Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part II
Last month we discussed two specific intangibles that every aspiring animation critic needs. There is one more major intangible left to discuss, but that's for later in the series. In this installment, I will be discussing some solid, practical tools you will need before you are reviewing animated works on a serious basis. It can be argued that the following tool is present early in life; this may be true, but it's a gift that can (and should) be enhanced by practice, experimentation, and study. Let's call it:
In its most colloquial definition, style is "having a way with words." I consider it more a matter of developing your own critical voice. Style is the way in which your unique point of view is communicated. The more sophisticated your style, the more able you are to convey your opinions in a cogent, thoughtful manner. Like Joe Flaherty and the late John Candy, you could limit your opinions to whether things in a cartoon "blowed up real good!" but that's after you've mastered your style and can let yourself have a little fun.
How is this developed? To begin with, build your vocabulary, especially in the areas of film and animation. There has long been a streak of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism in our culture, and those who are erudite or "use big words" are often derided. Ignore that. A good critic both has and uses an expansive vocabulary.
Follow the rules of structure and grammar, even when something is blowed up real good. Remember, your spellchecker won't differentiate between "there" and "their." At the risk of sounding like your pedantic English professor, that's all I'll say on that topic.
The second step to take is to seek out those film critics who are fully practiced in their art. To put it simply, Read work by people who write better than you do. Learn from them; gain a sense of what a developed and practiced voice sounds like, how opinions are viably expressed. Find a favorite. Be an acolyte for awhile. Let a bit of influence shade into your own writing here and there. This is one of the most valuable gifts available to aspiring critics, and the cost is no less than some good books and the time spent reading and enjoying them.
Then practice. Watch an animated film and write down your impressions, even if they seem simple or even incoherent. You can always reflect on the film and refine your work later. Review short films. Review commercials. Review stupid videos on YouTube. Review great films. Review masterpieces of animation and everyday TV sitcom episodes. Then rewrite them. Then rewrite them again. If you practice enough, an amazing thing will begin to happen, and this is one of the sole guarantees I am willing to give you: Your voice will emerge, and it will sound like that of a critic. And you will be wowed.
Audit a couple of courses in film theory and criticism. If you can't, start reading about it. There is a vast difference between live-action and animated films, but some of the conventions do cross over. A quick example: It would be very difficult to discuss the animation career of Frank Tashlin if you are unfamiliar with live-action film techniques. Understand what an animation director, as opposed to a live-action director, does. Study how live action and animated films are staged. In fact, study everything. You will be so much the better for it.
We're going to get a bit controversial with this discussion, but allow me to simplify. Taste is nothing more than the ability to discriminate between the fine and the dross. This critical quality will distinguish you from those of common, lay opinion. Taste is, in fact, an elitist concept. Don't let that stand in your way if you truly want to be an influential animation critic.
First, the good news: It may not be innate, but taste can be learned, acquired, and continually refined. Now the bad news: it takes time, effort, and a wide-open mind to develop it properly. Then you need the courage to communicate what you truly believe. It will not always be consensual or popular, but please, don't let that deter you.
There are several internet "sensations" who gained fame by becoming film critics at the ages of 10 or 11. Admittedly, some are rather precocious. When you listen to them, however, they are merely engaging kids with preternatural speaking skills. They have developed the mannerisms and personalities of film critics, but not nearly the full substance. Not one of them I have listened to has studied enough. None has evidenced depth in understanding films, nor have they developed sufficient taste at such young ages. They are novelties, and that is not what you are aiming for.