Modern Animation Overload - The Magic vs. The Magical
by Brandon Lee Tenney
July 9, 2009
Pixar. Immediately, with that single proper noun, connotations of sheer cinematic glee rush into my brain. Visions of superheroes and monsters, toys and space, fish and race cars, flying houses and little, shy desk lamps. And every one of those images that that name conjures is rendered in beautiful, brilliant, fully-realized CGI animation. A marvel of modern technology, of modern filmmaking. The ability to show us anything, to explore any world, to give voices to the voiceless, emotions to the emotionless. The ability to break beyond the constraints of live-action filmmaking. But is that necessarily a good thing for kids?
Of the highest grossing animated films of all time, 30 of those top 40 films were made within the last ten years. The number of animated films made in the 2000s alone is staggering. And that number is climbing. There's obviously a desire for them; they're always sure to open to big audiences of their target demographic (kids and their parents), and with Shane Acker's 9, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Astro Boy, Planet 51, and The Princess and the Frog still yet to be seen this year, there's no end in sight. But what I'm here to question is what exactly is this doing to that target demographic. What is this doing to the kids?
When I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, the majority of my film entertainment came by way of VHS tapes. On those tapes were amongst some of my favorite films then and now: The Goonies, Willow, E.T., Hook, The NeverEnding Story, The Wizard of Oz, The Sandlot, Benji, Homeward Bound, Harry and the Hendersons, The Dark Crystal. Notice anything? Not a single animated film.
Sure, I watched the Disney classics -- The Jungle Book being the one to which my fondest memories are attached -- but the quantity of live-action kids' films with which I connected is far greater than animated ones. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to talk to any eight-year-old whose favorite movies aren't on the complete opposite end of that spectrum. It's just not what they're exposed to now and, frankly, it's not what they want. They're used to animals who, right before their eyes, actually speak, emote, and feel like they do -- and haven't just had some voice thrown on top of their actions. They're used to seeing everything in the closest of detail, not just in suspense-inducing glimpses. They're used to connecting with toys and robots and monsters more than they're used to connecting with actual human beings. It's just what they know.
And that's a shame.
As a kid, when a magician pulled a rabbit out of his top hat, it was baffling -- even when it happened right before your eyes. Where did the rabbit come from? Does it live in the hat? There are infinite possibilities. It's magic. For all the beautiful, heart-warming, spectacular storytelling in Pixar's films -- they've shown me the inside of the hat. They've shown me the very tip-top that opens, hinges down, providing access to the rabbit's cage below the table upon which the hat rests. Amazing mechanics, sure, but the magic is muddled. There are no longer infinite possibilities for the impressionable audience. There's only the one right in front of you. And while it still may be magical, it is certainly not magic.
Instead of walking out of the theater (or from my couch to the refrigerator) pondering what it might be like to find an extraterrestrial in my backyard or live with Bigfoot or if that dog across the street is actually a giant behemoth hellbent on stealing my baseballs -- I am convinced I know what it's like to live under the sea and I know the bureaucratic inner-workings of the monsters in my closet. Magical, yes. Magic, no.
It took a certain leap of faith, a suspension of disbelief, an imaginative trust to lose oneself in a film like The NeverEnding Story or The Goonies. But that imagination, that faith is something that the viewer added to the experience. It made them active. I could be Bastian. The next time I open a book, it could be me flying around on top of Falkor. But with so much handed to us, to this generation of kids, it's all a more passive experience. Sure, the kids connect with the story, they laugh and cry when they're supposed to, and they may even fantasize that their toys do actually come to life -- but it's all been handed to them.
The worlds are so fully realized that one doesn't even feel the need to question them, to expand upon them, to live in them further. It's the mechanics of the magical without the magic. It was the disconnect of human connection in kids' films that, while growing up, was so crucial for me to experience. And that is still very crucial. Perhaps soon we'll see a resurgence of live-action family films, ones that make us dream and wonder and take that leap of faith instead of being led through a lighted, railed walkway with our dreams projected for us on the walls. I hope so. Because I want my kids to be baffled when that rabbit comes hopping out of that hat. I want them to ask me, "How? But-- Where from?" And I want to tell them, "It's magic."