Mainstream animated films have a lot more to say about life than ever before. To clarify, mainstream animation does not pertain to critically acclaimed features like Anomalisa, Ernest & Celestine, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox or anything Miyazaki-related. Instead, the mainstream canon covers movies produced by major studios like Disney, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, Warner Animation & Lego, and even Nickelodeon, which cater to a vast segment of young audiences all around the world. Traditionally, the output of these studios has been reserved solely for the young, the young at heart, and parents who get dragged to the cinema to chaperone their kids.
Historically, mainstream animated films were sacred ground. These films typically followed a specific handbook of thematic rules: first, you need an unassuming hero and a comical sidekick. Next you need a villain with a penchant for dark clothing and an inscrutable need to laugh at every moment. Then you need a moral lesson—think Aesop’s Fables, but animated. Finally, you need a theme song; something so sticky that it could rival Carly Rae Jepsen. Most animation production houses have followed these rules religiously, and who wouldn’t? Considering that the tried and tested Disney formula of princesses, heroes, and anthropomorphic animals has been so well received for decades.
Lately, however, an increasing number of studios has started going rogue and producing work that goes against these time-honored conventions.
Ahead of the pack is Pixar. Pixar wasn’t just the first to break the two dimensional streak by introducing 3D feature-length films (as it did with 1995’s Toy Story), it also began to delve into narratives with much more depth than was usually attributed to its younger audience. Its latter releases in particular explored the agony of loss, the end of childhood, and the inner recesses of the pubescent mind. No child in the audience could have fully grasped Carl’s heart-wrenching unwillingness to let go of his floating house in Up, nor could they truly relate to the bittersweet pang of abandon as Andy left Woody and Buzz for college in Toy Story 3. For them, Bing Bong was a comic relief in Inside Out, but for everyone else, it was the voice we’ve unwillingly silenced in exchange for maturity.
Disney (sans Pixar) isn’t too far behind. Its latest release, Zootopia, was more sociopolitical than its cuddly animal leads would have led audiences to believe. It touched on of-the-moment themes of diversity, xenophobia, and the struggles of being a minority. Disney has also successfully started conversations that deal with the issue of stereotyping: first by introducing their first ever African-American princess, Tiana in The Princess and The Frog, and then through their villain as a lead in Wreck-It Ralph. Though the two films may not have as much sociopolitical depth as Zootopia, the inherent messages of both struck a chord with older audiences as much as they did with the young.
So what could explain the apparent shift into more sophisticated storytelling? One obvious reason is an attempt to broaden animation’s viewing audience. These days, there are way more cinemas to fill worldwide than when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs originally screened in 1937. There’s also much more to compete with. Competition that doesn’t just include the constant slew of superhero films that have been eating up the market, but also online streaming services. If theaters are a drive, walk, or commute away, online content on Netflix or YouTube is just a click away.
Sausage Party is one of the latest products of this shift. Finally, another mainstream animated film dedicated solely to a mature audience. The last time one received such a wide release was back in 1999 when South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut debuted in theatres. This time around, instead of two-dimensional foul-mouthed children, we’re treated to the adventures of three-dimensional foul-mouthed food. Hotdogs, buns, and frozen burritos make their way through the film mulling over religious, existential, and political issues. Recently surpassing South Park as the highest-grossing R-rated animated film of all time, it was a surprise commercial and critical hit whose crass, overtly sexual humor still managed to come across as inconspicuously insightful.
The shift also runs parallel to our values, which have evolved over time. Society has grown to become much more accepting of other races, of women, of homosexuality, and of the idea of unconventional families. These are the new foundations on which animated narratives are built. Storytelling has been challenged to accommodate A Whole New World that exists beyond the magic carpet rides and instead reflects the struggles of real life. Animation has become more human than cartoon. They have become more in touch with reality than fantasy.
Despite all these changes, many of the usual tropes still exist. Studios continue to milk mediocre sequels and slapstick comedy, throwing in installment after installment of unnecessary Ice Age flicks every chance that it gets. The problem with those staying that particular course is that they only stunt the growth of animation. Animation should not be formula bound. It’s a form of film rather than a genre. It’s an umbrella that can house comedy, drama, romance, horror and even psychological themes. Ever since the scale has tipped, there should be less looking back and more moving forward. Animated films have ultimately become the new editorial cartoon.
We’re no longer watching silver screens. We’re watching mirrors.