Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part V
Heroes, as they say, are born and not made. This is never true in animated cartoons. Even if a hero is born with super powers, it is because writers and artists deemed it so. Heroes and villains fit three categories: protagonists, antagonists or antiheroes. Again, keep in mind that animated characters have little time for development unless they star in long-running series. A cartoon protagonist must make a quick, strong impression or end up as the answer to a trivia question. Let's explore a few characters that succeeded and failed, and take a critical look at why. Once we are able to do so, we have the basis for future critique. Disagreements are, of course, welcome.
There are different classifications of heroes in animated cartoons. They include everyman, eponymous heroes, super-endowed heroes or antiheroes. (I do not make distinctions between animal, robotic or humanoid heroes: the rules for all are pretty much the same.)
The Eponymous Hero
This is a character with no special powers or abilities. He/she is intended to be a typical representative of the normal population. Most of this characters adventures and conflicts arise from events in the environment. Everyman characters tend to be reactive, which results in audiences wondering how situations are going to resolve. Sometimes this sort of hero is proactive, and audience involvement comes from watching how a task or goal is achieved (or not). Anime characters tend excel at this, and there are as many anime shows that deal with everyday life as those featuring aliens, robots, and demons.
Advantages of the "everyman" hero include the following: Audience identification is typically high. It is much easier to imagine one's self going through the same situations, except that there is a wonderful comic touch involved. The frustrations and joys are far more vicarious when one watches Goofy battle a home theater system to the point where there is no longer a house to put it in than there is watching Superman duke it out with Doomsday.
Because the situation rather than the character dictates the action, an eponymous hero can have a more developed personality and more nuances than super-powered counterparts can. After all, it is through ingenuity and pluck that their conflicts are solved, and their identifiable flaws that sink them. Eponymous heroes have a very small locus of control over things, and thus their victories can seem like efforts of genius while their failures touch universal chords in audience members that have faced similar situations.
The eponymous character has flexibility; one can cast it in a number of roles. Elmer Fudd can be a mad scientist, millionaire, wabbit hunter or Viking, but Batman and Wonder Woman cannot, nor can He-Man or Mighty Mouse.
Disadvantages of using an eponymous hero are obvious. If the situation or conflict is not crucial enough or the motivation for the hero to act is low, it is very difficult to make a good cartoon short or film. The challenge must be at least equal to the character, or there is simply nothing to kick against. A writer or animator can neglect (or simply fail) to develop the nuances of personality needed to make the character interesting. Or, the character can be a one-note pony in terms of response, making a cartoon predictable and boring.