Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part VII
Any writers of fiction, stage or screenplays know that without conflict, dramatic narrative is not possible. Conflict is the engine that drives story; characters are the actors that play it out. When one has a seven or eight-minute cartoon or a 90-minute animated feature film to produce, conflict must be immediately defined, clearly delineated, and carried through to a successful conclusion that resolves the conflict-driven tension. Even if the conflict is in a single episode of an ongoing series (very common in anime titles), that particular episode must contain enough conflict to keep an audience interested.
In the early days of animation, the protagonist tended to be a helpless little guy up against a brutish, bigger one, and most conflicts were physical rather than cerebral; this was perfectly in keeping with the primitivism of an early art form. For a quick example, Mickey Mouse squared off against (some variant of) Pegleg Pete. At times, the protagonist struggled against the environment, and cartoons featuring hunger and the pursuit of food often provided the basis for conflict.
Such was the origin of the "chase" cartoon, in which one character pursues the other throughout the film, usually out of anger, hunger, or sport. Some animation analysts, such as Norman Klein, see the chase and its variants as the basic structure underlying animated cartoons. However, one must keep in mind that any chase is the product of conflict.
Rule Number One: The intensity of conflict in a cartoon film is directly related to the stakes involved. A character out to make money is playing for lower stakes than a character who is trying to avoid being eaten. A character who must overcome obstacles to steal a tasty pie from a windowsill is playing for lower stakes than one who is starving to death, and so on.