Monday, June 06, 2005


When I was a kid (!) and even now (!!), I used to simply LOVE Tom and Jerry. The quintessential pair of brats gamboling around, with the most outrageous and hilarious events coming their way, used to tickle my funny bone like no other, and even now it gives me infinite bouts of unadulterated (pun intended: see discussion below) pleasure. Later, I was enchanted by classic films like Alladin, Beauty and the Beast, and of course, the Lion King.

However, if I think about it, in the last couple of years, if I really have to mark out good old-fashioned kinds of animated films that delighted me, I can probably think only of 'Finding Nemo'. What was common between all these films that so enchanted children as well as adults around the globe? I believe it was the eternal and unexpected sense of wonder and hilarity that they inspired in our hearts and minds, and most importantly, their insistence to let children stay children, and to portray a child's dreamland in their milieu.

I think that is what has largely changed in the past decade or so. Animated films, in my opinion, have become too 'adulterated'. The main culprit in this process has been the infiltration of elements of pop-culture in films, the best recent examples being the Shrek pair and 'Shark Tale'. In an attempt at anomaly which will inspire humour, animated film makers have started injecting every contemporary pop-cultural icon, from MacDonalds to the Gap, into films. While the novelty of these lasts for a short time, after that, I am afraid these contraptions just start looking lame. The reason is that they represent too much of an 'adult' phenomenon, something that I think mars the basic innocent childlish feature that is (and should be) so endemic to animated films. The reason Tom and Jerry were so cute and successful was that nobody expected the protagonists to spout contemporary adult nonsense from their mouths. They just went their silly innocent ways, and the unexpected adventures which came their way, made us laugh. Note that my emphasis here is on the word 'unexpected'. In case of Tom and Jerry, most incidents, although simple and even improbable, were largely unanticipated. With films like Shrek, once one pop-culture icon has creeped in, you start expecting the whole coterie of them. You say, "Oooooook. So now it's MacDonald's. What next? Britney Spears? Starbucks? Gucci?" And guess what? Viola! There they are. All of them. All quite predictably filled in. This significantly takes away the excitement from these films.

I am not saying that Shrek and Shark Tale were bad, but because they lacked the component of silliness to a large extent, the silliness which makes children stay children, and which makes adults become children for a while, they lose their kiddish charm, which animated films are inherently supposed to harbour. The image of the inimitable Donald Duck whimsically saying "Wanna fight, wanna fight?!" or the cute toothed brat Bugs Bunny saying "Wassssup doc??!" has been replaced by Will Smith donning the role of the shark slayer and spouting contemporary hip-hop, or by characters from Shrek spitting out tidbits of contemporary, if funny, adult wisdom that look more safely ensconced in "Spy Hard" or "Back to the future" rather than in these films. While such things are OK once in a while, any excess expression of them makes the humour tepid at best. The overall result of all this is that instead of being 'children's animated films', these films become 'animated versions of funny adult movies'.

I also think that one serious real effect of these films is the inspiration from them which small children get, which compels them to start behaving like 'little adults'. Because many of the children and characters in these recent films exemplify this trend, children are tempted to borrow from them and start pretending to be adults, spewing out learned nonsense. This takes away their childlish charm, not to mention their innocence, and at the least, it becomes a nuisance for parents. In fact treating their children as little adults is one of the worst things well-meaning parents can do, which may have permanent untoward effects on the children's psyche. Let children be children, and treat them as ones.

Another simple and practical drawback of these films is that almost all of these pop-culture icons are known mostly and intimately to American audiences. There is a difference between knowing them and intimately being familiar with them as a part of daily life. Only in the latter case can the connection be instantaneous and elicit humour. While any child in India could largely appreciate Tom and Jerry, not many children in India are going to appreciate the familiarity of Starbucks, Estee Lauder, and lines cut and pasted from "Mission Impossible". And they surely cannot (and probably should not!) appreciate Pinocchio wearing a pink thong (Shrek 2)!

