American animation has gone through a lot of changes over the past 20 years. In the late 90’s, computer generated animation began the process of overtaking traditional animation as the dominant form with Pixar leading the way. Now, among the top 50 highest grossing animated films of all time only three use traditional animation: Lion King, The Simpsons Movie, and Aladdin. Of those top 50, only Hotel Transylvania 2 is produced by an international studio (Sony). Animation is dominated by films made in the United States, and with a vast majority of the top grossing of all time coming in the past two decades, animation has seen a fairly significant transformation into an important genre within cinema. However, there is still one area in which animation is severely lacking: adult films.
No, not those adult films, but films that are more mature and sophisticated in tone, subject matter and meaning. American animation almost exclusively deals in family and kids films, with the rare animated adult comedy breaking through. For the most part, the closest you can come to an adult animated film is a coming of age film. In the United States, animation has become synonymous with family films, and as a result, is stunting the growth of the medium where it was first pioneered.
More than 100 years ago, in the earliest stages of cinema, animation was already being discovered and utilized. The very first examples of projected animation were made in the late 19th century in France, with the genre quickly spreading all over the globe as different countries began to try their hands at what we now know as traditional animation. Disney would achieve its first animation breakthrough in 1928 with Steamboat Willie, and American would only grow form there. From its earliest incarnations, American animation has been defined by its appeal to kids and families, and that has not changed in nearly a century.
The association of animation with children or family films presents an inherent issue for any studio looking to create an animated film for adult audiences. The first major hurdle for adult animated films is not appealing to children. A century of conditioning has taught millions of Americans that animated films are always family friendly, or, as James Fino of Starburns Industries puts it, “We’re all brought up that animation equals Disney.” Starburns Industries is the studio behind Anomolisa, the rare animated film for adults that is not a comedy.
Released in 2015, Anomolisa is a film about a man who has grown bored with his life and engages in a brief affair in order to feel something again. In many ways, it feels similar to American Beauty, a film which also delves into the doldrums of suburban, or middle-aged life. The decision to go with animation over live action is a critical one, as it allows for the most interesting aspect of the film to be done on an affordable scale. The entire film is seen from the perspective of the main character, Michael Stone, and from that perspective, every other human being in the world has the same face and the same voice- both of which are bland and unremarkable. While this certainly is possible to do with a live action film- it was written and directed by Charlie Kauffman who wrote Being John Malkovich– animation allows for this to be done on a smaller scale effectively and affordably.
Anomolisa resides in exclusive company, for as uncommon as the adult animated comedy film is, the animated drama is practically a unicorn. But the question remains as to why there are so few animated films made for adult audiences. Budget is an ever-present issue for many films, particularly those that are not guaranteed to big large scale box office success. However, while many of the popular animated films can have budgets that can eclipse the 200 million dollar mark, the few adult animated films we have access to are relatively cheap to produce. Sausage Party had an 18 million dollar budget, while Anomlisa was less than half of that. Unfortunately, even with that smaller budget, Anaomalisa failed to break even at the box office. With that film being one of the most recent and significant examples of an American animated film made for adults, having it underperform as it did won’t garner any enthusiasm for more from studio heads
It could be that adult audiences aren’t interested in animated dramas. Anolalisa fits this narrative, but the comedies do not. Both Sausage Party and South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut made good returns on their lower budgets, and even Team America: World Police managed to break even. This also would ignore the fact that there are many animated comedies on television that all do well. From cornerstones of the medium on television such as The Simpsons, to newer hits on cable like Archer, to the weirder shows on Adult Swim such as Rick and Morty and gems such as The Venture Brothers, audiences have responded well to adult directed animation for decades on television. Again, it will be difficult to find an example that is not a comedy, but you have to start somewhere, and animated comedies may be the gateway into expanding the medium.
Ultimately, the largest issue facing animated films that are directed towards adult audiences are what we discussed in the introduction to this article: animated films have been family films for a century. There is a built in perception with animated films that they are for children and families, and that perception is very difficult to break. When the first issue of advertising for a film is to convince audiences that it is not for kids, then messaging will have an uphill climb. This compounds on itself by not allowing a large variety of adult animated films to see the light of day. As a result, no one can be truly sure as to what the audience appetite looks like for such films.
There may well be an untapped market of audiences looking to indulge in not only more comedic animated films that reach a wider audience, but more artistic ventures as well such as Anomalisa which seek to tell mature stories and deal with more sophisticated concepts. The way the industry treats this aspect of the medium creates a void in the market for this type of film. There are undoubtedly folks in this country that desire the type of experience that only an adult animated film can provide, and if American studios are not willing to give them those experiences, then these people will have to seek them from other sources from around the world.