appeal to very young audiences as well as having a plot, or nuances of a plot, or of a character that can be entertaining to adults. Famously, on television, Rocky & Bullwinkle by the Jay Ward Studios was such a show.

In longer product, such as films, it was pointed out to me that films that are going to keep the attention of very young children are all musicals: it is the musical interlude in particular that appeals to young children and without that they get bored.  So I am told.

The Walt Disney Company made a film called Rescuers Down Under (1990). It did not contain any songs and was intended for a bit more of the young adult audience. It did not do well at the box office. Disney felt that they had learned a valuable lesson here. (Rescuers Down Under was also the first feature film made entirely with the CAPS system).

May discovers the "dust bunnies" in Totoro.  How could anyone not love this film?

One of my favorite films of all time happens to be an animated film, My Neighbor Totoro (1988). Now Totoro has no musical numbers, it is very long, and the protagonists are two little girls. Very little apparently happens in this film, Mai gets lost, Mai is found, the two little girls are able to visit their sick mother in the hospital and believe that she will get better. I suggested this film to a friend of mine with a 12 year old American boy and he HATED the film with a passion.  Troma, of all companies, attempted to give Totoro a theatrical release in this country, which is how I happened to see it at its premier at the Director's Guild.  But it didn't work, and this unbelievably wonderful film died at the American box office.  So did Akira.   Nevertheless, later films from Japan did get larger releases and have done well.   So it is not black and white.

Nevertheless, I doubt you could get American financing for an animated murder mystery.  Or an animated western with a climactic gunfight. Or a film noir. Because it is commonly believed that such films, if animated, have no chance of making their money back.

There have been independent animated films that break the mold. But again, these films although independent, are also intended to make money. Had they made a huge amount of money, then people would try to imitate them.  But unfortunately they did not, at least not to the best of my knowledge. Still there is no law that says it has to be that way.   Was Team America an animated film?   Did it do well?  It also had at least one musical number.

So, is animation a genre? Well, yes and no, genre may not be exactly the right word. But it is easy to see why some professionals in the motion picture industry would think that it was.

Film Genre on Wikipedia

Rocky and His Friends (1959 - 1964) on IMDB

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) on IMDB

Rescuers Down Under (1990) on IMDB

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