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Is Animation Just For Kids?: Breaking Down Hollywood’s Bias Against Animated Films

Why is animation still primarily considered a children's medium?

Words by Joshua Mitchell (@jlfm97)

Introducing the Problem

Hollywood. The place where dreams are made. And indeed, nightmares. Outrage, frustration, and controversy are no stranger to those in the business of show. Studios’ seemingly endless spew of sequels, remakes, and reboots have caused many to bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality. The lack of diverse nominees at this years’ (and last years’) Academy Awards has been the target of ridicule and slander. Countless discussions, articles, and Twitter-rants have spawned from these hot Hollywood topics. And yet, one massively important issue in the industry of film has barely received its due attention.

The issue is animated films. Not that they, in and of themselves, are the problem. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The problem lies with those watching the animated films. Kids. Parents. Critics. Academy voters. They have unwittingly mislabeled, misjudged, and misunderstood animation. In fact, they may have inadvertently doomed it.

Animation is a wonderful medium. It can be used to portray ideas, tell stories, and arrest audiences in ways live-action films simply cannot. Tomm Moore, two-time Oscar-nominee for directing Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014), feels that “animation is pure filmmaking and at the same time a medium and method that transcends filmmaking.” Mark Osborne, director of the Oscar-nominated Kung Fu Panda (2008) and this year’s The Little Prince, adds that at its best, animation “is unlimited pure expression,” and thinks that “the stories that can be told in animation speak directly to our subconscious in a magical way.” And yet, animated films aren’t taken as seriously as they should be. So often, they are dismissed as “kids movies.” “Animated films aren’t serious films,” many insist. But they’re wrong. Objectively, even.

Making a Case for Animation

What makes animated films different from live-action films? In some cases, nothing. Animation is often characterized as jovial, slap-sticky efforts with loads of colors, simple messages, and lots of kid-appeal. But stereotyping animation this way (as audiences so often do) is a disservice to the many works that defy this cliché. One popular example of a powerful adult animation is Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the devastating story of two Japanese orphans struggling to survive on their own after an air raid, complete with a sobering tour of a hospital full of bombing victims, brutal depictions of a cruel and unforgiving world, and a tragic ending that has caused many to label it as one of the saddest and most devastating films of all time. It’s animated, but it’s not a film to show your eight-year-old.

Grave of the Fireflies is just a single example of an animated film not designed for children. Countless others exist, including the The Wind Rises, Chico & Rita, Mary & Max, and the R-rated Anomalisa. Not to mention films based off of adult television shows like The Simpsons and South Park. Animation has been used to carry adult content and mature themes many, many times. In some cases (such as aforementioned films like Grave of the Fireflies), the only difference between live-action films and animated films are their appearance.

And sometimes, even their appearance lacks much discernable difference. Richard Starzak, director of the Oscar-nominated Shaun the Sheep (2015) says that there is increasingly little difference between live-action and animation. “In developing features at Aardman, we ask ourselves ‘why animate this film? What properties does this idea have that suggest an animated film?’ Having said that, the answers are getting less obvious as the line between animated/live action disappears.” Patrick Osborne, director of the Oscar-winning Disney short film Feast (2014), backs this up, saying that “films like Avatar (2009) and The Avengers (2012) are basically animated films as well. At least half of those films are created digitally.”

Mark Osborne similarly adds that for animated films, “The goal is the same [as it is for live-action films]; to put the audience under the spell and to get them to feel things and have emotional reactions based on something that is completely fabricated and fake. But even if we are not using real actors on screen, we are trying to engage the audience to believe in the character we put on the screen, and to share the journey with them, allowing us to live vicariously through them, or understand ourselves better.”

So, if animated films and live-action films can, theoretically, contain identical material, where is the bias coming from? Or perhaps, is there truly a bias at all?  Well, “yes,” there is a bias, and you may have unwittingly shown such bias yourself!  “Preposterous,” you say?  Not if you’ve ever referred to animation as a genre.

