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Animation for adults

Animated films are not just child strikes – and never have been.


The Star Wars saga never seems to end. Now it's the screenplay for Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The film is intended as a launch fanfare for a separate TV series about the clone war, the mythical period in the period between the last two films in the series' last trilogy.

This time, however, George Lucas has released Hayden Christensen and the other actors and produced an animated film.
With this approach, Lucas signals that the series is primarily aimed at the younger age groups. Animated films often give that signal effect. And even though the Star Wars films have had a good grip on adults, it is doubtful whether they will queue to buy tickets this time.

Just sex and violence?

Adult appeal animation is often defined on the basis of how much sex and violence they contain. However, this becomes too easy. The Clone Wars offers ample doses of fighting, but if adult moviegoers actually queue up to watch an animated movie in the next few weeks, they will likely pick Pixar's latest opus WALL-E, which premiered the 29. August. This movie about a lonely gossip robot offers far less violence, and is told in a poetic and sometimes wordless film language that gives a more adult expression.
Animation for adults is thus multifaceted. The sub-genre also has a broader prehistory than many know. From a historical perspective, we are in the golden age of adult animation. But the phenomenon is not new. The fact that animated films have been synonymous with children's entertainment for a long period was due to special conditions in the film industry from the late 50's and more than 20 years on.

The long hibernation

Initially, animated films were something children and adults naturally saw together. In the cinema, of course, since there were no other possibilities. Although the cinema directors perceived the kids as the primary audience, the films were popular with adults as well. Both if they were made with cross over appeal, like Looney Tunes, or were of the more daring type.
The crown example of the latter, Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), updated the adventure of Red Riding Hood to an urban contemporary setting and dealt with explicit sexual themes. This was definitely animation for adults, something the censorship emphasized. The movie was cut.

The animation of the animated film is due to the growing dominance of the TV media from the 50s. The adult audience remained increasingly at home in front of the screen, the cinema offerings changed character and even the television's broadcasting surface gradually became age-segregated.
In the 60s, American animation production went into a 20-year hibernation, with cartoons becoming synonymous with the entertainment crowd that filled the television on Saturday morning. So the one the kids could see while the adults were driving with theirs.

Animators who operated outside the fairly strict requirements for "appropriate content" on this broadcast surface automatically became part of a subway environment. This was especially true of Ralph Bakshi's sharply satirical Fritz the Cat (1972), which offered ample doses of sex, violence and drugs and became the first totally banned animated film. Bakshi followed up with several productions beyond the 70s, of which Heavy Traffic (1973) and Lord of the Rings (1978) are the best known.

The big wave

But then several things happened at the same time: The Reagan administration softened the rules for what kind of children's programs the TV stations could broadcast. The result was a new wave of animation, which was typically produced for cheap money in Asian studios, and which critics believed was pure advertising for various toy products. Just as damned, Transformers and He-Man and Masters of the Universe were big hitters.

The 80s student generation could also enjoy the video wave. The supply and consumption of films became larger and gradually more varied. The age of film nerds had come. And many of them discovered a type of animation that was unlike anything else: Japanese anime.

Anime, with its advanced issues and intricate intrigue, is adult animation of a special class. It is easy to recognize the Japanese influence in MTV's Aeon Flux (1991), among others.

It would not be long before all these trends together created a big wave. It came in full force in the 90's. First on TV, where the main stream of adult animation was to be characterized by something quite different from sex and violence.
The popularity of The Simpsons (1989-) proved that the character satire for adults had enormous audience potential. Several shows came in the wake of Homer, with Beavis and Butthead, South Park, King of the Hill, Family Guy and The Critic as prominent examples.
In the 90s, the animated film also began to capture the cinema market. The producers rediscovered the success formula of the movie's golden age: Be sure to put enough humor into the adults in the movies!

Alongside the wave of animated satire on TV and feature films spiced with adult humor, in recent years adult animation fans have been able to enjoy a varied offering of feature films: The French subtlety The triplets from Belleville, Tim Burton's Gothic Puppet Movies The Nightmare Before Christmas og Corpse Bride, the Danish revenge story Princess, the French scifi noir Renaissance, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical Persepolis, the Danish school satire Terkel in Trouble and the Israeli documentary animation Waltz with bashir. A Norwegian contribution to the wave came with Christopher Nielsen Release Jimmy.

Digital wizards

But no one has won more hearts, regardless of age, than Pixar. This production company's contribution to the animated film can hardly be overstated. With Toy Story (1995) Pixar introduced the digital revolution in its full weight.

It is worth noting that the emergence of the new adult animation market coincides largely with the digital revolution in the film media. Digital tools are also used outside of the purely computer generated productions. The sophisticated technique gives the animators an almost perfect control over the instruments. Pixar's films are extremely elegant and detailed. This also gives them dramaturgical depth. The figures are multifaceted. Shades are not only possible, they are important. This is probably a major reason why Pixar's films appeal to adults as well.

This is not to say that kids are unable to appreciate details and nuances, but for adults – who after all have seen far more movies than children – this becomes crucial. That's probably the key to adult animation success these days, something WALL-E evidence to the full.

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