Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part IV
Let's take the example of Chuck Jones' character Pepe Le Pew. Pepe is extremely consistent; he is, in fact, a one-note character. A suave, Gallic skunk, overconfident to the point of extreme narcissism in his amorous abilities, Pepe basically replicates the same plot in every cartoon short he appears in. Many critics praise Jones for getting so much mileage out of what are really carbon copies of his original short, but the cartoons per se don't deserve the praise. From the moment a black female cat is accidentally acquires a white stripe, we know exactly what is going to happen in the cartoon and how.
The shorts really work because Pepe is a well-defined, consistent character (with the help of Mel Blanc's stellar voicework). The fun lies in watching him stay in character, not stray from it. The creative cost to Jones was minimal; Pepe was highly popular but never had to star in any other sort of short. While Jones engineered more flexibility for Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and most notably Daffy Duck, Pepe remained Pepe for his entire cinematic life.
If consistency is taken too far, however, this can backfire. Mickey Mouse developed into a character so good-natured and inoffensive that virtually nothing interesting could be done with him within a few years of his debut. It should be noted that anytime Mickey got a bit wild, parents would complain. Some of that may have been due to a feared influence on children, but it would also be remiss to underestimate the power of audiences wanting a Mickey who behaved in a consistent manner.
As a result, Mickey became a bland co-star in many of his own cartoons. He was far too iconic by then to meddle with; that would have been tantamount to sacrilege. It was almost inevitable that the studio came up with a character as irascible as Donald Duck, who had far more opportunities to perform as an actor. Or consider Goofy: His hilarious "How To" and "Sports Goofy" shorts could not have been pulled off by Mickey, who was poorly suited to slapstick or overly physical humor.
One of Bob Clampett's very few missteps was making Bugs Bunny cartoons in which the typically omnipotent rabbit could be defeated, trounced, shamed or made to look stupid. When the Gremlin or Cecil Turtle beat the bunny, there was the sense that something was wrong, that some violation had occurred, even though the cartoons themselves were technically excellent. Bugs, according to the rules, didn't lose, never took a physical beating or was bested at his own game. Bugs Bunny was in control of every situation, and Clampett erred by pitting him against characters who could defeat him, and that was not the Bugs Bunny audiences expected to see.
Fiction writers often insist that villains should have a redeeming feature or an unexpectedly human side. The best comic book villains, for example, adhere to this rule. Doctor Doom, in one storyline, proved to be a more benevolent ruler than his tyrannical usurpers. The Fantastic Four actually fought alongside him to liberate his native Latveria. Animated villains, however, seem to have two choices; they can be monumentally bad (evil villains, like Skeletor) or incredibly stupid (comic villains, like Wally Walrus). Very few animated cartoons and features attempt to vary these roles. A notable exception was Jhonen Vasquez' subtly sophisticated Goth hit, Invader Zim (2001). Zim and his opponent Dib are antiheroes and at times take turns at being both evil and comic villains.