Ludic Toons: The Dynamics of Creative Play in Studio Animation

By Power, Pat | American Journal of Play, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Ludic Toons: The Dynamics of Creative Play in Studio Animation


Power, Pat, American Journal of Play


Though generally accepted as the most playfully entertaining form of popular media or art, animation as play has received little scholarly analysis. The author examines the nature of playfulness in animation and describes play as a critical tool in animation studies. Examining studio character animation from such perspectives as creative production, animated output, and audience reception, he builds on findings of animation studies, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, anthropology, semiotics, sociology, and aesthetics to propose a specific or ludic mode of animation. He then reviews how cinematic naturalism affects the nature of play in animation. He concludes that animation is a playground for the mind and that engagement with animated entertainment is authentic play. Key words: animation history; animation studies; cartoons; Disney; Pixar; playfulness in animation; Warner Bros.

Introduction and Scope

The field of film studies is itself relatively new, a phenomenon of the 1960s, and animation studies is younger still; it emerged only in the last twenty years. Although most of us find animated cartoons both playful and entertaining, academics have long shied away from the study of animation for this very reason. The perception of animation as "cartoons for kiddies," largely a Disney legacy, has meant that mainstream animation was a "no-go area for most film critics and theorists" (Pilling 1997, xi). The study of play has similarly suffered such neglect. Given the confluence of these two shunned subject areas, it should be hardly surprising that there has been little, if any, analysis of animation as play, and rarely do we find any play-related discussions in scholarly works on animation-or even any mention of play in their indexes. This omission seems odd because playfulness appears to be one of the more salient qualities of mainstream animation. We would find it strange, for example, if animation scholars, happy to discuss color, form, narrative, and sound in animation, ignored movement because it was too obvious.

But animation studies underemphasize play and playfulness for a number of reasons, foremost amongst them what Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) calls the rhetoric of frivolity-a rhetoric that affects perceptions both of animation and play. Many people consider play, as they do animation, appropriate only for kids and, therefore, essentially frivolous; so there is little incentive for academics to promote either as a field of study. Then, too, there is the complex and dynamic nature of play and playfulness. They are simultaneously ubiquitous and elusive, often too enigmatic and ambiguous to fit neat academic categories. So the mix- ing of animation, play, and academia seems fraught with problems.

Chuck Jones, the legendary animation director, was well aware of the dan- gers of analyzing creative play. In a cover comment for cultural critic and anima- tion historian Norman M. Klein's 7 Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon (1996), Jones notes the dissection of humor "by far too many joyless PhDs" and warns that "the subject may die in the process." The essence of animation brings life to the inanimate, so it would be a cruel and unusual irony were I to kill it through critical analysis. Since "the cartoon is a playful art," one "without pretentions [that] teases both those who neglect it and those who take it too seriously" (Lindvall and Melton 1997, 204), my objective here is to juggle the myriad kinds of creative play let loose in a century of animation, to examine these creative antics in pursuit not of mere academic respectability, but of enlivened understanding, and, thus, to contribute both to our understanding of play and to our engagement with animation.

Despite its relative academic neglect, animation constitutes a huge and eclec- tic field, one whose scope we need to define for this study. Although the history of mainstream animation- dating from about one hundred years ago-parallels that of film, the kinds of animation in this short time have been diverse. …

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