Does animation still look as visually unique as it once did? Some people don’t think so. Some believe that the modern animation style has fallen into one of two genres: firstly the anime aesthetic, popularised by Japanese animated content; and secondly, the simplified “round” style that has become the modern norm for western cartoons of late – does this style create a lack of appeal? Let’s take a look.
“Appeal” is one of the twelve principles of animation laid out by legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson in their book, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. It is an important part of creating the look, the personality and the overall unique style of an animated world. There was a time where every world looked different – even within the same franchise. With Scooby Doo, for example, we have seen vastly different visual iterations of the same concept. For many, modern cartoons feel like a formulaic copy-and-paste of each other. They feel that when one series is successful that another is bound to cash-in and ape the same style, taking away the true dynamic concepts of the visual medium.
While their stories can be gripping, a lot of newer western cartoons struggle to truly capture the hearts of their viewers because of how its style is presented. This is often on case-by-case basis, but this overlap of monotony actually creates a generalisation that hurts the genre. There is a bit of blame for this. Modern adult cartoons like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty still echo the visuals of The Simpsons, whilst shows aimed at a younger audience follow the dynamic of round eyes and round shapes and how they work together. This is no knock against the plots or animation quality of these productions, but we’re seeing a toxic trend where the visual success of other shows pushes the influence of new shows.
When animated TV shows are created by the same company or production team, it is common to notice their similarities, but when series come from different groups, a generalisation works in moderation. Take the time to look at the style of five series of the past few years, and you will likely find it tougher to tell them apart than older series.
Of course, we have to consider reboot culture and how the modern style often creates what feels like a cheap visual representation of a classic story. Today, the diversity of art styles is lacking in modern animation. Although it is usually executive meddling that leads to this, it is important to recognise that, once more, money has helped to muddle the craft, forcing a potentially beautiful series from achieving its full potential. There are shows – such as Primal – that despite holding the Tartakovsky vibes of Samurai Jack, manage to create its own world. We see this at play in shows like Hilda, Carmen Sandiego and Infinity Train who all create vastly distinct worlds, whereas, on the flip side, series like Big City Greens, Stephen Universe, and The Amazing World of Gumball, all fall into this style-trap of safety that companies seem to struggle to break free from out of fear of failure.
In conclusion, no matter the art style, it is clear that there is a general grouping happening that pushes series to a genre style rather than expressing the medium as a diversified and varied form. Although there are many series that subvert and fight this modern conformity, there are still those that fall into the sheep-filled field that is modern cartoons. Whether the style is one way or another, you can still enjoy it. But it is clear that there is a divide in the animation community of whether modern cartoons are truly pushing the medium forward.