Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part IV
Changing a character's personality is tricky but can be done successfully if the character was originally weak and/or undefined. We turn again to Chuck Jones. Jones was able to redefine Daffy Duck because Daffy was little more than a manic pest for most of his career. Jones was able to redefine Daffy as an insufferable egotist and thus, still a pest at bottom. Porky Pig was able to become a sardonic sidekick because for much of Porky's career he was an eponymous good-guy. It is important to note, however, that once Jones did this, the personalities of Porky and Daffy were set for the rest of their animated lives. They now had consistency of character.
Avery proved that a cartoon short could succeed without a strong character if the premise of the short can be stretched to ridiculous limits around that character. Most directors were less visionary about comedy, and most audiences seemed to prefer well-recognized icons that mellowed into old cinematic (and later, televised) friends. Once a character "breaks through," audiences can't seem to get enough of it.
Perhaps the most crucial way in which an animated character becomes a star: audiences identify with the character and come to adore it. Why is this? Because the character can behave in ways that we wish we could, say things we could not get away with, and live lives that are filled with fun, adventure, danger or conflicts that usually result with the character coming out on top. In short, they have wonderful fantasy lives that we can live vicariously.
To recap: consistency of a character's presentation is important, although some flexibility can be permitted. Acting ability is de riguer, both onscreen and through exceptional voice work. There must be at least one unique facet of the character's personality or set of mannerisms that audiences find endearing (even in villains), and audiences must come to identify with the character. Because animated characters are so vital to the success of their vehicles, we turn our exploration to how we might critique them. Next month, we will apply the rules and principles discussed above to specific case studies of animated success and failures.
Note to readers: Ms. Bessie Irene Hamrick, who was profiled in last December's column as perhaps America's oldest animation fan, passed away on March 20, 2011 at the age of 107. Every animated character over the past hundred years, from Gertie the Dinosaur to Finn and Jake, asks us to bow our heads for a moment of silence.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.