Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part VII
Rule Number Two: Conflict must be staged so that the protagonist and the forces he is in conflict with make the outcome uncertain. Sans spinach, Bluto is as strong as Popeye. Fred Flintstone can hatch a ruse with the best of them, but Wilma is miles ahead of him every time. Tom and Jerry seem to possess equal lethality, but the balance of power can shift several times in one of their shorts. The heroes of Toy Story 3 had to defeat an anti-woody and his toy cohorts, and were nearly ground to shards and incinerated in the struggle.
Without an uncertain outcome, the cartoon is a bust. This is the reason why many of the Harveytoons featuring Herman and Katnip failed; when watching any of them, it is difficult to believe that this is an even matchup. Thus, conflict tended to be solved by one-sided violence. It is also the reason why Mighty Mouse was an unexciting character. When Ben Edlund created the superhero satire The Tick, both the good and evil characters were powerful, but equally stupid and/or inept. Even though the series was played for laughs, it followed the rules of successful conflict, and thus became a hit.
For some time, Bugs Bunny did well outwitting and outhitting idiots like Elmer Fudd, or a nameless African-American hunter or a stupid American Indian stereotype. