Without a doubt, you will have heard the song Let It Go from Disney’s animated film Frozen in the past few months. If you’re saying you haven’t, then you’re lying – since its release in December, it’s been impossible to spend more than five minutes on the internet, or in public, without seeing yet another Frozen GIF, or hearing a child sing about ‘frozen fractals all around’ at the top of their lungs. You might also have heard a group of adults tunelessly singing it on a night out, or even found it going round and round in your own head, probably on more than one occasion. This universal appeal of Frozen amongst seemingly all ages, genders and backgrounds is an indication of growing acceptance and changing attitudes towards animation in the Western world. Of course, many people have a love of Disney films, but mostly the ones they remember from their own childhood; if you were an adult singing the praises of something like The Emperor’s New Groove to your friends in the pub at the time of its release, you would probably be met with some confused looks. Now, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear grown adults talking about how good The Lego Movie or How To Train Your Dragon 2 were on their lunch break.
It may be a bold assertion to make (considering Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar a few years before), but the cause of this significant change of tune towards animation arguably comes down to Toy Story. The buzz it created upon release, being the first fully computer generated film (what a time to be alive!), attracted audiences that wouldn’t usually have considered going to a ‘kid’s’ film, leading to it becoming the highest grossing film of 1995. This more varied audience was subsequently introduced to Pixar’s inherent understanding that ‘children’s films’ by no means have to treat children like, well, children. The company is renowned for their ethos of giving children much more credit as intelligent and active cinema audiences than they previously were granted, speaking to them as equals rather than simplifying things for them, and trusting that they naturally will make sense of stories and the emotions they are conveying within them. This attitude clearly appeals to adults as well as children, and for the last twenty years, more and more adults have proven increasingly receptive to the ever growing number of animated films produced year on year (so many that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed it necessary to create a ‘Best Animated Feature’ Oscar in 2001).
Whilst not animated, Marvel and DC superhero films are derived from comic books, a medium that had long been seen as products for either children or a somewhat unpopular ‘nerd’ subculture; this attitude has clearly changed drastically in the past decade or so. The overwhelming success and mainstream acceptance of films like The Dark Knight trilogy, and the increasingly complex web of recent Marvel releases (Guardians of the Galaxy is likely to make $100 million at the box office in its opening weekend) proves that attitudes have already changed regarding ‘childish’ material, there’s no shame in enjoying them – if these more outwardly realistic films frequently see such success, then more and more obviously childlike animations will continue to see similar results too, and from many studios, not just the big hitters that are Disney and Pixar productions.
The steady rise in appeal of animation in the West soon gave rise to interest in animation from elsewhere in the world, most notably from East Asian countries like Japan and Korea. East Asia has a long history of animation being produced for both children and adults, with the producers of anime series and films often acutely aware of the wide age range of their audiences. This allowed for a glaring gap in the Western world’s animation education to be easily filled. Anime was by no means unheard of in the West, but was more of a subculture than it is now; you wouldn’t be able to walk into an HMV and find a sizeable section dedicated to the genre. Their influence on Western animators is also clear; for example, John Lasseter, one of the founders of Pixar and now chief creative officer at Disney is a close friend and admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, founder of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. He has stated “Miyazaki is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can’t seem to solve it, we often take one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.”
The increased exposure and freedoms afforded by the medium has also lured several notable directors from live action backgrounds into trying their hand at a spot of animation. In the last decade, Wes Anderson, Gore Verbinski and Tim Burton, to name a few, have all put out animated feature films: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Rango, Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie respectively (a common misconception is that Burton directed A Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s actually Burton’s book adapted for screen by the legendary Henry Selick). Going the other way, animation can also be something of a proving ground for live action feature directors – Brad Bird, golden age Simpsons alumni and director of The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille helmed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in 2011.
The love for ‘children’s’ animation amongst adults has also spread to TV in recent years, most noticeably Cartoon Network series like Regular Show, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Gravity Falls and most of all, Adventure Time. Yes, Cartoon Network has often attracted audiences of young adults with series like The Powerpuff Girls and Spongebob Squarepants, but only the latter saw quite the same level of commercial and critical success Adventure Time has recently; few series of any medium or genre consistently receive A grades from sites like the A.V. Club for the majority of episodes, especially not over a 52 episode run.
The shedding of the stigma around watching children’s media is ultimately a win-win for everyone. Children’s stories, or at least the best ones, don’t treat kids like idiots and aren’t afraid to deal with subjects some would deem too scary or upsetting for them. Kids are tougher than we give them credit for, they like being a little scared or a little sad, and the inclusion of such ‘adult’ themes allows older viewers to engage with the stories more fully; it’s not like adults aren’t scared of things like death, heartbreak, depression and loss as well, and sometimes looking at them from a different perspective to something made for adults can be enlightening. As more and more writers and directors continue to see kids films and TV as a unique platform to tell stories, and more and more older audiences realise it’s ok to like them, producers and studios will keep sinking yet more money into making quality films and TV. So let it go, don’t hold it back anymore, and watch all the children’s animation you want.