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The World of Animation: Disney and Beyond

By Cassiah Joski-Jethi · April 2, 2013

Animation is one of the earliest film styles to gain precedence in the Western world, particularly with the emergence of Disney. The narrative structures of animation films have undergone a dramatic development over the past sixty years or so, begging the question, what role does animation films play in the modern day?

Disney was the first animation production studio to grab the West’s attention. It still dominates Western cinema and is one of the largest companies in the world. Part of Disney’s charm is its ever conventional, yet most pleasant, narratives that it portrays in movies, which meet the demand of the Western audience who aspire to this idealist way of life. Disney narratives involve some form of friendship, comedy and life lesson learned. Thankfully, there have been some other narrative developments since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Disney has broadened its typical story from a princess trapped, chasing a prince, to creating new female heroines who represent women in a more endearing light. Mulan (1998) and Tangled (2010) are two examples that demonstrate a shift in Disney’s narrative structures to portray women as both heroic and strong.

Similarities can be drawn between Disney/Pixar creations, with the recent release of Brave (2012) featuring a strong female lead. However, Disney/Pixar narratives are distinct from straight Disney classics. Pixar explores similar themes in their narratives, such as friendship, redemption, comedy, etc., but also plays with a stereotype and twists it. The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and Monsters Inc. (2001) are examples of this, to name a few. This unique approach to storytelling keeps Pixar a contemporary production company, as this intelligent and witty undertone to their films keeps an adult audience captivated, as well as attracting a younger audience.

Other animation companies, such as DreamWorks, Aardman and Illumination Entertainment, also follow this conventional narrative structure to appeal to a Western audience. One exception was the DreamWorks’s release of Shrek in 2001. It was the first animation to turn the classic fantasy story tale on its head. Disney has since poked fun at itself in the movie Enchanted (2007); it kept the narrative themes of friendship, love and redemption in check, but played with fairy-tale stereotypes that Disney had held close. Unfortunately, Shrek turned into a franchise and has lost a lot of respect, returning to cheap jokes and unoriginal plots for their many sequels, but if we look at the first Shrek in its own light, its impact can be appreciated.

To provide a contrasting look at the role of animation, we can turn to the East. Studio Ghibli is an animation production studio that has dominated in the East, as well as being successful in the West. Studio Ghibli strays away from typical Western narratives; the stories are not always coherent and explore in depth the realm of human duality, significance and suffering. This demonstrates that animation offers us more than entertainment, and can provide an in depth analysis of human behaviour and emotions to provoke us to think deeper about ourselves.

It is clear that Disney is still in the fore-front of Western cinema because they have been able to reflect the needs of their target audiences through their narratives, providing wholesome family entertainment and escapism. Whilst other animation companies try to follow suit, Studio Ghibli stands firmly as a unique animation company that targets a more mature and open minded audience, one with the desire to learn and question. Animation has always been an important genre in cinema, and remains necessary for our cinematic nation due to the range of entertaining, emotional and educational opportunities it offers.