I have been obsessed with animated films for a long as I can remember. I owned tons of “Finding Nemo” attire as a child: shirts, hats, figurines and more. Nemo was all I thought about. In a simple game of catch, I made my parents decide which Nemo character everyone was going to roleplay as. This obsession never died — I frequently sat in front of the television as an elementary schooler to watch “SpongeBob SquarePants” and tried to perfectly replicate a drawing of the character. I often drew myself as a cartoon in the style of whatever I was obsessed with at the time (memorable phases include “My Life as a Teenage Robot” and “Invader Zim”). To family, friends and myself, art seemed like a natural instinct within me.
This passion for animation did not leave my side, even after the social throes of middle school. I entered high school certain that my destiny was to become an animator. I spent every day after school studying art and watched endless hours of YouTube videos from college art students giving portfolio advice. Yet as the time to apply to colleges drew closer, I found myself stuck at an uncomfortable crossroads: If I wanted schools to accept me, it seemed like I had to confine myself to academia’s standards of art — and that took that spark, that magic, out of drawing. I felt a pit in my stomach every time someone brought up college.
In a quest to improve my technical drawing skills, I signed up for some additional classes to help me learn fast and get used to artistic criticism from others. One day I attended a charcoal drawing class where the instructor advised me to change my entire piece after I finished sketching it. My stomach dropped; I allowed myself to realize that I hated this. I hated being told what to do with my work. I hated that my work was not my own. I wanted to go home and draw silly cartoons with no rules. Shortly thereafter, I had a panic attack in the studio bathroom, leading me to question and eventually end my career path in the arts.
Last year, Pixar released “Turning Red,” a film centering adorkable 13-year-old Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang, “American Born Chinese”) and her struggles with adolescence. As a resident animation geek, I was excited for this film in an artistic-appreciation sense (as well as for its strides in representation). I had no idea how deep it would cut. Mei reminded me of myself at 13 — fandom-adjacent, obsessive, curious and over-achieving. I found my heart struck by how real she felt. Early in the film, she develops a crush on a gas station clerk and finds herself daydreaming about him after she goes home. The scene is somewhat mundane, but tears began to flow from my eyes when Mei took out her notebook and began to draw her crush. Of course she’s also an artist, I sobbed to myself. It made so much sense; at that moment, all I wanted was to transport myself into the film and talk to Mei, draw with her. I wanted to uplift her —both her character and her silly romantic drawings.
I cried throughout the rest of the film — at the colors of the trees, the passion I could feel behind all of that high-end production. Real, inspired people made this. I felt the life that someone had breathed into these landscapes, the heart imbued in each character. Again and again, I sobbed over the littlest details. After the film ended, I spent hours looking at the crew’s concept artwork and cried some more.
This happens quite often: Any time I watch an animated film or television show, I feel this deep, boiling emotional pit within myself. I feel a deep love, but also an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It’s some sense of intangible yearning, something I can’t quite put my finger on — but crying makes so much sense in the moment. I remember a particularly potent cry during and after “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” which began not because of a touching moment but because I heard Donatello (Micah Abbey, “Grey’s Anatomy”) make an anime reference. These moments seem quite silly out of context, but that life within the film is so evident that I felt it talking directly to me.
I watched “Turning Red” with my mother, so she bore witness to all my crying. When the credits rolled, she turned to me to ask a question I did not expect: “Are you crying because you wish you had picked a career path in animation?”
I felt a sense of whiplash. God, I don’t really know. Is that what this is? Am I crying because I have forced myself to suppress this dream, only able to live out my fantasy vicariously? My instinct was to cry more, to become defensive, but I wasn’t sure whether that’s why I was crying. I believe there is a part of me that wants to create big stories. A part of me wants to make characters forever, to share my creations with the world. However, I have known and felt what it’s like to be in that world myself, and I hated it. That contradiction has left me confused, but I think I’m starting to get a handle on what I’m yearning for.
Mei’s imagination in “Turning Red” allows her to draw, to have fun with her friends, to take in the world in a way that makes sense to her. She carries that sense of childlike wonder, like so many animated films and television shows do. I have begun to hypothesize that animation brings me a sense of melancholy not because I wish I was an animator but because I yearn for that sense of artistic, childlike wonder again. Animation is magic; my young self was totally right to think that. I yearn for a world that recognizes this as well. When I think of animation now, as an adult, I think of that childlike wonder, but I also think of the struggle. I think of a highly competitive industry with difficult crunch times and unfair wages; even franchises beloved to artists are not immune to this — 100 artists quit working on “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” amid brutal working conditions.
The bright, happy image I had of a bunch of artists sitting in a room having fun and making inspiring stories all day was, of course, a childlike fantasy. But it’s one I struggle to get rid of. Even when they’re put in the harshest circumstances, I still feel the love animators and concept artists put into their work. I’m endlessly grateful for them. Time and time again, after watching animated media, I am inspired to create, to share, to feel obsession and passion without shame. These two truths have grown together within me to concoct a loving melancholy, a yearning for a child’s fantasy world where money doesn’t exist and I can draw forever with nobody to tell me what to do. It may sound juvenile, but that’s love.
Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.