What Animation Like "Onward" Does Better Than Live-Action
Pixar's Onward is a great example of what animation does better than live-action: completely and totally interpret the world for the audience.
Movies are a medium that, like most art, is all about choosing how we look at the world. All movies interpret the world in some way. In real life, things happen. Many, many things happen all the time and we don't always know why. In movies we choose to focus on some things and not others, thereby saying what things we think are important. We point the camera at one group of people instead of another, we spend time listening to certain conversations and not others. We decide how bright and colorful or dark and dreary the world is going to look. We link events together and claim that one causes the other or that taken together they reveal a larger truth about the world. Some of these interpretations may be better or worse, but they are all, simply that: interpretations. Every decision made in a film is a decision to look at the world in a particular way and to invite the audience to look at the world in the same way.
However, live-action films are not totally interpretations. They leave some things on the table simply by the fact that they are live-action. They are not using interpretations of human bodies for their characters--they are using real human bodies. They are not using interpretations of real locations (at least much of the time; but we'll get to that later), they're using real locations.
Animation is different. Animation is, from the ground up, completely an interpretation. The human or inhuman bodies that you see do not show human bodies exactly as they are. They chose which parts of the human bodies they will draw and which they will leave blank. They exagerate some features and leave others as they are. Every line or splash of color in animation is, by nature, someone's decision.
You can see this clearly when you look at the different types of animation around the world. Americans are used to Disney or Pixar's style of animation, which typically draw and color the world to seem cute, bright, and friendly so that they can appeal to children. Anime, however, tends to have an edgier or adolescent vibe since oftentimes they are appealing to teenagers. These are all decisions that the animators are making in order to make you see the world in the way that the filmmaker does, just like in live-action films. The difference is that animators have even more room to help you see the world the way they want you to. I made this point once before in my breakdown of Ralph Breaks the Internet. Ralph used this animation gift of interpretation to create a world of the internet that helped us interpret how we see that place and our lives interacting with it.
Onward plays to the strengths of animation's total interpretive control by taking humans and turning them into fantasy creatures. Young suburban families are now elves. A jogger is now a horse. Raccoons are imagined as unicorns. Biker gangs are faires. Elves are traditionally grand and impressive creatures. By making them normal, awkward adolescents and suburban moms, they are making a statement that the mundane and ordinary people like us are really as grand and majestic and glorious as the elves are if only we'd remember.
It's true that we can have elves and dwarves and magic in live-action too. Lord of the Rings had elves and dwarves which required makeup rather than animation. However, it's also true that in order to create the world of Middle Earth, you needed a lot of animation too. The Ents and the Ghosts and Golum were entirely CGI animated creations. It's also true though that makeup and costuming are its own kind of art like animation. Any time we need to remake the world in order to say something new about it we have to use art.
However, there's a difference between the Elves in Onward and the Elves in Lord of the Rings beyond the obvious. In Onward, the animators exagerrate the comical scrawniness of Ian Lightfoot and the comical buffness of Barley Lightfoot in order so that we may see those aspects of the characters. In live-action, because these are real people, we may see a myriad of other things about these characters other than what the animators want us to see. In animation, we see very little that the animators do not intend.
That's not to say that live-action is an inferior form of film to animation. What animation gives is total interpretive control to the filmmaker. What animation takes away is the raw intimacy that we can have with real life. When we film in real life we have access to a hundred beautiful things that we didn't have to make and we can't control, which we can call our audience's attention to that they wouldn't have seen on their own. And the audience has more freedom to see a bunch of things we did not intend but are still worthy of their attention. Live-action also gives us the opportunity to show so much more with less work, since we can build off of creation that already exists and merely tweak it or build off of it to show off a particular aspect of it. Each form of film has its own advantages; it all depends on what your preference is.
Increasingly, movies are trying to have the best of both worlds by using advancing technology to make live-action/animation hybrids. Hollywood blockbusters like Lord of the Rings, Avatar, and Avengers: Endgame combine live-action with CGI animated characters to give them more freedom of imagination to create their own worlds and characters like Hulk or Thanos while still having the raw intimacy of real life. Directors like David Fincher use visual effects on a smaller scale but use CGI in his live-action shots in order to tweak them to his preference and make sure they look exactly like he wants them to.
Animation in America is still primarily known as a family medium. But there are reasons animation is so powerful beyond it being a signal that this movie is safe for kids. Animation is a powerful tool for artists trying to express, respond to, and share what they see in the world to others in a way that no other medium can. And that's worth celebrating.