Into the Spider-Verse Provides Hope for Mainstream Animation
Being an animated film is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you are given limitless possibilities when it comes to setting, plot, characters, and the way the story will be presented. On the other hand, you are plagued by strict expectations from society that encourage homogeneity in a medium that encompasses a diverse set of artistic talents and techniques.
It is always refreshing when a mainstream animated feature made outside of the Disney (and nowadays, Pixar) borders becomes successful enough to destroy the illusion that the House of Mouse is the only studio capable of delivering us worthwhile animation. Don Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH came at a particularly perfect time where Disney was not only still trying with keeping in touch with its roots after Uncle Walt’s passing, but was actually struggling financially. One American Tail and Land Before Time, and Bluth’s edgier fare than the traditional cutesy adventures Disney has delivered over the years has greatly influenced the 1980’s landscape. Then The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance in 1989, establishing Disney’s dominance once more. A decade later, the Disney Renaissance’s formula got stale to audiences, and in 2001, Dreamworks’ Shrek spiced things up with blatant adult-oriented comedy and a deconstruction of the typical family-friendly animated fairy tale. Then Shrek’s influence was so massive that it became a shadow of its former self after two sequels, and other animated flicks coming out of Hollywood started copying its shtick. Even Disney, with Chicken Little, could not resist experimenting with the formula Dreamworks established.
Which leads to where we are now.
Although fairy tale parodies are long gone, what Shrek unintentionally normalized through its success is still a staple of mainstream animated features today. Tiresome pop culture references that feel out of place, shoehorning of fads that instantly date the films, corporate integration via merchandise and frequent sequels, as well as ubiquitous CGI. Toy Story might’ve introduced CGI as a way to make features, but Shrek’s triumphant debut cemented the identity of Hollywood animation in the twenty-first century.
This is the state of mainstream animated films now. That doesn’t mean that contemporary works are only duds, far from it. It’s just hard to be optimistic when one of the newly arrived giants, Illumination, is frequently criticized for thriving through these cynical tactics and even the supposed kings of the industry are hopping on board. More than half of Pixar’s features from the 2010’s are sequels, and only one, The Incredibles 2, was notoriously requested by fans. Disney just released a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen 2 will follow it. Who knows how often the old IP’s will make a return to cash in on the original movie’s success or for the sake of nostalgia?
Fortunately, Into the Spider-Verse might make subscribing to idealism just a tad bit easier. Initially, the film might seem as redundant as all the other animated films trying to be hip or franchises that pump out sequels. Spider-Man is the one of, if not the most adapted superhero in the twenty-first century, and the film definitely does modernize itself, it even has Spider-Man memes . However, the critical acclaim is there for a reason.
The film does not dwell into classic traditional animation. The influence of CGI has definitely sneaked into its aesthetics. In fact, the film is fully, 100% computer animated, but it makes sure to not forget the roots of its source material and distinguishes itself from its brethren by simply not looking like a Pixar or Dreamworks film. The visuals borrow from the art style of Miles Morales’ co-creator Sara Pichelli, amplifying the comic book feel. The usage of the renowned stretch and squash technique in the action sequences demonstrate an understanding of decades of experimentation with what animation could do. There is no motion blur and the action is still fluid despite a low framerate. Instead of attempting to put well-known characters into a soulless, semi-realistic environment, the film immerses all of its components into an unapologetically unrealistic-looking and bombastic world with colours that pop all over the place, no matter how low or high the lighting is. The animation simply embraces its distinctive and stylistic nature, setting it part from other features that simply want to conform.
The film’s refreshing cast is another reason why it shines. Sure, we get to see the Peter Parker we all know and love, but keep in mind that this is Miles Morales’ feature-length debut. On top of the story adapting the tale of the first non-white Spider-Man, we get to see a woman superhero in Spider-Gwen, and another trio of uniquely designed supers: gloomy and mysterious Spider-Man Noir, the perky anime-influenced Peni Parker, and the goofy and unabashedly cartoony Spider-Ham. All of them challe
nge the norms in the superhero genre in some way. Miles’ ethnicity and Gwen’s gender respectively enable the film to reflect the diverse identities of the public. The (very white) androcentrism that we have been accustomed to seeing in both the superhero genre, and the animation medium as a whole, is being challenged just a little bit more. The other three show that not only can different art styles mix well in an animated film, but colourful designs and/or realistic proportions are not necessary for a superhero character, even a Marvel one.
Of course, all of this would be pointless if the characters were puppets whose personalities were dictated by their appearance, but they’re not. Miles is awkward, alienated from his surroundings, and clearly does not know what he’s doing after he got his powers until the end of the film. Gwen is snarky, rational compared to the other heroes, and keeps her distance unless it’s necessary. Spider-Man Noir is intimidating and admits to having done morally ambiguous things in the past, yet he’s endlessly fascinated by a Rubik’s cube. Peni is bubbly, yet somewhat vain, gluttonous, and incredibly skilled with technology. Spider-Ham is whacky and inherits the original Peter Parker’s trademark fondness of banter, all while being completely capable of being a serious and competent hero. This is a set of characters that are neither visually repetitive nor one-dimensional.
This film managed to take one of the most frequently adapted properties of one of the currently most prominent genres in pop culture and set a new bar for its contemporaries, on top of being one of the most uniquely looking animated films in years. To think that Sony went from the Emoji Movie to this.
With this movie’s release and Toy Story 4 seemingly being Pixar’s last sequel for a while, the idea of mainstream animated films becoming more diverse, aesthetically and narratively, in the next decade is becoming a bigger possibility.
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