Having made use of drivers (a useful tool for modifying surface aspects of materials), I turned my focus on to ways of procedurally animating the geometry of surfaces. Think things like flickering fire and wavy water. As it turns out, Blender's modifier system deals well with such wants, and it's pretty easy to find a knob you can animate if you just link coordinate systems in noise displacements to empty objects.
Generating a noise texture, fiddling with strengths, then linking to an object's transform to move around a coordinate system makes a nice wavy texture for water, for example.
Pair that with some driver-based action for our toon-foam, along with some particles to fill in the sand (and some rudimentary modelling of "coral" and "shells," and you get the gif above. With some more effort into fine-tuning noise textures to selectively make a mesh transparent, we can also make fire.
This all falls under a kind of effects-based procedural animation. Character-based motion is still a bit out of reach, but that's what armatures and skeletons are for!