How The Lego Movie Ruined Animation for Me
I thought I was the only one fed up with the current trend toward hyperactive animation—until recently, when the apparent best Oscar for animation frontrunner, The Lego Movie, pulled up lame.
The film did not even get nominated—although its manic, on-the-verge-of- maniacal theme song, “Everything is Awesome,” grabbed a slot for Best Song. Why am I so over animated films? Having sat through hundreds thanks to being a film critic and a mother, it’s become a largely one-note and aggressively headache-inducing genre.
Animation has become one big Minion mosh pit and it’s, well, despicable: cute but out of control.
I didn’t always feel this antipathy. Growing up in the era when Walt Disney and animation were synonymous, Fantasia (in 2-D) was one of my favorite movies, right up there with the fantasy of The Wizard of Oz. Before I knew how to spell “images,” I understood their lasting power through carefully drawn cartoons. Hippos did not dance on nature documentaries, but they gracefully pirouetted in tutus to the “Dance of the Hours” music with a slower, sweeter beat.
When it came to television, cartoons were my thing. If I had any pop culture schizophrenia, it was over whether I was a Jetson’s baby or part of The Flintstones pack. Was I living in a nutty nuclear family in the distant future or trapped in the Bedrock past?
As a mother, I fed my kids on cartoons, sharing my passion for animation. We watched the classics. My favorites shifted along with my new maternal perspective. Out of the vault and into my VHS machine, Dumbo’s heartbreaking story of a mother and son separation resonated deeply, especially during periods of sleep deprivation and anytime I dropped my son off at daycare.
I was perfectly content to watch Snow White and sit beside my daughter as she watched Peter Pan in an endless loop. Together, we saw The Lion King, and I had to explain the difficult notion that sometimes parents die, and uncles betray, and children must soldier on with the help of their friends. That was not an easy lesson, but it is an organic part of what it means to grow up, even in an animated movie targeted at children.
As my kids grew, new channels like Nickelodeon and Disney and the Cartoon Network arrived. The ’90s were a golden age of broadcast animation. Everything was truly awesome. As a family, we loved Dexter’s Laboratory—we call my dorky computer genius husband Dexter to this day—and my husband and I watched South Park, the punk rock of ‘toons, ourselves. A story I wrote for the New York Times Magazine on Genddy Tartakovsky, the man behind Dexter, explains my current dismay with animated movies. Tartakovsky, a California Institute of the Arts trained animator, observed, “If you go back in animation history and look at Bugs Bunny, for example, they were made for adults and were shown before theatrical movies. They were still cartoons, so they had to be childlike, to a degree: slap-sticky, Three Stooges, physical humor. A good cartoon is always good on two or three levels: surface physical comedy, some intellectual stuff—like Warner Brothers cartoons’ pop-culture jokes, gas-rationing gags during the war—and then the overall character appeal.”
So, what’s my issue with The Lego Movie? I saw it with my teenaged daughter while we were trapped in a hotel room forced to pick a movie on which we could both agree. And, sharing the big, king-sized bed, munching on junk food, we both enjoyed the shared experience while we Tweeted and Facebook-ed and texted, because who doesn’t like watching Legos in action? The script is clever. But clever only goes so far, and it’s antic and paced in a way (EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!!) that just shatters my nerves. Is this really the best thing for a generation of kids who can’t sit still?
I am not hating everything animated. I can name many relatively recent animated movies I love, from The Stone Giant and Finding Nemo to the great artistry of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, the 2003 Oscar winner The Triplets of Belleville, Oscar nominee Persepolis, and Signe Baumane’s radical Rocks in My Pockets, which is an Oscar hopeful this year. All magical and technologically glorious in their own way.
However, the bulk of cranked-up, highly caffeinated animation has suppressed my appetite for the art and craft itself, like that tunafish sandwich you ate as a kid that makes you so sick you never want to consume mayo again. It’s possible that when the Academy snubbed The Lego Movie we reached a watershed moment. But it’s not likely. Just the other day I saw a Velveeta-colored Minion bouncing up and down on the screen—whether it was a trailer for Despicable Me 29 or a pitch for a McDonald’s Happy Meal, who’s to say? I may be giving myself a time out on this genre (and encouraging you to do the same), but Hollywood isn’t giving up this jacked-up junk a rest anytime soon.
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