I'm a child of the 80's. This causes me a great deal of consternation since I frequently worry that I'm simply being a curmudgeon when I say that kids today don't know what good movies and cartoons look like. I feel decently confident that this isn't the case, and actually have some data to back up that belief, but it's always in the back of my mind.
One thing that keeps my mind at ease is that I don't rate things based on whether they were in my personal childhood or not. In fact, I feel that I can trace the downward spiral of children's entertainment to the early 1990's, which was very much still in my childhood, and I frequently find works from the 1980's and 70's that I didn't even know existed, but are leaps and bounds ahead of the crap being produced today.
A decent theory that to explain this decline, while not covering everything necessary to explain the phenomenon, is that cable TV fragmented the child market, triggering a drop in quality to both increase profit while also catering to the lowest common denominator. Companies saw profit vectors shrink or simply fail completely, and they responded by retracting investment and development.
Whatever the reason, there are few examples more stark to me than An American Tail. The movie was a case study in not talking down to children. And much to the joy of any movie fan, the poster was also a fantastic example of what can be done when an artist decides what should be painted and not an executive.
The entire poster is dreary and dark, with brown, rusty, desaturated colors. Roger Ebert, in a negative review, even described the movie as "dark and gloomy." The only two points of the poster that are uplifting are Feivel, standing out from the poster in both color and structure, and the glaring light of the Statue of Liberty, which was just completed in the timeline of the movie.
The poster was painted by Drew Struzan, who's painted nearly every great movie poster of the past thirty years. I also chose to include the poster that doesn't have the movie info on it. This is simply as how Struzan painted it. It is magnificent. Fievel lets you know what the movie will be about, but the rest of the poster lets you know what the texture will be. This poster is a work of art.
The success of the first poster stands in contrast to the failure of the second. It's here where I see the degradation of children's entertainment.
This poster is so god-awful twee that it makes me want to vomit. You've got tons of bright, smiling characters, a tag-line so stupid that it could only have been written by an executive, and some character renditions with posing so poor that they may have been drawn by an intern.
There is no symbolism, no message. It does communicate something from the poster, though, and that is "adults need not apply," and holy shit, is that an accurate statement. The movie was 100% kiddie-fare, which is why everyone remembers the first one and not the second one.
Let's go back a bit further still, to the release of Don Bluth's first film, The Secret of NIMH.
Just look at the difference. This was a time where what mattered was the wonder and magic of the story. It was about making kids sit back in awe and think about what they had seen. It wasn't just about delivering bright, screaming characters, thrown on screen to spout stupid one-liners to drooling children.
During this time, from the 1980's into the 1990's, we saw a transition in entertainment. For whatever reason -rising budgets, cable TV, home video- movie inventiveness and quality, especially in productions aimed at children, took a nose-dive. Children's entertainment became engineered. The Disney Renaissance birthed an explosion of quality that, I think, saw its zenith on television with Batman The Animated Series and on the big screen with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both of those productions were essentially born in the 1980's, and were the last of their breed.
I am very happy to be seeing a new increase in quality. Cartoon Network has produced some really fantastic shows, and both the new Thundercats and The Legend of Korra have breathed new life into the adventure cartoon. Brave looks primed to deliver a new family film like we had in the early and mid-eighties. Truly, I feel that we may very well be entering a new renaissance.
But that's material for another post. This post is about how two movies, five years apart, and exemplified by their posters, represented the fall of a golden age, and the rise of engineered ultra-mass-media.