To Infinity and Beyond! A Snapshot of Modern Animation
This weekend, the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in New York City is hosting their annual Art Festival. The following article was submitted to the show organizers to be included in the show’s program.
Like comic books, animation is often viewed as a medium suitable only for children. As with comics, this perception is entirely wrong conceptually, and increasingly proven wrong in reality. The following is a woefully incomplete and thoroughly subjective list of some of the best animation available to Americans today.
Of course, just because animation isn’t just for kids doesn’t mean that good kids’ animation should be ignored. On TV, SpongeBob SquarePants continues to be a favorite, and Nickelodeon has also scored critical and popular successes with Avatar the Last Airbender and El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera. Avatar tells an epic story bolstered by Asian philosophy and some of the best martial-arts action ever animated; season 3 should begin airing later this year. El Tigre combines superheroics with Mexican luchadore culture for multi-colored insanity with a Latin accent.
One of the biggest hits in recent memory in both comics and cartoons is Naruto from VIZ Media (airing on Cartoon Network), about a hyperactive ninja-in-training who is often his own worst enemy as he seeks to impress his teachers and peers to become a master shinobi.
On the CW, Legion of Superheroes carries on the tradition of fine animated series based on DC Comics superheroes, neatly fitting a pre-teen to teen demographic. On Cartoon Network, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends carries on the tradition of character-driven humor defined by Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes (often better than the new Looney Tunes cartoons). Meanwhile, Disney offers a new season of Kim Possible, whose title character is a cheerleading teenager who saves the world on a regular basis.
Their track record has made Disney/Pixar the envy of all animation studios, and their latest movie, Ratatouille, is about to hit movie theaters nationwide. Check the movie’s official website for a 9-minute preview.
There are more cartoons available for adults than ever before, with the Adult Swim network leading the pack now that it airs seven nights a week. Half their titles are comedies like the religious satire Moral Orel, the biting social commentary of The Boondocks, or old favorites like Harvey Birdman. Sadly, the brilliant Venture Bros won’t return to the air until 2008, but the season 2 DVD boxed set is chock-full of extras for the serious fan. The other half of the block is anime action titles like Bleach, Full Metal Alchemist, and the hip-hop samurai of Samurai Champloo.
That hybrid of hip-hop and feudal Japanese culture also drives Afro Samurai, a blood-soaked tale of revenge starring Samuel L. Jackson as both the title character and the motor-mouthed Ninja Ninja. The uncut DVD is available now. The same mixture of African-American and Asian cultures looks to drive a lot of BET’s upcoming animated shows; what little has been revealed so far of these cartoons make them something to keep an eye out for.
Of course, The Simpsons is still on the air after nearly 20 seasons. Nine DVD boxed sets are available with a tenth on the way in August and a movie is coming to the big-screen at the end of July. South Park on Comedy Central also shows no signs of slowing down or getting tamer.
Its easy defiance of the laws of nature and physics drives many animators to slapstick comedy, but this trait also makes animation perfect for surrealistic art as well. Bill Plympton is one of the most recognizable indie animation icons — his latest short film “Shut-Eye Hotel” promises to do for sleeping what Jaws did for swimming, and the in-progress feature film Idiots and Angels seems up to his usual delightfully warped standards.
Meanwhile, the publisher Microcinema International is bringing the best independent animation to DVD; their two Avoid Eye Contact volumes deliver the best of New York City’s independent animation, and their dedicated DVDs to the works of Signe Bauman, Patrick Smith, and the works of the Brothers Quay make them a label worth paying attention to.
European animation doesn’t get anywhere near the attention that it deserves in America, even after the critical success of Sylvan Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville. Michel Ocelot’s beautiful and lyrical Azur et Asmar will be coming to American shores courtesy of the Weinstein brothers; with luck, the film will be released uncut and unadulterated. Its message on the importance of racial and religious tolerance and respect for others are timeless elements of family animation, but Ocelot’s film promises a sophistication and subtlety not often seen in the funny talking animals of Hollywood animation. Meanwhile, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis has gotten an animated adaptation for the big screen, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and hits theaters in France in June. Neither Azur et Asmar or Persepolis have US release dates as of this writing.
