Let me start by saying not that kind of adult cartoon!
To the ill-informed cartoons are still for children, despite the uproarious success of the Simpsons which has some jokes that are clearly not intended to get the kids laughing, or South Park which – frankly – if you’re letting your children watch it then I hope you’re prepared to have a long discussion about what language is permissible at school.
While the 90’s also gave us King of the Hill, Ren and Stimpy, and a smattering of lesser known others we seem to have seen one hell of an upswing in animated series designed for an adult audience from somewhere around the mid 00’s onwards. This upswing has brought about a change in the way the west percieves animation, and it’s due in no small part to the influence of anime and its international popularity.
The biggest drive behind the movement was unquestionably Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network partner channel for the grown-up audience, who not only helped bring about series like Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force that became precursors to many of the bigger series we enjoy today like Archer or Rick and Morty. The comedic styles range from the grotesque to the darkly satirical, shining a grim light on some of the worst elements of modern culture. In their early days Adult Swim were amongst the first to give the western audience a look at anime for adults, airing Cowboy Bebop on its launching night, and while they were far from the start of the trend (which stretches way back into the 60’s) they really rode the “anime boom” of the decade.
I think it’s really that I want to discuss.
Of all the big western cartoons I can mention, and there are dozens, possibly triple figures by now, they are all some kind of comedy. The Simpsons may flirt with serious drama, and most of them get into some serious topics in a mocking way, but there are no epic sagas, no space operas, no slice of life. They all exist as live action, but somehow we still think that the only things we draw should be funny, even if it’s not just for kids anymore.
Ok, so what are the benefits of animating these things? Budgets are generally lower for a start, animation is far from cheap but it’s still cheaper than scouting locations, building sets, camera equipment, lighting, costuming, and everything else that goes with it. Talent still needs paying, and the writers, actors, and battle scarred animators deserve every bit of pay they get and then some. It can also help keep a consistent visual style, CGI and rubber monsters may have improved dramatically over the decades but there’s not denying that we still have some disbelief to suspend when enjoying an effects-heavy film or TV series. It’s actually easier to connect visual effects to the characters and events when they all look the same.
It has already begun. Animation giant Aardman may be more famous the British quintessential film series Wallace and Gromit, but go back far enough and you’ll discover that a lot of their early work took a darker turn, a few artistic animations from smaller artists and studios. Recently some of you may have spotted the film Anomalisa being advertised, but if you haven’t it looks like it could be something truly special, a stop-motion animation about life, and love and humanity. It’s not all that common a thing to see, certainly not at feature length, but a lot of animators tend towards creating more serious art projects in a similar vein, almost all of them much shorter.
So why are so many of these creators only creating shorts? Because there are no big studios looking to fund animated films to make us think, make us excited, even make us sad (not all the time anyway). Unless we’re all in it for a good laugh then no one picks up a pencil, stylus, or clay. Perhaps the time is coming for a shift, for more producers to pick up some artistic minds and let them run a little more rampant. We need a few more A Scanner Darkly’s, a few more Anomalisa’s, a few more alternative animations for a market that’s just waiting for it.
I know I am.