Saturday, April 10, 2010

Animation - Storytelling in another medium

Animation - Storytelling in another medium

Something about animation has captivated me since I was a kid. When other youths were getting too old to watch Saturday morning cartoons and afterschool animated fare, I was still tuning in to catch the adventures of my favorite shows. I ended up renting a wide range of animated films as a kid, seeing literary works told via animation from Japan (I vividly remember an anime version of “Les Miserables”) to a creepy stop motion movie that took the basic plot of The Nutcracker and turned it into a mini –horror film.

Eventually other pursuits and interests came and animation took a back seat (although I never lost a fondness for Ray Harryhausen’s work in the epic fantasy films he worked on). It wasn’t until the mid 90’s when I was drawn into Japanese animation (or anime). Eventually I went from being a fan and turned into a critic. I wrote reviews for Japanese animation for several years, and even though I’m not professionally writing them any more, I still enjoy rewatching many of the series in my collection.

What really appeals to me about animation is that storytelling is not limited by visuals. Before computer generated images really exploded into the special effects arena, telling a visually amazing story was limited by budgets in most films. But animation allowed the creators to tell whatever story they wanted. This was especially the case for fantasy and science fiction stories.

Animation also has an interesting psychological issue tied to it. Because the images we see in an animated film are not real humans, but representations, they come be symbolic of certain tropes for viewers. There’s an interesting idea where an animated film can be more affecting than one with human actors because the symbols we see resonate at a deeper level. Well I don’t know about that, but it is an interesting idea.

Japanese animation really showed me the wide scope of possibilities in animation. You know of a genre or story type and there has probably been an anime made about it. As mentioned, there have been anime adaptations of works of Western literature. There have been some seriously disturbing and scary horror series created. Mysteries and detective stories are popular, some use human characters in real settings, others use anthropomorphic animals, and some are even set in historical venues. I’ve even seen sports related anime dealing with things as diverse as girl’s baseball teams to boxing. Of course fantasy and science fiction still have the greatest amount of anime devoted to them – and there have been some really popular and effective movies and series created – Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, Record of Lodoss War, Full Metal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, Princess Mononoke and Vision of Escaflowne to name a few.

On the flip side, American animation has stayed firmly entrenched in creating children and family fare. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s created a bit of a stigma that cartoons are for kids. And while that is true, a solid animated story can be told for anyone. Disney’s early work was interested more in telling a good story that will entertain everyone, than just children. Now we have Pixar creating a wide range of interesting stories and telling them in entertaining ways. Robert Zemekis has even gone into animation because he doesn’t feel as limited by the real world and special effects. His version of Beowulf is an interesting experiment and one that I’d like to see developed further.

All that said, I felt I should give an explanation of why I love animation and why you’ll see quite a few animation reviews on this blog. Some will be anime, but I’ll try to keep things interesting and shake up the mix. There is lots of good stuff to see, and it comes from all over, going beyond painted cells and computer images into stop motion and puppetry.

As usual if you have something you’d like to see my take on, send me an email and I’ll do my best to get it reviewed.


  1. I think you are right to include animated fx in primarily live action movies. CGI has made an enormous difference.

    I remember Lynda Carter mentioning that fx, which today would be added afterward cheaply and quickly, in the 70s had to be part of the shot. Wonder Woman's bullet-defecting bracelets actually were wired with small explosives for example. The firing button were in her palms which was why her fists were closed. The invisible plane had to be a full scale plexiglass model set in front of a blue screen. The producers altered the spin-change after the first few episodes, not as according to legend because it looked too much like a strip tease, but because it was too expensive to overlay the multiple takes required for it. Today that could be done on a PC. That is just the beginning.

  2. I'd never heard that story about Linda Carter and Wonder Woman. I used to love that show as a kid, and my dad did to. He had a bit crush on Carter. Personally I always preferred Erin Gray from "Buck Rogers".