{No. 55: Animation} [1993] Beauty and the Beast

The Academy plays favorites. This is not a new fact—almost exclusively winners (and losers) over the past 90 or so years have been dramas or historical fictions. There’s a seriousness or a weightiness to soaring, emotional movies. Making them and watching them feels like work, a work for which the Academy wants to bestow a promise of a reward. We almost never watch a drama for fun; Doubt isn’t a laugh factory or an escape. It demands our attention or we’ve just wasted two hours watching Meryl Streep looking sternly at us.

Science-fiction, action-adventure, comedy are cast into unseriousland as their studios green light another $150 million summertime fun blockbuster. What Scorcese talks about when he talks about cinema vs. cinéma is what the Academy means when it nominates movies about trans folks or historical slave struggles over a superhero movie. The media drama certainly overplayed the audacity of the response to this. Regardless of how we feel about these simple flicks, we know what Scorcese means. Stay in your lane, Captain Whosit.

To say that the Oscars haven’t honored “fun” movies is unfair, though. All three Lord of the Rings movies got a Best Picture nod. Toy Story 3 did, too. Is it unfair? If we search the list of “fun” movies the Academy has thought to advance to the highest canon, Beauty and the Beast comes first. Beauty is an 80 minute kids’ movie. It’s Disney’s thirty-seventh animated feature. It was also nominated for three other Oscars, winning two. What makes this movie more important to the history and exalted vaults of film history. Why not Aladdin the next year, or The Lion King in 1994, arguably a better execution of Disney’s modern anthropomorphic formula?

Animation, almost as old as the medium itself, earns a certain level of disrespect among auteurs serieuses. It’s not real, they’ll say, it’s too far removed from the goings-on of the everyman, the elevated filmgoer with a few extra bucks in her pocket. She doesn’t want to indulge in fantasy, when she might want to see a New Yorker editorial in 48 frames per second. She’s smarter than that; more human. She’s American, and here, cartoons are for kids.

Kids animation is another market Madison Avenue has deemed worthy of investment. Cartoons are softer, rounder, less complete than a real-life person. We can tell our fantasy stories if our characters are blue, or animals, instead of beastly men and women. We can teach kids the value of morals and what’s right, if we say it in goof minor, and this goof is a little wacky. If we treat our kids like little idiots, incapable of complex thought, the outcome is almost certainly worthy of more of the same. Animated fils are a safety blanket, for parents and for industry. In America.

In Japan, the medium is everything and Serious people treat animation Seriously. Why? Two reasons, probably, in a binary relationship: cultural historiography and cost. American film tradition limited how content could be produced for decades and it was easier to market content, especially animation—especially expensive—if the studios knew there was an audience for it, built into the American home like Saturday morning cartoon programming. Probably, and now decades of contemporary recursive market analysis conflates American animation with children’s programming. It’s soft-wired into kids via their parents, who at this point, grew up in a fantastic sprint for cable programming between the 60s and 80s. And so it goes.

In Japan, no such market differentiation, and no such distinction exists. Japanese culture, while much more conservative in many ways, has always demonstrated a predilection for taboo, but the content itself wasn’t limited, just the delivery and consumption methods. Material is directly implied, rather than outright banned, and likely sparked creative ways for developing content for everyone, and the medium didn’t become the message. The Academy hasn’t yet realized this; no Miyazaki or Satoshi Kon movie has ever been nominated for Best Picture—even though the messages are often much more universal (Princess Mononoke is an environmental disaster and extremely human movie), much more devastating (Grave of the Fireflies predates Schindler’s List by 6 years, and its focus on singular human tragedy is fantastically sad), or much more nuanced (Millennium Actresis as good of a human retrospective as any other).

Say no more: Spirited Away is universally beloved, almost overrated, took in almost $350 million worldwide, and the Academy still nominated Moulin Rouge, and still awarded Best Picture to A Beautiful Mind. Talk about unserious.

Is Beauty and the Beast serious? It’s mostly unnuanced; it’s characters are one-dimensional; its plot is contrived; its music is perfect, but extremely camp. What do we mean by serious? It’s a seriously good film for kids. Friends upon friends have watched it countless times, anyway.

But Beauty and the Beast was a monumental achievement for animated film; nominated for Best Picture it broke barriers for one other animated nominees in the last 30 years: Toy Story 3. This movie is good, but it was never going to win Best Picture. How could it? It’s still unserious and its grand purpose was nostalgia for new parents who grew up on Toy Story 15 years earlier.

Animation is a nostalgia cycle for American audiences. It probably won’t ever change, because inertia is easy and it’s much easier to make a billion dollars (like Toy Story 4 did) than it is to print it straight up. They’ll make a Toy Story 5, because why not? It won’t every win Best Picture, and it’s unlikely to earn a nomination, but who cares? Until Makoto Shinkai earns a nomination for his very unserious dive into human behavior, $400 million just isn’t enough.

Say no more, though, because Beauty and the Beast was never going to defeat Silence of the Lambs, the last winner of the Big 5–Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. Curious, though, because the cartoonish nature of its villain, the ubiquitous Hannibal Lecter, would have done very well hand drawn in 24 fps. Outside these nominees, including Oliver Stone’s Very Serious JFK, for some reason The Prince of Tides and Bugsy, the top-three earners in 1991 was a science fiction (Terminator II: Judgement Day) and a comedy (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), and an animated kids’ movie (Beauty and the Beast) and god forbid Scorcese’s film plebeians get a laugh or a bullet for their troubles.

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