Should we worry about the future of Lucasfilm’s animation department?

"Tatooine Rhapsody." Star Wars: Visions. Courtesy of
"Tatooine Rhapsody." Star Wars: Visions. Courtesy of /
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With a big scary title like that, it’s easy to think this article is clickbait to fearmonger you into checking it out so I can get views. So to be transparent at the start, I’m going to go ahead and give you the “too long; didn’t read” version:

Will Lucasfilm ever gut their animation department?

My answer is no.

But I can absolutely see a scenario where Lucasfilm drastically cuts back on animated content in the coming years. I can also see them playing it safe by sticking to formulaic shows and staying within one art style.

The ongoing troubling news in animation this year has me extremely worried about Star Wars animation. With companies like Netflix, HBO Max, and Discovery+ tossing their animated content into the garbage, this gambit could have major implications for the entire industry. It would set a precedence that animated series could be used as sacrificial lambs and these corporations could rake in profits over the blood, sweat, tears, and time of their creators. Also, with so many Star Wars animated characters moving into live action, it’s only natural to wonder what’s going on with Lucasfilm animation. Disney will always be a home for animation. They built their entire company on it. But even the Big Mouse has recently done some pretty devious things to shows like The Owl House, which I will discuss.

I will also be discussing the class action lawsuit against George Lucas.

So, how did I get to this conclusion? We need to go back through history to look at the stigma against animation, the animation explosion during Covid-19, the hunt for equal pay through #NewDeal4Animation, the recent gutting of animation by streaming services, Disney and Lucasfilms’s poor treatment of their shows and creators, and finally sum up what it all possibly means for the future of Lucasfilm animation.

The stigma of animation in the United States

Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars Rebels season 4 episode 13 “A World Between Worlds.” Photo:
Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars Rebels season 4 episode 13 “A World Between Worlds.” Photo: /

Animation is an incredibly old medium. Well before the age of television and movie theaters, historians believe that humans were trying to portray movement through machines such as the Magic Lantern in 1603. Through the 1800s, the ability to show movement in pictures grew. Some were simple items like the use of the flip-book or thaumatrope. More complex machinery came out of the Industrial Revolution leading to creations like the spinning mechanics of the zoetrope and the praxinoscope invented in the mid-to-late 1800s. These were all considered the earliest experimentations of animation.

The 20th Century changed with the rise of silent films and movies. This era is when the first major animated shorts to full feature-length films came out. Many classic characters like Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Merrie Melodies with Bugs Bunny, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were created. Though it’s important to note that a lot of early animation was still considered low-brow entertainment and not taken seriously until movies like Snow White came along with massive success. Even in its earliest days, animation was considered a “lesser” medium to live action.

While much of the animation in this era was targeted toward families, Screen Rant discusses in an excellent piece covering the history of adult animation that there were still jokes and some cartoons intended for adults as well. Characters like Betty Boop were geared towards parents rather than children. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see nudity, sexual innuendos, drinking, and smoking in animation in this era.

Then, the Hays Code came down on all of Hollywood, animation included. The Hays Code was a set of heavily imposed guidelines that essentially banned “profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions, and rape” in movies. These guidelines affected Hollywood well into the television age which is why many early sitcoms showed married couples in separate beds. For example, these codes especially targeted queer content for “Sex Perversion.” This led to many queer characters in both animation and live action to rely on what’s called “queer coding.” In a history of queer animation video from Insider, they used the example of animation getting away with Bugs Bunny kissing another man because animation lends itself to be more surreal in its circumstances since it’s considered a joke. Only recently in the 2010s have we seen a major rise in LGBTQIA+ content in animation.

While there was still animation created with adult content in mind, the rise of companies like Disney as well as enforcements from the Hays Code made mainstream animation aimed toward families and more specifically children.

Animation exploded with the boom of television in the 1950s. Out of this in 1952 came The Television Code. Think of it like the Hays Code but with even more stuff like making it mandatory for networks to air Christian broadcasting or not allowing networks to show a negative portrayal of nuclear families. The only real mainstream animated content had to be family oriented.

