Saturday, April 22, 2017

April 22-23, 2017: Animating History: Earth Day Animations

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ve AmericanStudied five animated histories. Leading up to this weekend post on animation and the environment—add your thoughts, on this topic or any animation histories, in comments, please!]
In honor of both Earth Day and my participation in the Boston March for Science (on which more in this space in a couple weeks), three examples of the link between animation and the environment:
1)      Captain Planet and the Planeteers/The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1990-96): As a viewer and fan of the show since its first episodes, I might be biased, but it seems to me that Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle’s environmental edutainment program (or programs, since the show changed its name when Hanna-Barbera took over principal production in 1993) Captain Planet was one of the most radical and influential children’s shows of all time. The show’s consistent environmental activist themes and stories should be evidence enough for that claim; but if not, I would point to the 1992 episode “A Formula for Hate,” in which the villain sought to spread lies and paranoia about AIDS and thus to turn a town against an HIV-infected young man (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). My pre-Boston March for Science talk is on science and public activism, and I can’t imagine a clearer embodiment of that link than this Captain Planet episode.
2)      FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992): 1992 was a banner year for environmental animation, as it also saw the release of FernGully, a joint Australian and American animated film (based on Diana Young’s children’s novel of the same name) about the growing threats to the world’s rainforests. Among its many achievements, FernGully succeeded in bringing Cheech and Chong back together for the first time in six years; it also perhaps influenced the casting of John Woo’s Broken Arrow (1996), which likewise featured a pairing of Samantha Mathis and Christian Slater. They, like all of the film’s voice actors (including Robin Williams in his first animated film as Batty) worked for scale, as all were committed to the film’s environmental and conservationist messages. Indeed, I’d argue that Captain Planet and FernGully together reflect the leading role pop culture played in advancing those issues in the early 1990s—a trend worth remembering whenever we’re tempted to dismiss pop culture’s social or communal roles.
3)      Princess Mononoke (1997): Legendary animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 historical fantasy anime film illustrates that those cultural contributions to environmental activism were taking place around the globe. Like FernGully, Mononoke uses the genre of fantasy to tell its story of supernatural and human heroes working together to fight for an embattled natural world against encroaching forces. Often the genre of anime has been associated with futuristic and urban settings; but Miyazaki’s film, among others in the era, redirected the genre’s tropes and themes to the historical and natural worlds. Like Captain Planet and FernGully before it, Mononoke was an international hit (as well as a box office smash in Japan), with its English-language version becoming one of the most popular Hollywood adaptations of an anime or Japanese film of all time. In my experience, Earth Day really took off as a collective phenomenon in the 1990s—and if so, we might well have these pioneering 1990s animations to thank.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Any other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?

