As Seth Rogen‘s NSFW CGI comedy Sausage Party reminds us, things like anthropomorphized food need not only exist for the delight of children. Animation movies geared toward adults have been around for a long while, some of them (the best ones, let’s be honest) aimed squarely at us grownups...
From Ari Folman’s Waltz with Basir, piecing together his own dark memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, to Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, based on Philip K. Dick’s prediction of a near-future where every aspect of life is tracked and monitored, to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, which features one of the most heart-wrenching character deaths in movie history, to George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine in which The Beatles rampage through a psychedelic Pop Art dreamscape, to Trey Parker’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut which warped our fragile little minds forever...
Throughout the history of film, animators have used the medium as a way to tell complicated and probably-not-okay-for-kids stories. Some of Japan’s earliest anime started out pretty freaky; adult-oriented films like Akira and Spirited Away have continued in that trend. But, far removed from the large-eyed maidens and way-cool robots of anime, how has adult animation film evolved in the U.S.?
Here’s our breakdown of the rude, crude, animated film history in America.
The very first example of censorship against an animation movie was back in 1925, when Walt Disney’s short "Alice Solves the Puzzle" was declared too controversial. Apparently the puzzle was how to get drunk during Prohibition, because Pennsylvania was trying to censor references to bootlegging.
Five years later and the Hays Code was adopted: a set of rules governing American filmmaking that shaped (and stifled) American cinema for over three decades. Betty Boop was among the unlucky ones affected. Once one of the sexiest cartoon characters ever to wiggle across the movie screen in a French maid’s outfit, the Code required Betty to wear more clothing and – more importantly – she lost her long-term boyfriend, Bimbo, a male dog…
Back in the '30s, implied bestiality in cartoons was wrong (then Seth Macfarlane made it all okay again).
Into the '60s
In 1968, the new president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) oversaw the first major revision of the Code and replaced it with a system of voluntary film ratings. Censorship of Hollywood flicks was thus limited and parents were instead provided with information about the appropriateness of films for kids; animation could be reintroduced to a new generation of adult viewers.
The first film to go hell for leather on the new ratings system was Yellow Submarine. Led by brilliant, visionary designer Heinz Edelmann and director George Dunning, a team of artists toiled away in some dank offices in London for nearly a year, with a budget of less than $1 million, and came out with this 90-minute acid trip in which the narcotic division of the police department are always out to ruin everybody’s good time with their silly laws.
But probably the biggest maker of adult animation to take advantage of the change was defiant animator Ralph Bakshi, who created several animated films in the early '70s. But it wasn’t until his controversial Fritz The Cat that Bakshi started to gain some real exposure. Fritz was based on the Robert Crumb comic strip of the same name and followed the titular cat as he explored the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of '60s NYC. Lewd.
Since Bashki’s heyday, there have been a number of prominent adult animation movies. Among them is Gerald Potterton’s futuristic 1981 flick Heavy Metal, showcasing guys with big guns and gals with even bigger chests, fighting each other and having sex to a classic rock soundtrack.
Another is Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 live-action/animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which contained a number of dirty jokes that were almost imperceptible to the audience, but could be viewed by slowing down laserdisc copies of the film: Baby Herman sticking up his middle finger, which he extends up under a woman’s dress, and Jessica Rabbit’s bare crotch in an isolated frame.
Then things got really offensive...
Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the men behind South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut – made it clear from the outset of their careers that no one would be spared their razor-sharp commentary. They now get away with offending almost everyone, precisely because they are willing to target absolutely everyone. The show has evolved from a simple cartoon about fart jokes into a complex satire that mocks current events, celebrities and culture.
The only theatrical South Park movie deals with two issues the series knows well: censorship and freedom of speech. In fact, according to the movie’s logic, the problems with “our children” do not stem from the fact that they copy the obscene and prejudicial representations they see in the media; rather, the problem is that movie’s superegos want to censor and castrate the boys for expressing their true desires: A meta message about political correctness, if ever there was one?
Despite warnings to South Park’s creators from the likes of Comedy Central (not to mention the radical Muslim organizations who threatened that they’ll end up like Theo van Gogh for their depiction of the prophet Muhammad), Parker and Stone haven’t been deterred. Apparently, neither have the increasing number of adult animation producers...
Adult Animation Today
Since the South Park movie, animated films portraying adult messages have become increasingly popular with mainstream audiences – provoking, becoming more absurd, and aiming intellectual content at adult audiences more than ever before.
Similarly adult in scope, Richard Linklater’s 2001 docufiction/drama film Waking Life – exploring philosophical issues including the nature of reality and the meaning of life – made it to Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list.
In 2006, Richard Linklater released A Scanner Darkly. Everything about the movie from Richard Linklater is murky, gloomy and mysterious. A druggie nightmare unfolds, and watching it is a bit like drinking the proverbial bong water.
And a year later brought one mind-screwing joke after another in Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters – a movie that really, really needs to stay away from youngsters’ eyes.
Various adult animations have also gained recognition on film festival circuits in recent years. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis – an adaptation of Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel – won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, despite the Iranian government’s protest.
Continuing with Middle-Eastern politics was Ari Folman's Waltz with Basir, which surfaced just a year later, in 2008. Vivid and horrifying events leading up to the massacres are disinterred by the movie's quasi-fictional "reconstructive" procedure, somewhere between oral history and psychoanalysis. It looks like one long hallucination, and therefore perfect for the trauma of Folman's recovered memories.
Next, came Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox – an adult-oriented film disguised in a child-tempting wrapper of stop-motion animation. In fact, Fantastic Mr. Fox may be one of the first stop motion films that is explicitly for adults. The dry, offbeat adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's story features a lot of scheming and violence – there are explosions, guns, a knife-wielding rat, a rabid dog, and a secondary character's death – and the farmers smoke and drink throughout, as do the adult animals.
And then there was Ted. Seth MacFarlane’s 2012 movie introduced us instead to a tired little weed-smoking, beer-swilling teddy bear. Minutes into the movie, Ted stops being an adorable CGI furball and evolves into a recognizable character type: the anchor who drags his best friend down, squashes his ambitions and gets in the way of his relationship with his long-suffering girlfriend. It’s asinine, offensive and borderline destructive to the advancement of our society, but we don’t care because we’ve gotten so many laughs from it.
Now, the likes of Seth MacFarlane, Matt Groening and Mike Judge are still massively active in their fields, throwing curveballs at us at every possible moment. Sure, their no-holds-barred approach can feel gratuitous at times, but behind every outpour of movie profanity there is always something redeemable – whether that’s a good dose of crude, side-splitting humor or a boundary-stretching exercise in the freedom of expression.
Where the genre goes from here remains to be seen. But for now, we at least have Sausage Party to look forward to...