So I was sitting and pondering recently about the sort of interesting animation pieces I could write, and I came very quickly to the conclusion that talking about this decade’s trends, triumphs, shortcomings, and everything in between would make for an entertaining discussion. Just this year alone there are interesting events set to happen for shows (which is my specialty), but we’re also coming off a 2016 where in the movie business, it was very strong for the medium- probably the best since 2010, where flicks like Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled, and the original Despicable Me (which was rather charming before it really exploded as a franchise) graced the silver screen. Back to the small screen, I’m very excited for the return and definitive conclusion of Samurai Jack in March, some 13 years after its initial “ending” (which was more Cartoon Network pulling the plug at the time); Star Wars Rebels has grown into a very good show that’s hitting its stride much like its predecessor Star Wars: The Clone Wars did, mixing plenty of serious moments with the typical humor of the franchise; and speaking of Disney X.D shows, I’ve unexpectedly really enjoyed Star vs. The Forces of Evil, which is all kinds of fun. Not to be outdone, Dragon Ball Super’s dub finally hit English shores at the beginning of the new year for those people looking to re-live their childhood, and I’ve been following the dub release of the incredible Hunter x Hunter, which is fully subbed and actually concluded its Japanese run in 2014, but is a must watch. (It’s actually a reboot of the franchise in anime (there was a 1999 series) with more depth, overhauled animation, and virtually no filler -I’ll have a review, don’t worry!)
Aside from that brief rundown of current events, I must say this decade has been transformative in way that signals by and large that Western animation may have taken the lead back from their Eastern (read: Japanese) counterparts. While there have been a few stellar anime this decade, including the aforementioned Hunter x Hunter and Attack on Titan, for another example- by and large, the industry has been plagued with a sort of identity crisis ever since the 2008 recession- and compounded by the 2011 tsunami that hit Japan, in which long-held standards of quality and focus on character and narrative has given way to cheaply constructed shows, often with stunning animation and no such substance to speak of (think any number of “high school” trope shows that have been around forever in anime, but more boring and cliched than ever.) There’s also the rise in the hentai genre (which first off, I absolutely refuse to discuss on this site in the form of specific shows) which has further diluted and polluted the integrity of the shows at hand and the industry on the whole; and fan service seems to be put before story, characters and themes a lot nowadays. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy anime still, but I’m not quite sure we’ll ever see something like the industry from the mid-80’s to the late 2000’s again.
As for the West, it too had its identity crisis coming out of 2008, and for about 2 years the show industry was bumbling around in the dark (remember Cartoon Network’s ill-fated foray into live action shows?), but it there were signs of life that would signal a new era of some great work. The transition show that defined this nebulous era between pre-2008 and 2010 onwards was Phineas and Ferb; shining like a bright beacon in a sea of mediocrity, its vibrant ideas, innovative plots for an episodic show, and consistency in music and plot structure, it survived (and thrived) well into the 2010’s, only signing off in late 2015 at the creator’s decision. (I’ll talk more about Phineas and Ferb in a proper review.) Its biggest contribution however, was the idea that creator-driven shows were a very good idea, and in 2010, Cartoon Network landed the two shows that would also engineer a steady Western renaissance: Adventure Time and Regular Show. With the last of the old generation gone on Cartoon Network (the final Cartoon Cartoon, Ed, Edd, n’ Eddy ended in 2009), these two shows, along with the aformentioned Phineas and Ferb, were the three Western shows that would lead into this decade.
Would I say it’s a new golden era of Western animation yet? Almost, but not quite. There have been some terrific top end shows that have emerged since the decade’s start, including Gravity Falls and The Legend of Korra (both of which I reviewed), and other ongoing endeavors such as Steven Universe (which plenty of people fawn over), and Rick and Morty (which is still niche, but does incredibly well within that subgroup), but the single aspect holding this generation back still is depth. Western animation still needs more consistency up and down the line; what made the 90’s and early 2000’s special was there was enough good to great shows that existed to call it a golden era in spite of the torrent of other terrible (often Flash-animated) cheap creations that co-existed there. The West is close and has been building back up to that point, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s there yet. I’ll check back in 2020 with a more definitive answer.
What you’ll find is that I’ll be paying attention to current events in animation, but it’s equally important to understand the history of the industry and the art form itself; in my case (as I stated before) it’s a heavy focus on shows, but movies prove themselves to be equally important as well. The 2010’s has had some amazing endeavors on that front; most interesting to me has to be the Lasseter Renaissance at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where the veritable granddaddy of animation has re-discovered its magic touch; the emergence of small-studio and foreign animated films, which have gained more attention on awards stages in the past 5 years than I can ever remember, and that Pixar for the first time has faced something of a “crisis.” It might be more because of the ludicrously high standards Pixar set for themselves during their “Decade of Dominance” (2000-2010 was all them, really), but there’s been questions dogging them about the large number of sequels to original works, most dubiously the Cars franchise (which is a merchandising empire, but also their weakest franchise to build on.) Cars 2 was a misguided endeavor in 2011, made worse by a) the last Pixar film before it was Toy Story 3 and b) it couldn’t decide whether its plot was about Lighting McQueen and a world racing tourney, or a James Bond spoof featuring Larry the Cable Guy spouting one-liners, and as a result, it also signaled that this decade might be one of hits and misses for the leader of animated films in the world. And indeed it has; Brave (2012) is arguably in the lower half of the studios’ films, but curiously still won an Oscar; Monsters University (2013) and Finding Dory (2016), a prequel/sequel combo to two of the studio’s other beloved franchises found themselves locked out from the same award that Brave won; The Good Dinosaur endured development hell and was delayed from its initial launch date; and Inside Out was a veritable masterpiece- easily one of the top films from the studio. Most other studios would still take that record and run, but for Pixar, it represents a bit of a reality check, despite the fact that they still have the best overall track record of any Western studio in history.
I guess you can say the 2010’s has been a unique, fun decade like any other for the medium, and there have been soaring innovations and bombed failures like any other time in the medium’s history. As we round the final 3-year homestretch of the decade, it will be interesting to see how well my introspection here holds up; I suspect there will be much to talk about when that time comes. In the present though, there’s still plenty of good work to enjoy, one day at a time- and I suspect some hidden gems still waiting to be discovered… Regardless of time though, I’ll be continuing to produce reviews, character analysis, and thought pieces like this so that when 2020 comes, it’ll be that much sweeter.
Like what you see? Want to chime in about the decade in animation? Leave a comment!