There’s something special about the pure feeling that animated films give their viewers. There’s a certain depth of emotion that comes from these moments, and it’s the kind of depth that translates well to both critics and general audiences. Just look at the opening of Up, where we meet Carl as a young man, and watch him grow old with his wife Ellie. This sequence alone induces universal tears, and does something remarkable in making its viewers care about these characters after only the briefest of introduction.
Up is the kind of film that is ridiculous, but only when you attempt to describe it to someone. This is true almost across the board in animation. Films like, Finding Nemo, Princess Mononoke, and The Lego Movie all sound both insane and remarkably dumb when described out loud. In practice though, animated films are often exceptional movie going experiences.
While this is true in the case of some live action films, it seems to be a far more common occurrence in animation. Citizen Kane is easier to describe than Wall-E, but both are arguably masterpieces. Part of this stems from the things animation can make real that live action cannot. Animation simply has more choices than live action, and this means that its stories can be more fantastical.
Just because they can be more fantastical doesn’t necessarily mean they should, and failures in animation typically stem from this problem. While some can be just poor efforts all around, most are ideas that sound as ridiculous as Up or Monsters Inc. on paper, but seem to come across as much poorer efforts for both audiences and critics.
This got me wondering, why is it that some ridiculous animated premises spawn incredible experiences, while others leave their audiences unsatisfied? It’s best to start with the greatest hand animator of all time, Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s films are universally beloved, even the one about the flying pig. Miyazaki seems like the perfect place to start precisely because his films are so weird. They have plots more bizarre than Pixar’s, but never seem ridiculous in context.
This weirdness could be off-putting, and a detriment to the film. Instead, the strangeness of his worlds elevate his films. What’s interesting about Miyazaki’ films, and animation generally, is that the fantastical nature of the worlds that they are set in do not distract from the profundity that inhabits the films. It may be a surprise, but the bizarreness of Miyazaki’s worlds, and of some of animation’s best worlds, is what makes them so accessible.
Though Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and Pixar are probably the best at finding reality within fantasy, it’s a rule that marks successful animated films across the board. In putting its audience in a setting that is completely removed from reality, animation surprises its viewers by, to put it bluntly, keeping it real. Animation at its best argues for universality. It tells its viewers that there are certain things that bind people together.
For Miyazaki, this tie can often be the humanity that exists on both sides of any conflict. In looking at a film like Princess Mononoke, it’s easy to see how the conflict sprouted not out of a dichotomy between good and evil, but out of necessity and misunderstanding. The same is true for almost every film in the Pixar pantheon. There’s a nuance to these films, a gray area that fuels the entirety of the story. Inside Out is interesting precisely because it avoids the trope of a bad guy altogether, instead allowing the emotions that make up its cast to vie for control because of honest differences in opinion.
Animation is able to find its humanity in surprising ways, and this often comes from its other-worldly settings. Coupled with this humanity, though, is a kind of earnestness which almost seems naïve. This earnestness stems from the amount of care that comes with constructing these films. Miyazaki again seems appropriate, as his hand drawn films are always gorgeously rendered and, even more than that, seem to be intensely personal ones.
The same can be said of almost all highly regarded animated films. In spite of, especially in recent animation, the hundreds of people who may work on them, the whole film comes with an air of relatability. This must stem, at least partially, from the intimacy the creators of these films have with their projects. There seems to be a certain level of investment in the project that live action films do not always have.
This intimacy makes the films themselves more earnest. This has little to do with tangibles and more to do with the tone or feel of the film generally. You get the sense in these films that what is being said is important to those saying it. More importantly, though, the films leave you feeling as though the filmmakers mean what they are saying, and have the courage of their own convictions, so to speak.
Animated films are made moving through a combination of imagination, humanity, and earnestness. The best animated films wear their feelings on their sleeves in the best possible way. They do what all great art should, and it’s ultimately a matter of balance between the above elements that makes them successful. Animation is capable of doing what live action cannot, but that alone doesn’t make it great. It’s what animation does with this ability that matters. It doesn’t use it to remove us from our own lives, but instead heightens our realities by creating worlds that seem fantastic but prove that some truths are universal.
Pixar’s first film was about a fear of replacement and obsolescence. It was about a fear of change, and the desperate actions people take when they feel as though they are no longer as special as they once were. The film did all this, and it was about talking toys. Toy Story is an example of everything animation does right. It uses its central premise, the talking toys, to tell its audience that change doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. It’s clever, funny, and zany, but more than that; it means something. Replacement may have been the central tenant of that film, but lucky for us, animation is here to stay.