Things started to change when Hanna-Barbera released The Flintstones in 1960, making it the first animated series on primetime. Originally, the target was more adult with Fred and Wilma sharing a bed. The Flintstones was also co-sponsored by Winston cigarettes with the adult characters advertising the products in the show. They also pushed Busch beer as well. Those commercials are fun to watch. Go look them up on YouTube. But as the ’60s went on, Hanna-Barbera found their primetime ratings struggling. With kids watching shows like The Flintstones and Yogi Bear with their parents, they decided to take an earlier timeslot which led to a major shift in how and why animation was seen as “for children.”

Adult animation in the era varied too. Some movies like the X-rated Fritz the Cat were a box office success while Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto’s 1970 adult animated film Cleopatra bombed hard in America. Many films like Heavy Metal and Allegro Non Troppo have become cult classics over time. Still, they wouldn’t be able to stand up against the onslaught of the creation of Saturday Morning Cartoons.

Saturday Morning Cartoons was the boom that solidified the mindset for decades to come that cartoons are made for children. The Television Code guidelines remained in effect up until 1983 meaning that everything in these timeslots had to be sanitized down. This is why a lot of series like G.I. Joe had those lesson of the week segments. The other factor that changed everything—and yes, this will be important later when discussing Star Wars animation—was the introduction of toy lines. Shows like Transformers and He-Man: Master of the Universe had their own set of toys that made children ask their parents to buy them. Long story short, Capitalism does what Capitalism does best, and network CEO’s put a major focus on shows that made them extra toy money. If you’ve ever seen Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us, the ­He-Man episode in particular does a great job summing up how these creators would make new characters just to sell toys.

Everything changed again in the 1990s. The Television Code was gone which paved the way for one new show to change history and truly splinter animation into the categories of children’s animation and adult animation. The Simpsons premiered in December of 1989 and became a juggernaut through its first season in 1990. It became both the longest-running American animated series as well as the longest-running American sitcom.

Following in The Simpsons footsteps over the last several years were other successes such as Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and Rick and Morty. With the rise of cable television and streaming services, many of these adult animated series were on either primetime or late night. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block has been home to many of these series as well as anime.

Anime is another huge factor in this. While anime has been around for decades in America, the boom of the genre has affected the course of Western animation in both kids’ and adult animated series. Historic shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender were heavily inspired by anime. Founder of Anime News Network, Justin Sevakis, has discussed in the past that while anime is actually considered a subculture in Japan outside of major shows like Pokemon and Naruto. Even this lauded genre around the world has a stigma to it within its parent country showcasing that a powerhouse genre like anime is still looked down upon unless it’s something Studio Ghibli.

Another example of the stigma against animation was the creation of the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars. As Slashfilm explains, in 1992, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. This made live-action filmmakers so mad that this cartoon rivaled their work that they lobbied the Academy. This led to the creation of the Best Animated Film category, thus further separating animation and live action in the eyes of Hollywood.

As American animation was splitting between “kids shows” and “adult shows,” the influence of anime along with the rise of new creators on cable television with hit series such as Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, and Teen Titans throughout the mid-2000s to 2010s led to a new turbulent middle ground for animated content.

The Avatar: The Last Airbender generation weren’t kids anymore but they still loved these animated series. The internet made it much easier for these fans to connect and promote the shows they loved. YouTube also helped some series like Infinity Train by putting up their pilot episodes for free online. By the way, keep Infinity Train in your mind for the moment. We will come back to this point. Animation fans are more vocal than ever before. Even great directors like Steven Spielberg have been on record stating that all directions should work in animation first.

Getting into the late 2010’s and to the present, we’re seeing another major shift in animation. Cable is dying and streaming services have taken off. Still, looking back at everything so far, there are still many issues remaining.

Because of the structured history since its inception, from government rulings to network broadcasting and everything up to this point, animation is still seen as a lesser medium. One recent example was a Cartoon Network executive saying that “…Girls graduated out of animation” as the company wanted to focus on more live-action content. The sentiment reared its ugly head again at the 2022 Oscars when a joke was made that animation was essentially used for parents to babysit their children. I’m sure the creators of the nominated movie Flee felt great about that statement since their PG-13 animated film is about a man speaking under an alias as a child refugee from Afghanistan and reliving his trauma. Many creators in the industry voiced their anger like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse fame demanding that animation be recognized as cinema. They were nominated that year for The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Before the 2022 Oscars, the animation industry had begun to reach a boiling point versus the Hollywood norm. Tired of being seen as the lesser medium to live-action counterparts, one global event set the stage for these creators to feel so bold to come together and vocally speak out as one:

The COVID-19 pandemic.