In the last week, DC Comics’ full-length Wonder Woman animated feature premiered to long lines and raucous applause; Coraline opened to nearly universal praise from critics; and Pixar’s 45-minute pre-screening of Up enchanted audiences so much they groaned in displeasure when it stopped halfway through. If you add that to the awards sweep Wall-E is in the middle of right now, the message you get is this: Animated movies aren’t just for kiddies anymore.
It wasn’t long ago that animated movie screenwriters would just stick a few crass jokes into their stories in the hopes that it would get a snicker from adults and go right over their children’s heads. That was the limited satisfaction a grown-up could hope for in a movie where anthropomorphic house pets drove home a lesson about beauty on the inside, or eating all your vegetables.
Not so anymore. Consider the world of animation just this last week:
On the surface, Coraline might look like a visually enchanting tale about being grateful for what you’ve got, but in reality the story is as multilayered as its stunning stop-motion 3D animation. It explores the idea of misplaced longing, the deceit of the subconscious and the occasional predatory nature of parental affection. Coraline is a plucky little heroine reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, but her parallel universe is more sinister than anything the Mad Hatter could have imagined.
Similarly, Up explores adult themes that have caused more than one reviewer to admit she wept. The hero of the film is a cantankerous fella named Carl Fredrickse, who forms an unlikely but necessary friendship with 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell. The two set out on an adventure when Carl unleashes thousands of balloons through the roof of his house, and Russell accidentally stows away on the porch. The plot has been described as dark and original, as Carl mourns the loss of his wife and tries to come to terms with his unfinished promise to explore the world with her.
Then you’ve got Wonder Woman’s animators, who admitted to cutting out a bloodbath in the movie so they could keep their PG-13 rating. The film is in many ways a classic hero’s journey, focusing on the origin of Wonder Woman, but it doesn’t hold back when it comes to Wonder Woman’s sexuality, or her struggle to balance her sense of justice and mercy. Following in Gail Simone’s steps, the screenwriters decided to give Wonder Woman a little personality to go with her perfection: After rescuing her romantic interest in the film, she proceeds to drink him under the table.
Wall-E was a giant leap forward for grown-up animation. There were no pratfalls, no hammered-on morality lessons; instead it was a terrifying prophecy about over-consumption and an epic love story that plumbed the the depths of loneliness and soared toward ecstasy in the simple gesture of holding another person’s (robot’s) hand.
Of course, there’s still work to be done. Coraline, while consuming, wasn’t perfect. The story lost steam, cohesion and creepiness about two-thirds of the way through, even though it managed to scrape it together at the end. But that fact alone is progress, isn’t it? That we, as adults, can ask for more from animated movies: to be entertained, to be moved, to be transported. It is a far cry from the princesses of old, sitting around brushing their hair, washing dishes, taking a nap — waiting to be rescued.
Are you happy with the direction that animated movies seem to be heading? Do you have thoughts on Wall-E, Coraline, Wonder Woman or Up? Share your opinions about cartoons in the comments!