Contrary to popular belief, animation is not a genre. A genre is a label that defines the type of film you’re watching (such as comedy, drama, action, etc.). Animation is a visual medium one can use to tell a story of any genre. And frustratingly, it is constantly referred to (and restricted as) a genre in and of itself. A genre made for children, or at best, families. No one refers to “live-action” as a genre, because there are so many different stories of so many different genres one can convey in live-action. The same goes for animation. Unfortunately, many have been quick to apply this genre-label upon animation that suggests that it is limited in its storytelling ability. Truthfully, it’s a bit appalling, especially considering how many animated films have broken this stereotype over the years. And those working in the animation industry are similarly appalled; of the half-dozen interviews conducted for this article, every single interviewee made a point of emphasizing that animation is not a genre.

What makes a “great” film great?

But there are those that consider such stereotype-breaking animations to be “magic exceptions” to the rule, and insist that mainstream animated films can never be as great as any acclaimed live-action work.  This begs the question: What makes a “great” film great? And can an animated film meet that criteria? Well, if one were to go off the truth that animated films can technically do anything a live-action film can do (generally speaking), then yes, of course one could. But not everyone will accept a blanket statement like that. So let’s look at the criteria for a “great” film.

To be crude, a great film is often characterized by having characters with depth, a fascinating story, and a strong sense of emotion or poignancy. These are certainly not the only qualifiers of a great film (acting, writing, music, editing, and more could also be mentioned), nor are they even required. But these are common elements of great films, so for sake of discussion (and avoiding an argument that has been the basis of countless books), those will be the criteria.

First, think about director Robert Mulligan’s timeless film, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (based off Harper Lee’s novel of the same name). The work is often hailed as a masterpiece, and it fits all the criteria listed above. It has complex characters, such as Atticus Finch, unforgettably portrayed by Gregory Peck, whom audiences remember long after the credits roll. The story itself tackles race politics, with heroism and social corruption in the forefront. Definitely fascinating. And there is undoubtedly great poignancy here. With much of the story being told through the eyes of the child protagonist, Scout, we see the film through the perspective of a wide-eyed, and totally innocent person. This gives the film an immediate emotional draw, and its occasionally overwhelming beauty that results from this allows us to check the poignancy box.

Now let’s try this with an animated film.  Because mainstream animation is where most of the bias lies, we’ll use a mainstream example. Pixar’s Up (2009) is a worthy specimen. Does it have complex characters? Well, our elderly protagonist, Carl, is certainly written with a lot of depth. It would have been easy to simply make him a “grump.” But Carl, while certainly feisty, is much more than that. His harsh attitude is a result of his emotional wounds resulting from his wife’s death. This attitude is motivated both by hurt and fear. Think about the scene early on when he strikes a construction worker with his cane. This isn’t played as a comedic moment of feistiness. This is a moment where Carl is afraid. Where he feels emotionally tormented. There is a great level of care paid to this character, so we can safely say that Up does indeed contain complex characters.

What of the story? Well, a man attaching balloons to his house in order to fly into the sky is indeed a fascinating concept, but it’s not a story in and of itself. But thankfully, there’s much more to the film than that. Like Carl’s violent incident with the construction worker, this “flight of fancy” is motivated by his emotional pain and fear. This gives the premise a backbone. Carl then travels to South America where he meets his childhood hero, only to find out that his once-idol is actually a murderous villain. Yes, the story of Up satisfies on a psychological and emotional level. And this is to say nothing of the famous “married life” sequence; one of the finest moments of silent story-telling in cinematic history!

And lastly, does it resonate emotionally? Yes, yes, and yes! Everything mentioned previously shows how much of an emphasis the filmmakers placed on emotion. And the opening 15 minutes are famous for their tear-inducing, heart-breaking tragedy. Check this box too.

So yes, mainstream animated films are more than capable of being “great” films. And one could use these criteria to satisfy any number of animated works. Mark Osborne says that “[Animated films] clearly have the ability to be cinematic masterpieces, just like great live action films, so it’s hard to understand anyone who can unilaterally knock them. Yet there remains a negative connotation, as if they are somehow less than live action films.” 

Animation VS. The Academy Awards

The animation bias has become a rampant issue (practically a disease) in Hollywood. Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine editor and author of Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios (2015), thinks that the way animation is treated in Hollywood is “almost irrevocably broken and inaccurate. It’s very easy to find industry trades or employees talking about animation as a genre, not a medium.” Award ceremonies have been of particular offense.

