Why Animated Films Aren't "Just Kids Films"
Using evidence to prove why adults are the key to animation's success
In short yes, animation does survive because of kids. Children insisting that their parents spend (now anywhere between £5 and £25) to take them to see the latest Minion caper. But the longevity of animation has adults to thank. The affection that my generation has for Pixar films of the 00's for example is unmatched; except for the generation above and their love for 90's Disney, or the generation below and their obsession with dragon-riding Dreamworks. You see, animation creates nostalgic moments in every generation, and it has been constantly growing and adapting since the 1930's. Animated films are not just for the young, but the young at heart and the adventurous. I'd completely agree that animated films usually target families, but they are not "kids films"; they are three words that really grind my gears.
In 1907, Emile Cohl used stop motion in one of the first animated films. Fantasmagorie is considered the first fully animated film which, although basic, does create emotion and shoots a film that would've been harder to capture in a live-action medium. The film is definitely though, not aimed at children. It was a cool new art style that saw Cohl use an illuminated glass plate, upon which he placed over 700 individual drawings.
Animation did continue to grow into more elaborate creations in the years between Cohl's groundbreaking release and the inception of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Now this topic creates confusion by itself. To clarify, The WDAS have released 61 feature films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs through to 2022's Strange World. Disney have branched into many other studios too including Disney Toons (Planes, A Goofy movie) and Pixar (Toy Story, The Incredibles), as well as their straight-to-DVD releases which include most of their lesser-known, lesser-loved sequels. The only sequels included in the WDAS' slate are The Rescuers: Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Frozen II.
Snow White then: the first full feature from the studio. In the first instance, Disney didn't know who their films would appeal to. Which explains why Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and several other early Disney films are in some places utterly terrifying. But very quickly children began to respond well to the bright colours and cartoon animals; they went on to create educational films with the sole purpose of informing kids in a time of war. Their "wartime era" of films are some of the weakest in the company's slate but it's definitely more clear of the target audience.
By the 1980's, Disney returned to a family appeal, with films like The Fox and the Hound, Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid. And into the 90's the format changed again, this time taking a Broadway approach and making almost every release a musical. That successful run of films known as Disney's "Renaissance era" brought us classics like Mulan, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and of course The Lion King. This approach has began to return again in modern day Disney films and now more than ever the love for Disney comes from adults, as well as children.
Disney were one of the leading example that animation should be used to tell stories that can't be told in live action. Problematic head honcho of Pixar's early years John Lasseter once stated "Art challenges technology, but technology inspires the art", and with his team at Pixar that mentality was definitely created. Pixar anthropomorphised anything they could: toys, cars, monsters, fish, bugs, robots...they created beloved characters that could lean into their over-arching concepts. For example, subtle jokes about flirty toys or drug-addicted sharks are sure to go over kids heads, they're there just for the adults.
And Pixar is super interesting because it is millennial and beyond that hold the affection for those films now. Soul was targeted at adults, a bold move that didn't completely pay off financially but did tap into elements of our psyche that a young child was never going to understand. Inside Out, Coco, Turning Red and Onward have all had elements of that method too. Not to mention 2022's Lightyear, a film solely leaning into the nostalgia for those Toy Story babies.
So where did the stigma stem from then that animation is for children? Well, primarily it's TV. Networks wanted animated shows to be shown on a Saturday morning for kids to enjoy. This then created beloved characters like Winnie the Pooh and He-Man and then similar sort of projects followed suit on film. Now, with the likes of Family Guy, Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman, adult animation continues to thrive as much as shows like Bluey and Paw Patrol which very clearly have a younger target audience. But more and more, shows like Clarence, Adventure Time and The Simpsons continue to work that balance between a young and old audience. TV animation is just as diverse as the movies now, despite its original intentions.
The thing that baffles me, more than anything else, is the prejudgement of animated films despite the sheer craftsmanship that goes into getting them to release quality. Aardman animation studios (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run) are the easiest examples to draw (or mould) as they spend literally years moving bits of plasticine an inch at a time to evoke emotion, excitement and authenticity. The discipline needed to work in animation is unmatched and the art form is often overlooked. Yes, now studios are computer animating more and more but the moving parts to make that work are still astronomical.
Take Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio that released on Netflix last year. It uses a stop motion animation to tell its story which leans into the GDT style we've all become so fond of but still has it's own voice. There's no explanation of the eccentricities of the world, you're just expected to accept it and immerse yourself in its creativity and adult themes. And when you look closely at the models used in the film, you can spot some of the clay lines and intricate details that would ordinarily be smoothed out. This proves that audiences have now adapted enough that you can actually show the imperfections and it adds to the overall effect. Studio Laika films like Coraline and Kubo & The Two Strings took a similar approach. It's all intentional and it's all art.
When you parallel that against the "live action" Pinocchio that Disney released last year, there's no contest. The time and effort that has gone into the former creates an end product much more effective than the latter. When in a fully animated world, the opportunities for storytelling are endless.
But Pinocchio wasn't the biggest cultural phenomenon created by an animated film in 2022. Minions: The Rise of Gru was a film with little buzz around it, until the Gentle-minions. In recent years big blockbusters (particularly Marvel films) have seen audiences of mainly young adults showing up on opening day for an immersive experience in front of the big screen. When a TikTok tried went unexpectedly viral, groups of mainly teenage boys around the world were showing up to the latest in the Despicable Me franchise wearing suits and cheering as if at one of those major cultural events; their enthusiasm was a similar level months earlier when three Spider-Men shared the screen to fight a common enemy.
Minions: The Rise of Gru made just shy of $1 billion at the worldwide box office, putting it in the Top 5 highest grossing films of 2022. In fact, animation is often one of the contributors to the box office, and although kids may be a big factor in that, it's their parents taking them who'll remember the adult jokes or the bold concepts and recommend it to others.
Shrek grows in success from year to year because of its bravery in 2001 to not even subtly throw adult jokes into almost every scene. Whether it's Farquaad "compensating for something" or Robin Hood getting "paid", Shrek is still a cultural icon over 20 years later, and in part it's because of the now adult audience who experienced his swamp as kids.
Whilst the success of animation for my generation comes in part from nostalgia (yet another Toy Story sequel announced just a few weeks back), it also comes from great storytelling. There's a good reason that the early years of Pixar are so loved, and it's because every story and concept is fantastic. And now, after a bit of a sequel-filled dry spell, animation seems to be bouncing back with innovative, beautiful animated films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Mitchells vs The Machines, Klaus and Puss in Boots: the Last Wish (all in my opinion five star films). Animation is ready to thrive again, and although the love from kids will help it along the way, it has always been an affection from adults that keeps it going; that's why things like The Boss Baby and Sing, films definitely aimed at a younger audience, have left little cultural impact, because adults expect more from them.
Guillermo del Toro received the BAFTA award for best animated feature a few weeks back, and there he summed it all up perfectly: "Animation is not for kids, it's a medium for art. Animation should stay in the conversation."