Welcome Back!

Welcome back, fellow explorers! It’s been a while since Charles and I have done much around here. Our roommate experiment was a success!1 Everyone lived. Everyone was happy. Everyone except you, our listeners and readers! We’ve got a lot going on still but we’ve re-dedicated ourselves to our pursuit of our Pop Culture City of Gold and we’re inviting you to re-join us.

Season 3 of the Culture Conquistadors Podcast

Our journey begins anew! Charles and I started this journey way back in October 2012. Three years later, we’re hoping to take it to the next act. We kick off Season 3 talking about Ridley Scott’s The Martian and it’s star-studded cast. If you’re already subscribed, we’ve taken the liberty of updating our podcast URLs for you! But if you aren’t, subscribe now! We’re going to be trying a bunch of new ideas for this season. Expect experimental formats, quicker editing and more timely episodes!

Gaming Guerrillas Podcast

It’s not easy saying goodbye, so we won’t. We’re just going to say, see you later. Ben is busy getting hitched and I’m focusing my efforts on the main show. Once everything settles down for the three of us, we’ll re-examine the Gaming Guerrillas Podcast and see what improvements we can make. In the meantime, you can still subscribe to the GG feed and catch the show as soon as it goes live.

Context Sensitive Podcast

Charles is flying solo in his new podcast, Context Sensitive. In this show, Charles will discuss an upcoming (or recently released) movie’s place in cinema. What other films and events led to and influenced this particular movie? How did it come to be that Mars films were considered poison as recently as 20122 and yet The Martian is doing pretty damn well? Questions like these will be answered in a way only Charles can. Subscribe now!

Writing’s on the Wall

Throughout our partnership, Charles and I have tried many a times to produce quality written content on our website. It works! In phases. At times Charles conjures SIX THOUSAND words on movies like Jurassic World. At times I write weekly reviews for months! And Amber‘s written about so, so many books and Ben’s provided a TEN THOUSAND word treatise on V for Vendetta. But then it peters out. For me, this is mostly a result of the fact that I write thousands of words for my tabletop role-playing games every couple weeks.3 So, we’re not promising any regular schedule for written content. But it will show up every once and a while and we are digging through the archives to make sure every article we wrote will be here somewhere. So keep checking in and reading!

A New Website

Finally, we’ve moved our virtual home.4 A website update has been in the works for months, but it’s been a toil that’s been far too draining. So we’re restarting simple and fresh. Slowly the appearance will update as we find time but we’re going to be careful to not allow it to distract us from our quest, which is to deliver awesome conversations about pop culture. One cool new feature is a main podcast feed that will collect all the episodes of every show we do into a single, simple feed. You can subscribe and receive every episode of Culture Conquistadors, Gaming Guerrillas and Context Sensitive (and any new project we come up with). You might also notice that we’ve got a media player on the website so you can now listen to the episode right here in your web browser.

So, thanks for sticking with us even when you weren’t sure we’d come back. We are back now. So stay tuned for more awesome content for the Culture Conquistadors as we get into the swing of things again. And let us know what you like!5 So that we can do more of that and keep you listening and reading as we explore pop culture for our city of gold.


  1. But to the detriment of our podcast and website. Who could have foreseen that? 
  2. To the point of stripping the word Mars from all marketing materials for a movie. 
  3. Though this year, it’s mostly because I haven’t been to the theater as much. 
  4. Well, most of our home. Over the next few days, all the old content will be re-appearing. 
  5. Or don’t like. We want to hear it all. 

You Are Cordially Invited

For the past two years, Charles and I have been building this website and podcast in one form or another. It started as an idea to build a community around thoughtful discussion by merging our two individual blogs.1 Our first attempts continued to stumble. A large part of that failure was on me for not writing. I had been busy running a weekly D&D campaign and just couldn’t sit down to write as frequently (or really at all) as I would have liked.

Nine months ago, Charles and I started recording a podcast. It took us a while to come up with an appropriate name but eventually we landed on Culture Conquistadors. We’ve released two dozen episodes and we’ve almost kept our planned weekly schedule. Last month, we ran out first book club discussion. It was a bit unwieldy, not unlike our first foray into podcasting, but this month (and in the months following), we’re hoping to clean it up and make it an enjoyable read.