The Academy Awards (or Oscars) are the ceremony that will be highlighted in this paper. The relationship between animated films and the Academy Awards is very important for a number of reasons. The Academy Awards is one of the biggest and most influential movie awards ceremonies in the world, therefore it holds a lot of favor in the public’s eye. The Academy has also been the source of a number of unfair snubs for animation, and though similar bias has been found in other major award ceremonies (such as the Golden Globes, who, in 2007, deemed animated films ineligible for their Best Motion Picture awards), the Academy’s relationship with animation seems to mirror culture’s overall perception of animation with relative accuracy.

This discussion of the Oscars becomes especially significant in the late '80s. After the spectacular critical and box-office failure of Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985), Walt Disney Feature Animation attempted to reboot themselves. Subsequent features The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) helped somewhat, but not a lot. It wasn’t until the release of The Little Mermaid (1989) that renewed interest in Disney and animation materialized. The glorious visuals and unforgettable songs made the film into a massive success, and began what is now known as the Disney Renaissance; a decade long period where Disney films were consistently received with critical acclaim, strong box-office returns, and Oscar gold. The Little Mermaid went on to win two Oscars for Best Original Song and Best Original Score, two categories they would dominate for years.

With such a triumphant return to form, Disney was in an ideal position to release an animated film that would make history: Beauty and the Beast (1991). A year after the release of The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast wowed audiences and went on to be the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture, the top prize at the Academy Awards. It didn’t win (though many argue that it should have, considering the weak competition), but it made a statement: animated films could equal and rival live-action ones. Its impressive character depth and elegantly portrayed romance were merits difficult to argue with.

Several successful Disney films followed, such as Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Pocahontas (1995), each of which scored two Oscar wins each (for Best Original Song and Best Original Score every time). And in 1995, Pixar released their first animated film, Toy Story, which received widespread critical acclaim. Josh Spiegel says that, “the work that Pixar's animators and filmmakers achieved with the original Toy Story was as massive to me as a viewer, as it was to the entire industry. It was proof of the impossible.” And though Toy Story failed to win a competitive Oscar (instead winning an honorary Oscar for being the first animated film animated entirely with computers), it became the first animated film to be nominated for a screenplay Oscar.

Disney’s success began to decline in the early 2000’s (taking nearly a decade to recover), but Pixar picked up the slack and began to achieve acclaim that was virtually unparalleled by other animation studios. Following A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters Inc. (2001), and the box-office smash Finding Nemo (2003), Pixar quickly established themselves as the king of the medium, providing thoughtful stories and smart scripts to complement their revolutionary CGI visuals. And when Brad Bird directed The Incredibles (2004) for the studio, heads really started to turn. Could a film so full of blatant violence, mature satire, and complex themes be animated and a box-office success? Evidently so, as The Incredibles delivered the studio’s highest opening weekend gross, garnered outstanding reviews and took home two Oscars. This was a huge deal, as The Incredibles was one of the most adult animated films many audiences had ever seen. This played a big role in introducing mature-themed animations to the general public.

After the admittedly less well received Cars (2006), Pixar released four powerhouses in a row: Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), Up (2009), and Toy Story 3 (2010). Each film was triumphant proof that animation could tell stories with adult themes and complicated emotions and still be successful with mainstream audiences. Suddenly, animation naysayers (such as the Academy) began seeing the true worth of animated films. In fact, after the highly publicized snub of Wall-E and live-action superhero hit The Dark Knight (2008) from the Best Picture nominees, the Academy increased their Best Picture category so that it could include up to 10 nominees (as opposed to just five, as had been the custom previously). This allowed Up and Toy Story 3 to secure Best Picture nominations the following years (though neither film won). This was two years in a row in which animated films had been nominated for Best Picture, which had never happened in the history of the Academy. And with animated films now consistently picking up nominations in categories usually reserved for live-action films (such as screenplay, sound editing and sound mixing), it seemed animation was well on its way to being accepted as equal partners to live-action films.

