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Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part 1

Dr. Toon offers advice about becoming a competent animation critic.

The Princess and the Frog has inspired further critical thinking by Dr. Toon. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Welcome to a new direction, my longtime readers. Since 1999, when I first joined AWN, I have been doing monthly commentary on the animated scene, especially as it relates to American culture past and present. Much of this writing, by necessity, has been in the form of critique. But what is animation critique? What functions should it perform? How should it be practiced and communicated to readers?

In April of 2010, I wrote a column critiquing critics. I contended that many who harped on Disney's The Princess and the Frog seemed to be inattentive echoers of more professional critics, and in some cases even fastened on the wrong criteria in evaluating the film. The column sparked some wonderful comments from readers, including several who had excellent points to make. One comment, in particular, however, had nothing to do with the film. It was a request for "any recommended reading for beginning critics." It was refreshing to read this plea from an animation fan who wanted to further develop existing critical skills and it birthed my new direction for 2011. I've decided to present my own answer to his or her query.

There are three ways I could have approached this task, and it took me eight months to decide which was best. The first approach would involve listing a compendium of books and articles, but anyone with a computer or a campus library card (remember those?) could find the same titles. The second approach would have been a series of articles on how to critique animation, but that would be a limited approach at best since it would only reflect my viewpoints. Therefore, I went with the third approach: I am going to attempt to convey what you will most need in order to become a competent animation critic and an informed voice on your own.

I am not going to put my credentials up for examination here; suffice it to say that I believe them strong enough to be up to the task. Besides, this is not a university; the entire purpose of this endeavor is to point you in the direction of exercising and improving your critical skills and to have some fun. Fun is why I write these columns every month, go to see every animated feature I can and seek out rarities and independent work wherever possible. If you are intrigued by this new journey, please join me. I shall do my very best to share my thoughts and entertain you along the way. Ready? Let's roll!

Cultivating passion is indispensible. So an occasional Simpsons episode doesn't make you an animation fan.

The Most Indispensible Thing You Must Have

Most serious books on animation study kick off with a history, an overview or an explanation of what the medium consists of. Not here. The best way to begin a study of the critic's art is to ask: "How much do I love animation?" "How much does animation enhance my life?" "If I never saw another cartoon again and had to be content with memories, could I live with that?" In short, you have to truly and deeply love animation. Moreover, you should be passionate about this love and aware of it every time you attend a feature, watch a TV series or purchase a DVD.

I recall a conversation I had several years ago with John Kricfalusi. He told me that one of his heartfelt goals was to watch every theatrical cartoon made since the inception of animation. He was getting pretty close, and the pride in his voice was palpable. I did not bother to ask John why he had this goal in the first place; it was evident. This is a man who loved and studied animation to the point of complete saturation. That, my readers, is the sort of love you need. It means spending time after your day job watching and studying films across decades, totally convinced that animation is the equal of any other cinematic form and deserves just as much attention.

Loving animation means spending a goodly sum of hard-earned money on video resources, printed materials, TiVo and classes. You do not blink at this; you enjoy animation too much to think about the cost. Your spare time is spent surfing and searching, following one link to another and another, relentless in your pursuit of animated joy. It means watching endless hours of cartoons, regardless of quality, not for the sake of learning your art but to admire and touch the creativity of others. Before you acquire any other skills, before you think critically about any film, and long before you are ready to commit your analytical judgments to others, you must first love animation with all your heart.

How sad I feel when someone tells me, "Oh, I don't watch cartoons." To the animation critic, this is a person who has chosen to practice artistic self-deprivation. You can be sure at one time that person spent enchanted hours before a TV set or delighted in a Disney film, but then decided to leave such things behind, save for an occasional episode of The Simpsons. Such a person is excluded de facto from truly enjoying animation to its full depth, much less evaluating it.

You may pause here, raise an eyebrow, and exclaim, "But Dr. Toon, how come there's so much stuff you don't like and go on rants about? You sure don't think all animation is good, so how can you sit here and tell us to love it with all our hearts and souls?" That, my friends, is a terrific question and we will discuss it in due time.  I can't answer it in entirety without getting far ahead of myself, but just for now, ask yourself this: Does anyone ever become a film (art or literary) critic solely because they hate film, art or literature? Of course not. This brings us to…

Whether you're watching Daffy Duck or Naruto, curiosity is also important.

The Second Most Indispensible Thing You Must Have

That would be curiosity. Curiosity is, for the critic, a multilayered concept. At the most basic level, it indicates a desire to know how art works, how the components of art function together (or don't), and what sort of meaning or message the creator intended. The best critics can pick out hidden meanings or subtexts but they must be curious enough to do so. Critics love their chosen mediums and their jobs because of this one attribute, even if they dislike a particular piece of work. Curiosity is a means to self-exploration, and no critic can have a voice without it. It is the sister concept to loving animation, since few people are curious about things they are indifferent to and tend to reject things they hate.

Simply put, after watching, say, a Daffy Duck short or an episode of Naruto, you should have thoughts that arise naturally from what you have observed.  Starting from the ground up, before any questions are generated about CGI techniques, digital paint programs, and storyboards lies the most seminal of queries: What was this piece of animation trying to do and how well did it accomplish its goal? Only after answering that to your own satisfaction can you explore your curiosity regarding more technical and creative details. Don't get me wrong -- those things are indeed important -- but that's for a later discussion.

Curiosity leads one to seek out information that one did not previously have, or to view out a comparative piece of work to seek linkages in style or content. Curiosity leads one to see (or even imagine) how another artist might handle the same work, or how the same cartoon might have looked in a different era. It leads one to wonder why a certain sequence was put in a film, or why another one might have worked better. Most of all, curiosity leads you to question yourself and your reactions, and this is the heart of becoming a critic. If you can watch a piece of animated work and simply walk away without a second thought or feeling about what you saw, there may be a sizeable hole in your aspirations.

If, by this point, your love of animation borders on the fanatic and your curiosity has seduced you into taking that love as far as you can go with it, congratulate yourself; you are on the road to becoming an influential animation critic. Mind you, this is only your breastplate; there are still many tools and weapons to acquire before conquering the heights of critical proficiency. We'll talk more about it next month.

Monthly assignment: Recall the very first animated show or movie you truly loved as a child and examine why. How was it a part of your young lifestyle? Did you watch it faithfully? Collect the licensed products? What did it touch in you, and how do you feel about it today? Think about a show or film you call yourself a fan of today; how was it alike or different from the first one? Do they relate in any way?

Recommended Reading:

Saturday Morning Fever by Timothy Burke and Kevin Burke (St. Martin's Press 1999).

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