Animation: Genre or Medium?

by Collin Willis

Incredibles 2 has leapt the record for best animated opening of all time in a single bound. While watching the movie myself (and its predecessor the day before), I came upon a sudden revelation. The Incredibles is not a kids movie. With broad subjects such as insurance dynamics, extramarital affairs, violent deaths in the hero field, and about a dozen other mature topics, The Incredibles is far too complex to be a mere kids movie. This doesn’t mean that kids cannot enjoy it. But it does mean that it’s not really targeted to them the same way as Frozen or Minions is. The Incredibles 2 aside, this revelation brought me to the titular question. Is animation a genre of film or a medium of it?

Ground Rules: I will only be discussing classic American 2D animation and modern 3D computer animation. Stop-motion and anime are not being considered in this argument due to their stylistic independence from traditional 2D and 3D animation.


Image via The Verge

Animation is a Genre

Ask any average film-goer and they will tell you that animation is a genre, kid’s stuff. Even the Academy considers animation a genre and not a medium.  Animated movies are most often children’s movies. They are often used to tell simple stories with a moral and a healthy dose of surreal humor. I will be taking a look at several studios and their hit films to provide evidence for this belief.

Disney’s Golden Age: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Image via Darkmagicianmon

Disney has dominated the 2D animation arena  with relatively few rivals since 1937. Under Walt Disney, Disney’s Golden Age delivered hit after hit from 1937-1967. Disney’s Golden Age movies in particular cemented the idea that animation is a children’s genre.

Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) for example. It’s a straightforward tale about a princess, an evil step-mother/witch, and a handsome prince charming. It’s got catchy music, cute animals with slapstick humor, and a straightforward moral. It is the first cookie baked under the Disney cookie cutter method of moralistic storytelling. All of Disney’s subsequent 2D hits follow a similar pattern to this and are aimed at children. Simple settings, simple themes, and broad character archetypes make these films easy for kids to digest. If you’re an adult seeking complex and mature story-telling, Classic Disney isn’t for you.

This isn’t to say that Classic Disney isn’t deep or “good”, but that it’s simplistically so. It takes bold measures to tell easily relatable and explainable themes and ideas. Classic Disney is very smart, and it delivers these simple ideas in mature ways. That’s why you won’t find many poop jokes in Classic Disney, but will find death and raw emotion.

Dreamworks: Shrek


Image via Mumby at the Movies

Speaking of poop jokes… If Disney is your mature young adult, then Dreamworks is your pre-teen that can’t stop laughing at the word “balls”. It’s more mature, but cloaks its maturity in a thick cloud of axe body spray and toilet humor. Take the first and second Shrek films for example. (I don’t acknowledge 3 and 4).

Shrek thrives as a film because it flips a big middle finger to the Golden Age Disney formula. It’s loud, it’s obnoxious, and it lampoons the very story it’s telling, but does so masterfully. It doesn’t have the grace or charm of a Disney movie, and it is even more outwardly a kids movie because of it. The simple message of beauty being on the inside is told through a cast of immature characters and immature jokes. Though Shrek does have a greater amount of adult humor than any Disney classic, it revels in its lack of “refined” humor.

Shrek is a children’s movie because it tells a simple moral in a child friendly manner. And, while it has more adult humor to rope parents in, it also has more immature humor for the kids. So, odds are if the only animated movies you see are Dreamworks movies, then you believe that they are for kids.

Illumination: Minions


Fart Gun image via Illumination

If Dreamworks is a pubescent teen, then Illumination is the screaming child in the booth next to you at McDonald’s. It’s screaming nonsense, crying for everyone’s attention, and has no sense of “good behavior”. Illumination films are 100% children’s films. They are dominated by butt jokes, random noises, and characters that can easily be made into toys.

If any film studio facilitates the idea that animated movies are a genre, it’s Illumination.

Animation is a Genre Conclusion


Image via IndieWire

Based on the fact that animated movies all tend to share the same themes and style of storytelling, one could very easily argue that animation is a genre. This argument could even be broken down to encompass different studios as being different sub-genres. However, there are several films and studios that contradict this idea entirely.

Because of the films I am about to discuss below, I do not believe that animation is a genre. While studios like Disney, Dreamworks, and Illumination may almost solely put out children’s movies, that is a bigger market indication than it is an artistic one. The fact that children tend to engage more with animated movies does not dictate their role as either a genre or a medium. In my opinion, these animation studios produce films geared towards children because they are more lucrative than an animated film for adults might be due to stigmas around the style of film.

Animation is a Medium


Image via Cartoon Brew

This argument seeks to find films that support the idea of animation being a medium instead of a genre. Not only do this films stray from traditional animated genres and themes, but they either disregard or blur the line between how films are delivered to kids vs. how they are to adults.

Sausage Party


Image via Chicago Tribune

This movie single-handedly turns the “Animation is a Genre” idea on its head. If you think that a film featuring a food orgie is a children’s movie, then you and I have severely different views on the world. This is one of the most “definitely not a kids movie” films I have ever seen. Scratch that, it is definitely the most “not a kids movie” animated film I have ever seen. Sure, it features bright anthropomorphic characters similar to those found in “traditional” animated films. However, the delivery, tone, and maturity of the film does not fit into the animated “genre”.

Instead of the characters finding a way to make peace with their environment or find beauty within, this film ends with the food learning to overthrow the humans and setting off to destroy the very actors voicing them. This movie is an action-comedy if I were to place it in a genre, but it does not fit the suggested “animation genre” mold.