Unfortunately, this triumph was ultimately short-lived. Pixar’s following three features, Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012) and Monsters University (2013) were met with far less praise than their previous films. Few mainstream animated films at the time were comparable to the work of Pixar’s glory days, and so Academy members began to revert to their old ways of thinking. Outside of occasional recognition in music categories, subsequent animated films were only nominated in the Best Animated Feature category. Tomm Moore says that, “unfortunately, the majority of the Academy members…don’t all see animation’s potential beyond family-oriented entertainment.” A notably intelligent animated film, The Lego Movie (2014) was snubbed even from the Best Animated Feature category, likely due to the Academy refusing to recognize a film about a “kid’s toy.” This being another sad result of the blindness of the Academy.

Then, in 2015, Pixar released Inside Out. It was hailed as a glorious return to form, and was considered to be the studio’s most complicated film yet. Many critics expressed concern that the film wouldn’t appeal to young audiences due to its complexity. And yet, it had a massive opening gross (the highest ever for an original film, animated or live-action). Inside Out now stood proudly among the studio’s most acclaimed films. No small feat for a studio that had blazed trails for proper recognition for the medium.

But something peculiar happened. The nominations for the 88th Academy Award were announced. And Inside Out was totally absent from the Best Picture category. It still secured nominations in Best Animated Feature and Best Original Screenplay (no animated film had been nominated for a screenplay Oscar since Pixar’s own Toy Story 3 in 2010). But its lack of support in the Best Picture category, despite acclaim equal to or exceeding any of that year’s Best Picture nominees, was telling.

Telling of what, exactly? That Academy voters had reverted back to their old ways. Nearly 30 years of progress unspooled in just five. Five years that were not lacking in strong animated films, mind you, but with mainstream audiences looking at Pixar, seeing them stumble was equivalent in the eyes of many to seeing animation as a whole suffer.

Thus, we live in a tricky time for animation. With Pixar’s upcoming slate fairly barren of titles likely to contend for major Oscars, and no other animated films with adult-appeal connecting with mainstream audiences, things aren’t looking good. In fact, the medium stands to suffer much more on this road to acceptance.

Addressing Counterarguments

And so, the initial point bears repeating: Why are animated films treated like a lesser medium?  Why should animation consistently produce masterpieces in order for award ceremonies and adult audiences to even notice them? Even though you can now claim to be reasonably well-informed on the topic of animation, and may now see its worth, many audiences do not feel the same. There is an unmistakable bias against the medium.

Part of this comes from the early years of animation. Many of the first animated Disney films, while not without frightening moments and plenty of adult fans, were fairly simple and kid-friendly. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941). Though they have individual sequences that pull off riskier ideas, one can make an easy argument that these were designed primarily with children in mind. Whether that is true or not is beside the point; they simply appear to be less mature than the average R rated feature. One can look deeper and see the subtle complexities in each of these works, but the average audience member isn’t going to study the film. “A cartoon? With songs? Where’s the remote?”

Thus, generations have grown up with the instinct that animated films are for children. This isn’t Disney’s fault. They’ve had more than their fair share of mature animations (a notable example being Fantasia (1940), a two hour feature mostly comprised of abstract imagery and classical music). But with the vast majority of existing animated films aiming primarily at young audiences, the misconception has grown very strong. Patrick Osborne suggests that the animation bias "comes from years of programming made for kids…silly, light entertainment to keep the kids distracted. Old habits die hard." Mark Osborne also says that in regards to the way audiences perceive animation that, “it is clear there are deeply ingrained ways of thinking that are going to be very difficult to change.”

But if one were to throw away their instinctive feelings about animation, what points would still linger? Surely one can see that animated films are still much sillier than live-action ones. Take into account the amount of slapstick. The exaggerated vocal performances. This can’t be aimed at adults, can it?

It is true that animated films are not without sillier qualities. Not all of them mind you. There are countless examples of animated films that, if not for their visuals, would be indistinguishable from live-action features (see the examples listed earlier). But, if one were to look at Pixar’s films, one would find slapstick. One would find silly, wacky vocal performances. But does that make it a lesser film?

Not at all! At least, not if you have any affinity for Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or William Shakespeare. Each are highly regarded actors, directors, or writers that incorporated slapstick, wacky hijinks and silly antics into their work. And yet, their films and plays are hailed as some of the greatest ever formed. And simultaneously, slapstick and silliness don’t take away from the seriousness or poignancy that their work often contained.

