Cartoons are very popular. I mean they are really, really popular. Not a day goes by where some animated show or feature isn’t on the television or even at the cinema. Cartoons have evolved greatly from the days when they were just humble and quirky animated shorts. Now, a cartoon can be just about anything.
There’s hand drawn and computer animated; family and adult; shorts, shows and feature length; serious and comedic; brightly coloured and subtly shaded; realistic and just all out crazy. Even a single studio can produce a plethora of animated delights. Look at Studio Ghibli – they have both animated features that are highly grounded in realism and others that… well… that really are not.
There is such variety that you may find the idea of me trying to suggest that there is a common trait that they all share while simultaneously also being the reason why so many people love animation is utterly mad. To be honest, you’re right. But just hear me out anyway.
A really awesome thing about cartoons is that you can literally do anything. If you can imagine it, it can be animated. This allows for a lot of very creative and inventive storytelling… from having a show set in a distant, alien world to even just having a very normal character having an interesting thought bubble appear over their head. This also allows for animated stuff to connect to us in ways that no other medium can, to really “hit us in the feels”.
Yet what’s interesting about cartoons also is that when you see one, you instantly know it’s not real. It’s not that they can’t be realistic or that you are completely detached but you just know that it’s not real. If you watch someone’s arm getting chopped off in a cartoon, even if it’s done in a very gruesome way, it’s almost always not as bad as watching it happen in a live action show or movie. You still get a tingle in your spine or a funny feeling in your toes but just not in such an unpleasant way. Similarly, a show such as Family Guy can get away with its very edgy jokes precisely because it’s animated, you can look at it and more easily understand deep down that it’s just a joke instead of literally taking it as one man being horribly offensive to another or something like that.
When you watch a live action show or movie, it’s like watching the same world as the one we all live in. In animation, it’s like watching a parallel world, one that – regardless of whether it is similar to our own or very different – with a little suspension of disbelief becomes our own.
So animated stuff can connect to us more closely whilst also being further away from us? Well… Yes! One thing we all universally do is identify with the characters we see on TV shows and movies, in video games we play, books we read and so on. We find the parts of their life and personality that we see within ourselves or that we would like to see within ourselves – it’s part of why we like certain characters more than others or why some of us empathise with the villain and others don’t. With animation however, there’s a small gap to jump across first before we can do this.
It’s this little bit of distance cartoons possess that allows us to enjoy them so much. If something is a bit uncomfortable or too close to home for our liking, it allows us to stay back and protects us. Yet somehow, very conversely and ironically, it is this very same small gap created by animation, between reality and fantasy, that can also make us feel closer to it, if we’re just willing to take a little leap in our imagination first.
And that’s why I think we love cartoons so much.