Search form

Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part III

Dr. Toon analyzes character design in his latest installment on cultivating critical thought.

Martin Goodman.

In our first two installments, we have covered the generic, universal tools needed in order to practice the art of critique. I have only one cardinal question for my readers to keep in mind when evaluating an animated work: What was this work trying to do, and how well was it done? This month, I will begin to apply these concepts specifically to animation. Although I wish these subjects could go in a hierarchical order, the components of an animated short/film are so integrative that I find such rankings impossible. Therefore, I shall begin with evaluating character design.

If an animated work is going to relate a story, there must be agents to carry out this task. It makes sense that a) Their design must facilitate the acting ability to affect a story; b) They should be in some way engaging or appealing to the observer, and; c) They are appropriate to the context in which they function. Let's examine some successes, failures and in-betweens.

Keep in mind that character design need not be complex as long as it adheres to the concepts stated above. At a recent (boring) meeting, I observed one of my colleagues sketching characters from The Simpsonsand South Park on his notepad. The drawings were not appreciably different from the actual characters seen on TV. In fact, it takes little facility to draw them, but that does not mean they represent inferior designs.

Both Homer Simpson and Eric Cartman are capable of expressive acting, and have the added advantage of voice actors that add to their nuances (more about voice work later in the series). Although the former is a bright yellow humanoid and the latter a ball with undersized limbs, their designs are appealing; Homer, who portrays a benighted Everyman, looks the part. Cartman's design strongly suggests the child he is. Both feature rounded rather than angular design, a style that has historically been more pleasing to animation audiences. This allows for instant audience appeal. The same can be said for the characters in Gene Deitch's imaginative Tom Terrific series.

Audiences were surprised when Maggie Simpson pulled off feats of unexpected sophistication.

Most effective of all, these characters are very appropriate for the context in which they operate. The family Simpson and the South Park gang are in the business of social parody and satire; making their designs more complex would call more attention to the characters than the subversive messages the stories typically carry. Recall that Simpsons' creator Matt Groening, like the famed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, addressed philosophical issues and human foibles in their comic strips using little more than stationary talking heads. Simple, attractive design can also set up instances of hilarious incongruence: Recall how audiences first reacted when vulgar obscenities issued from the South Park Kids, or when Maggie Simpson pulled off feats of unexpected sophistication.

Another wicked (in every sense of the word) example of character design reinforcing thematic structure is found in Rhode Montijo's and Kenn Navarro's Happy Tree Friends. The very simple character designs are a seemingly intentional parody of such saccharine children's fare such as Care Bears and My Little Pony. The Friends are unbearably cute and sweet-natured; they never harm one another, at least intentionally; they are typically victims of freak accidents, fate or the forces of nature and gravity. One gets the unerring sense that their graphic dismemberments and eviscerations befall them precisely because they dared to beso appealing. If this cartoon used character designs similar to those in Bambi or Watership Down, the results would have been neither funny nor entertaining. (Those of you who would laugh over Thumper and Flower trailing their own guts, harken back to the column addressing "taste," or check yourselves into the nearest psychiatric inpatient facility).

Although nothing could make Squidbillies worse than it is, the cartoon features ugly, unappealing character designs that leave no possibility for acting. Crude, poorly drawn and sloppy, these characters barely lend themselves to animation. It is impossible to care about their violent and often senseless deaths. An argument can be made that this was done to reflect the cartoon's environmental context, but I don't buy it. This is simply a bad cartoon show dragged down to a lower level by inferior character design. Co-creator Dave Willis was also responsible for 12oz. Mouse, a show equally deficient in character design. The primitive characters in that show did not even service the plot, which was a pretentious mess of absurdist drivel to begin with. Pity that: Willis' record of accomplishment on other projects shows him to be a man of considerable wit.

Complex characters that perform complex functions can represent the apex of animated acting and storytelling, if the original story supports them adequately. It is difficult to think of a more cogent example than that of the seven dwarfs in Disney's landmark 1937 feature. Bill Tytla and Fred Moore (among others) refined the highly individuated characters repeatedly until they could express nuances that live actors would have been hard-pressed to emulate.

Pluto's struggles with flypaper marked the birth of personality animation.

At the time Disney was an experimental lab of what was later called "personality animation." That meant that a character's emotional and cognitive inner life could be visibly apparent to an audience through its actions on screen. Although there are glimmers of this sort of animation in earlier films, many historians point to the "flypaper scene" in Disney's 1934 short Playful Pluto, animated by Norm Ferguson, as the birth of personality animation. The pup's struggles with the sticky paper give the sense that Pluto is trying to outwit his adversary, even though Pluto himself is mute.

