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Growing Pains

Why can't animation grow up? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman has an interesting take on the problem and highlights some of the medium's hits and misses at reaching the big kids.

"Who'd pay to see a drawing of a fairy princess when they can watch Joan Crawford's boobs for the same price at the box office?"Comment attributed to Louis B. Meyer on the making of Disney's Snow White

Snow White was no Jessica Rabbit! © 1937 The Walt Disney Co. All Right Reserved.

Louis B. Meyer was, of course, wrong. Plenty of people paid to see that fairy princess and still purchase the video today. However, in other respects the great mogul was quite prophetic; animation has never quite caught up with its live-action counterpart as adult entertainment. This does not imply that animation featuring mature themes and situations has been a failure, or that such animation cannot equitably compete with live-action films. The truth is, adult animation has tended to travel an uneven road of hits and misses, and this inconsistent record relates as much to cultural perceptions of animation as entertainment than to the animated works themselves. The medium started out as a rigidly defined commodity and tended to remain as such even when other forms of cinema experimented with new and diverse forms of presentation. When American films began to break one taboo after another in the early 1960s the transition was not as sudden as it seemed; there had been at least a decade of subtle preparation prior to this shift in content. Animation was ill-prepared, almost by definition, to follow suit and the culture in general was unprepared to deal with animation on adult terms. Only recently has this situation begun to change and the rules are still being worked out. This month, we examine what has kept animation apart from other adult entertainment, and how it may eventually gain full acceptance.

Winsor McCay draws Gertie in the filmed opening to his animation classic.

Animation in America was an economic endeavor long before it was an artistic one. One notable exception was Winsor McKay but by the end of his career he was haranguing a new generation of animators who had come to his testimonial dinner. McKay accused his admirers of making a business of the medium, but this was America, and entertainment was business. While animators such as Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger and others in Europe were producing abstract animation for the sake of art, their American counterparts were crudely animating comic strips in order to guarantee greater circulation of newspapers. Argentina's Quireno Cristiani produced the world's first known feature-length animated film, El Apóstol, in 1917 as a political statement; no animation studio in America would have conceived such a project -- it wouldn't sell. This situation constituted the first major impediment to adult animation; there were few opportunities to experiment and push existing boundaries. It is worth noting that the Fleischer studio, one of the few innovators besides Otto Mesmer, was one of the earliest to explore adult themes, as we shall see.

Early American cartoons were built on gags largely derived from vaudeville. It may be true that these silly, crude and repetitive gags were the result of low budgets and rushed production schedules but they marked animation as comic entertainment, and there animation would stay for decades. While live cinema branched out into romances, dramas, westerns and other genres, the cartoon never transcended its roots in comedy and the comic strip. There was no foundation, in other words, for the sophistication needed to produce adult animation at a future time. The second significant barrier to adult animation can be summed up in one name: Walter Elias Disney. After Disney became a major economic and artistic power on the strength of Mickey Mouse he protected his investment by placing the once-randy rodent under strict moral control. Walt claimed that parents wrote the studio in anger every time Mickey misbehaved, but he was astute enough a businessman to ensure quickly that Minnie's bloomers now stayed out of sight and Mickey's gloved paws were kept to himself. Since this stance was congruent with Disney's general disdain of sexuality, a consistent stance between marketability and propriety was easily established. Unfortunately, this relegated animation to the realm of family children's fare for decades, since every other studio was attempting to emulate Disney.

Max and Dave Fleischer did attempt to go another route beginning in 1930 when a sexy canine singer gradually evolved into Betty Boop. "La Boop" starred in some of the most adult cartoons ever produced in America; if the animation did not make this clear, the plotlines of her cartoons certainly did, along with soundtracks steeped in hot or smoky jazz -- an aural signifier of sex. Betty's world was a deceptively sophisticated place where erotic allure and surrealism intertwined in a fever dream; just the sort of earthy soil in which the seeds of mature animation might take root. However, Max, Dave and Betty ran afoul of adult animation's most baleful bane: censorship.

Fans clamor over the pre-code Betty Boop cartoons like the ones found on Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection Volume 2.