This month we’ll be deploying and announcing new features for our website. You’ll notice that we’re leaving behind the blues of Drupal and MiNext and white blandness of an unthemed website to our own Culture Conquistadors theme. We’ve done most of this without much feedback or participation from the audience. Sure we get phone calls from our moms (Hi Mom!) and we have offline discussions with our friends. But we really want to share these adventures with a larger, participatory audience. And so today, Charles and I, the Culture Conquistadors, cordially invite you to join our culture expeditions.

You can register for an account by visiting http://cultureconquistadors.com/user/register.

We’ve always envisioned the book clubs as a larger discussion between ourselves and our audience. And so starting today, we’ve opened up the comment sections of the book clubs.


  1. These are also on the way back. Including archived material we have backed up. 

Who’s In AniMadness?

Over the course of the next few weeks, MiNext will ruthlessly pit animation studio against animation studio (sometimes we’ll even make them fall on their sword and take down one of their own: Disney vs. Disney, brother against brother) to determine the studio with the greatest consecutive five movie run. We’re watching over 100 animated films, from the likes of Disney and Pixar, Dreamworks, Sullivan Bluth, Studio Ghibli… Long list. Today, I’m sharing with you how exactly we plan to accomplish this monumental task in a way where you’ll be able to keep track.

We’ve revealed the full bracket of 11 different studios broken into 4 regions and 20 groups or “teams.” (Some studios have multiple teams. Disney, it should not surprise you, has enough great animated films to sustain many more teams than any other studio could even fathom.) We’ll be going region by region, watching the 25 movies in that region and eliminating studios until we have a regional winner. We’ll kick off with our first region, headlined by the “Disney Renaissance” period that probably consumed most of your childhood. When we reach our final four movie groups we’ll do something special and select our finalists for the championship and then, with the fanfare it deserves, the overall winner.

Now let’s answer the big question: Who’s in?

Below for your perusing pleasure, I give you the 20 “teams” that will be competing for the crown. Click the image to enlarge!

2013-03-03 - Bracket

I’ll list out the teams by their first matchup. If you’re a big animation buff (or a solid mathematician who can count to five), you may notice some things look a bit fishy. I’ll do my best to explain those instances in the footnotes. So the teams are:

The Simba Region

Battle 1: #4 Sullivan Bluth Studios vs. #5 Walt Disney Animation (1982-1988)

Sullivan Bluth Studios: All Dogs Go to Heaven, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Rock-A-Doodle, The Secreth of NIMH

Disney 80s: The Black Cauldron, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1

Battle 2: #1 Walt Disney Animation (1989-1994) vs. Play-In Winner

Disney Rennaissance: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under

Battle 3: #2 Pixar Studios (1995-2003) vs. #3 Dreamworks Studios (1997-2001)

Early Pixar: A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Toy Story 2

DreamWorks: Antz, Chicken Run, The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Shrek 2

Naussica Region

Battle 4: #4 Mad House Animation vs. #5 Walt Disney Animation (2000-2004)

Mad House: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Godfathers, Metropolis, Millennium Actress, Nasu: Summer in Andalusia, Paprika, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust 3

Disney Sci-Fi: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Brother Bear, The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch, Treasure Planet

Battle 5: #1 Studio Ghibli (1984-1989) vs. Play-In Winner

Early Ghibli: Castle in the Sky, Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Battle 6: #2 Walt Disney Animation (1950-1959) vs. #3 Walt Disney Animation (2007-2012)

Disney Post-War: Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty

Disney Late Aughts: Bolt, Enchanted, Meet the Robinsons, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled. Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It-Ralph 4

Mickey Mouse Region

Battle 7: #4 Warner Brothers (1994-1998) vs. #5 ImageMovers

Warner Brothers: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Cats Don’t Dance, The Iron Giant, Quest for Camelot, Space Jam 5

ImageMovers: Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Mars Needs Moms, Monster House, The Polar Express

Battle 8: #1 Walt Disney Animation (1937-1941) vs. Play-In Winner

Disney Classic: Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Battle 9: #2 Walt Disney Animation (1967-1977) vs. #3 Bakshi Productions

Disney Post-Walt: The Aristocats, The Jungle Book, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers, Robin Hood

Bakshi Productions: Coonskin, Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, The Lord of the Rings, Wizards

Wall-E Region

Battle 10: #4 Burton/Selick vs. #5 Aardman Animation

Burton/Selick: Coraline, Corpse Bride, James and the Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas 6

Aardman: Arthur Christmas, Chicken Run, Flushed Away, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Battle 11: #1 Pixar Studios (2004-2009) vs. Play-In Winner
Late Pixar: Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, WALL-E

Battle 12: #2 Studio Ghibli (1997-2003) vs. #3 Walt Disney Animation (1995-2000)

Late Ghibli: The Cat Returns, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away

Disney Post-Renaissance: Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Pocahontas, Tarzan


Got questions? Okay, I’ll try and answer as many as I can.

