Adult animation: in the West, most mainstream projects have a few stereotypical features. American cartoons in particular—if they’re made for adults, they’re going to be full of ugly squash-shaped characters who make cheap, crude jokes (and even the occasional good joke) for twenty minutes during 1 AM cable timeslots. If you wanted an animated show or movie that wasn’t solely marketed towards children, you’d have to go to arthouse studios or Japanese Anime. But that norm is changing with the rise of streaming platforms. In the past five or so years, a new market of adult western animation has flourished.
In November 2021, Netflix’s show “Arcane” aired over the course of a few weeks, quickly becoming its highest-rated series ever. While being an adaptation/spin-off of the popular video game League of Legends, the show appealed to wide audiences, from animation buffs to video game nerds to even those who had little interest in the medium or the source material.
It’s easy to see why people rated it highly. To put it simply, it’s an amazing show. The animation is incredibly precise and artistic, blending both 3D animations with illustrated environments and hand-painted lighting. The storytelling is mature, with intense character drama, action, and dark-subject matter; it’s not a show that younger children should watch without supervision. Even if the story isn’t for you, it’s undeniable the level of effort and care that was put into every aspect of the show.
If you’ve not yet experienced “Arcane”, I envy that you get to see it for the first time. Here’s the trailer:
“Arcane” isn’t the first show that got this kind of attention and praise in the last few years. In fact, there’s been a recurring theme of animated shows and films marketed towards older audiences being complete critical and audience darlings.
For example, Sony’s “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” was expertly blended eye-candy of action-packed CGI and 2D animation. While it was technically family-friendly, it had a distinct maturity to its storytelling that linked it more with other Marvel movies and less with Pixar flicks.
However, some recently popular animated media has been unambiguously adult. For example, Netflix’s 2017 show, Castlevania adapted quite a gory subject material and pulled no punches. Blood and guts fly across the screen as its protagonists rip through hordes of monsters, religious trauma, sex, discrimination, and slavery are shown in vivid detail, giving the show more similarities to Game of Thrones than to Frozen.
If you can stomach some violence, here’s a trailer for Castlevania, showing off its unique blend of anime and western animation styles:
Another example is the 2021 Amazon Prime series, Invincible, an adaptation of a comic book by the same name. While it’s animated like a Saturday morning cartoon, anyone who has finished the first episodes of the show can tell you that it’s anything but. The show makes use of its friendly comic book art style to disturb its audience with jarring levels of gore. The use of its animation style and the interesting take of its superhero setting brought the show two awards; it’s now rated #83 of all-time TV shows on IMDB.
These shows aren’t for children, and even the ones that still manage to break themselves out of the Pixar mold for what it means to make an animated project. So, this is a change in pace for western animation, mainly occurring over the past five years. What could’ve brought it on?
Well, to start with, the internet has opened up possibilities for animated projects. Streaming services have a lot more freedom with what they can fund. More and more communities of adults and teenagers have opened up around animated shows, creating a very potent viewer base that wasn’t as trackable before. Many fans of children’s shows such as Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power aren’t as young as the material might suggest.
Another possibility could be the anime community. Many streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime own Japanese anime shows that garner a lot of community interest. As the culture shifts to account for the open nature of the internet, foreign media is less… well, foreign now. Japanese Anime tends to expand over many genres and viewer bases, rarely being solely “for kids.”
A lot of the boom in adult animation occurred in the past 10 years, after the premiere of Attack on Titan, a hit anime that managed to grab the attention of anime and non-anime fans alike. That popularity could’ve inspired investors to pay more attention to mature animated projects that emulated Attack on Titan’s adult themes.
As you can see, recent shows (especially Castlevania) seem to take inspiration from the style of Attack on Titan.
But even more apparent is that all the recent projects I’ve mentioned are adaptations. Into the Spiderverseused a popular IP during the era of the MCU. Castlevania and Arcane are spin-offs of popular video games. Invincible not only adapts a comic but rides the coattails of a decade of superhero culture and anti-superhero culture that’s dominated pop culture media. Despite the market for this content, it’s obvious that the only way you’re going to get the funding to work on something like Arcane is to adapt something else that’s already popular.
This isn’t a curse solely laid on animated media, of course. Even Forrest Gump is getting a remake. But with such a small pool of these animated shows to draw from, it’s disheartening to see how rare original IPs even are.
The success of Arcane can’t just be placed on the growing market, however. It’s important to note that the show was produced by a French animation studio, Fortiche, which had creative control over a lot of the project. The fact that the show was made not only with love but without intense labor malpractice or forced-corporate storylines shows.
Netflix released a Behind the Scenes of Arcane video, describing the relationship that RiotGames had with Fortiche animation studio, which likely contributed to the final product’s quality.
The future of Western adult animation depends on projects like Arcane to prove that a market exists for well-produced animated media for adults. It exists to show that strong creative direction helps with better reception. Hopefully, in the future, American studios will unionize CGI animators, as well, which will likely give them more control over the industry in a way that will help create quality products. If shows like these came out of the past five years, it’s no telling what will come out in the next ones.