Meanwhile, Japanese animation continues its inexorable march towards dominating American popular culture. It is on more broadcast and cable TV channels than ever before, as well as a variety of on-demand outlets like the Anime Network and the FUNimation Channel and in ever-growing DVD sections. It’s easy enough to find anime that fits the stereotype of hyper-futuristic giant robots blasting each other in dysfunctional urban neon nightmares, but straying off the beaten path is a trip worth taking. Le Chevalier D’Eon (ADV Films) sets a Byzantine plot in the waning days of the monarchy in 18th Century France. Meanwhile, Satoshi Kon’s latest feature film Paprika recently hit American shores in a limited theatrical release; its powerful dream-like imagery in a virtual reality detective story will make it worth seeking out in theaters. Bandai’s recently released The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was eagerly awaited by hardcore anime fans, mixing high-school drama with bizarre metaphysical and magical elements. Finally, it may be a bit long in the tooth, but Armored Trooper VOTOMS (Central Park Media) is a wonderfully gritty, hard sci-fi giant robot slugfest that’s a lot more thoughtful than the average mecha story.
The explosive growth of DVD has led to a deluge of wonderful animation, both old and new. Warner Brothers’ DVD division is producing some stellar boxed sets, ranging from classics like the Looney Tunes Golden Collections and Tex Avery’s Droopy the Dog shorts, to its modern hits like Justice League and Pinky and the Brain. Similarly, Disney’s Platinum Edition DVDs bring Disney’s classic animated films into the modern age (there are fans who claim Disney goes too far in “restoring” their films; the restoration crew at Disney uses their vast archives of material and first-hand information to defend their choices).
Several specialty distributors fill a variety of niches in the DVD market as well, but BCI Eclipse deserves special attention for their terrific packaging of some classic cartoons. Their Cool McCool boxed set gives this classic cartoon the loving attention it deserves, and the clever packaging of the Dungeons & Dragons animated series is nearly worth the price of admission by itself.
Original direct-to-video (DTV) animated content is also beginning to take root. Disney has been making direct-to-video sequels to its animated classics for years, largely to critical and popular derision. This makes for an uphill battle to convince people that the recently released Cinderella III is a truly charming and wonderful movie. However, the crown jewel of the DTV market is clearly Starz Home Entertainment’s Hellboy Animated, beautifully adapting the spirit of Mike Mignola’s graphic novels. Two DVDs have already been released, with a third being scripted and dependent on the sales of the first two.
An entire essay this size could delve into animation on the Internet. A healthy amount of classic and modern animation is available at Apple’s iTunes Store, and Disney and Paramount both offer animated films through Apple as well. Classic and hard-to-find content can be found at the recently opened Cartoon Brew Films website at www.cartoonbrewfilms.com.
Macromedia Flash provides a common animation platform for Internet cartoons, and the Internet itself serves as a wonderful distribution network. JibJab Media (www.jibjab.com) has made quite a name for themselves with their musical animated political cartoons, while Angry Alien Productions’ 30-Second Bunnies shorts (www.angryalien.com) are often more entertaining than the increasingly bloated live-action movies they parody. I would be remiss for failing to mention Cartoons Dammit! (www.cartoonsdammit.com) at Toon Zone, our home for webcomics and animation created by our members.
Be assured that for every title mentioned in this article, at least 3 or 4 more worthy others were dropped. Ever-increasing availability and variety means it’s a wonderful time to become an animation fan. Comfort zones are for wimps — go on and watch a new cartoon!
The MoCCA Art Festival will be held on June 23-24 at the Puck Building (293 Lafayette @ Houston St.) from 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM. Details on exhibitors and panel discussions are available at the Art Fest website.