thoughts on the animation renaissance
When I began high school, moving from a day school to boarding school far away from home, I started watching cartoons again. It wasn’t even of my own accord. Immune to embarrassment (which I was not), my new friends would often get together and watch the children’s show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and expected me to attend. To be perfectly clear, these pink-horse-loving friends of mine were not elementary-school girls, but teenagers, and at least half were male. Neither were they shut-ins, but rather quite socially adept, open-minded young men and women. I, baffled but glad to have friends in this new environment, settled down to watch the cartoon and found that, yes, while it was strange and in many ways years beneath my level, the jokes were clever and the animation artful. Since then, my love of animation has only grown.
I am not the only one to be surprised by how enjoyable a cartoon could be. Recent years have witnessed a notable increase in the US in the number of adults watching so-called “kid’s” movies or shows, animated cartoons whose general lightheartedness attracts a youthful audience. That’s right–I don’t mean shows like South Park or Archer, whose satirical or dark humor alienates the young but appeals quite purposely to adults. Instead, it is shows like My Little Pony, specifically geared toward children, that have enjoyed massive success among adults. Indeed, this franchise in particular was a smash hit among young men, mostly around eighteen, famously dubbed “bronies.” Indeed, staples of our millennial childhood such as Cartoon Network still receive visits from fans loyal since 2000.
Such networks have capitalized on this theme, producing shows such as Adventure Time which, though clearly aimed mostly toward children of classic cartoon-watching age, maintains themes relevant to adult viewers and have huge viewership demographics among them. Indeed, Indiewire hailed it as “one of the biggest television phenomenons [sic] of the decade” (“Does the Obsessive ‘Adventure Time’ Fandom Overlook the Depths of Pendleton Ward’s Cartoon Network Hit?”). For example, Adventure Time is purported to be set in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, which accounts for the excess of limbs on horses or the ability of one talking dog to change shapes at will. The profundity of this war-torn setting casts a somber light over the otherwise light-hearted show, inviting the viewer to consider this animated world in a more realistic, adult light.
Or take Over the Garden Wall, a stunning Cartoon Network show from the same writer and creative director of Adventure Time. Television critic Kevin McDonough calls it “an ambitious cartoon that gives older viewers something to look at and think about while remaining silly enough for the Cartoon Network’s key audience.” It incorporates literary devices, such as an unreliable narrator and metafictional themes, while painting an incredibly moving picture (no pun intended) of a young boy and his brother lost in the haunted, gnarled woods over the garden wall.
Why does animation seem to be regaining its cultural capital in the US today? For one, this movement fits in with a greater one: that of the millennial interest in nostalgia, grunge styles, retro gadgets like the Walkman and the cassette tape, and what may be called reviving the 90’s zeitgeist. Considering this, it makes perfect sense that animation would also make a comeback, aligning with the nostalgic return to our collective millennial childhood. This desire to revive the 90’s may come from our generation’s dissatisfaction with the contemporary state of affairs we face. When we take what we see as the injustice and violence of the world today and compare it with our earliest memories, in which the “peace and prosperity” of the Clinton years conflates with the softness and warmth of childhood, it would be hard not to want a return.
But there is another reason animation may be experiencing a renaissance, which is simply that it is a valuable art form that, slowly, is throwing off its mantle of youthful associations. There is no inherent reason that animation must appeal to children and not to adults. In Japan, animation is deeply respected: Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) are widely regarded as the impressive work of an artist. Indeed, in the US, fine art maintains its cultural capital and has done so for centuries. Why should moving art somehow then be relegated to the child’s sphere? I This work is intricately complex and beautifully realized. Cartoons, as they overcome their associations with childlike unsophistication, are a valuable contribution to the artistry of pop culture. No matter what the reasons are for its occurrence, I for one am in full favor of the Animation Renaissance.