Did Animation Take Its “Next Step” in 2023?

In mid-March during the Oscars, Netflix’s Pinocchio took home the award for Best Animated Feature. During his acceptance speech, co-director Guillermo del Toro said the animation medium was ready to be taken to “the next step,” a statement that was meant to be inspiring after animation was belittled at that very ceremony just minutes prior. The category presenters were dismissive of animation overall, basically calling it kiddie fare that parents have to suffer through just to shut their kids up.

That kind of joke would already be rude even if animation wasn’t the one arm of entertainment to not be noticeably affected by the pandemic, but what made it sting all the more is that 2022 just wasn’t kind to the animation industry. Between shows getting canceled without any discernable reason, projects being scrapped mid-production, and things getting yanked off streaming services, getting insulted at an awards ceremony wasn’t exactly fun. Del Toro’s words, later echoed in an essay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were a declaration that the animation space deserved more respect. Throughout 2023, I’ve been wondering about what “the next step” tangibly looks like when shows and films take so long to be developed and come out, but surprisingly, the universe had an an answer to that question.

In the same way that 2023 has been an incredible year for video games as a product, the same is true of animation. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was a thrilling (albeit shaky) sequel to the 2018 juggernaut that was one of many animated standouts. This year really felt like studios were more than willing to walk away from the tried-and-true realism that Disney and Pixar made into the gold standard in favor of getting a little more experimental and weird. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem had a similarly unconventional look as the Spider-Verse movies, but in a rougher, grosser way that felt right at home with the mutated creatures and youthful energy of its constantly amped-up terrapins.

Similarly, Illumination’s Super Mario Bros. managed to bring one of the oldest gaming franchises to cinematic life and make it feel new, which is an impressive feat unto itself. Whatever else you can say about the film, it looks fantastic, and its success was so big it inspired Nintendo to start eyeing other games for adaptation And while they’re not movies, Disney+’s two anthology series, Star Wars Visions and Kizazi Moto: Fire Generation, shake up their animation styles with each respective episode in ways that are informed by the sensibilities and regional histories of the creators making them.

Image: Paramount

There was a greater range of diversity of western animated series this year, and the new stuff absolutely hit alongside existing favorites like Star Trek: Lower Decks or Legend of Vox Machina. Sci-fi fans had Scavengers Reign and Fired on Mars: the former was so scary and so excellent it feels like it beamed in from another universe, while Fired easily became the new inheritor of the mantle of low stakes, slice-of-life animation previously held by King of the Hill. Superheroes got to have some fun breaking out of boundaries, as well: My Adventures with Superman delivered a fun spin on superheroes by going all-in on being a romcom with a lot more confidence than cape shows usually allow; meanwhile, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur was a delightfully charming series the likes of which Marvel hasn’t fully had since Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes a decade ago.

Adult animation often gets forced into being cartoonishly crass or violent (sometimes both), but steps were taken to bring some nuance to the space. It’s never a question of just how violent Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai can get—the answer to that is just “yes”—but the show is also pretty intentional with how and when it deploys sex beyond just titillation. Those sex scenes are as basic as an HBO show still finding its footing, but they take themselves and the characters involved as seriously as the show does with the fight scenes. There’s a similar thoughtfulness present in Castlevania: Nocturne’s handling of race and sexuality with characters like Anette and Olrox that makes the larger show so much stronger, because you can tell the creators put the work in to make the races of these characters be informed by the time period—and how that reflects their standing in the world. Scott Pilgrim Takes Off may not be as violent or raunchy as those other Netflix shows, but it was considerate in examining the legacy of its own source material and what relationships look like from both ends of a breakup.

Combined with some pretty fun anime throughout the year like Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury and original animation like Lackadaisy and The Amazing Digital Circus getting wide recognition, it’d be safe to say that animation reached a new high in 2023, right? Well, yes and no; while everything above was pretty great and worth checking out, the larger boom this year is undermined by the fact that the creation and treatment of many of these was absolute hell on those involved. Spider-Verse burned away a lot of its goodwill with crunch and overwork allegations, as did Studio MAPPA for the second season of Jujutsu Kaisen and other shows it released this year. Equally bad is that overwork is now being touted (jokingly or not) as a necessary evil, as signs of it aren’t evident in the final product itself in some way.

Image for article titled Did Animation Take Its 'Next Step' in 2023?

Image: Powerhouse Animation/Netflix

Studios also need to get better at marketing what they have. Disney didn’t really know what to do with Elemental until South Korea took a shine to it and boosted its box office, after which the studio actually started highlighting the film’s immigrant story in tandem with its love story. It’s a larger problem across movies overall, but felt particularly heightened this year even before the strikes threw a wrench into things. Frankly, Elemental got lucky South Korea was so into it, because it otherwise would’ve suffered the same fate as DreamWorks’ underperforming Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, which released two weeks later.

But both of these points are extensions of a larger issue that del Toro, Lord, and Miller all gave their thoughts on earlier this year: animation really does deserve more respect than it presently gets. And for that to happen, it needs high-level people in each company who won’t turn their backs when original works (that likely weren’t well-supported to begin with) fizzle out because they didn’t grow into themselves immediately—or keep pulling the sequel lever and ordering new installments of well-worn titles. Those are seemingly tall orders for all creative industries right now, and they won’t be fixed right away. But with the industry potentially looking at a strike, in a year that showed Hollywood unions can bring about concrete improvements for their members, it’s clear that change is overdue. The next step for animation can’t really come until the process isn’t killing the people working on it.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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