Critical Analysis on ‘Life driven by death: animation aesthetics and the comic uncanny’ by Paul Flaig

The extract to be analyzed is from the journal article ‘Life driven by death: animation aesthetics and the comic uncanny’ by Paul Flaig. He proposes how comic uncanny can be derived from the universally shared notion of ‘life driven by death’ within the context of animation aesthetics. Furthermore he explores the blurred aesthetics of associating life with movement and death with stasis. Flaig is a lecturer of Film & Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen. The majority of his research delves into the history of early cinema to contemporary film theory, comic genres to psychoanalysis. His article was published by a reputable journal called Screen, a leading international journal of academic film and television series based at the John Logie Baird Centre at the University of Glasgow, published by Oxford University Press. The article presents a thoroughly researched argument relevant to the animation industry, as it enriches the scope of aesthetics driven by this type of narrative can encapsulate an audience.

Within this extract, Flaig makes his first point by highlighting Toy Story 3’s success that comes from the empathetic life of the toy protagonists. What enriches the quality of his argument is through establishing the root definition of animation from the written works of credible animators of Disney’s Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. The term stems from ‘animus’, which means ‘life or to live’. There must be evidence of life in the single drawing for it to be animation. Flaig introduces John Lasseter founder of Pixar and creator of Toy Story, taught under Johnston and Thomas, how his early films embodied animating lifeless objects, giving them personalities. How this kind of aesthetic would guide the film’s narrative. Although their written work is dated in 1995 it is still applicable in this context, as Flaig draws on how life has its own diversity rather than monotonous replications of character. He demonstrates this through linking how empathetic life enables humor to be derived through the unique character rather than the standard mass produced gag. It reflects how in Toy Story, humor is drawn differently according to each unique character. Toy Story 3 is one of the highest grossing animations, yet Flaig does not consider other qualities that could have contributed to the movie’s success. Also to include comparisons of other animation aesthetics would guide in better understanding appeal in the comic uncanny aesthetic.

Another point Flaig leads on to be that life in the Toy Story films is meaningful only in its proximity to death. He quotes well-known animation theorist Cholodenko to support the point of how animation cannot be thought without thinking loss and death, the other aspect to the cycle of life. Relating this to Toy Story, Flaig points out how there is a mortality of the toys, the fear of their child playmate abandoning them as they transition into adulthood. This relation between animation and morality is supported from Buzz Lightyear’s quote from Toy Story ‘life is only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid’, demonstrating the desire for purpose and to stay relevant is fundamental to life. These concepts although logically reasoned can be easily simplified without considering other factors that may be the driving life over death. There also lacks the standpoint of demographic acknowledgement, which suggest assumptive generalizations.

The third point Flaig raises is the division of life with movement and death with stasis can be blurred in animation aesthetics. He relates this in recent film theory that in the association of death with deanimated stillness, even photographic stoppage or Barthesian puncta would have the illusion of life. Flaig uses in Vivian Sobchack’s words the inanimate stillness is at the heart of cinematic animation to support his argument. This is sustained through Freud’s ideas of how children give a personal association with their toys, treating them like live people. This concept of life driven by death highlights the toys struggle, striving to remain relevant, to have a purpose, loved and cared for by their child playmate. It is through the sentimental metaphors of for mortality of childhood that impact the lives of the toys as they face their finitude. Flaig also references Freud, that children do not distinguish sharply between living and inanimate objects, thus treat their toys as though like live people. From a psychoanalytic perspective on the cognition of the human mind and its attitude towards a life driven by death, allows the concept of the comic uncanny to be better grasped.

Flaig develops his arguments to this final point that from the blurred boundaries of associating life with movement and death with stasis arises a different mode of comedy, the comic uncanny gag that overtakes narrative, personality and empathetic storylines. He takes Freud’s concept further by suggesting this comic uncanny originates from the proximity to fear of subjective dislocation and spatial disorientation, rather than distance from this anxiety. This proposal has potential research opportunities to discover insights for animation aesthetics. However, it is necessary for Flaig to differentiate the subjective nature and any universal qualities of the comic uncanny.

In conclusion, through logical presentations of precedents Flaig successfully raises the driving force behind this animation aesthetic is confronting death with humour. Without the threat of death, the films would lack the pathos that builds upon evoking a deeper connection with the character’s lives. From my perspective, the concept of the fear of being replaced or being outdated is a very relatable notion to the viewer, thus is able to draw the viewer in. A thought-provoking association can be drawn between Toy Story’s comic uncanny with Paul Wells’ article on ‘The Animation Manifesto or, What’s Animation Ever Done for Us?’. In Wells’ article, he presents an animation manifesto in order to re-establish its role in today’s creative industry, and within the section describing it to be a matter of life and death, it reflects the struggle to stay relevant and develop a professional identity. This paper presents potential areas of research, to examine the interplay of animation aesthetics, plotline development and the role of the animator. It is an inevitable and heavy subject matter that appeals to the hearts of people and thus the animation industry can utilize this to impact generations.



Cholodenko, A., 1993. The Illusion of Life. s.l.:Power Institute of Fine Arts.

Flaig, P., 2013. Life driven by death: animation aesthetics and the comic uncanny. Screen, pp. 1-3.

Freud, S., 1997. ‘The Uncanny’, writings on Art and Literature. s.l.:Stanford University Press.

Johnston, O. & Thomas, F., 1995. Disney Animation: the Illusion of Life. New York: NY: Disneys.

Sobchack, V., 2009. Animation and automation, or, the incredible effortfulness of being. Screen, 50(4).

Wells, P., 2015. The Animation Manifesto or, What’s Animation Ever Done for Us?. Volume 188, pp. 94-100.