On Cartoons and Animation

One of my friends asked me two interesting questions over break. Why have you stopped writing your blog? Why is your writing always about serious topics when you’re usually joking around in real life? Here’s a resounding answer to both questions on an ironically serious tangent.

Cartoons and animation. They are an ever-present, light-hearted medium of expression that is rarely given its deserved credit, especially when looking at “the heavy stuff”. For example, as moviegoers and critics, we’ve all seen our fair share of war movies. The most recent one I know most of my friends have watched was Zero Dark Thirty. I remember reading a review where the critic’s succinct tagline was: “If you like World War II films, you’ll enjoy this.” This statement, while brilliantly effective in bringing people to the movie theaters, also boils down to some often unturned facts. The movie, like most World War II movies, will be a gut-wrenching, realistic visual overload of war that will air out our nation’s dirty laundry valiantly. The second mechanism, which is often overlooked is that it will provide a catharsis for victims of the tragedy while simultaneously justifying our actions. In a limited but possible perspective, Zero Dark Thirty could be seen as a justification of torture just as many World War II movies could be seen as a justification of detainment or using the atomic bomb. That being said, with the advent of websites like liveleaks.com, we can see exactly what is going on in wars in graphic and realistic detail. That’s the beauty of uncut film; it doesn’t necessarily inherit bias. Sure, war films can be superb and instill pride in your country, but aren’t they formulaic in nature?

In contrast, I watched the film Persepolis, which details the Iranian revolution through refreshing black and white animation. There is magic realism everywhere; for example, the main character has conversations with Karl Marx and god. The limited toleration of intellectual diversity is reflected in the limited black and white color palette. Social commentary is reflected not only in the artwork but also in the actions of the plucky, anti-establishment protagonist. There is bias against Islamic fundamentalism just like there would be in a similar war film, but without all of the necessary visual clutter. It’s clean, minimalistic, evocative and allows the audience to use their imagination and feel less pressured. A heated, complex situation is somewhat diffused by elegant yet unconventional simplicity; it allows viewers to develop their own opinions. In this particular instance, the contrast is striking. A free flowing cartoon compliments the perceived rigidity of Islamic fundamentalism perfectly. The beauty of cartoon and animation on “the heavy stuff” is also its downfall. If it’s thought to be intelligent and original, it will bring in viewers. Otherwise, it’ll bomb in the box office. That, unfortunately, can’t be said about war movies.

Romantic comedies are seen as formulaic by many viewers (and yes, there are exceptions such as Harold and Maude). It’s definitely a guilty pleasure for many though. I was looking through all of the romantic comedies in the past five years. I realized that my favorite by far was just the first sequence of UP. In a silent ten minutes, the film somehow managed to cover much of the essence of a romantic comedy with a bit of a whimsy, including some of the “heavy” stuff such as the death of a partner. There’s a sense of magic realism too in the premise of a house attached to balloons and traveling to Paradise Falls. Before I become completely redundant, I’d like to give a more recent example.

About two weeks ago, I watched “Is the Man who is Tall Happy?”, which is a documentary on linguist Noam Chomsky by director Michel Gondry (who directed one of my favorite romantic comedies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It was an interview with Chomsky about his early life, his accomplishments in linguistics and its complexities (so interesting!), his philosophy and a variety of other interesting topics. Chomsky, arguably America’s most prominent intellectual since Dewey and a rather outspoken political activist, isn’t really easily digestible to the average viewer normally. With hand-drawn, colourful stick figure cartoons, Gondry creates an almost psychedelic vibe that makes an interview with a fast-talking intellectual into a relaxed conversation between two friends. In reality, isn’t this exactly what a moviegoer would want; the ability to connect with and understand complicated ideas and interesting people while enjoying yourself? Web cartoons like RSA Animate have gained millions of viewers on this premise.

So I guess I’ve somehow made a post about animation and cartoons completely serious. I promise, that’s not how I actually am! Here’s a Calvin and Hobbes strip showing how great cartoons can be (also so this post ends on a light-hearted note!):


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