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Why is Western Animation Ugly?

Western TV animation is often shockingly ugly and crude compared to other animation like French or Japanese. Why, when it’s not even cheaper? Degenerate echoes of what were once cutting-edge art.

American TV often chooses ugliness as an aesthetic, not forced by budgets.

Shows like Ren & Stimpy are deliberate in their grotesqueness, creating a specific visceral response. However, other series like The Simpsons stagnate, using bigger budgets not to improve but to polish, losing originality.

This split—ugliness as artistic choice versus mediocrity from laziness—highlights broader creative trends in animation.

Ugly American television animation is systematically profoundly ugly, in a way that you don’t seem to see in, say, Japanese or French animation. I have mentioned a number of ugly cartoons like Beavis and Butt-Head, but they can get much, much worse than examples like Rugrats, Ed, Ed, and Eddy, Family Guy/American Dad!/Bob’s Burgers, Big Mouth (or anything for Adult Swim like The Problem Solverz): it is difficult to imagine “Squigglevision”1 anywhere but American TV.

Ugly Is Valid

Now, ‘ugly’ is not necessarily bad; it is often a legitimate esthetic. Ren & Stimpy, for example, or the Rat Fink character, or the rotoscoping of the anime The Flowers of Evil (or whatever My Neighbors the Yamadas is), or some Soviet/Russian animation (see also R. Crumb): I find these literally unwatchable and as a kid sometimes had to change the channel after a few minutes of Ren & Stimpy, and I was unable to get through more than a few episodes of Flowers, but I would still say that they are artistically valid and I would not wish them out of existence. These uncompromisingly pursue their style, and if these mutants or freaks of nature do not work out, they nevertheless have their place. Sometimes this might be motivated partially by budget, and becomes an artistic constraint.


When I watch shows like those, they are clearly different from a Simpsons, much less a Squigglevision. They are delighting in the esthetic experience of revulsion (cf. “corpse meditation”), and often exploiting the visceral horror: Ren & Stimpy is teetering on the edge of sanity (and it is no surprise that its creator has issues). They have the courage of their esthetic convictions, and worship Nurgle: if you gave them more money, they would simply make it more so. Whereas for the others, it does seem as much laziness and low budgets (the explicit motivation for Squigglevision or the Hanna-Barbera style): if it looks like garbage to begin with, who can tell if you take even more shortcuts or copy? (If those styles are so great, why is this so idiosyncratic to TV animation? Why do even the movie & video game versions move as far away from the originals as possible?)

Ugly As Choice

But the other kind of ugliness is not necessary, but a choice. Low budgets do not force ugly animation or design, as most of these are hideous even as static images due to character design (which is inexpensive), and one can animate cleanly if not expensively for TV series2, with time-honored tricks like careful reuse of high-quality sequences (“the bank”) or static but gorgeous paintings by specialist background artists. And ugly animation can have high production values: Rick & Morty & South Park are expensive but ugly, and The Simpsons animation budget escalated by many orders of magnitude going from Matt Groening’s early Life in Hell drawings & Tracey Ullman show shorts to the 2000s episodes (or contemporary episodes), but it still has the same ugly yellow people (although in its defense, the animation itself is now often a lot better than it has to be).3

Lazy Mediocrity

What is contemptible about this second kind of ugliness is that it wallows in its own mediocrity and laziness, its self-satisfaction, its belief that it is ugly as an esthetic rather than a mindless default.

Whatever was good about the original “comix” movement which seems to be historically upstream of a lot of this, was lost on its epigones, who unable to imitate the substance, imitated some of the style, but less and less.4 Such esthetic fashions running on fumes can never be refuted, they can only fade away as people get tired of LARPing an esthetic by mimicing its superficial features and losing its essence.

Proof by Stagnation

So that suggests one way to distinguish between shows that are ugly for good reasons and for bad reasons: how do they take advantage of increasing budgets, or the equivalent, technological progress that allows for higher quality at the same budget? Do they fix the ugliness & shortcuts, or do they at least make it more so—or do they settle for the same thing as before? If we look at Simpsons, despite huge increases in both budget & animation technology from the 1980s to the 2020s, it remains about the same, just with the harsh edges sanded off—sacrificing everything that was of value about Groening’s almost hallucinogenic early artwork (like the unforgettably creepy anthropomorphic bunnies). Whereas other long-running shows that could be criticized, like One Piece, have drastically upgraded their animation: the early episodes of One Piece look terrible, but the most recent episodes have jaw-dropping sakuga (like the recent homages to rubber hose animation as the protagonist’s final superpowers), showing that they cared but were too constrained before (probably by scheduling) to do better.

Because it is not about money but taste, the best we can hope for is that the bad imitations will slowly die off as the original ugly shows fade into history and no longer become the status quo, and new TV animators will be inspired by better shows.

  1. If you have not seen a ‘Squigglevision’ cartoon, go look up some video clips to appreciate the depths of depravity that some have plumbed—it cannot be appreciated properly from a mere text description or even screenshots. (The animation is so bad that even Family Guy mocks it.)↩︎

  2. Being an American TV series doesn’t force ugliness. There are many series with striking esthetics: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is surprisingly good-looking as a relatively low-budget Flash animation, and there were plenty of series like Gargoyles, Batman Beyond, Samurai Jack, Archer or Futurama or SpongeBob SquarePants. (And Disney in general, on both movie & TV screens.)↩︎

  3. The Simpsons is a particularly stark contrast with Matt Groening’s next show, Futurama, which is a spectacular showcase both of character design (the endless variations of robots—the true heart of the show) and animation (like the intro, with its quotes of early American ‘rubber hose’ animation). Better was possible, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the best seasons of The Simpsons were generally around or before Futurama launched.↩︎

  4. One could note that this also appears to have happened with modernist architecture: what started as deliberate effort to assault the viewer, and at least respectable in that regard (despite often being a grotesque waste of taxpayer money and always a crime against humanity), degrades into cheap mindless architect cargo-cults.↩︎