4 Reasons Cartoons Matter

It’s a pleasure to join Luna Station Quarterly’s new content lineup. I’ll be your friendly neighborhood animation commentator and theorist. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Of all popular media, animation is the truest mirror of our culture. Hold on to your caboose, because I brought the proof.

1. Cartoons gain amplification through simplification

As described by cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud, this principle applies to every element of moving art, from character design to backgrounds to lighting to animation to the beats of the story being told. There is room for Miyazaki’s lack of baddies and Richard Williams’s compulsive detail, but generally speaking, the broader the strokes, the broader the appeal. Speaking of…

2. Their appeal is massive

As of this writing, of the top 50 highest-grossing films, nine were fully animated:

  • 5. Frozen (2013)
  • 12. Toy Story 3 (2010)
  • 19. The Lion King (1994)
  • 21. Despicable Me 2 (2013)
  • 26. Finding Nemo (2003)
  • 29. Shrek 2 (2004)
  • 32. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)
  • 34. Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
  • 43. Shrek the Third (2007)

In 2013, three of the top ten highest-grossing films were animatedFrozen, Despicable Me 2, and Monsters University. (Whether films like Gravity and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug qualify as “animated” is a question for another day.)

And animation is on the grow. Animated features grossed twice as much in 2011 as they did in 2001. As direct-to-DVD sales declines overall, Disney’s $335 million Tinkerbell empire pulls new young audiences and DC Animation thrives on Straight-To-VOD. The mass appeal of cartoons build franchises, and franchises have the fuel to blaze trails.

3. There are no accidents

Individual artists create the action one frame at a time, twenty-four per second. The story passes through pitch, concept, storyboard, roughs and rendering–and the ascendance of 3D animation has only put more hands on every frame, not fewer. There’s no chance of a boom in the shot or an on-set anachronism (animated quirks are way more interesting). So if every speaking role is white, it’s no accident. If the only female character is the hero’s love interest, it’s no accident. If a text’s heroine loses her agency when adapted for film, it’s because a score of people agreed it should be so, and a score of people created it by hand.

Thus market concerns, personal prejudices, and lack of solidarity can be traced directly from their consequences. For instance, it’s curious how often even the most bankable actors of color don’t play human beings in animated films, while human characters of color are racebent to cast white actors:

2013’s Top 10 Most Valuable Actors, according to Vulture.com, and their presence in animated feature films

Actor Role Description
1. Robert Downey Jr. None
2. Leonardo DiCaprio None
3. Jennifer Lawrence None
4. Sandra Bullock Scarlett Overkill, The Minions (2015)
Miriam, The Prince of Egypt (1998)
human, Middle Eastern
5. Brad Pitt Metro Man, Megamind (2010)
Sinbad, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
human, white
human, Middle Eastern
6. Will Smith Oscar, Shark Tale (2004) fish
7. Christian Bale Howl, Howl’s Moving Castle, English language release (2004)
Thomas, Pocahontas (1995)
human, white
human, white
8. Denzel Washington None (Seriously?)
9. Tom Hanks Woody, Toy Story franchise (1995, 1999, 2010) humanoid toy, white
10. Johnny Depp Rango (2011)The Corpse Bride (2005) lizard
human, white

These choices have disproportionately lingering effects.

4. Cartoons are immortal

The characters don’t get older. Their old work doesn’t look stilted and fakey. The hair and makeup and filmmaking don’t show their age. Thanks to Disney’s legal pioneering, Mickey Mouse remains out of the public domain and undiluted as a brand. Thus generation after generation are enraptured by the same animated works, proved by Disney’s video “vault” and lucrative re-issues.

But there’s a dark side to living forever. The Bugs Bunny of Space Jam (1996) would never find himself tormenting a racist caricature, but in the 1940s he sure did. The fact that Bugs looks and sounds the same seventy years on, with similar popular awareness and appeal, brings home the full shock of what our culture used to delight in.

At the same time, through Bugs and his kin we have a chance to confront our past. In 2005 Warner Brothers began using a disclaimer in its collections of animated shorts, reading in part “[t]hese cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

The Looney Tunes disclaimer offers our culture an example of how to deal with discrimination, past and present–recognize, criticize, grieve the harm, and seek amends–so that whatever good remains can be enjoyed. (Disney might consider taking a leaf out of Warner Brothers’ book–the studio scrubbed The Song of the South from its consciousness, though Splash Mountain still warrants a FASTPASS.) May audiences seventy years hence be as mortified by today’s ubiquity of whiteness, able-bodiedness, gender binary and Bechdel Test failure as we are today by media injustices seventy years ago.


For all these reasons, the themes of animated stories–past and present, good and bad, just and unjust–resonate. They capture our imaginations even as they reveal painful truths about our culture. Cartoons reach us. If we choose, we can reach back.

Watch this space for more animation theorization, sometimes serious, sometimes silly. Right now there’s an animated blockbuster summer happening on the big screen and an animated storytelling revolution happening on the small screen. Let’s watch together.

Parting thoughts

  • Has it really been ten years since Corpse Bride came out? Sheesh.
  • Brenda Chapman worked on a lot of stuff. Like, a lot. I don’t know if I imagined directors of animated films sprang from eggs or what.
  • Man, I am all irritated about Coraline again.