The Motion Picture Production Code as enforced by Will H. Hays during the late 1920s was a fairly flexible document asking the studios to practice judicious self-censorship. The public and the studios, however, differed in opinion and by 1934 groups such as the National Legion of Decency declared the Code to be far too loose. Rather than battle a national alliance of religious groups Hays established the Production Code Administration (PCA) and placed a devout Catholic named Joseph Breen at its helm. Miss Boop was soon a respectable working girl with a puppy, a boyfriend and a dear old Grampy -- all for the worse. By the time Betty left us for good in 1939, Disney was the uncontested scion of animation and his homogenized cartoons were setting the industry standard. Even had Disney's rivals chosen another path, who wanted to put a studio on the line to fight the PCA, especially when cartoons were mere fillers on theater programs?

Adult animation (meaning animation containing adult content such as sex, or simply animation that is written for adult sensibilities) did not disappear. Audiences in the 1930s rollicked to prurient "stags" such as Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure, in which the hero mates with a woman, has a go at a donkey and later meets up with a crab who proves far less pleasurable. Many Warner Bros. shorts from the war years through the mid-Fifties were themed for adult audiences, but even the studio's best directors did little more than tweak the censors or hint at more mature themes. Chuck Jones seemed more interested in clever cinematic conventions, and Bob Clampett's raucous distortions could at times be more unsettling than sexy. Tex Avery at MGM ably depicted lust in the form of a horny wolf and a bombshell chanteuse but this was more parody than passion.

So it went. In 1955 Billy Wilder gave us the comically erotic tension of The Seven Year Itch. This film (featuring the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe straddling a subway grate) also carried darker sub-themes concerning infidelity, fantasies and sexual manipulation. That same year Walt Disney gave us Lady and the Tramp, which featured two dogs kissing over a strand of spaghetti. The latter is a very fine feature, but these contrasting attitudes signified where animation stood in relation to live-action features, and how prepared our culture was to accept adult themes in a cartoon medium. It appears, then, that animation has suffered under several burdens: due to their stylized origin, their entrapment in comedy, Disneyfication, vulnerability to censorship, and low status relative to live-action cinema, it is obvious that cultural perception regarding animation had to change before adult themes could be viably incorporated. Given the difficulties involved, it was predictable that the transition would not be a smooth one. The following signposts serve to illustrate these ups and downs:

Case Study #1: Fritz the Cat (1972)

When Ralph Bakshi and Steve Krantz teamed up to bring Robert Crumb's salacious feline to the big screen notice was served that animation was invading new turf. Fritz had considerable problems even finding a distributor due to its "X" rating.Interspecies sex abounded, but so did clever social satire of both the prevailing establishment and the counterculture. Robert Crumb disowned the film and stopped drawing the character after the film appeared, but Bakshi won at least a split decision with the critics. Bakshi's film was, ultimately, no more than a snapshot of an animator groping towards maturity; Fritz was neither graphic, nor especially pornographic, and if released today would earn no more than an "R" rating. All the same, Fritz The Cat was a groundbreaking feature. The foot (or paw) was in the door and the public had its first look at an "adult" animated feature.

Jessica Rabbit heightened the hormone levels of many moviegoers not used to such curvaceous cartoon characters. Courtesy of Disney. © Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc.

Case Study #2: Dirty Duck (1974)

Uncensored, unrated and largely unseen, Charles Swenson's feature about the sexual misadventures of an insurance salesman and his horny duck buddy was a poorly animated, critically reviled film that failed to build on Bakshi's modest success. If anything, the film (which eventually bored even Swenson) represented the difficulties in taking adult animation to the next step. So far, adult themes and sexual situations were being portrayed through the actions of "funny animals," trivializing these themes and removing them from adult reality.

Case Study #3: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

This energetic, cockeyed melange of film noir and classic animation was a significant turning point in the history of adult animation for several reasons. To begin with, most of the animated actors were familiar to the audience and tended to stay in character, recalling well-loved memories and setting the table for the introduction of a more mature plot. The three new characters, Baby Herman, Roger Rabbit and wife Jessica, combined cartoonish features with adult sensibilities, creating a transition for the acceptance of more humanized creations (Baby Herman and Jessica Rabbit were, in fact, recognizably human). The transition was further aided by the inclusion of live actors; it was evident early in the film that the 'toons could credibly hold their own on screen with people, paving the way for acceptance of animated figures in adult situations. Sexuality, in keeping with the conventions of noir, simmered under the surface but was strongly represented in the figure of Jessica Rabbit (and in several scenes, Baby Herman). This film was a subtle turning point for adult animation.