Each team, with one or two exceptions, has five feature films. (We limited the field to feature animation because shorts would have been to difficult to consider. If we’d included them, this would’ve probably been Warner Brothers’ competition to lose.) These films had to come out consecutively – no skipping around in the studio distribution order to try and put together a better group of films. So, if I’m not a Cars fan, no skipping past it to include some other film I like more. The point here is to let the studio tell its own story – sometimes that story isn’t the greatest story. But failures can be just as interesting as successes. We decided to just let it happen. (For the record, I like Cars. James doesn’t. Haven’t seen Cars 2 and I’ll probably leave it that way.)

We looked at many more studios than the ones that made the cut – some even sat in our bracket as placeholders for a while – but we limited the field to twenty to keep the teams to a relatively high standard (and to keep us from having to watch too many bad movies and losing our minds). Many great films just didn’t have the support around them to sustain a respectable team, and much of the feedback we’ve heard since passing this bracket amongst our friends has been, “But where’s (blank)?” We imagine you’ll have similar feelings. We hear ya. As we get ramped up we’ll post about some of the movies and studios we were most upset to leave out. We’ll call this “The Animation Bubble.”

Unfortunately, though, not every film could make it to the studio bracket – getting in required a solid foundation of other films around you. A star needs a team. Our teams are many and they are large. Even without the films we were sad to leave out, we have plenty to consider. More than plenty. In total, we are left with more than 100 films sorted into various studio teams. As James discussed yesterday, we are going to, in fairness to the studios participating, watch each of these films and only do the judging once we’ve reappraised them all with eyes that aren’t seven-years-old and on a sugar high. (Okay, we can’t promise there won’t be sugar highs.)

The tournament works like the NCAA tourney if it were quartered. There will be four play-in games – one in each region – where our lowest seeded teams fight to earn their way into the Big Dance. The play-in winners will be rewarded for their victory by facing off against one of the tournament #1 seeds. Yikes!

Those big fish are: Disney’s first five films (from Snow White to Bambi); Studio Ghibli’s first five films (Nausicca Valley of the Wind – which Hiyao Miyazaki technically directed before he started the Studio, but which we lumped in because it works with the story we want to tell and Ghibli considers it one of its own – to Kiki’s Delivery Service); the films of the “Disney Renaissance” (Little Mermaid to The Lion King, like I needed to tell you that); and the Pixar films released between The Incredibles and Up. That matchup will probably not go well for the play-in winners, just saying.

The winner of the #1 vs. #4 matchup will then go on to face the proud victor of the #2/#3 contest. Whoever takes the crown in the Elite Eight will then move on to the Final Four, where we’ll slow things down and bask in the glory of the individual films we have left before we crown an ultimate champion.

If you think the seeding seems completely arbitrary, it’s not. How’d we arrive at the top seeds we have? I took every film on the list and gave it a score out of 10. Since I haven’t seen these movies in many years in most cases, it wasn’t my opinion that mattered when doling out 10s or 4s – I tried to go with the consensus on each film and give what I think people would expect it would deserve. When I gave out way to many 9s and 10s in my first pass (I’m too kind), I knocked everything back a notch so I had a nice bell curve. Out of the 100 films, only 6 recieved 10s – I reserved that number for consensus masterpeices and worked my way down from there. 9s were beloved classics. 8s were ambitious successes and so on and so on until I reached my disgraces and embarrasments.

Once that was done, it was just a matter of totaling up and ranking. Let’s look at our overall #1 real quick to see how we arrived at these seedings:

Our overall #1 seed consists of these five films: Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. That’s a murderer’s row right there. Of those five films, only one got the full-out ten – Pinocchio, which many consider the greatest animated film of all time. Few tens didn’t affect the team much though. This group is consistant: Snow White and Fantasia both more than earn their 9s in consensus view, and, with 8s, Dumbo and Bambi barely deserve the idiom bringing up the rear, considering the fact that, combined, they outpace most team’s best THREE films. This Disney team comes in with a scary total of 44 out of 50, enough to outpace every other top seed by at least 3 points. Yikes!

