This summer the Frist Center for the Visual Arts comes alive with the installation of Watch Me Move: The Animation Show, the most extensive exhibition ever mounted to present a wide range of animated imagery produced in the last 120 years. Organized by the Barbican Centre, London, the exhibition juxtaposes works by pioneers and independent film-makers including Étienne-Jules Marey, Max Fleischer, and Lotte Reiniger with the creative output of commercial studios such as Disney, Studio Ghibli and Pixar. It also includes works by major contemporary artists such as William Kentridge and Nathalie Djurberg. As part of an acclaimed international tour, Watch Me Move will be on view in the Frist Center’s Ingram Gallery from June 6–September 1, 2014.

Presenting animation as a highly influential force in the development of global visual culture, Watch Me Move explores the relationship between animation and film and offers a timely insight into the genre as a cultural phenomenon. “While we often think of animation as an art form for children, this exhibition acknowledges its appeal to all generations and cultures from the United States and Europe to Japan and China” says Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala. ”Most of the works comprise family entertainment, which is often hilarious and ingenious. Even films with purely aesthetic aims, or with mature and socially critical content, will change the way people appreciate many of the most creative, yet often unheralded, masters of the medium.”

The show features 85 works, from iconic clips to lesser-known masterpieces. Mr. Scala describes the potential experience: “As visitors move through galleries illuminated with the glow of screens and projections, we foresee them experiencing delight in the familiar mingled with pleasure at the imaginative productions of artists and filmmakers who have never achieved a wide audience. From wonder and laughter to provocation and contemplation, even a little shock, Watch Me Move inspires a surprising range of emotions.”

As part of the exhibition programming, the Frist Center has partnered with Nashville’s independent nonprofit Belcourt Theatre to present an animation series scheduled for the first three weekends of July. A selection of family-friendly animated classics will be shown on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. The Belcourt will also screen a midnight movie series with features such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic and the manga Ghost in the Shell for mature audiences.

Transforming the gallery into an immersive environment, the exhibition is divided into six thematic groupings: Apparitions, Fables and Fragments, Structures, Characters, Superhumans and Modern Visions. The first section, Apparitions, focuses on the emergence of the animated image with its roots in photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s now iconic split-second frame images of animals and humans in motion. Max Fleischer, considered the father of modern character animation for his pioneering techniques and sense of humor, is represented by his Out of the Inkwell (1918–29) series characters Betty Boop and Koko the Clown.

The technical and artistic qualities of animation, in all its forms, have made it the ideal medium to interpret myths, fables, and fairy tales. Fables and Fragments demonstrates how animators including Walt Disney and Peter Jackson have tapped a deep collective well in bringing powerful archetypal stories from around the world to generations of viewers. Chinese animators including Wan Gu Chan and Wan Lai Ming and the Japanese Studio Ghibli have also turned to their respective culture’s story traditions for inspiration. Also included in this section are provocative works intended for mature audiences by contemporary artists such as Nathalie Djurberg and Jan Švankmajer who use traditional means and materials to evoke primal collective memories.

While much animation is aimed at storytelling, the section Structures focuses on avant-garde artists who have long delighted in manipulating film’s most basic properties-form, color, sound, movement and duration-to create dynamic aesthetic experiences. Today, digitalization provides an expanded toolkit, as seen in the collaborative group Semiconductor’s Matter in Motion, which comprises a series of fanciful structural interventions, dissolving and reforming within the urban landscape, as if to emphasize its transience. Structures includes the film A Colour Box, (1935), a riot of light and motion whereby Len Lye painted geometric patterns directly onto celluloid, to a soundtrack of Cuban music.

The clips in Characters feature some of the biggest stars of animation. The 1930s saw a shift to standardized formats built around characters such as Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Felix the Cat. The focus on individual personality continued with the rise of TV cartoons, in which Fred and Wilma Flintstone, George Jetson, and Yogi Bear reflected the mores of the 1960s. More recently, characters like the Simpsons and the cast of South Park have been vehicles for social satire. John Lasseter’s first film for Pixar Animation Studios, Luxo Jr., (1986), follows the antics of a small desk lamp, as its elder lamp affectionately looks on. A sustained development of personality appears in such animations as Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy (1995/1999/2010), in which Woody and his cohort are shown as complex and compelling virtual beings. This section also includes less well-known characters, showing the power of animation to convey social and political issues. For example Tim Webb’s award-winning film, A is for Autism, (1992), combines words, drawings, music and animation by people with autism.

Characters with extraordinary powers are a staple of post-World War II animation. The protagonists of Superhumans tend to be ordinary humans, who have been possessed or traumatized beyond the realm of normal experience such as the Hulk, an ordinary young man whose body is chemically altered, giving him remarkable strengths coupled with a profound sense of alienation. Other highlights include, Astro Boy, 1963–66, set in a futuristic city in 2030, featuring the amazing adventures of a child robot with superpowers. While culturally specific, as in Japanese manga and anime or America’s Marvel comics, the appeal of superhumans is international in scope. Also on view is an extended clip from Disney’s groundbreaking film Tron, (1982), inspired by the emerging gaming industries that developed out of the first commercially viable video game, Computer Space, in 1971.

The exhibition concludes with Modern Visions, which includes works by contemporary artists who address adult themes of war, sexuality and various aspects of cultural dissonance. RMB City (2009) depicts the online world of Second Life, conceived by Beijing artist Cao Fei (aka China Tracy) as a place for participants to create a parallel reality in which to live out their dreams. Other highlights of this section include Ryan Trecartin’s manic Tommy Chat Just E-Mailed Me, and additional works created for a more mature audience. Such works demonstrate the blurred lines between life and art engendered by today’s technology, while reminding viewers that animation is not just for children.

“Through its history, animation has excited the imaginations of young and old in every culture. It is a form of art that entertains and inspires, drawing forth visions from the dream-life of culture,” says Mr. Scala. “In animation, anything is possible.”

Watch Me Move: The Animation Show is organized by Barbican Centre, London and was curated by Greg Hilty and Barbican Art Gallery.