Complex character designs that do not perform complex functions can be taken two ways: they are either designed to do very limited things, or the contexts in which they operate are as limited as they are. Such characters are exemplars of the "in-between" school of characters design. They are often well-designed and attractive, but display one-note acting capacity, even in their best cartoons.

Let's discuss visual, as well as functional aspects of character design in this regard. The attractive, anatomically detailed superheroes of Hanna-Barbera's cartoons during the 1960s will serve us here. Most of them were designed by comic book artist Alex Toth. Although their designs were sophisticated, it's impossible to call them complex characters.

Mighty Mightor, for example, was that and not much else. He was a limited, reactive character with no discernible personality and no reason to have one. He-Man of Eternia, Mightor's thematic descendant, was more emotionally nuanced, but limited by the simple context of his show. One of the funniest aspects of the late Adult Swim series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, was the way such two-dimensional characters were forced to function in a different context and in different roles.

There are times when character designs need to be altered. There are usually two reasons for that. The first has to do with making them more expressive actors. The most obvious example is the visual updating of Mickey Mouse by Fred Moore for the film Fantasia. Mickey was given a full pair of eyes with pupils. Previously, Mickey sported the "pie-cut" and later, solid oval design. Neither was appropriate for the refined artistic standards of the 1940's Disney studio. Try this: Picture The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence using Mickey as he looked in 1935. The trend toward realism went too far in attempting to give Mickey three-dimensional ears in The Little Whirlwind (1941). Popeye, originally a very unusual character design, was refined as his popularity grew. The same is true for Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone and even the original Simpsons. The result? Better actors.

Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi successfully re-imagined Mighty Mouse.

As The Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies evolved, so did the characters. Silly animals of highly plastic design is fine for farce; by the early 1940s the Warner animators were treating their characters more like humans in animal skins. One of the fastest responders to these changes was Bugs Bunny. In the three years between his first modern appearance and Robert McKimson's classic redesign in 1943, Bugs evolved into an actor who specialized in verbal, rather than physical, trickery. Chuck Jones continued to use Bugs in this way, but eventually corrupted the design in his later years. Those designs are not in use today.

Another reason character designs are altered: Updating by new generations of artists for new generations of viewers. Some months ago, I discussed the triumphant revision of Mighty Mouse by Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi. It is my opinion that there is generally nothing wrong with this, as long as the designs are recognizable. I am not among the critics of Jessica Borutski's retake on the classic Looney Tunes characters. These characters actually look as if they can do what they were designed to do without calling too much attention to themselves. The designs are much more satisfying than those used in Loonatics Unleashed, which was simply a poor concept.

Character designs today rarely change or update. Part of this is because very few animated series today last longer than three seasons. Branding and licensing issues virtually demand stable character design. Only a handful of animated films have sequels, and radical changes in design are not expected. A lesser reason is that some characters are considered iconic and not to be fooled with, as Ms. Borutski quickly learned when she came under fire from traditionalists. Only through revisionism can we see significant changes, and no one is falling over themselves to produce new versions of Rocky and Bullwinkle or Beany and Cecil.

One thing that I have found upsetting: characters are rarely allowed to show their acting chops these days. Scripts of the 1990s and 2000s have become so talky and dialogue-heavy that some animated films have up to 80 voice artists. Dialogue on TV tends to be non-stop, exposition constant and animation left increasingly to poses which require very little acting. More on this in another installment about the balance between dialogue and action. So, until next time, a fast guide to evaluating character design:

Fun Things to Do:Think about an animated character that you consider attractive. Why do you think so? Is it design or is it the use to which the character is put?

Think about how much character design does (or does not) affect your evaluation of a cartoon series or movie that you hated. Did it play a part in your opinion?

Now sit down and write your descriptions and thoughts about these characters. Be as descriptive and imaginative as possible.

Try to picture popular animated characters (as originally designed) in modern productions. Could they still get the job done? Would they seem out of place?

Better than the modern design?

Which cartoon characters do you consider to be outstanding actors? Does their design facilitate that? How? What cartoon characters do you find dull and uninteresting? Does their design play a part in your opinion?

Make two lists: one with the best character designs you have seen (or worked with), and another with the worst. Any similarities within the categories?

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.