Animated entertainment has become commonplace in the last decade. Aaron Murphy looks at the change in the writing of these shows as a response to their rising popularity. 
 

Animation has grown a lot since Steamboat Willie. It has grown into a multi-billion dollar medium in the last 15 years with huge critical applause across the board. A new category was included in the Oscars in 2002 to honour Shrek. Today animated productions are regularly the highest grossing films at the box office each year and the actors behind them are often the features of magazines and late night talk shows. This popularity is definitely in part due to the more widespread nature of animated entertainment, which itself is due to the advances made in making and marketing these productions.

Animation was once just a way to tell a story and have it look magical without going for expensive shoots. Snow White and The Seven Dwarves back in 1937 was the first animated feature film to receive an Academy Award. It was totally hand drawn and it was a heralded as “enthralling”, “magical”, and “wondrous”. This was in some ways due to the Technicolor spectrum being a novelty, but also due to the facts that this was the longest any animated work had ever been, it was in colour, it did things that special effects weren’t capable of, and the voice acting was good. The film told an old story with a new medium.

Over time, Disney began to understand this market they had created and cornered. They established the animated studios that went on to produce original stories (such as Pocahontas) that were told in feature length productions in a recognisable, cell-shaded style. These stories were often aimed at kids but were compellingly told. They received a lot of acclaim at the time for both their scores and their innovation.

In the mid 1990s Disney hired a new partner to help make their films, a small animation company owned by Steve Jobs called Pixar. The release of Toy Story led to the biggest recognition for animation since The Simpsons won its first Emmy. This was followed in a few years time by the release of Shrek by Dreamworks Studios, prompting the inclusion of an award for Animated Films in the Oscars.  Animated films from then on have been aimed at children primarily, and while filling up theatres, they have been stand-out performers at the box office ever since, with Finding Nemo in 2003 being the highest grossing film that year. That’s a money train that won’t be stopping or changing rails any time soon.

“This was a bitingly satirical, crude, zany kind of comedy that appealed to everyone in some way. This form of physical and character based entertainment could not have been done in live-action mediums without significant time and expense.”

At this time on the smaller screen, a very different culture of storytelling was beginning to emerge, triumphantly led by The Simpsons. This was a bitingly satirical, crude, zany kind of comedy that appealed to everyone in some way. This form of physical and character based entertainment could not have been done in live-action mediums without significant time and expense. The Simpsons set the scene, therefore, for all the new shows to come, with the new rule being entertainment for its own sake.

Many things changed in the making of animated shows. Professional voice actors were hired, artists were given places at the storyboard table, animating became cheaper and quicker, and writers began to recognise the uses of an art form that wasn’t constrained by any natural laws. But more importantly, a niche was developed into a norm. Children still got their cartoons, but those cartoons were (occasionally) interesting, deep and entertaining enough to be viewed by older viewers who love the medium (see: Avatar, The Last Airbender, Invader Zim, Adventure Time). Animated shows were also written for adults (see: South Park, Family Guy, American Dad) and fumbled with many different ways of telling a story.

King of the Hill was an early attempt at making a character led animated show for adults and its poor performance was down to the fact that is was an ordinary comedy/drama with uninteresting characters done through animation. South Park still critiques and criticises today’s world with a mixture of coarse themes and language, unerring determination to shock, and clever deconstruction of dogma – it’s hilarious at its best and awful at its worst, but still popular. The Seth McFarlane comedies, Family Guy and American Dad (never mind The Cleveland Show) used a new form of joke in their three-act structure: the reference, or flashback. This joke was done to death, losing its hilarity slowly but surely. Later shows showed it could be used right, using it for expositional jokes rather than filling gaps in the writing. Something became clear in all of these shows though: that physical comedy is always appreciated.

Archer and Rick and Morty are animated shows for adults who had seen these developments. They applied the lessons and came out with the formula for an adult animated show: tell a cool story that could never happen, tell it quickly and with jokes, with clever characterisation, and without relying on any particular gimmick to drive the plot. Rick and Morty is a parody of South Park proportions, and yet it’s always a new situation, a new joke, a new flaw to a character and a new reference. It relies on all of these to the same extent it relies upon its expansions of the universe and suspension of disbelief. It’s self-aware and it is entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Archer has done a similar thing with a very different idea and it is the most popular show on FX right now. It isn’t totally episodic. Instead, it has focused itself on a character-based form of comedy that isn’t situational but ironic. It’s found a way to apply the reference in a novel way by never actually using it to show something new, instead only to expand the view of the character we already have. The format of the show allows for new situations to explore, and the host of background characters supply only more variables.

This form of entertainment has gone from being niche to being the norm (certainly among the age profile of twenty-somethings). Animated productions are all comedies almost without fail, but they’ve learned from their predecessors; integrating all the methods that made their predecessors great has led to a winning formula. The methods of telling an animated story have matured somewhat in the last 20 years, but what has really changed is our view of animation in response to the saturation of the market. Whether it’s the children’s films or the TV shows that are filling up Netflix, animation is now more than ever before an art form for everyone, and it isn’t going away.