A Lack of Cultural Impact is What Holds Animated Films Back – Animation Scoop

A Lack of Cultural Impact is What Holds Animated Films Back

Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Star Wars, and The Dark Knight; live-action films lauded far and wide with critical acclaim, financial success and cultural importance. In the west (and the US in particular) films are looked to as cultural barometers that can signify which way the winds are blowing, and more importantly, the direction that everyone else needs to be heading in artistically to remain relevant. Do animated films have any degree of cultural impact, and if not, does it need to be addressed?

Try and think of the most culturally important animated film of all time. No, not the most popular, or the one with the greatest box office takings, or indeed your favourite. Think of the one film that has had a real influence on both popular culture and invoked wider changes in society artistically or otherwise. Pretty hard isn’t it? Snow White and Seven Dwarfs? Fantasia? The Little Mermaid? Toy Story? All are great films, but have any of them (or others) had an actual, measurable impact on popular culture of the time?

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Snow White was certainly a successful film and inspired others to jump into feature animation, yet it’s influence has been long relegated to animation circles. Fairy tales were already popular sources for story material in 1937 and the same year saw the release of a certain Errol Flynn as Robin Hood; a film barely remembered today, but enormously popular and influential at the time. Barely two years later films such as The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Gone With The Wind were released during Hollywood’s ‘banner’ 1939 year. Their cultural impact is still being debated today, while Snow White is fondly membered, even admired, it didn’t spur any substantial changes outside of being a very well made film that gave its producer a lot of confidence to pursue similar ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, Snow White was (and still is) enormously influential, it just didn’t alter the popular zeitgeist beyond proving that audiences were willing to watch feature-length cartoons. Walt’s style of storytelling wasn’t a departure from anything that came before and, being a risk mitigation measure, it didn’t initiate a shift in American filmmaking in the creative sense. Other Disney films such as Fantasia (technologically-advanced,) and The Little Mermaid (a return to form) are similarly moribund. All are interesting in their own way, all are popular and beloved films, yet none made the public take notice that something fresh was afoot besides the fact that animated films were capable of something they seemingly weren’t before.

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In that sense, Toy Story ought to be a particularly significant animated film in addition to being the first all-CGI feature. Yet I’ve had a hard time sussing out whether Toy Story actually provoked a measurable shift in popular culture. What it definitely did was point out that animated features could be much more than the formula that Disney was peddling, and it also hinted to producers that films could be enjoyed equally by both adults and kids without resorting to pandering. However, beyond introducing a new quote/unquote ‘genre’ of storytelling style to animated features, and stimulating a superbly successful string of films, Toy Story didn’t really affect popular culture beyond the screen and toy aisles. In fact, its style of storytelling isn’t even original to films in general; Home Alone already proving it was a recipe for success.

Fast forward to today and despite a multitude of films being made and released, animated features are contending with a seriously crowded landscape where there are no clearly superior influencers. Every sector of the entertainment business has fragmented and they’re all competing with alternative sources such as Facebook and Snapchat. A this point, the question isn’t whether an animated feature could alter popular culture radically, but rather could it even alter the sliver of culture that is within its reach. Even that’s a tough stretch as Disney’s proven with its recent hits. They’ve been successful sure, but outside of studio walls, they aren’t changing how people think and feel about things.

In contrast to this, Japan’s greater affinity for animated features combined with Hayao Miyazaki’s strong (so very strong) inclination to tackle environmental themes means that animated features there are more likely to spur public comment and debate, and consequently influence popular culture simply by being instigating and subsequently participating in the conversation.

As a whole, the lack of cultural ‘respect’ that animated features are conferred with is a detriment to their ability to truly make an imprint. Great animated features are produced all the time, and many are denied a place that’s rightfully theirs in the popular zeitgeist for a variety of reasons. Star Wars inspired and influenced a generation of kids to be interested in things like space. Animated films should be just as influential given both their general popularity, and the degree to which they remain in the public’s collective memory. It’s just a shame they do not currently seem capable of nudging culture in a different direction the same way that live-action can.

Charles Kenny

Charles Kenny

Being tall, Irish and a civil engineer by trade, Charles stands out in the animation crowd, hence his position as the Animation Anomaly.
Charles Kenny
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  • zoe

    And yet, isn’t it funny to think of the ENORMOUS cultural impact of animated television?! I can’t think of anything, of any genre, that’s had as huge a cultural influence on my generation as The Simpsons. South Park has also reverberated, even having a subtle impact on popular political ideology towards a more libertarian slant.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the die was cast early on regarding the content and maturity of animated feature films in the US. It may be too late to reinvent the medium in the public’s consciousness. Even “adult” or “edgy” animated comedies like Sausage Party get some of their transgressive appeal from the fact that they are subverting a medium that people typically associate with children’s fare. And non-adolescent animated features (like Anomalisa) are subject to the same market pressure as all quirky independent films, but at a terrible disadvantage because of the huge costs of the animated medium. Such art-house films have the potential to influence creative subculture, and that can be quite transformative of pop culture in the long run; lots of obscure, cult films end up inspiring and influencing more mainstream creators. But mass appeal? Less than likely.

    Animated television, having come of age in the hip, wry postwar era, is more naturally associated with satire and adult sensibilities. But even in this format, dramatic work has yet to break through. There’s not yet an animated Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. The most powerful dramatic animated television series I can remember were Aeon Flux and The Maxx, both fantastically ahead of their time. Once again, the cost and time-consuming nature of the medium make producers risk averse. However, the television market is better than it’s ever been. More serious dramas are being made for TV than film. So I could conceive of a pay-TV or streaming-only animated drama miniseries, perhaps produced with a limited technique or a Linklater-esque rotoscoping effect to keep costs lower.

  • top_cat_james

    Think of the [animated] film that has had a real influence on both popular culture and invoked wider changes in society artistically or otherwise. Pretty hard isn’t it?

    Nope.
    Yellow Submarine, Fritz the Cat, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

  • Gijs Grob

    It has been argued that Snow White introduced the narrative musical (in contrast to the staged musical) into cinema. Moreover, one could write complete books on Disney princesses and their cultural impact on how girls see their femininity. Or another book on how Disney’s influence on people’s views on fairy tales. In the case of Snow White (and even Jungle Book to some extent) the film has completely overtaken the original book story in people’s memories. Snow White worldwide is almost as instantly recognizable by her Disney design as Mickey Mouse is. And then, given the enormous debate a film like ‘Frozen’ has caused, I find it difficult to diminish its cultural impact. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ almost single-handedly revived general interest in the golden age of animation. ‘Toy Story’ broke the tradition that American animated features should be musicals, ‘Antz’ was the first to self-consciously bring adult themes into animation. Films like these changed people’s views on animation. That alone is enough cultural impact to me. And be sure practically no film in ANY genre had the same cultural impact as for example Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ or Benjamin Spock’s ‘Baby and Child Care’. In all, I think your argument is flawed, and can best be seen as an invitation to more research into this matter.