Does this mean the Snow White team can’t lose? Heck no it doesn’t! All of those films have legacies out the wazoo, sure, and that’ll buy them the respect they deserve, which is a plum top seed spot, but will they hold up? We’ll only know if we watch. Maybe a big upset awaits. That’s why we play the game.


  1. The first of three examples of a half live-action, half animation movie making the cut. (And no none of them are Mary Poppins… Bad timing for that film, sad trombone…) We tried to avoid these at first, but each time one came up, the implications of the studio deciding to do one of these was just to juicy. In each of the three cases, the hybrid film adds so much to the narrative of what was going on at the studio at that time, so we left them in. And yes, this means that, once or twice we did bite our thumb at the official “Disney Canon.” We’ll live. 
  2. Chicken Run is, by a bit of a loophole in our rules, the only film we’ll watch twice in the competition. We didn’t strictly prohibit purely distribution-type deals, like the one Aardman Animation had with DreamWorks in the early Aughts. In the end, though Chicken Run feels more like an Aardman film than a DreamWorks film, we gave DreamWorks credit for having the guts to bet on the little British shorts studio and recognize that, stateside at least, Aardman did play a pretty big role in giving DreamWorks the cred it needed when it was young. So Chicken Run is on both teams. It’s pulling double-duty. I think it can handle it. 
  3. This is one where you mathmeticians out there are probably saying “What?” Yeah, there’s seven films here. The fact is, we knew we wanted Mad House in the bracket – it has too good a reputation to ignore it – but we know so little about these films that we’re not sure what the best five-film stretch even is. Metropolis and Paprika are six films apart, making the decision rather difficult. So we’re going to watch the seven film-stretch we decided would probably be best, and we’ll draw a line in the sand once we’ve seen the films and can better judge their quality. 
  4. Enchanted sneaks in here because the fact that it came out when it did and how it did is a nessecary part of the story when it comes to Disney in the late Aughts. Is it in the “canon”, per se? No. But it’s in the canon in our hearts… Yeah… Also, Wreck-It-Ralph is so great it threw a wrench in our carefully laid plans. To make sure the team wouldn’t be better served by including it, we’re watching two more films here. 
  5. And I mean we couldn’t do this without Space Jam could we? It would have been a crime against animation to do any of this without the greatest animated… Yeah, okay, I’m not going to continue with that line of reasoning. We all know Space Jam isn’t very good, even if it was our favorite movie as a kid and we’re secretly afraid to watch it again because we don’t want to feel like we had horrible judgment and hate ourselves. (This is purely hypothetical… No, it’s not. That’s me. I so don’t want to watch it. Don’t make me!) So why’d we pick Space Jam over Osmosis Jones? Because it wouldn’t have felt right to talk about animation at Warner Brothers without having at least one movie with Bugs Bunny in it. Is it a great movie with Bugs Bunny in it? Probably not. But that’s sort of the point. By the mid-90s, when it got into feature animation, Warner Brothers could do something great like Iron Giant, but they could not do two things for their life: they could not figure how to make money off animation, even during an animation boom, and they could not figure out how to use their greatest assets: The Looney Tunes. More on that when we get to the Warner-ImageMovers battle. 
  6. We’re breaking our biggest rule here. What can we say, we’re rebels. Burton/Selick is not technically a studio. It’s more like an identity, or an aesthetic. Burton and Selick worked together on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, as the producer and director, respectively. After they went their seperate ways, they each directed films (Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie for Burton, Coraline for Selick) that called back to their collaborations so clearly that it was hard not to see those those films as being of the same piece, even though no one studio had technically distributed them all. (As a sidenote, you will never see me call this team “Burton’s team,” even though most people associate all these films, even the one Tim Burton had no hand in, to be Tim Burton films. Selick played a larger role in most of these productions and while much of the vision may be the more famous director’s, much of the vision is also Selick’s.) 

What is AniMadness?

The question at the center of all this hubbub and foofaraw I’m about to lay on you – a March Madness-style tournament, a bracket, a podcast, a commitment to watch over 100 animated movies – is, at its heart, a simple one: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history.”

