Monday, January 4, 2010

Why I love cartoons

America has a problem that other filmmaking nations of the world don't seem to share. That problem is the notion that animated features and shorts should be considered primarily entertainment for children.

Because of this notion, many adult fans of animation like myself are made to think we're "overgrown children" who should be ashamed of our affection for the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Dumbo. I've even heard fellow adult animation fans tell stories of getting nasty looks from parents when they go to see a matinee of an animated film, because those parents think they must be weirdos at best, pedophiles at worst. (If you're an adult fan of animation and want to avoid this, go to late-night showings. Obviously the theater owners don't think animation appeals only to children, or they wouldn't offer late-night showtimes for animated features.) Our love for cartoons gets criticized and questioned to the point where we sometimes won't admit it until we meet another adult with a Bugs Bunny pin or a Donald Duck watch, and then we heave a great sigh of relief and dive into happy conversation with our fellow "weirdo."

All ye who love cartoons, be not ashamed. Be proud. Every cinema year brings with it a lot of lousy cartoons whose writers and artists probably buy that "cartoons-are-for-kids" lie. But a well-done animated feature is perhaps the purest form of cinema, accomplishing what movies were always meant for. Movies, ladies and gentlemen, were never intended to express Life As It Is. At their best, they offer a glimpse of Life As It Could Be, whether that vision of possibility is comforting or terrifying. (The best cartoons show us both; witness how "Fantasia" moves from the charming mushroom dance in the "Nutcracker" sequence to the horrific nightmare-visions of "Night on Bald Mountain.") Cartoons are the art of possibility, with everything from the facial expressions of the characters to the hills and valleys they navigate springing from the minds of the artist.

Adults may love cartoons for a variety of reasons. I can only give my own.

1) The best cartoons offer a sense of wonder. The curtain goes up on a landscape of dreams, whether those dreams be bright or dark. When a movie, even a very good movie, has a contemporary, realistic setting, I see little point in seeing it in the theater, because such a movie works just as well on DVD, in one's own house, where one is surrounded by all the appurtenances of modern life. Cartoons, however, should ideally be seen first at the movie theater, where the Real World goes dark and patrons can immerse themselves completely in the otherworld on the screen.

2) The best cartoons combine intelligence and sentiment. Too many of today's live-action films ask their audiences to check either their brains or their hearts at the door; they're either sugary-sappy or corrosively cynical, with little room for anything in between. But a well-made animated film can be sweet AND smart, and critics (who usually favor the corrosively cynical) will praise it.

3) The best cartoons are made to appeal to a general audience -- not just children, not just adults, not just men or women or teenagers or any other "niche audience." Any thoughtful moviegoer, regardless of age or gender, can identify with a well-told story and the dilemmas of well-thought-out characters, such as we see in the likes of "The Incredibles," "WALL-E" or "Up." (Coming soon on this blog: "Why I love Pixar.") The characters don't have to look like us or talk like us or share our particular background; we relate to them because they speak to needs deep within us -- the need for love and companionship and community, the need for self-actualization and accomplishment, the need to stand for something, and, of course, the need to laugh at ourselves.

I'm not saying that live-action films can't give us these things, too. Some do, though many don't choose to. But with all that cartoons have to offer, it's ridiculous to dismiss them all out of hand as "juvenile entertainment." Granted, bad cartoons don't have much to say to anyone except the youngest of moviegoers (chronologically, mentally, or both). But good cartoons -- from the classic Warner Brothers shorts to the offerings of Pixar -- have plenty to say to everyone.

In his introduction to one of the best reference books on the Warners cartoons, no less a figure than Ray Bradbury notes that his friends know better than to telephone him when "The Bugs Bunny Show" is airing. (This, alas, reflects a time when those wonderful shorts aired regularly on TV.)
I'll let Mr. Bradbury have the last word.

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