Right now the two most exciting names in American animation are Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
From their breakout film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 10 years ago and their smash hit The Lego Movie (both of which they cowrote and directed) to last year’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (cowritten by Lord and co-produced by them both), Lord and Miller haven’t just charted new possibilities for American animation.
They’ve reinvented their whole aesthetic for each new challenge, one-upping themselves every time, in the process offering a dramatic challenge to the visual and thematic sameness of so many Hollywood animated films.
What does a Lord and Miller cartoon look like? It’s impossible to say, since they have yet to repeat themselves (barring sequels: Lord and Miller wrote and coproduced The Lego Movie 2; they also wrote Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2).
Despite the variety of their output, common threads emerge. Community and cooperation are recurring themes; the final crisis is resolved, not by the protagonist working alone, but by a team that includes the protagonist.
A number of antagonists, adversaries and rivals, from “Baby Brent” (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) to Lord Business (The Lego Movie) to the villainous Kingpin’s terrifying enforcer, the Prowler (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), are nuanced, humanized and in some cases redeemed. (Even the Kingpin’s twisted motives are those of a doting husband and father.)
Particularly striking to me, and even moving, is a theme connecting Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (though not The Lego Movie): how themes of father–son conflict ubiquitous in other cartoons play out with unexpectedly insightful, consequential fathers.
I don’t expect animated heroes to have uniformly ideal, harmonious family lives. It’s not realistic — and it doesn’t make for good drama, which needs conflict. The ubiquity of the pattern, though, is striking.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.