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#ThrowBackThursday: How nostalgic Millennials are influencing 2D animation

Tags: News Animation Film Television Trends Storytelling

In 2016, vinyl sales saw a 53 percent increase over the year prior, reaching levels unseen in a quarter century. Street corners were littered and loitered with 20-somethings catching Pikachus and Jigglypuffs on Pokemon Go. Printed books increased sales for the first time in years in 2015, while their digital counterparts saw a decrease. What could bring these trends back from the dead? Not necromancy, but nostalgia.

More specifically, Millennial nostalgia. The aforementioned generation loosely constitutes those born between 1980 and 1995 and, while their progressive values are driving society forward, they largely see culture through the rearview mirror.

In a scene from Disney's classic 'The Little Mermaid', Ariel, Flounder and Sebastian frolic under the sea.
Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

This influences their purchasing decisions and audience behaviours — and 2D animators serve to benefit. Millennials grew up in the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999), during which the House of Mouse produced modern classics like "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King". Propelled by the popularization of technology such as VCRs, these films became fixtures in homes and memories.

Televised cartoons were also paramount to Millennial childhoods, with accessibility exploding in the 1980s. According to the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, over $15 billion was spent wiring American homes with broadband cable between 1984 and 1992. By the end of the 80s, 53 million households were connected and content production was booming. Cartoons went from being shown exclusively on Saturday mornings to having entire channels devoted to them.

Animation subsequently carried Millennials into their adolescence and early adulthood. Many simply cannot remember life before "The Simpsons" and "South Park". This has fuelled a massive adult 2D animation industry, with channels like Adult Swim, Fox and Netflix leading the pack.

In a familiar scene from 'The Simpsons', Homer is choking his son Bart.
Source: Fox Studios

But why are Millennials so sentimental? To better understand their nostalgia and how it relates to 2D animation, Toon Boom spoke to subject matter expert and Le Moyne College psychology professor Dr. Krystine Batcho.

What are the potential benefits of nostalgia?

KB: Nostalgia can be a temporary haven for us during stressful or difficult times. We can find comfort in nostalgic memories that remind us of better, simpler times, or times when we were loved just for who we are.

Is Millennial nostalgia stronger than their predecessors or is this something that happens with every generation?

KB: My own observations suggest that Millennials are an especially nostalgic group. It may seem counterintuitive, but the rapid increase in technological progress during their lifetime constitutes a prime context for stimulating nostalgia. Swift change is stressful, and nostalgia gives us the freedom to mentally hit the pause button while we take stock of where we've been and who we are.

As Millennials become parents, will their nostalgia push them to recreate aspects of their own childhood (such as cartoons) for their kids?

Yes. Parenthood prompts people to relive their own childhood through their children. New parents want their kids to enjoy the experiences they had. Millennials will want to pass on the joy they had watching cartoons just as they'll want to share the games they played and toys they had. Nostalgia helps to explain the lasting appeal of Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters, cartoons, and movies.

Do you have any theories as to why animation and cartoons have such strong nostalgic value?

KB: According to my research, among the things people miss most from childhood are its innocence, idealism and the sense that everything is possible. Cartoons can restore all that and more when we take time to enjoy them.

Are there any psychological reasons why children connect well with cartoons? If so, why does this carry on into adulthood?

KB: Cartoons defy reality. At very young ages, children can enjoy the fantasy of vicariously being able to do amazing things. In cartoons, we can enjoy the existence of the impossible like magical abilities and imaginary creatures. Adults connect with cartoons for the same reasons — and a few more. We can find relief from anxieties, and also the pleasures and benefits of nostalgia.


Given the stresses of modern life show no signs of slowing, 2D animators who can tap into Millennial nostalgia will be better equipped to attract studio, audience and investor attention — particularly in the face of stiff 3D competition. Ultimately the proof is in the productions: look no further than the Cartoon Network's revival of 90s throwback "Powerpuff Girls" last year or Adult Swim's release of the fifth season of Genndy Tartakovsky's cult classic "Samurai Jack" later in 2017. Even "Beauty and the Beast" is being remade into a live-action feature, to superhero movie-like buzz.

It seems in 2D animation, hindsight is 20/20 — with the successes of tomorrow being built on the visions of yesterday.

*The interview with Dr. Batcho was lightly edited and condensed.

Are you a Millennial? What were your favorite cartoons as a kid? Let us know in the comments below!

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