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The fantasy of children’s toys “coming to life” has been the subject of countless works of literature and cinema from The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816) to the Toy Story films. Although toys have been animated through language, performance, and moving-image production techniques, the dream of the animate toy has also been cultivated and sustained within children’s material and consumer cultures. Building upon the cinematic and literary traditions of living playthings, this talk explores toys from the late nineteenth to the present that have “come to life” and considers how these toys reflect concerns over children’s relationships to media, technology, and play in the popular imagination. From stop motion to CGI, talking dolls to toys-to-life video games, children’s media and material culture is saturated with two intertwined fantasies of animation. The first is the dream of the living plaything—an animate companion for the child. The second is the animating toy—the plaything that promises to enliven or awaken the child’s imaginative inclinations. Through a series of case studies, I will explore several conceptions of “animation” that have been taken up in toy design and marketing and will consider how these definitions position the child in relation to their toys. In so doing, I hope to explore how animation as a critical lens reframes established ways of viewing children as media audiences and consumers, and how the metaphors and technologies of animation reveal our broader hopes and concerns surrounding children’s learning and play.
Dr. Meredith A. Bak Bio:
Meredith A. Bak is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. She holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies from UC, Santa Barbara. Areas of interest include historical and contemporary children’s media, toys, and visual and material culture. Her work appears in Early Popular Visual Culture, Film History, The Moving Image, and The Velvet Light Trap. She is working on a book manuscript about the role of pre-cinematic visual media from optical toys to early pop-up books in shaping children as media spectators. A second project in development considers the history and theory of animate toys from talking dolls to augmented reality apps.