Animation has been misunderstood by western audiences as a genre, rather than a medium of storytelling. The perceived innocence of animation allows for an unmatchable degree of honesty and irreverence in animated shows, not hindered by a required Hollywood sheen. The flexibility it provides allows not only to entertain the viewer through imaginative settings, but also to enhance the message of the story being told.
There are several advantages to animation as a storytelling choice for a show. Firstly, the inherent freedom allows creators to play with visuals, using them to tell a compelling story. In fact, the art is not only incorporated in the message, but it is an essential part of it. An example is provided by one of the most compelling episodes of Bojack Horseman, ‘Stupid Piece of Shit’. As the title might suggest, the episode tracks Bojack’s daily descent into self-loathing, largely explored through a chaotic animation style, relegated to the depiction of Bojack’s thoughts. This style allows the viewer a peak into the distortion of reality caused by depression and anxiety, making it clear how hard it would be to replicate these as vividly through conventional live action. In addition, animation is particularly useful in depicting mental illness. Because feelings and sensations are often abstract, making them too complex for a mere line of dialogue, animators use art to connect with the viewer on a visceral level. Some shots from Bojack are instantly relatable and clearly understood by the audience, though it can be hard to place exactly to which part of us they are appealing. Lastly, animation is simply beautiful to look at. Even leaving out the complex questions it is seeking to answer through its art, Bojack Horseman can simply be appreciated on a visual level, with sequences being indelible in the viewer’s mind. As the best Netflix Original ever created, animation aided in creating the most human characters in the history of television.
However, it is impossible to talk about animation without addressing the expectation it has built over the years. Animation has acquired a certain inherent innocence, mainly due to it being targeted directly to children. Some have argued that this expectation has allowed for animators to get away with things that even a modern audience would not deem acceptable for a live action show. Professor M Keith Booker has stated that animated shows have dealt with issues that “might otherwise have been deemed too controversial for American commercial television”. An interesting comparison is that between Big Mouth and Sex Education, both Netflix shows with similar premises: Big Mouth is allowed irreverence that would be harder to match in a live action. In this manner, animation acts like a shield: the colour and flare provides enough escapism and distance to make the audience more accepting of controversy. Despite its somewhat surrealist setting, Sex Education is required a degree of seriousness that Big Mouth simply isn’t. This is not to say that one show is better than the other, but no live action show could ever set an abortion to the notes of ‘Groove is in the heart’.
Lastly, the unlimited possibilities of animation are simply unmatched by live action. Shows like Rick and Morty are an example of just how far imagination can be taken, when it is not hindered by the practicalities of live action. And it is because these worlds are so far reached and extravagant that more serious existential themes are embraced by audiences. Rick and Morty in particular is successfully combines the nihilistic outlook of its main character with the enticing wackiness of the show. Philosophical questions are not diminished by surreal settings, but rather they are enhanced by them: this is why the genre of science fiction has been so effective in pondering these questions. However, the beauty of Rick and Morty often stands in these questions being taken to the extreme. Episodes like ‘Get Schwifty’ succinctly explores the role of religion in rationalizing fear, while seeking ‘logical’ explanations to seemingly unexplainable occurrences. Again, this is not only made acceptable, but also entertaining through the means of absurdism in comedy, largely aided by the unmatched freedom of animation.
Last modified: 13th August 2020