Animated films are also often pegged as having simpler stories, or noted for more frequently containing non-serious story material. And yes, there are those “magic exceptions” like Grave of the Fireflies and the like, but don’t the majority of animated films have less ambitious goals? The honest answer is yes. And this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the adult-themed animated films rarely garner much attention, and many of the more kid-friendly options are the ones that attract audiences only to be used as babysitters.

But consider live-action films. If one were to look closely, they’d probably find that the vast majority of such films are, in fact, quite simplistic. For every Godfather (1972) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), there’s a couple dozen films like Napoleon Dynamite (2004) or Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). Not that those latter two films are necessarily bad, but they’re undeniably simplistic, lacking any real poignancy or complexity. Likewise, while the majority of animated films are similarly fluffy, there are a significant number of truly excellent works in the medium. Mark Osborne similarly suggests that, “the worst animated films can taint the bunch, making it seem as if they are all just ‘junk food’ and ‘garbage kiddie fare’, but I think the same can be said about a lot of live action films too.”

Still, audiences tend to ignore this crucial point. And this serves to reinforce the animation bias in two ways. For one, it means that there are less films for audiences to point to when trying to think of examples of animated films of merit worthy of “excellent” status.

The second is that, as a result of the animation bias, many find it downright peculiar when animated films target adult audiences specifically. Josh Spiegel insists that “too often, the assumption is that animation is for children only; anything that’s challenging to that perception is treated oddly or ignorantly.” Americans aren’t used to seeing animated films with strong violence, language, or sexual content. Middling box-office returns for PG-13 animated films like 9 (2009) and Beowulf (2007) reveal the lack of audience interest, and the fact that most adult animated films open in very few theaters is a direct result of this bias. So with adult animated films failing to make much money, they aren’t made very often in the States. “There's nothing wrong with an all-ages piece of animation,” Spiegel says, “there's only a problem if that is all that's offered to a wider audience. Animation can do anything. It doesn't just need to be for kids; it's inaccurate to suggest otherwise.” Unfortunately, studios are rarely willing to risk financing adult animated films. Richard Starzak says that, “because of their enormous cost, [animated films] have to appeal as broadly as possible.” Jorge R. Gutierrez, director of The Book of Life (2014), also bemoans the current state of adult animations, saying that studios require that, “big budget [animated films] need to be for children.”

That’s not to say adult animated films are dying. Many great mature animated films are made every year outside of the USA. But without American support, they sadly don’t have much place within the States. 

Looking Ahead

Are American audiences and award ceremonies becoming more open-minded towards animated films? Some animators are fairly optimistic. Tom Moore feels that animation acceptance is improving, saying that “each generation seems to understand better than the last that animation has potential to be an art form.” Moore lastly adds that, “It's an exciting time to be involved in this industry and to be practicing [animation].” However, Mark Osborne expresses some concern, saying that “until there is more widespread acceptance that [animation] is real filmmaking too, we will be at a disadvantage.” Osborne continues, saying that, “what we need is more risk taking on the part of studio executives, and more respect given to those behind the scenes that know how to create truly great works using the medium. Until then, I am afraid that we will continue to be sat at the Hollywood kiddie table.”

Animated films will continue to thrive at the box-office, but it will be a while before they gain widely recognized respect for their achievements (at least in the States). The animation bias is a troubling thing; it has caused intelligent people to make ridiculous claims on the creative worth of animated films, insisting they can never equal the great classics or be a worthy feature for adult viewers. We may, in our lifetime, come to see the acceptance of animated films as a medium commonly accepted for its artistic value alongside live-action films. But for now, minds can be difficult to change. Just take it from Richard Starzak: when met with an individual who insists animated films are just for kids, Starzak recommends you simply, “go and find someone more interesting to talk to.”

Thanks for reading, and a special thank you to all the lovely folks that let me impede their limited free-time with an interview.  Go follow them all on Twitter!

Jorge R. Gutierrez @mexopolis

Josh Spiegel @mousterpiece

Mark Osborne @happyproduct

Patrick Osborne @PatrickTOsborne

Richard Starzak @MrGolly

Tomm Moore @tommmoore

And follow me at Joshua LF Mitchell @JLFM97

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