Animated Adults: Why the time for mature stories told through animation is now


“Animators can only draw from their own experiences of pain and shock and emotions.” – Hayao Miyazaki

Firstly, no, this isn’t about hentai or those disturbing cartoons that have the Simpsons or the Griffins engaging in unspeakable acts. So for those that came upon this post either hoping for that or by simple (if deranged) Googling, my apologies. Adult animation isn’t meant to evoke pornographic images of cartoon boobs flopping about but instead is the idea of animated films made specifically for mature audiences, dealing with mature subjects. The fact is that there are some stories that can truly only be told through certain mediums, whether it’s the printed page or the silver screen. And within those mediums, there are subcategories of ways to tell stories – live action versus animation being one divide. While animation has been relegated to “kids’ stuff” for the majority of its existence, the time is perfect for more animated films to be created and released that specifically target an adult audience.

The latest example to hit theaters is “Sausage Party,” a foul-mouthed computer animated film that sounds like a Pixar feature run through the National Lampoon‘s offices. The movie imagines a world where food is sentient and talks to each other but is unaware of their role in the lives of humans as something to be consumed. And so this “Toy Story” meets “Superbad” journey of a hot dog and a bun begins, with many deviations along the path for jokes of varying degrees of offensiveness and taste.

Although it’s a welcome sight to see an animated film pitched directly to adults, with its red-band trailer and obvious profane take on the subject, it would appear that writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are using the medium for the purposes of subversion and not originality. The filmmakers are subverting expectations by taking what sounds like a traditional children’s tale (what if blank could talk and feel?) but using adult language and experiences to up-end what most people anticipate to find in such a film. Which is fine; it has worked well for “South Park” and Adult Swim shows for years. However, it would be nice if the medium wasn’t just used for subverting expectations but instead to utilize the full potential of animation – its possibility for splendor and spectacle beholden only to the animator’s imagination – to tell an original story aimed at adults.

To be fair, there have been many animated films for adults over the past few decades. “A Scanner Darkly,” “Waking Life,” “Waltz with Bashir,” “The Congress,” “Anomalisa,” “Wrinkles,” “Perfect Blue,” “Millennium Actress,” and many other anime films and movies from other countries all told complex stories for mature audiences. And it’s not like there haven’t been attempts at creating animated cinema for adults, either; one needs only to look at the career of Ralph Bakshi to see his many attempts to bring sophisticated tales to an older audience throughout the ’70s and ’80s. But these are all blips on the radar, isolated incidents that are usually independent projects or foreign films, nothing backed by major American studios for wide release to adult audiences. It’s time for that to change, not just because people are being deprived of an experience that stretches imaginations and what’s possible but also because the audience is now ready to accept it.

There are multiple generations now raised on cartoons, not just the Saturday morning variety, but also primetime and later. “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” are quoted amongst friends like a secret language in some cabal. Other TV shows like “Archer,” “Rick and Morty” and “The Venture Bros.” not only deal in adult language but also explore rather adult themes like disappointment, failure and existential crises. The biggest paying audience for comic books (non-manga, anyways) are adults, many of whom grew up with the medium in their life but now explore complex and insightful stories that are readily adapted for TV and film (often times with adults in mind as the audience, a la “The Walking Dead” or “Preacher”). These people were teens when MTV’s Liquid Television originally aired, dipping in juvenilia with “Beavis & Butthead” as well as delivering more complicated series like “The Maxx” and “Aeon Flux.” These generations have grown up with anime and foreign animated series and are comfortable with the medium, and now they would happily embrace an adult film told through animation. Imagine if Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” was finally brought to the screen, albeit in animation form; these are the people who would show up for that mature tale.

Meanwhile, as the audience is primed to accept animated stories for adults, animators and filmmakers are becoming more mature in their storytelling. Studios like Pixar and Laika are delivering movies with truly complicated emotional underpinnings and themes, whether it’s the stormy emotional landscape of “Inside Out,” the post-apocalyptic themes of “Wall-E,” or the disturbing imagery of “Coraline.” These films all clearly work for children as well, and are primarily aimed at younger audiences, but there’s still a lot for adults to find within them and that’s why they resonate with grown-ups so much (and also accounts for the box office returns, as it’s not just children seeing them). This convergence of artists and audiences being primed for a resurgence (or just emergence) of animation aimed at adults seems perfect for the times.

But why now? Well, when most of the big blockbusters use CGI in their action sequences (not to mention that even smaller films use it for landscape, color correction and other minor details), there’s already a leaking of the animated into the practical. But why be beholden to just what practical live-action can deliver? Why not go beyond that and truly be experimental, stretch minds and imaginations and deliver stories all told within the same medium so there’s not that incongruity when Daredevil or Superman turns into a CGI cartoon during his action sequences? By adapting and adopting cartoon aesthetics, there’s less cognitive dissonance between what’s real and what’s a computer generated prop.

The fact is that animation, despite all of the stellar work of people like Don Hertzfeldt, Richard Linklater, Ari Folman and hundreds of others, is still relegated as children’s entertainment. It’s a medium for kids for reasons that simply have to do with generational disregard. But that generational view is changing, in part fueled by nostalgia but also fueled by familiarity and willingness to experiment. A great story deserves to be told to the best of its abilities, not encumbered by the physics of practicality, and that’s what animation offers. We already know that animation can hit emotional beats with audiences (the opening of “Up” cements that if nothing else), so it’s not a leap that audiences can still care for a line drawing the same as they would a live-action character. The audience has been primed, the technology is there, the sophistication of storytelling is there – now it’s just time for some adult animated film to break through and lead the charge.


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