Case Study #4: King of The Hill (1997)

Few people who had been following the adventures of Beavis and Butthead would have guessed that Mike Judge would produce the best animated sitcom ever to hit TV, but that's exactly what happened. King of the Hill, even more than The Simpsons, brought appealing adult comedy to prime time. Where Homer Simpson might survive radiation poisoning or gastric calamities unknown to modern medicine, Hank Hill would never find himself in such situations. He is part of a real family, living among quirky but imaginable neighbors, and his dog has nothing significant to say. The humor derives fromslightly exaggerated family situations and interpersonal relationships recognizable to all. The weakest episodes are invariably those with celebrity "guest stars" since they tend to ruin the illusion that we are watching reality through a slightly warped lens. Good scripts, consistent characterizations and a fine vocal cast make King of the Hill a model for adult animated comedy. Filmed in live-action, its charm would dissipate completely.

I Married A Strange Person  another example of America's lack of support for feature length adult animation.

Case Study #5: I Married a Strange Person (1997)Bill Plympton might be animation's most successful solo act, but it has been a hard road getting anyone outside of the medium to recognize this. This 1996 opus, animated almost completely by Plympton, tells the tale of Grant Boyer, an accountant who is zapped by a satellite dish and gains the power to turn his thoughts into reality. Since no one alive is a perfect saint, some of Grant's thoughts lead to revenge, sex and power. This film is the true inheritor of Fleischer's legacy, with its mix of surreal images, dark adult themes and sexuality. The only problem was...nobody saw it. Whether the failure lay in marketing, distribution or other factors, the reviewers generally raved as Plympton's movie melted into obscurity. Had this been a live-action feature, would the same thing have happened?

Spicy Cityfailed to spice up ratings. © 1997 HBO.

Case Study #6: Prime Time Crashes

As this was being written, God the Devil and Bob was being dropped by NBC. Clerks has been cancelled by ABC after only two episodes. Dilbert died an undeserved death. The PJ s has yet to air again on a regular schedule. Mission Hill, despite a recent award at the Cartoons On The Bay Festival, will be lucky to keep breathing. MTV Animation may be going the way of the dodo, despite the cult success of Daria. And we can all see where such efforts as Spawn and Spicy City got HBO Animation after all their hype regarding "animation growing up." Family Guy and Home Movies have seen too many setbacks and struggles, although Home Movies is finding a new home on Cartoon Network and Family Guy seems to be somehow holding on. Several other series in development are now on hold, and the much-vaunted prime time adult animation boom is beginning to lose momentum. Some people in the industry blame the product, but it is equally likely that this culture still has difficulty accepting animation as adult entertainment.

What will it take to bring animation to adult audiences? A good answer might start with a solid expository script. Animation, primarily a visual medium, is far too cluttered these days with dialogue (especially the "hip," self-referential sort) and potentially great series have been hamstrung by over-written scripts. Perhaps today's writers feel that the dialogue has to be as lively as the animated characters in order to work, but in truth, animation works best with less dialogue and less adherence to typical storytelling formulas. While it is generally a mistake to animate anything that could be filmed live, most films today can contain up to 40% of their shots enhanced by CGI. The best bet for a great animated adult feature just might be an action-adventure flick that would have contained minimal dialogue and wowser SPX if filmed live in the first place.

With recent deals to bring deceased stars back to life, virtual humans like Dotcomix's Virtual Bill could lead the way for adult themes in animation. © Protozoa, Inc.

A second answer might be improvements in CGI. Max Headroom is ancient history; Lara Croft, Cyberlucy, and more recently Ananova are today's prototypes for the increasingly lifelike humans we will see animated in the immediate future. Experiments with more realistic human figures continue at every animation studio and software company in the world; "R" rated scenes using animated characters will soon be startlingly realistic. Coupled with solid dramatic scripts, it might be possible that audience identification with enhanced CGI characters leads to a breakthrough in adult entertainment that more cartoonish characters could not easily achieve. We may all see the day when a major star consisting of nothing but pixels graces the cover of People.

Finally, and perhaps cynically, a $200 million animated hit featuring adult themes and situations will be needed in order to change cultural attitudes, reverse a hundred year-old trend and persuade studios to make major investments (including promotion) in more of the same. Disney could have done it at any time during the 1990s, but opted for Broadway-style productions or hero(ine)-comes-of-age pics. With their "family" image on the line, The Mouse is likely to continue to sit tight, and the breakthrough film is destined to come from another source.

Any takers? I certainly hope so.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.