Adult Animation Revolution: What Animated Storytellers Can Learn From ‘Arcane’

by Tito W. James

As a follow-up to What Animated Filmmakers Can Learn From Spider-Verse, I’d like to talk about another game-changing animated story, Arcane. Arcane Co-Creator Christian Linke expressed that the show is proof that there is a space for high quality video game adaptations and deep narrative animation that doesn’t adhere to the Hollywood formula. From its stunning visuals to its emotionally affecting story, Arcane raises the bar for what’s possible in animated entertainment. The following are examples of what Arcane does well that I’d like to see explored in other animated programs.

Note: These themes and ideas have been explored in other great animated programs for adult audiences. Praise for what Arcane does well is in no way a put-down on other mature animated works of art.

Fresh Art Style

Many animated series, whether they’re 2D or CG, look similar to other successful series. Not everything needs to look like Pixar or Adventure Time. We’re entering a new decade, and what was fresh ten years ago has become the new boilerplate. Now that we’re in a world post-Spider-Verse, the use of cell-shaded animation can become the new norm. Arcane makes the most of the painterly aesthetics of 2D plus the depth of field that 3D allows.

There’s is a commitment to artistic beauty that reinforces the story and its underlying themes. The dichotomy between the two worlds the characters inhabit is conveyed through the design of each world. There’s Art Deco in Topside and Art Nouveau in the Undercity. The result is unlike anything else seen in animated TV.

Action With Life and Death Consequences

While the action scenes are spectacular, these actions have consequences. There’s the same amount of tension achieved in a gritty crime drama because there aren’t any arbitrary rules like “superheroes don’t kill” or a Looney Tunes style of cartoon violence. Every punch hits harder because characters can’t just get up and walk away. It’s also refreshing to see the lead characters get put through the wringer. While there’s a certain amount of “plot-armor” around the League Champions, I was surprised at how beat-up the lead characters were able to get. It’s easier to root for these characters not because they’re cool but because they survive difficult situations.

Longform Continuity

Continuity between episodes has been a staple in anime for some time, but most daytime cartoons still opt for self-contained stories. There’s a reason that cartoon fans come up with their own fan-theories and head-cannon– there’s a desire for story that exists beyond what’s shown in any given episode. If we’re going to continue to create cartoons for teen and adult audiences, we demand grander narratives. There’s so much attention to detail within Arcane that even small characters and props reappear later in the story and take on new meaning.

Romantic and Sexual Tension

Romance and sexual tension isn’t new territory to those of us who enjoy ecchi anime. However, Arcane explores these subjects with a level of maturity that’s more akin to a European film. The love triangle between Jayce, Mel, and Viktor is a compelling driving force for the drama of the series. The sexual tension between Vi and Caitlyn adds another layer to their character dynamic. I love how depictions of same-sex romance are normalized and are just as muddy as those of a straight couple. There’s no heavy-handed “agenda” here, just a depiction of life as it is today.

Arcane isn’t afraid to have characters with sex appeal but these characters are more than just a pretty face. I hope that other animated programs have the courage to explore the human condition to its fullest including sex and sexuality.

Music

An entire article could be devoted to the music within Arcane. Its soundtrack sells the emotions of the most memorable scenes. It’s also playfully meta when Imagine Dragons make a cameo or when Jinx is working to her own theme song. This music is not of the saccharine sing-along variety– it’s badass and represents the personalities of the characters and their world. I’ll be listening to “Dirty Little Animals” for the rest of the year.

Stylistic Editing and Cinematography

Judging by Arcane’s use of slow-motion, match-cuts, intercutting-sequences, and montages, there must be some Guy Ritchie fans at Fortiche Productions. These stylistic choices are about more than just “looking cool.” The use of subjective camerawork conveys a character’s point of view. When a character nearly falls off a building, the camera tilts with them. When Jinx is having a mental breakdown, it’s represented visually by choppy camera work and overlaid 2D scribbles. Conversely, during more grounded scenes, the camera is placed organically as if the director was filming on a live-action set.

High Concepts With Intricate World-building

There have been many SciFi, Fantasy, and Superhero films and shows released in 2021 but none of them had me so enthralled as the world of Arcane. Animation is the best medium for high concepts because no matter how fantastic the concept, it fits within the aesthetic realm of animation. Live action genre fiction is bound by the limitations of realism and believability. Within animation, disbelief is suspended from the get-go.

It’s also worth noting that Arcane is no simple retread of established SciFi and Fantasy films. This is fully original world that looks and feels refreshingly modern. It’s not a brown post-apocalypse or a grey dystopia. The world of Arcane is alive with color and represents hopes for a brighter future mediated by harsh realities. As more video games get adapted into animation, we’ll be sure to see a rise in high concepts and genre fiction.

In Conclusion

There will no doubt be animated projects that try to ride Arcane’s coattails by producing a similar art style and there will be those who will write off Arcane’s success as only possible with its impressive production values. But I believe that line of thinking is missing the point. Arcane’s chief influences of comics and anime have always had to punch above their weight with a fraction of a big studio budget. If there is a commitment to telling dramatic long-form stories with fresh art and creative presentation that explore high concepts and the human condition then we’re going in the right direction. Most artists get into creative industries to create the kind of cartoons that they liked as a kid. I can’t even imagine the kind of wonders the generation raised on Arcane will bring.

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