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What Is an Animated Movie?
A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films
(Note: several years ago, I was approached to participate in the creation of a new reference book, an encyclopedia of animated movies; and while the project now seems to be indefinitely delayed, I did engage in e-mail discussions with other participants about the best way to define animated movies, and the following is a slightly revised version of my lengthiest contribution to the discussion.)

In order to compile an encyclopedia of animated movies, one needs a working definition of an animated movie, as opposed to a mere cartoon. In previous conversations with a few experts, two ways to craft such a definition have been suggested.

First is the criterion of length: an animated film could be defined as any animated narrative over 30 minutes long, with certain aesthetically pleasing exceptions; one might go a bit further and require a narrative over 60 minutes long.

Second is the context of original presentation: an animated film could be defined as an animated narrative first presented in theatres as a feature film, or perhaps as an advertised short subject, or as a film first presented as a television special, DVD, or videocassette.  In contrast, one supposes, cartoons are those animated narratives which are shown as unannounced introductory adornments to features, as weekly television series, or as segments of longer films or television programs.

Criteria like these are certainly reasonable, and they may be functional enough to help one decide whether to give a work an entry in an encyclopedia of animated movies, but they also seem rather arbitrary, and perhaps too specific to the cultural contexts of contemporary America and Europe. After all, different eras and different places might have quite different expectations about the proper length of a film, and/or the method of presentation which characterizes a film. A proper definition of an animated movie, I would argue, must involve qualities which are more intrinsic to the films under consideration.

To develop such a definition, I suggest that we turn to the oldest work of literary criticism, Aristotle's Poetics, and employ his famous list of the six elements of tragedy, more frequently given simply as his six elements of drama (since a posited accompanying discussion of the elements of comedy has never been found). These elements are:

1. Plot

2. Character

3. Thought

4. Diction

5. Song

6. Spectacle

These elements can be profitably adapted to serve as the six defining elements of the true animated movie. That is:

An animated movie has a true plot—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end as Aristotle specified, a narrative with dynamics like rising action leading to a climax, a narrative that may have subplots, double plots, or other complications. In contrast, a cartoon may be little more than the initial definition of a situation (cat wishes to eat bird, bird wishes to escape cat, etc.) followed by a series of repetitive incidents that continue until the piece reaches the proper length and stops.

An animated movie has true characters—creatures or people audiences can relate to as genuine personalities, often with some degree of depth or complexity. In contrast, the characters in a cartoon may be only ciphers or stereotypes: dogs intent upon chasing cats, cats intent upon chasing mice, hunters intent upon shooting rabbits, etc.

An animated movie has thought, which in modern terms might be termed a message, a theme, a thesis, or a point. An animated movie, unlike a cartoon, always tries to do more than merely entertain viewers or make them laugh; its story is designed to communicate some potentially important statement about the human (or the sentient) condition, even if it is something as puerile as the admonitions in the Care Bears movies that people must "share their feelings." A cartoon, however, may simply be a series of amusing vignettes that offer no real message of any significance (beyond, say, that it is undesirable to have a big homely cat eat a cut little bird).

An animated movie has diction, or words, as a key element. A mere cartoon may function quite well as a series of speechless events, a silent movie with a musical soundtrack (such as the Road Runner cartoons, wherein the only words are the occasional road sign or a label on an Acme Company box); however, to communicate a genuine plot, genuine characters, and a genuine theme, the animated movie must communicate through words—narration, dialogue, or titles.

Now, must an animated movie have songs? Well, it is undeniable that a vast majority of them do; and even those that do not are invariably accompanied and driven by a prominent and compelling soundtrack, closely tied to plot developments, making music at least seem like an essential element of the animated film. In contrast, cartoons generally have no songs, and the music they include may consist simply of repeated passages of stock music that have no particular relationship to the incidents on the screen.

Finally, a true animated movie does strive for an element of spectacle. Its animation is not the mind-numbing "limited animation" of the UA cartoons of the 1950s, or of the innumerable cartoon series where characters keep moving in exactly the same way in front of the same backgrounds. Instead, the animated movie strives to be visually impressive; in particular, whether it's "Pink Elephants on Parade" in Dumbo, "Under the Sea" in The Little Mermaid, or Moses parting the Red Sea in The Prince of Egypt, an animated movie almost always, I think, has at least one sequence that is designed to be a "show-stopper," a visually stunning setpiece.

Thus, a proposed definition of an animated movie might be as follows:

An animated movie, as opposed to a cartoon, is an animated narrative that includes (or at least aspires to include) all six of Aristotle's elements of drama: a true plot, fully developed characters, a theme or message, language, songs and music, and visual spectacle.

What are the advantages of such a definition?

First, there is the appeal to authority. Any formula that springs out the mind of an editor can readily be attacked as ad hoc or specious; but who can sneer at a definition based on Aristotle?

More broadly, a definition like this would be very useful in terms of the larger argument that a reference book on animated movies would need to make. The essential point would be that an animated movie is not simply an overlong cartoon, but is rather a distinct genre. Further, with Aristotle's support, the book might even maintain that the animated movie, far from being a spurious modern development, actually represents a return to the original and most ancient forms of drama, which were characterized by eclecticism and variety. Thus, in ancient Greece, an evening at the theatre would probably involve a trilogy of tragedies, presenting a familiar mythological story with complex characters, a profound message, a singing chorus, and spectacular effects like the deux ex machina descending from above on an elaborate crane, and everything would conclude with a satirical satyr play filled with jokes. And the approach of including something for everybody has remained central to the animated movies of today. In contrast, one might continue, other contemporary movie genres are more limited, lacking one or more of the Aristotelian elements: Merchant-Ivory costume dramas offer no spectacle, slam-bang action movies have no characters, serious dramas exclude songs, teen comedies lack any thought or message, and so on.

To make the point most boldly, one could posit that if the ancient Greeks returned to Earth today, they would find something like Beauty and the Beast or The Prince of Egypt far more like their ancient evenings at the theatre than the other films at the multiplexes. Thus, far from being something to belittle, the animated movie could be valorized as something archetypal, a return to ancient principles of drama, a visual narrative that is more complete and more satisfying than any of the others now available to modern filmgoers.

Now, would such an argument be taking matters a bit too far? Perhaps; but this could also have useful effects. As Kingsley Amis notes while discussing science fiction fans in New Maps of Hell, "to feel that what one is doing is the most important thing in the world is not necessarily undignified, and indeed is perhaps more rather than less likely to lead to good work being done." One danger to editors of an encyclopedia of animated movies would be a nascent inferiority complex, the feeling that one is analyzing movies which have never been taken seriously and may not deserve to be taken seriously; and such thoughts might subconsciously weaken one's determination to do one's very best work. But grand reference books require editors with grand ambitions who fervently wish to present grand claims about their subject matter. Therefore, to be a truly superior reference work, an encyclopedia of animated movies might fruitfully and energetically maintain that it is a book devoted to the best, and to the most significant, movies of them all.

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