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Tell me if you’ve heard something like this before: “_________ is one of the greatest animated films of all time.” I have. I’ve been guilty of this very refrain myself. And I know you, too (for who else would be reading this than an ardent fan of cinema?), must have uttered some variation of this at one time. When discussions of the best movies ever turn to the domain of the illustrated, computer generated, or stop motion, there is a tendency to modify film with animated or anime. Think about it. But is this distinction we often make a result from an inherent need for said distinction, or are we simply following suit?
In my quest for the answer to this question, a couple days ago I searched for “best animated films.” In turn, I was given several lists compiled by Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb, IndieWire, USA TODAY, Timeout, etc. Many great films. Several are going on my Letterboxd watchlist. But anyway. Let’s stop and think about the very nature of the list. What really do “animated films” all have in common? There are art styles so disparate, from Shrek to Akira to Belladonna of Sadness, that to label them “animated movies” seems like a disservice to the individual feats of each film. Additionally, an animated film may be a comedy, drama, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, what have you. I think calling a movie “animated,” while it can be innocuous, may marginalize and “other” these movies as outside the norm of “normal” film.
Now let’s move to the general. To the supposed “greatest of all time.” Period. I chose to take a look at Rolling Stone’s list of greatest movies ever, expecting to find a handful of animated films somewhere on the list. To me, with their choice of title, any film should, ostensibly, be up for consideration. Even considering the predilection for English language and American films, I expected more diversity of medium. Certainly more than the four animated films that actually appeared. That’s right, out of the 100 greatest films of all time, according to Rolling Stone, only four are animated, with none cracking the top 70 [Lion King (78); Toy Story (76); Spirited Away (75); Frozen (71)] Ok, I reasoned. Maybe a more recognizable voice in film would sing a different, more inclusive tune. So, I checked AFI’s most recent top 100 films of all time. Nope. Only two animated movies graced this list.
One may argue that there just aren’t as many animated films to compete with. Let me push back a bit. Animated films are nothing new. In fact, iconic hand drawn characters from Snow White to Betty Boop to Mickey Mouse were ridiculously popular as far back as the 1930s. There isn’t a lack-of-animated-movies problem. There’s a problem of appreciation.
In the same vein, take a look at the deluge of live action adaptations. In the last few years, Walt Disney Studios alone has given the live action treatment to many of its beloved films (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Lady and the Tramp, Pinocchio, Mulan, The Little Mermaid…). There are plans to do the same to practically the entire back catalog. Disney isn’t the only one doing this; acclaimed anime series Captain Bebop and One Piece have each gotten their own live action treatment, as did Mamoru Oshii’s critically hailed 1995 film Ghost in the Shell. And while the latter has had a much more positive reception than the former, this trend should be eye-opening in the least. Why make a live action adaptation anyway? Curiosity? Demand? From whom? I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone in earnest opine that a beloved animated film or series should receive a live-action remake. Yet we keep receiving them. And some are fine. Some are even good. But some are so unspeakably awful (you can probably think of a couple. I dare not even mention one, for fear of rekindling a traumatic viewing experience) you question how it ever got made. These studios don’t appreciate the original animated films as definitive works in themselves. They taint the source material.
Another thing these adaptations do is to reinforce the “privileged form” – the films of the flesh. The argument could be made that because the actors appearing on the screen resemble us, we are more connected to those movies. I’m not so sure about that. When you take into account lighting, angles, editing, the whole “movie magic,” no film is truly “realistic.” Animated films, you could say, are just more transparent in their aberrations from The Real.
The aforementioned lists of the greatest films of all time were compiled by critics, not everyday people, everyday moviegoers. And this should be considered. This isn’t to say your aunt who has never seen a foreign film because she doesn’t like reading subtitles or your friend’s younger brother whose visual diet consists primarily of Twitch streamers and surreal Family Guy compilations should be considered judges on this committee. Nonetheless, we need to see how non-critics are receiving animated films. If you look at IMDb’s list of top 250 movies from users’ rankings or take a gander at the more popular Letterboxd accounts, a more generous view of animated films is noticeable.
What is interesting is that many animated films have garnered immense critical acclaim and have for over a decade. From Fantastic Mr. Fox to Up to the two recent Spider-Verse films, critics have at times lauded animated movies. I think this distinction, then, of animated and non-animated does not come from within us. I think it’s a collective cultural view heavily molded from greedy and creatively dry studios, critical dismissal, and a dubious desire for verisimilitude through “real” actors.
But hey, maybe it’s too early to criticize this undervaluation. And while animation is really nothing new, consider this: the category for best animated film for the Academy Awards was only created in 2002. So maybe the dust just needs to settle a bit for us to appreciate what animated movies are.
Ghost in the Shell screens starting Wednesday, November 8th.
Wednesday, Nov 8th – 8pm
Thursday, Nov 9th – 8pm
Friday, Nov 10th – 8:30pm