Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part V
Barney Bear: This character's signature was a take on actor Wallace Beery's "slow burn" reaction. Slow-paced cartoons often bogged down Barney, and his naturally sluggish personality did not help matters much. Most of Barney's shorts dealt with frustrations that could be painful to watch. Barney was almost like a reverse-engineered Woody Woodpecker in that he was lethargic rather than hyperactive and tended to absorb punishment and humiliation rather than dish it out, and this character did not jibe with the psychology of American culture during the WWII and post-war years. Even knowledgeable animation fans may be surprised to learn that Barney's career lasted for 15 years and 26 cartoon shorts (1939-54). By example of contrast, The Tasmanian Devil appeared in only five Warner theatrical shorts (that he did not even star in), and achieved greater stardom.
The entire cast of Mission Hill: Rarely has a contemporary cartoon about contemporary young adults missed the mark so completely and wretchedly. Minor cult status aside, this show and its characters had very little one could identify with, and the "Generation Y" audiences it hoped to snag only confirmed that. Quirky slackers are not much fun to watch. In order to have a slice-of-life comedy, the characters really ought to have lives in the first place. Andrew, Kevin, Jim and Posey could have used the kind of intravenous hotshot that Kevin Smith could have cooked up. As a result, these subjects had chacteristics rather than motivations. Add poor character design to the mix, and a short run is guaranteed. When supposedly hip twenty-somethings like these are the last people you would want at your party, that's way uncool.
Questions for the critic: Review, either in your memory, or preferably on DVD, some random cartoons from different eras that feature non-super powered, non-magical characters (who are also not antiheroes). They can be human or animal, but they must meet the criteria listed above. Do these characters seem to have flexibility? Could they play other roles? Do you identify with them or do they leave you cold? If either is true, is that due to the script or the character? If you never saw this character(s) again, would you consider that a loss? What was it about the character that made you identify with it or reject it?
A note regarding feedback from last column, since discourse is one of the most exciting parts of criticism:
I cannot completely agree with "Anonymous" that there is a difference between "character" and "actor" in an animated work. Anonymous does have a point that the animator is truly the actor. Still, it must be noted that the animator is an actor by proxy only. I am reminded of an anecdote that I believe is attributed to Chuck Jones: Jones was introduced to a young boy who was told that Jones was the man who drew Bugs Bunny. The boy corrected the speaker by telling him, "He doesn't draw Bugs Bunny. He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny."
A character and its actions are inseparable. I cannot diminish the role of the animator, but that is not who we see on screen, and it is likely that thousands of people passed Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Milt Kahl or Dick Nolan on the street during their lifetimes without knowing who they were. Imagine a Bugs Bunny short performed by live-action footage of the animators drawing the characters.
Also consider that Bugs Bunny (since I started this answer with him) passed through various hands over nearly seventy years of screen life; was there ever a version of Bugs Bunny that was so out of character or painfully out of place (except for Space Jam) that you could not identify him as Bugs? Were all of his animators and directors over the years of such equal and artistic talent? Or is Bugs so well established that he truly is an actor no matter who handles him?
In the end, Bugs Bunny is not completely who the animator says he is. Bugs is also who the audience says he is, a process built up over decades of consistent, well-honed characteristics and their expression.
Next month: Think we're done with heroes? Not by a long shot. The examination of this most crucial of protagonists continues. Meanwhile, keep the feedback coming!
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.