2023’s most exciting and successful animated movies all share one big thing: They all have unusually daring, innovative, exciting fight sequences.
There’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, with its web-slinging action and groundbreaking visuals. But the year kicked off with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (technically a tail-end-of-2022 movie that really gained popularity in early 2023), and now the summer is closing out with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Netflix’s The Monkey King. All of these movies feature visually dynamic fights that make full use of the animated medium in rare and playful ways.
For decades, American animated movies were primarily assumed to be musicals (thanks to the Disney formula), comedies (thanks to DreamWorks), or both. But slowly, trends have been shifting, and animated action movies are finally getting their place in the limelight. Leaning into quirkier science fiction and action-adventure stories has historically not worked out well for animated movies. But audience tastes shift, and in 2023, action-forward animated movies are finally finding more mainstream success.
We can probably thank Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which not only revolutionized the look of American animated movies over the past five years, but also widened the genre possibilities for U.S. animation. Additionally, the growing popularity of anime in America — particularly punchy shonen anime — means that it’s less jarring for audiences to see intense fight sequences on screen. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish includes a major Attack on Titan homage, and Mutant Mayhem outright references multiple anime sources.
It’s not that previous animated movies were bereft of action. Some other action-centric movies have been hits in America, like Kung-Fu Panda or Big Hero 6. But increasingly, animated action is becoming the norm instead of the exception. And instead of leaning on a more realistic visual looks, these movies play with style, using animation to evolve the fight sequences in unique ways that move beyond what live action can do.
For instance, the huge Spider-chase in Across the Spider-Verse, where hundreds of different Spider-people in different eclectic animation styles pursue Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) across a futuristic city, looks like nothing before it, in live action or animation. Puss in Boots’ lush oil-painting-esque animation and the punchy frames make for particularly captivating fight sequences. In TMNT: Mutant Mayhem, an implied series of fight sequences condense into one liquid montage that shifts seamlessly back and forth in time, all set to “No Diggity.” And in the opening act of The Monkey King, the titular character’s demon-slaying exploits are told via a gorgeously rendered montage, which shifts the visuals into an inklike style.
Only time will tell how long this new genre shift will last. But what’s exciting is that the genre is shifting, which could indicate that American audiences are finally opening up to the truth that animation is a medium, not a genre. Animated movies should be able to dip into a wide variety of genres, not just musicals and comedies. This ripple into the action space will hopefully be just the beginning of a larger wave.