That’s five consecutive feature-length animated films released in an order that makes you say, simply, “Wow.”

That question came to me one day – planted in me, I think, by my first experience watching a Miyazaki film (Spirited Away, at the age of 22, a crime, I know!) – and I ran with it. I turned it into a Facebook poll, got some interesting responses, and the idea just flowered.

Essentially, when that question struck me, I was trying to process some cognitive dissonance: that this is the man people call the Japanese Disney, a title that’s either horrifically reductive or startlingly true. Probably both.

From that dissonant chord came a simple little kernel of a question – “What’s Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli really got on Disney? Or vice versa? And does it even matter with the geniuses at Pixar out there?” And among my close friends that little question grew into something a bit bigger.

With watering and sunshine the seed has grown into a tree, and that tree looks suspiciously like a March Madness tournament bracket. That tournament bracket is festooned with curious amalgamations of movies such as: “Disney 1967-1977: The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Rescuers.” And from this, we hope to draw out a month’s worth of quality discussion which we hope to bring to you in our Culture Conquistadors podcast; and which we hope will thrill you and anger you in equal measure. (Because let’s face it, somewhere along the line, we’re going to slight some of your favorite animated films, and you’ll hate our guts. We’re actually cool with this.)

And so, we hope, in turn, that you’ll play along and join us.

Which may lead you to ask a few questions of your own:

1) Why on earth does the studio matter? And why five films from that studio? Why not just pick the greatest animated movie of all time and be done with it?

2) Why just animation? If you’re really married to this “five films from a studio” thing, why limit yourself to a tiny fraction of movie studios?

3) Why create a bracket? Everyone’s doing brackets! Just talk about this like grown-ups without the seeding and the “matchups” and the Final Four and the stupid fanfa…

Hey! That last bit wasn’t a question! Settle down. I’ll answer these each in turn.

Studio

What would we think of Hayao Miyazaki today if he’d stopped making films after My Neighbor Totoro, which you many argue is his greatest film, but probably would not be considered his peak by any means? That means no Kiki’s Delivery Service, no Princess Mononoke, no Spirited Away.

It is a pretty good hypothetical as far as hypotheticals go. This is a man who’s announced his retirement after like every film he’s released for over a decade! The threat that another Miyazaki film won’t be coming down the pipeline is constantly looming for fans of his work. And Miyazaki is, like so many other animation legends, so closely tied to the identity of the studio he co-founded – Studio Ghibli – that his early retirement would likely have spelled the end for his studio.

What does that threat do to a studio’s work, ultimately? What is truly being threatened? Not the piece of art itself, surely. If there are no great masterpieces surrounding a masterpiece, well, that doesn’t diminish the piece itself any, I don’t think. If Miyazaki had retired after Totoro, just put down his pencil and paintbrush and walked off into a beautifully animated sunset, Totoro would still be untouchable, considered a masterpiece by many, the masterpiece by some.

But Akira is regarded just as highly. And Waltz with Bashir. And I would venture that, while you may know those films and speak in hushed tones of their individual legacies on the artform, you would still be hard-pressed to name the studios or directors that gave them life and gifted them to the world. Put it this way: Miyazaki’s name is not on your lips because he made a great masterpiece – it’s there because he replicated that success enough times to burrow into your consciousness and stay there forever.

So Totoro, like it or not, is part of the Miyazaki legacy machine, forvermore. Unless you’re a really big animation buff, Akira and Bashir, on the other hand, stand alone and unclaimed, foisted into the canon of great films without much context, added like spice to “Greatest of” animation lists where the real meat is the hard-won legacies of long-standing studios who have built their reputations on long runs of quality. Every young turk film studio like Illumination Entertainment (the makers of Despicable Me and The Lorax) wants ultimately not to make just one great film that makes kids smile and parents laugh; they want a brand.

They want this: “Pixar has a perfect track record, 10 for 10, because they care so much about their characters.” “The pioneering genius of Walt Disney has been reborn at Studio Ghibli in Japan.” “In five years, Walt released Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Fantasia and Bambi! You’ll never see something like that again.” These are the truisms that build a studios reputation. And analyzing them – building them up, breaking them down – can be just as enlightening, if not more so, than looking at the films on their own, sans context.

