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Animation for Adults?

Animation is not strictly a kids medium, despite the general perception (here in the U.S.) that it is. Clearly – South Park, Adult Swim and Fox Sunday Nights aside – animation produced for television is still largely kid-driven and supports the industry, thanks to multi-million dollar merchandising and ancillary businesses.

But animated feature films have been appealing to adults for a while now – and yet with every success, it’s still a surprise to the mass media. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday:

“UP grabbed the attention of audiences of all ages in its first weekend, according to Disney officials. “It was as strong with kids aged two to 11 as it was with adults both under and over 25,” says Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group.

Is this still news? Not to me. Every (or most) Pixar and Dreamworks film has opened at number #1 and gone on to gross well over $100 million dollars domestically. Mainstream reporting like this just shows that we still have a way to go to change the kiddie-show perception of animation.

Brooks Barnes wrote this in yesterday’s New York Times:

The medium is showing signs of expanding beyond the kiddie market. The success of video games has resulted in a generation of adults who are comfortable consuming animated entertainment, Hollywood executives say. One indication: “Coraline,” the sophisticated 3-D picture about an adventurous girl, found an adult audience, so far selling $85.2 million in tickets.

Disney will test this part of the market with “Ponyo” on Aug. 14. This Hayao Miyazaki film is centered on a 5-year-old boy’s friendship with a goldfish that wants to be human. “Sophisticated stories coupled with powerful imaginations and beautiful animation appeals to everyone,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who is co-producing the English version of the film.

I’m not sure Ponyo is the film to test the adult appetite for animation. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks like one of Miyazaki’s more juvenile films (though personally, I can’t wait to see it). Barnes’ article notes the emerging competition to Disney and Dreamworks – a whole slew of forthcoming films films (Astro Boy, Planet 51, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) vying to compete for the “new” all-ages theatre going audience. While noting the failure of Battle For Terra and mild success of Igor, Barnes neglects to mention the true tests of his theory: Shane Acker’s 9, Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max and perhaps Wes Anderson’s the Fantastic Mr. Fox – all opening later this year, all with a more mature point of view.

As for The Princess and The Frog, Mr. Barnes (who is apparently the official NY Times animation reporter) wrote a separate article last Friday on the “controversy” (is there one?) over a black princess. This piece alone indicates that the mainstream media has a long way to go to catch up with what the rest of us has known all along: animation is for everyone.

  • I think the big “controversy” right now about The Princess and the Frog is that people were shocked when the trailer gave away the fact that she turns into a frog. I think people are upset that the first black Disney princess may end up being a frog for most of the film.

  • What a surprise to read the New York Times article and find that I was given the “last word.”

    I agree too much is being made of this “controversy.” Relax, and enjoy the movie.

  • I’ve been waiting for Fantastic Mr. Fox now for exactly 6 years (since I first heard about the project and grew excited). Are there still no teaser trailers, or production stills? I can’t wait to see those! (Big Wes Anderson fan).

    From my personal observations, Coraline is a film that attracted adults to see it after the good word of mouth spread (from adult to adult). Others that garnered adults’ attention recently include Persepolis, Wall-e, and Waltz with Bashir.

    I tend to believe that if animated films are made entirely to serve a strong story (without the pressures of cracking jokes every 2 minutes, or being incessantly cute) they will more naturally attract both adults and children. Laika, luckily, is not very well known, and so far, does not have the same brand name pressure that studios like Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, etc. all have. That probably helps.

    As for 9, I can’t make any judgment on whether it will be a good film for adults yet. My first impression is that it will be good for angsty 13-15-year-old boys, but that’s not a fair assumption :)

    In general, I think adults (and children) have a lot to look forward to in the great, ever-expanding world of animation…

  • Sunday

    9 and his compatriot up there in the screenshot are actually watching the nightly news, aghast at their treatment. :)

  • Mitch Kennedy

    Did Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas stir up this much ‘controversy’?

  • Brad Bird said it best:

    “Next time I hear someone say to me : so what is it like working in the Animation GENRE?…I think Im going to punch that person”.

    To the average Joe:

    Animation = Kids movies

    CGI movie = “A Pixar Movie”

  • Saturnome

    I thought the adults seeing Up were with the kids.
    And South Park isn’t for adults, it’s for teenagers. I was twelve and it was the biggest thing around, with the teachers taking away our Cartman and Kenny key chains because they were bad exemples. But at 12 you think Sleeping Beauty and Pinnochio are the worst things ever, Looney Tunes are old unfunny cartoons, and at 20 you fall back in love with these things.

  • I remember newspapers going nuts when “Triplets of Belleville” came out. They gave it good reviews, but they were so surprised by its adult nature. I was like, “Have you seen ‘Fritz the Cat?'” Why is animation so confusing to people?