Friday, April 21, 2017

April 21, 2017: Animating History: The Lego Movie and Consumerism

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ll AmericanStudy five animated histories. Share your thoughts on them, on Daffy, or on animation or cartoons of any kind for a weekend post that’s sure to draw a crowd!]
On consumerism, childhood, and contradiction. [Some SPOILERS for The Lego Movie follow.]
I’m sure there was some golden age when children’s cartoons weren’t directly tied into toys and other consumer products—but not so by my childhood, when I could play with my He-Man or G.I. Joe or Transformers figures while watching their TV shows and movies, when my younger sister could do the same with her My Little Ponies or Care Bears, and when one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons featured the exploits of a line of candy bears one could eat while watching their adventures (although that act of borderline cannibalism did always feel wrong to this young AmericanStudier). Indeed, in all of those cases (I believe) the toys or products preceded the animated shows and films, making the cultural works entirely inseparable from (if not simply a merchandising arm of) the consumer products. Which is to say, such synergies have been central to the experiences of American childhood for at least a few decades (and didn’t turn me into some sort of capitalist automaton, at least not to my knowledge).
On the other hand, even within that long history The Lego Movie (2014) could be seen as representing a new level of consumer culture. I refuse either to capitalize lego or to put the trademark symbol after it, but both are part of the film’s title, revealing just how fully the movie is a product of, well, a product. I was in a Lego Store with my boys before the film’s release, and even then a substantial percentage of the products for sale were direct movie tie-ins; I know from experience (what can I say, I spend a lot of time in toy stores) that the merchandising only ramped up in the weeks, months, and years since. Given that the film’s ultimate themes include both an emphasis on imaginative play that refuses to “follow directions” and a direct critique of corporate culture and conformity (in the form of the film’s villain, Lord Business), such consumer connections seem hugely ironic and even hypocritical, a position at the heart of Anthony Lane’s pointed review of the film in The New Yorker.
I take that point, but would push back on it to a degree as well. After all, a great deal of childhood, now as ever, is defined precisely by contradictions: between dependence and independence, safety and adventure, rules and fun, and, yes, consumerist conformity and imaginative inspiration. Which is to say, the presence of such contradictions in a film, as in any area of life, does not necessarily reflect hypocrisy so much as simply inevitable reality. The Lego Movie is a two-hour sales pitch; it’s also an imaginative, engaging, and effective story. My boys saw it and wanted to own some of the Lego products it includes; they also came out talking about its themes, about why it was important for the protagonists (both lego and human, although I won’t spoil it further than that) to break from the tyranny of conformity and Business and find their own path. I can’t say for sure which end of those spectrums was or is more influential, no more than I can say if my boys’ video game playing is more meaningful to their young lives or future development than our nightly chapter book reading. It’s all part of the childhood and cultural mix, and The Lego Movie is both a troubling and a thoughtful contribution to that mix as well.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

April 20, 2017: Animating History: Frozen and Expectations

[On April 17th, 1937, Daffy Duck made his debut, in the Warner Brothers cartoon “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” In honor of that foul-tempered feathered friend, this week I’ll AmericanStudy five animated histories. Share your thoughts on them, on Daffy, or on animation or cartoons of any kind for a weekend post that’s sure to draw a crowd!]
On challenges to our expectations, less and more successful. [SPOILERS for Frozen follow, if you’re one of the lucky non-parents who haven’t seen it many, many times by now.]
If the subject of yesterday’s post, The Princess and the Frog, significantly revised the existing canon of Disney Princesses, one of the newest and now most financially successful Disney animated films of all time, Frozen (2013), went further still. The film overtly seeks to revise a number of the tropes and myths at the heart of virtually every prior Disney animated film, including romantic narratives and their reliance on the concepts of love at first sight and true love, heroines/princesses and their arcs and goals, and even the relative importance of familial vs. romantic relationships in our storytelling. We’re not talking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? level meta-textuality or subversiveness here, exactly—but for a Disney animated film, I was struck by just how much Frozen comments on and challenges those traditional tropes.
All of those challenges are interesting and meaningful, but it’s also instructive to note which ones work and which, to this viewer, don’t. In the latter category I would locate the film’s challenge to romantic narratives, which it achieves by first linking its princess heroine Anna with the dashing Prince Hans and then eventually revealing him to be a heartless villain instead. It’s true that Frozen foreshadows that character shift through multiple characters’ reactions to Anna’s instant love and connection; she is repeatedly, incredulously asked, “You’re engaged to a man you just met?!” But it’s also true that much of the early section of Frozen makes happy use of the romantic tropes, including the extended, treacly song and dance number “Love is an Open Door.” So if Hans’ sudden shift feels somewhat unbelievable (and to this viewer it did), the film’s own heavy earlier reliance on those romantic tropes would have to be seen as contributing to that effect.
On the other hand, I found Frozen’s challenges to the traditional heroine arcs and emphases very successful and quite moving. That’s true for the two individual characters, as both Anna and (especially) her sister Elsa have journeys that are far more about their perspectives, experiences, and identities than about finding a romantic partner. But it’s even more true for them as sisters, as their stories are deeply intertwined and come to a powerful conclusion that remains more about them, individually and as a pair, than it is about the love interest character or indeed anyone outside of this complex duo. To see a pair of complex, interconnected women whose relationship is rich and evolving and multi-layered, and whose most powerful emotional notes depend on that familial history and bond—well, I don’t know that I was ready for a Disney animated film that could pass the Bechdel Test. But I’m very glad that this one does.
Last animated history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other animation or cartoon thoughts you’d share?