Reporting from the Sidelines
Emru Townsend · February 15, 2004 | One sure sign of outsider (or at least marginal) status is that certain events take on an exaggerated significance. Sure, animation can be considered mainstream—you can't walk ten feet without seeing Disney merchandise, Blockbuster carries anime, and everyone can rattle off some kind of cartoon catchphrase. But the giveaway is that when a new feature is released, there are some kind of rumblings among fans and artists as to what its success or failure could mean for the industry. When a significant studio makes a major move, those rumblings escalate to the point that even mainstream observers notice.
The last few years have borne this out. Every feature released in North America has come with baggage. There's the usual issue of being animated. There's the issue of whether a film comes from Disney, from Japan, or somewhere else. And, more recently, whether the film is computer-animated or not.
All of these issues carry their own assumptions and generalizations, but in 2003 it came to a head: many column inches were devoted to the notion that computer animation was winning a battle against traditional animation, and in the end heavy-hitters DreamWorks SKG and Disney threw in the towel. If it ain't digital, the feeling goes, it ain't worth it.
We're not going to get into that particular argument now, because this about the Oscars. And what we've got here is the classic conundrum of the outsider: if any of the three films nominated for Best Animated Feature Film win, it will Mean Something. If Brother Bear wins, it means that traditional animation isn't dead—and Disney and DreamWorks have already shut the door on it. If Finding Nemo wins, it means that traditional animation is dead. If Triplets of Belleville wins, it's the second year running that a non-American hand-drawn feature has won, and... okay, I'm not so sure what that would mean, exactly. But it would definitely be a kick in the head to Disney, which has yet to win an Oscar in a category for a form it not only pioneered, but raised to prominence.
Do we need this aggravation? No. Does it have to be this way? Certainly not. But the feature animation industry has been in a state of altered reality since The Lion King blew the lid off in 1994, and other studios started jonesing for some of that boxoffice manna. That such disproportionate financial success came to a film birthed from a marginalized medium paved the way to a decade of slavish imitation, generalizations about what animation is or isn't, and assumptions about what audiences want.
Part of the fps ethos is that animation is equal to other forms of cinematic or televised storytelling. It would be nice if the Oscars reflected that someday—to the point where we wouldn't be anticipating how one film's victory will lead to this or that shift in the industry, and we could just discuss whether or not the better film won. For that to happen, the industry first has to do two things: it has to get itself out of this mess, and it has to start thinking clearly. The first will eventually come to pass; the second, I'm not so sure.