Sometimes I wonder if all this contemporary pop-cultural inundation in cartoon films simply reflects the film makers' and artists' inability to think of intelligent and enchanting humour that would fascinate children. Have they fallen prey to the same disease of creative inactivity and 'cartoonist's block', that constantly propels makers of 'normal' adult films to substitute outrageous sexual humour for intelligent humour, as a desperate device for drawing audiences? Do these talented (I assume) people think that they can continue to filch lines, events and icons from other films into their animated films that would make audiences laugh simply because of the 'out-of-place' nature of these things, and keep on going forever with this philosophy? If the answer is yes, then I think that this says as much about the degraded sense of appreciation of the audiences of these films, as it does about the sense of medocrity that the filmakers are propagating. Frankly, notwithstanding the wonderful people who work at Pixar, Disney etc., I think it took much more creativity to make Tom and Jerry than it took to make 'Shark Tale'. Making Shark Tale simply entails thinking like a wacky adult, while making Tom and Jerry really entails becoming a child, thinking like a child, and getting lost in that world which all of us experience only once in our life. Part of this trend is simply a part of the more general flow of films towards being tailored for 'adult' audiences, which I deplore if done to an overt extent. Animated films are essentially supposed to be a part of a children's dreamland. They represent one of the classic vestiges of innocence we have in the modern age of entertainment, and it would be a real tragedy if their true character is lost.

I set out with a heavy heart, full of anticipation, to watch 'Madagascar" this weekend.


Blogger Sumedha said...

I'm a big fan of 'Tom and Jerry' too...isn't everyone? I did wish, though, that Tom would outsmart Jerry sometimes :-)
If you've watched 'Meet the Fockers'
(which is eminently NOT worth a watch), u may remember how De Niro's character treats his grandchild like a full-fledged member of the CIA!

1:25 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

I don't know if it has a different name in the US, but I think it's Shark Tale, not Shark Slayer.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: Yes! And our family also used to uniformly feel sorry for Tom :)

Kunal: Gracias. Peccadillo corrected!

7:22 AM  
Blogger Bhavna said...

Shrek was disgusting. Shrek II was even worse.

But nothing can beat Pokemon and other Japanese cartoons of equal repute. Those things are really disturbing. I won't be surprised if someone somewhere comes up with a research paper proving that most teen violence is a direct consequence of watching deranged cartoons.

6:42 AM  
Anonymous Hirak said...

I do agree that the cartoons of today are more 'sophisticated' than the ones written before. But what are the kids saying? Do they like these movies?
I have not seen the two movies that you mention, but the biggest movie of last year The Incredibles had quite a lot of adult-humour, but the kids also loved it too. Same with Finding Nemo. Simple story that a child can follow but a lot of adult sub-text.
In contrast to what you are saying, there is conscious move in Hollywood to make movies that are more 'global' in content. Producers are reluctant to make movies that are too 'America-centric' since these would result in poorer global sales.
Of course, there is a conscious effort to market Brand America. MacDonald's and GAP would like to create a need in emerging global markets since they are under such flak in the US for their bad policies and they need to make money elsewhere.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Hm, film styles change over time, so you can't really expect them to follow a template. And popular films are part of pop culture, which means they're meant to be disposable. I enjoy the quirky references -- but not the bleeding obvious ones like in Shrek 2 -- because allusion has a unique humorous aspect and it's also aesthetically good. Beside, cartoons like Rocky & Bulwinkle, and Danger Mouse from past decades were full of references to pop culture, too.
The motive of the filmmakers, though, probably has something to do with the fact that parents who take their children out to a movie need to be entertained too.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Ajay said...

For anyone interested in good animation that isn't a copout to pop-culture, I highly recommend Hayao Miyazaki. I've seen "Spirited Away" and his latest, "Howl's Moving Castle", both of which capture childlike wonder and allegory in a beautiful package. The movies rely on traditional hand-drawn 2D animation, meaning that the focus is rightly on the story and not on the fancy SFX.It's a pity that "Howl's..." didn't get a full release in the US (it is a limited release - it was showing in my town luckily for me)

I liked Shrek which was subversive in many ways, but I think Shrek 2 and Shark Tale got overly smart with the pop-culture thing (though I liked them) They are IMO not going to be enduring, unlike,say Sleeping Beauty or The Lion King, which have everlasting appeal.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Michael Higgins said...

Hi Ashutosh
I think children's entertainment has changed and in many cases it has changed for the worse. Much of what is packaged as children's entertainment is inappropriate for children. The producers feel they have to put in a lot of adult humor into the movie to entertain Mom and Dad, and older siblings.

I think that was always true, but in the past, they avoided 'potty humor' but now they regularly use it.

The old cartoon actually were enormously violent (in a silly way) and occasionally very politically incorrect. My son has a collection of Tom and Jerry cartoons and a few make me- as a father- wince. There's one where either Tom or Jerry tries to kill the other off with poison. Of course, it doesn't kill him but it has really bizarre effects. It looks like an acid trip or something. So maybe our memory of the old cartoons is a bit nostalgic and not realistic.

2:04 PM  

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