    I had a lot to say about the “Princess and the Frog” controversy, but since I have blond hair and blue eyes, I should probably keep my mouth shut anyway.

    I think the article was balanced enough between who was outraged, who wasn’t, and who was outraged by the outrage.

    I agree with Floyd Norman that we shouldn’t let the controversy bother us. We don’t need to be angry.

  • JB Kaufman

    Jerry, thanks for making this point. I’ll second it, and then some. When did this perception of animated features as a “kiddie” medium get started, anyway? “Snow White” and “Pinocchio” were never intended as kiddie fare — sure, they’re suitable for children, but can be fully appreciated only by adults. (I don’t mean “adults” by today’s definition, that is, horny 11-year-olds, I mean “adults” as in grownups.) As you say, apparently this is a lesson we have to keep learning over and over.

  • Sean

    Journalists are just lazy in general on topics they know nothing about. It’s easier to just keep repeating what the last guy said or to sensationalize your topic in order to get people to pay attention than to actually do enough research to find something truly interesting about your topic and have people want to pay attention.

  • Ted

    “And South Park isn’t for adults, it’s for teenagers. I was twelve and it was the biggest thing around, with the teachers taking away our Cartman and Kenny key chains because they were bad exemples.”

    I was in law school when South Park premiered, and it was the biggest thing around for us, too. I don’t recall our professors doing anything about it…

  • Viridis

    You’re right about “Ponyo” not being the right film to “test the market for adults.” I saw it last year in Japan and it is definitely one of Miyazaki’s “younger” films, very similar in tone to Totoro and very much aimed at the younger audience. It’s cute and sweet and beautifully animated, but has nowhere near the depth that Up did.

    Now 9… that will be an interesting challenge. With the emotional depth that Up showed, I’m pretty sure it has the Oscar well in hand already… but it could prove an interesting contest between 9 and Up.

    (And is that ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ based on Roald Dahl’s story? Because that would be amazing. I loved that book as a kid! :D)

  • vzk

    I remember reading about WB cancelling a violent, noir-style animated feature named “Arrow” because one of its themes was miscegenation.

  • At the time PINOCCHIO was released, “Jiminy Crickets” (plural) was a popular euphemism for “Jesus Christ” as an epithet—similar to “Jeezum Crow.”
    Just for kids? Nah.

  • Julian Carter

    “With the emotional depth that Up showed, I’m pretty sure it has the Oscar well in hand already…”

    Why don’t we just award Pixar 50 Best Animated Feature Oscar statuettes to cover them for the next half-century, since they’re the only ones who can make an excellent animated feature? Walt Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks, and all other studios as well as independent artists, you can save yourself time and money and stop making films because with Pixar around you’ll never win the Oscar anyway.

    Sarcasm aside … I’m not mad at you or something, Viridis … but that sentence of yours is kinda representative of the general attitude people have towards every year’s animated output. I’d hate to be an animator from another studio and read that, especially when the rest of the year’s films haven’t yet been seen. There’s a ton of potential candidates for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Perhaps Ron ‘n John will make one kickass movie of The Princess and the Frog able to compete with Pixar’s output. Who knows?

  • matt

    Yep, typically lazy reporting. I guess they missed Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir. Probably gave them a miss because they’re animated, so they’re kids’ movies. Right? Oh the irony. I personally wish we were at the point where we could have cartoony 2d like Triplets as an accepted part of the spectrum of animated films.

    I think Batman is a decent analogy. How many decades of “Bam, Pow!” headlines did we put up with before Dark Knight finally put THAT comics = kids laziness to rest?

    And I think we still have decades to go before (as far as Pixar goes) the press realise that family film is NOT an automatic euphemism for kids’ film. Although I guess I can understand the muddiness a bit more in that case as let’s face it, most supposedly adult live-action films are indeed juvenile…

  • Kate

    One thing I’m noticing about successful animated movies with a more adult or general audience focus are the female protagonists: Coraline, Persepolis, Triplets of Belleville, Spirited Away, not to detract from the same movies with male leads, but it’s wonderful to see the success of these films without a princess safety net. :) Here’s hoping the trend continues and we get more exposure for girl leads and adult films! I’d be very surprised if ‘9’ got a PG. Some of the scenes look like they could be PG-13. I really hope we can get more animated films in wide release breaking out of the kiddie mold. What are the chances we could get an indie studio at Pixar like Fox Searchlight or Sony Classics?

  • I enjoyed Coraline but it hardly seemed aimed primarily at adults. It had the usual kid film themes of embarrassing parents who just don’t understand and the secret adventure that only the child protagonist can go on.

    I don’t think an added layer of “darkness” makes a movie more adult.