One could argue that Sausage Party is just an animated anomaly, and there would be truth to that statement. There aren’t any other R-rated wide released 3D animated films. Sausage Party does stand on its own in that regard. However, there are two films which break the animated mold by blurring the lines between adult superhero film and kids animated Pixar film.

The Incredibles


Image via

The Incredibles is the best Pixar movie. You can make arguments for Toy Story (1,2 or 3), Wall-E, Up, Finding Nemo, or Inside Out, but you’re wrong. The Incredibles is Pixar’s pièce de résistance. When I was seven years old and The Incredibles came out, it was just a great Pixar superhero movie. As an adult, it is still a great Pixar superhero movie. But, it is also a great film about a blue-collar family struggling with midlife crisis, personal beliefs in the workplace, and the strain of marriage.

The amount of “adult” subjects that the film focuses on outside of the superherodom rivals Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy in both complexity and grace. The film spends so much time focusing on these larger concepts, that the film spends more time delivering its themes to adults than it does spoon-feeding something simpler and more straight forward than a traditional animated movie.

Now, Pixar has a history of this, but its other films aren’t as slanted towards adult themes as The Incredibles. So, The Incredibles not only breaks the supposed “genre” of animated movies, but of Pixar’s “sub-genre” as well.

Animation is a Medium Part II


Image via ABC7 Chicago

Animation is a medium. It has always been a medium, but it has not always been utilized as such. Unfortunately the stigma surrounding the medium is that it is part of the children’s genre. However, we are seeing more and more films blur the line between how animation has been used and how it can be used. More and more these lines between mediums and genres are being blurred to deliver more complex and more exciting films.

Take Marvel for example, the first six films started off as cookie cutter superhero stories. These films were good, but not great save The Avengers. But in years since, Marvel has taken the superhero genre and mixed it with that of comedy, heist, thriller, and several other genres. Pixar in particular does this more aggressively with the themes in their movies, mashing child and adult concepts into a widely pleasing movie.

The fact of the matter is that children’s movies are sort of a genre on their own, and yes, they are often animated. However, any genre can be animated instead of filmed live action. Animation is not a genre, but rather a medium to channel those genres through.

Thanks for reading!  What are your thoughts on Animation as a Medium?  Comment down below!

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Arsene_Lucifer July 10, 2018 - 11:13 pm

I go with it’s a medium on the lone fact I don’t consider books, television, music, or other forms of storytelling as their own genre. Other people do so I don’t mind like someone already mention, if I’m in the mood to see an animated movie it makes it easier to find one. I do wish there further label attach to animation besides just animation. Sometimes I’m in the mood to watch an animated drama, and sometimes a comedy. Simply lumping them in together means I miss out on many animated movies I haven’t seen.

JR July 5, 2018 - 10:34 am

I completely agree that it’s a medium. And I think television has the track record to prove it. Simpsons, Futurama, Archer, Southpark are all adult animated shows.
I don’t think it’s outrageous for film makers to make an animated film for adults, without it being a defiant comedy like Sasuage Party. If Maus by Art Speigleman was ever adapted into a film it would make sense for it to be animated, or stop motion, but it’s just as not a kids movie as Sasuage Party.

The Animation Commendation July 1, 2018 - 12:26 pm

Animation is a medium most definitely, in my opinion, but I don’t mind people calling it a “genre” because many times it helps them categorize animated films separately when selling them at stores or shelving them at libraries. That way, it makes it easier to find an animated film to watch.

Anonymous July 1, 2018 - 10:07 am

I think medium. I’m arguing this because, as a kid who grew up in the 90s when The Simpsons was in its beginning stages and two Disney films were nominated for best picture Oscars (before Best Animated was around), I think there was a huge shift in how animation was viewed. The Simpsons, and before that, The Flintstones, changed that. Also, the story of Beauty and the Beast, one of the Oscar nominated Best Picture films, is one about a girl being essentially taken as a hostage and falling in love with her captor. I love Beauty and the Beast, as it is my favorite Disney film, but its also very disguised as a “princess” movie, when it’s more than that underneath. Same with The Lion King and possibly Mulan, the first of which was the very first Disney film to involve an on-screen character death and the second of which involved a gender-bending narrative (which I, as a girl, loved). You could also point to Family Guy in the late 1990s as an adult animated show, or even the 1940s Disney, with its veiled commentary on society (looking at Dumbo and Pinocchio, mainly) as evidence that animation is just a medium with which to tell stories.

bck1402 July 1, 2018 - 5:45 am

I think, particularly in the US, that the general perception is the mixture and confusion between animation and cartoon.

Cartoon in the genre, often humorous and entertaining with the occasional thought require to understanding the context of any particular cartoon, tho not always applicable. Because these have been around longer, almost any other visual form of storytelling has been linked to this and regarded as a childish form of storytelling.

Animation is the medium in which stories can be told not matter who the target audience is, so you can get anything from shorts to movies. Depending on the story told, it could be for kids or for adults.

Smooshed between the two, and also often mistaken for cartoons, are comics (also a medium for storytelling).

At least, that’s my perspective.

Olaf Lesniak June 30, 2018 - 2:25 pm

Animation is clearly a genre.
Format is a medium. Style/tone is a genre.

Nick Kush June 30, 2018 - 1:49 pm

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