So, no, you don’t just get to be called the Japanese Disney for recapturing Walt’s magic in one or two masterpieces, as enviable as that is. To earn that name you have to delight the masses over and over again. You have be consistent and build trust. You have to build a recognizable brand! That brand is your studio, and the way studios function in animation fascinates me to no end. I hope to explain why in further detail as the year progresses.

One more thing: Why five films? Because Walt’s first five films before World War II are the gold standard for perfect animation hitting streaks. And because it was five films from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King, which everyone recognizes as an animation epoch in its own right. And because, if this were a ten-film competition A) James and I would die of exhaustion and B) Pixar would win easy. I had to give them a challenge.

Animation

If you told me you don’t go see Universal Studios films because they don’t hold a candle to Paramount films… hell, I’d have no idea what you were talking about. What films does Paramount release again?

If you told me the same thing about DreamWorks films though, I’d totally get it. When How to Train Your Dragon came out, people who loved it said it was the most “Pixar” DreamWorks had ever looked. Considering it was released amidst a sea of sequels to Shrek and Madagascar movies, Pixar lovers were rightfully skeptical. It would have taken a lot for them to go see it, more for them to believe it.

Once upon a time, when the Hollywood studio system was enforced and an actor crossing the line from MGM to 20th Century Fox was treated as national news, studios had their own profile, their own personality, their own brand. Maybe you could do this type of exercise, a big ol’ tournament bracket, for those studios of old. (United Artists of 1947 vs. MGM of 1951, a real barnburner!) Today, though, I couldn’t even tell you which studio has the rights to which Marvel superhero, because they all distribute those darn superhero movies, and they all look pretty much the same regardless of studio imprint. (Disney has most of them now, but I think Sony and Fox still have dibs on important characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine.)

Animation is simply different. It plays by different rules. It takes longer (it used to take a lot longer) and so quality control is built-in. So is brand loyalty: get ‘em when they’re young, keep ‘em for life.

And so it is feasible that – while you are not a die-hard fan of 20th Century Fox (which has released films such as Star Wars, Home Alone and X-Men) – you are a fan of 20th Century Fox’s animation studio, Blue Sky Studios, which means you really love the Ice Age films. More likely, you are among the thousands waving a banner for Pixar, or Studio Ghibli, or the Disney classics you grew up with that you think every kid should be forced to watch. (They don’t have to watch it on video cassette like you did, even though secretly you know that’s more special, special features be damned.)

Animation studios cultivate this fandom like no regular studio can. How? They focus the time-intensive process of animating a film frame-by-frame on a singular pursuit: making damn sure we’ll see the one or two movies they release a year (if that even) in theaters; and by making sure that when they come out on home video, we buy them and add them to “the shelf.”

What’s the shelf? This is the shelf in your entertainment room that is usually occupied by the whole work of one studio. You don’t have to be an animation fan to have one of these shelves. You pretty much just to have been a kid once. Or had a kid once. If you fit this broad criteria, then there’s likely a shelf that looks something like this near you right now:

Shrek, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.
Wall-E, Toy Story, The Incredibles and Up.
Cinderella, The Aristocats, Sword in the Stone and Winnie the Pooh.
Or, let’s be honest here, the entire Disney canon carefully ordered to reflect either release date or personal preference.

Maybe, with live-action films, you do this by genre. Or, if you’re methodical, director. You definitely don’t arrange by studio. (“If I don’t put all my Miramax films on one shelf, it’ll drive me crazy!) But for animation… It’s okay to admit it, this is a safe zone: Everyone has an animation shelf.

Madness

When I was a kid, my favorite show to watch – and I watched this over and over and over – was Scooby-Doo’s Laff-A-Lympics.

Not because it was good. It wasn’t. The animation was dreadful, the bane of every great studio animator we’re going to honor here over the next few weeks. The stories were laughably simple. All the Hanna-Barbara characters were arranged in teams and they competed in Olympic events. When they’d go to Ireland they’d have to catch a leprechaun or something. Comic mishaps ensued. Snagglepuss was the announcer.

What fascinated me so much about this show? Well it wasn’t anything going on on the screen. At the age of eight, it wasn’t like I was trying meta-textual analysis or intertextual readings on for size or anything… at least I didn’t mean to… but I’d just sit there with a paper and I’d make more teams. Roster after roster of animated characters. As a kid I was a list-maker. My parents thought it was really weird and, truly, it was. When I collected basketball cards, I would arrange them into “Greatest of” collections by teams (My Bulls cards facing off against my Celtics cards) and make them play each other; there was reason for concern.

