As a child, the only thing I did was watch cartoons. I did not like going outside or talking to people, so I filled my days with “Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy,” “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Ren and Stimpy” when I was feeling scandalous. For years, the flashing colors on the box were my only refuge from the horror of everyday life. My childhood was wasted in front of a television, and it took me years to undo the social stunting that resulted from this addiction born out of pure anxiety. What did I learn from this experience? I learned that cartoons are awesome, and there should be more of them.
Two-dimensional animation is a beautiful and underutilized medium with limitless possibilities. Its lack of realism is its strength. In “Ed, Edd ‘n Eddy,” “Ren and Stimpy” and “Spongebob,” the creative freedom afforded to the animators by the medium manifests in their effort and passion evidently shown in every frame. There never seems to be a reused character model. In every shot, the characters are contorted in strange and creative ways to fit the contours of a joke. Recall in “Spongebob” when Patrick says the immortal line of “Who you callin’ Pinhead?” Inexplicably, his face becomes hyper-detailed and transforms into that of a man with a buck tooth, flat nose and furrowed brow to accompany this line. The face is never elaborated upon or returned. The cut to Patrick on this line is so unexpected and gloriously stupid that it has become one of the most iconic moments of the series. It created an air of unpredictability for the episode that was thrilling in its commitment to entertainment above realism.
This is something you do not see in the computer-animated films of today. Without a doubt, films like “Moana,” “Coco” and “Zootopia” require a massive team of talented animators and are breathtakingly beautiful, but they lack the free-wheeling unpredictability of yesteryear’s animated shows. That is not to say they are without value — these are entertaining films whose more realistic approach has amazing results. But as they do in “Zootopia,” not every animated animal requires photorealistic fur. And as it is in “Moana,” animated water does not always have to be indistinguishable from real water. And yet, 3-D animated films appear to be the only animated films allowed for mass consumption. With 2-D animation’s limitless possibilities and thrilling unpredictability, why are films animated this way so rarely released in theaters?
If you have seen “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” you likely share my frustration. If you have not, watch it and tell me that it is not the greatest thing in the world. “Spider-Verse” takes full advantage of the possibilities that cartoons present. Nothing is static in “Spider-Verse.” Influenced by the style of comic books, the character movements are dynamic and full of enthusiasm, the backgrounds bend and shift at the will of the camera movements and action scenes are accompanied by explosions of color that make for delicious eye candy. With its bombastic soundtrack and immaculate sound design as well, “Spider-Verse” is a realization of everything cartoons can possibly be: unpredictable, breathtaking and free.
There is also a misconception in our culture that cartoons are exclusively for children. There are countless examples of films that have used 2-D animation to create nuanced characters and storylines more suitable for adult audiences. “Fantastic Planet,” the surreal French animated sci-fi film from 1973, used opposable painted characters to create a psychedelic triumph of imagination. The 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel “Persepolis” is similarly dynamic. Like “Spider-Verse,” the film has an entirely hand-drawn appearance, which gives it the freedom to launch into mind-bending montages at any time, all while maintaining an atmosphere of grounded drama.
Two-dimensional animated films have the fewest limitations of any film medium, allowing them to create family-friendly eye candy fests like “Spider-Verse,” as well as more contemplative but equally mind-blowing films like “Fantastic Planet” and “Persepolis.” If we opened up more films to this medium, imagine the creativity that would be available at theaters every day. We would still receive biannual CGI films about talking animals on a cross country trip through perfect computer recreations of the Rockies, but we would also receive films like “Spider-Verse” that are unafraid to include the word “ZAP!” on screen when a character gets electrocuted.
Simply put, why must our animated films always strive for realism? The photorealistic water effects in “Moana” are beautiful, but is that always what we want? Why, in “Frozen,” can we never allow for a sight gag in which we cut to Elsa’s face having been completely restructured into a horrifying Pinhead Larry face? Are we denying ourselves joy?
The film medium should not always have to replicate real life. If you have a sloth in your film, your animators should not have to study the physics of sloth fur for months so they can create a character indistinguishable from an actual sloth. Like my childhood self, people sometimes need a break from real life. Cartoons kindly grant us that. Cartoons are beautiful, dynamic and, most of all, fun. We should make more of them.