    But what really is an “adult” film? A Michael Moore documentary? An untranslated French drama? Anything so boring a child will turn off the TV?

    I don’t think anyone can define it.

  • Isaac

    @robcat2075: oh, it’s so simple a child can do it. An adult film presents an adult world view; not black-and-white, good-vs-evil, hero-against-the-world, friendship-conquers-all, believe-in-yourself nonsense.

    A lot of films that claim to be adult are juvenile and simplistic. Want to make adult animation? Write a real story, with real characters, behaving convincingly and interacting like actual people do. Then again if you do that, why sabotage the seriousness of your work with the cutesy look of animation.

  • Art Binninger

    For starters, the mission statement of the mainstream media is “To Inflame, not Inform”. If their coverage of “real” news is as arrested as their coverage of animation, we might as well save our money on most newspapers and magazines and get all our TV coverage from TMZ. And regarding the mainstream media’s view of animation, here’s a real doozy that showed up on the inside page of the Wall-E
    press book that ASIFA sent out around the 2008 Christmas holidays:
    “It’s a landmark in modern moviemaking that lifts you up on waves of humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. Want proof that animation can be an art form? It’s all there in the groundbreaking ‘Wall-E.’ Peter Travers in Rolling Stone”. Has this baboon somehow missed “Snow White”, “Fantasia” or even “One Froggy Evening”? I had hoped this kind of condescending attitude was nailed in it’s coffin decades ago but no. And the sad thing is that this nitwit will continue getting paid for writing this kind of excrement while talented artists continue being shown the exit while the corporate suits chase the next hot trend.

  • A.J

    i think it’s sickening how your regular joe six pac and Jane Doe must refer to this art as a KIDIE FLICK, i think that Disney has worded their opposition to this statement best

    .They don’t make child films, they make films for everyone to enjoy,
    films for kids that appeal to adults, vice versa.

  • re: The Princess and the Frog article

    “Disney should be ashamed,” William Blackburn, a former columnist at The Charlotte Observer, told London’s Daily Telegraph. “This princess story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community.”

    What does that even mean? Is that like people getting upset over NYC-based action films because of 9/11?

  • katsbah

    I think it looks like an action movie, not a kiddie movie, or not an animated movie….an action movie…..i know i want to see it!!

  • Re: controversy over other Disney heroines. I do recall some contemporary critiques of POCAHONTAS focusing on her skimpy off-the-shoulder buckskin mini and Barbie-esque proportions – the real Pocahontas was still a child when she met John Smith. ALADDIN’s controversies were of a different nature, of course. MULAN mostly received plaudits for its strong female lead, as well as depicting Asian eyes with non-anime realism.

  • Brannigan’s Law

    All my mom ever said about cartoons while I was growing up was how she remembered the Flintstones being the prime time Simpson’s back in the day, but she never watched it because cartoons were for younger kids. Which is funny because I think The Flintstones were clearly made for adults. We all love animation here so it’s easy to say we will pass on that love to friends and kids when we can… and so the fan base grows. I think it’s inclusion of your excluded adult tv list that makes the medium more accessible and excepted to adults, thus allowing the for medium to grow into film and new territory. Even Nickelodeon back in the day had Rocco’s Modern Life. They would play Spank the Monkey and eat at Chokey Chicken. So clearly the crew wanted a bigger reach, or at the very least wanted to make themselves laugh. And the crew at Termite Terrace made cartoons that entertained themselves with no regards to the kiddies. Have you watched Flapjack? They have some great awkward shit in there that is clearly going over the heads of the wee ones the show is aimed at. Adults will always want a cartoon for themselves because they need to show their age and positions in life are not always representative of their mindset and humor. Animation for adults will always be irony that goes down with satisfaction.

  • People might want to read the NY Times article before they even think about seeing The Princess and the Frog.

    As an African American and a lifelong animation/Disney fan, it angers me that people, even in the cartoon community are constantly creating reasons to rip everything apart. One nagging complaint against Disney is how their characters are typically “generic”, compared to say, the Warner Bros. brand. The same argument is being applied to The Princess and the Frog, despite the fact that the stakes are higher for Disney to impress a mainstream audience.

    It’s stupid for animation skeptics to keep confusing Disney’s house style with true “generic” art, which more appropriately applies to the lesser studios copying the competition. Not to mention that in this instance, their arguments are completely irrelevant in a matter that’s determining the future of Disney storytelling. The mere fact that this film is even being made shows that they’re doing something right.

  • Enoch Allen

    I think of all of these films, Acker’s Nine will come the closest to breaking apart the “animated films for kids” stigma that itself is gradually fading away (thanks to the geniuses at Pixar, Sony and DreamWorks).

  • Josh

    Thanks Tommy for giving away the twist, now you’re just as bad as Disney marketing :)