Laff-A-Lympics fed this fire; the characters on the show were divided into three teams. The team of villains was pretty much made up just for the show, so it didn’t matter. But, oh, the other two teams: one was made up of the Yogi Bear gang, and the other was comprised of more Scooby/Flintstones-like characters.

And all I could think was: damn this show would be so much cooler if a Disney team made up of Mickey and the gang could take on the Yogi team. Or a Warner Brothers team (pretty much lifted straight from Space Jam, they did the work for me on that one). I made a Nickelodeon team (led by Tommy Pickles and Doug Funnie, I think). Even a Cartoon Network team with Dexter from Dexter’s Lab and Johnny Bravo.

Even at that young age, I could tell the difference between “Hanna Barbara” and “Cartoon Network.” Though they aired on the same network, one right after the other, I knew that Huckleberry Hound was not to be considered in quite the same way that Daffy Duck, whose antics took up the late night Tex Avery block, was. They were on different “teams” and I wondered: “Which is best?”

Granted, because I was eight and I watched cartoons for a living, I wondered which would be best at, like, leprechaun catching or weightlifting, not which had the highest quality and would stand the test of time. But the spark was there.

That should pretty much explain how this all turned into a tournament bracket even though everyone does tournament brackets.

And so that describes, in three parts, how we arrived at Studio Animation Madness. Or Ani-Madness for short.

That leaves one thing unexplained: why am I here? Why not play this all out in my own crazy fantasies like I did when I was eight and I was pitting Nickelodeon and Warner Brothers against each other in Laff-A-Lympic events?

Because I believe you might care about this; might even want to vote on this; heck, might even want to write about this and discuss this with me! And I sure as hell believe I can write about it – about animation history, about what it means to me and what it might mean to you.

One more anecdote: Around the time I was building cartoon teams to wage cartoon war against each other (the first time; I consider this my second foray into the field), my mom came home with an Animation Encyclopedia. The magazine she worked at was cleaning out its library, and she came home with boxes and boxes of books, but that’s the one I latched onto. That one ended up in my room, on my bookcase. It became my animation shelf.

It opened up a whole new world to me. The book had been published about a year before I was born – it didn’t care about my Hey Arnold and my Mulan. No, in there stood old giants like Felix the Cat and Watership Down. The only problem: like basketball cards for old players I’d never seen play (like Tree Rollins and Bernard King), these names and directors, they were just a statistic to me. Something else to add to a silly cartoon team in a child’s cartoon war. I never asked my parents to get the VHS, and there were no clips on YouTube to look up. I was a stathead, but I never did the most valuable thing. I never watched the movie!

But now that I’m older and I’m pretty sure what I want to be – a film critic – I want to amend that. I go around constantly fighting myself on this. I know I can write about movies, but I feel an immense amount of shame and building pressure that I am getting older each day and I have not watched as many movies as an aspiring film critic should.

“How could I?” I ask myself. “Every film critic was a normal person who didn’t watch films for a living before they were a film critic! They each had to start somewhere.” But, as the film canon grows bigger each week, the overwhelming pressure builds, and the admission that I just don’t know where to start has given me a daunting case of writers’ block.

“How can I even think about recapping last night’s episode of Smash when I’ve never even seen The Godfather!” I yell at myself, knowing full well that watching The Godfather, while an enviable pursuit, will not make it any easier for me to become the film critic I want so badly to be. Why? Because, after The Godfather, there will be another film lined up to take its place. Haunting me.

And so the point here for me isn’t to watch all the films I’ve never seen. There are many. I’ll never do that, and it would kill me to try. The point is to write about movies the way I know only I can. And to do that, they need to be movies I love. Movies I know. And, for good measure, some I’ll be discovering for the very first time but can discuss in a context in which I feel at home.

Ultimately, if the question one faces at the age of twenty-three is “Where to begin?” the answer may well be, “At the beginning!” Start with the films you saw first. The films that taught you cinematic language, the movie business… life. And so, before I move on and conquer the film world, I seek shelter for one more month in the films I grew up on – and I aim to watch some important films for the very first time, films that would have made growing up a whole lot more enlightening.

And, hey, if that question “Where to begin?” seems a little too broad, then accept this other question I came up with in its stead: “Which animation studio has had the greatest five-film run in cinema history?”

What do you think?