Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part IV
In the last installment we explored how character design contributed (or not) to the success of an animated cartoon. This month we will shift from the physical depiction of a character to the important role that character plays as an actor. We will keep in mind the original question underpinning this series: What is a given piece of animation trying to do, and how well does it accomplish that task?
It is not entirely correct to say that a cartoon character in an animated film is analogous to an actor in a live-action film (this is one reason for the dismal failure of features in which live actors attempt to portray animated characters). In many ways, the task of an animated character is actually more difficult than that of a live actor. At first glance, this statement does not seem to make sense, but consider the following:
An animated character is limited to a very small number of roles, and must perform them without much variation. Robert DeNiro, for instance, can star in live-action comedic and dramatic roles across several genres. Bugs Bunny cannot do the same unless he performing a parody. Major alterations to Bugs' established persona essentially destroys the character. Another example: the attempt by UPA to force Mr. Magoo into a variety of literary adaptations (The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, 1964-65). Magoo became a star as a crotchety, nearsighted old coot; watching him portray Gunga Din or Cyrano de Bergerac made little sense to viewers.
Animated characters, whether good, evil, slick or stupid, have a limited amount of time to impact a short, episode or film. There is only a brief window a character has to bloom into a "star." Even with repeating characters, there are typically seven minutes to a short and 22 minutes to a television episode. Unless the series is a long-continuing saga (like The Simpsons or Family Guy), characters are not given time to develop many nuances. Most animated series in the past decade did not survive three seasons. Thus, a character must be memorable from the outset or the short or series may well fail.
We can see, then, that an animated character must be an exceptional actor, creating feelings that resonate with an audience. Even if a character's scope is limited (as is Wile E. Coyote's), it has to leave an emotional mark on an audience. In evaluating any animated character as an actor, a central question would have to be, how consistent is the character's presentation? A character can be proactive or reactive from one cartoon to the next (or even within the same cartoon) but consistency of character is vital. Any animated feature or short where a character behaves inconsistently pretty much dooms the work. That is why, for the most part, animated stories can be wildly implausible and feature talking animals or science-fiction themes; because of character constraints, there can be a loosening of environmental realities so that the character has more situations to play against.