How we all learnt to love cartoons

In a vague attempt to figure out exactly how this has happened, we look at a few earlier films that seem to have paved the way towards us all living in the United States Of Aren’t Cartoons Cool, and the recent films that have got both kids and grownups guffawing together (it’s not just Pixar, honest).

The game changers

It may have taken a while for animation to reach this ground, but there were a few sniffs of dissidence amongst the animators of the world even as far back as the 40’s. The films below are the mavericks; the ones who said “wait a minute, animation needs can be better than this” and set an early precedent for the animators we know today to bridge the gap between kiddies and their parents.

Fantasia – 1940

Just the idea of Fantasia was quite ahead of its time. Whether or not many kids watched it, just the concept of forging together colourful, childish animations of dancing hippos, centaurs and wizards with nothing but classical music and a little commentary showed everyone that animation could be used in a cool way. Consisting of eight segments of classical music and commentary from music critic and composer Deems Taylor (great name) and with its star name being the conductor Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia is irreverent, magical animated fun mixed with some high-brow culture. It’s an epic animated ballet recital, but with walking brooms and magic mice. Disney may have gone on from here to make purely kids films, but this showed the world the potential for cartoons to appeal to more than just children.

My Neighbour Totoro –1988

Way before Pixar came along, Studio Ghibli were making films that entertained the little ones and captured the imagination of adults. Being one of the earlier films by animator/magician Hayao Miyazaki, Totoro has become somewhat of a classic. A tale about two young sisters who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their ill mother, the film manages to combine a touching family drama and a magical tale of discovery and adventure, without sprinkling too much sentimentality over the whole affair. Kids are just as entertained by the funny personality of the youngest sister Mai as they are by the big, dopey Totoro and the cat bus. Adults love the reminiscence of childhood playing, relate to the family’s troubles and coo over the imagination of its creator. Disney this ain’t. Totoro is a subtle gem of animation.

Toy Story – 1995

Ok, so this film only came out 16 years ago. But on the other hand – Wow! This film came out 16 years ago! Toy Story seemed to be the nail in the coffin for purely kiddy animation. It originally got us all going to the cinema to see this new, shiny way of animating but what we saw got us all hooked. By this time there were plenty of animations out there that appealed to adults, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. What Toy Story did was finally make everyone, young children and adults, completely fall in love with a film and it really kick-started the monstrously successful Pixar who took that ethos into every one of their subsequent films. It was a film about alive toys, which obviously got the kids excited, but they managed to make it completely hilarious for adults as well, making sure some childhood nostalgia rang true.

The Second Generation

In the last decade, countless films exhibited the new wave of all-accessible animation. We’ve seen a good few Pixar films that tick all the boxes, as well as some fantastic stop-motion animation in recent years. A special mention goes out to every Pixar film, all Studio Ghibli films, Fantastic Mr Fox, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the Shrek films, Coraline and How to Train Your Dragon. Here, though, are three films of the last decade that we think define what we now think of as animation for everyone.

Spirited Away – 2001

Despite being in the older generation too, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away won huge acclaim 10 years ago and really helped the animation cause. It’s very easy to see why. The film is a majestic, ethereal wonder that captivates anyone who encounters it through its sheer imaginative prowess and beauty. Kids will sit transfixed at the creatures and will giggle at Yu-baaba’s enormous head and the little Susuwatari (soot creatures). Adults will delight in the hand drawn compositions, the soft, mythical pacing, and the biting humour that often accompanies Miyazaki’s masterpieces.

Up – 2009

Up was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In the first 5 minutes – oh those first 5 minutes – we see Ellie and Carl’s life together from marriage to death. It is one of the most heart-breaking sequences in film and can be related to by nearly all adults. The couple’s dreams are constantly dashed by life’s necessities getting in the way, Ellie has a miscarriage (in a Disney/Pixar film!) and Carl is finally left alone. The rest of film is a hilarious adventure with talking dogs, exotic birds and silly boy scouts. Kids adore this film; the idea of flying away in a balloon lifted house, exploring and discovering new things are fun and exciting. The grownups appreciate seeing someone up sticks and go in search of a dream they could never get round to pursuing and they appreciate the relationship being forged between Carl and Russell…and they like talking dogs. Pixar’s talents lie in combining fun kids’ films that relate something a little more meaningful to the older viewers. And they can make grown men weep like little girls.

Rango – 2011

Sneaky, sneaky Gore Verbinksi. He’s gone and made a film that looks like a trolley load of kiddy nonsense and riddled it with just about every possible reference to Sergio Leone and John Ford westerns, a ride of the Valkyries pastiche, and a Fear and Loathing trippiness that only adults could possibly understand. What’s more, amongst all the crazy-looking lizards and rodents, spectacular CGI animation and slap stick comedy there’s a humour that is at times a little sick. Mice talk about finding human spines in their faecal matter and the film itself seems to be self-aware of its own genre splicing, one character inexplicably shouting “it’s a paradigm shift” at one point, acknowledging the bizarre landscape we’ve all found ourselves in. That kind of sums it all up really doesn’t it? We’ve all accepted the melding together of images and genres, young and old, and are now enjoying watching a new kind of animation that appeals to all.

It could all just be a perfect way to double the amount of cinema tickets sold (and it does). OR, it could be down to the fantastic talent of the people in animation these days to capture the imagination of grownups as well as kids. Alternately we could all just be desperately trying to revert back to our childhood. Who cares, animation is fun. We all think so.

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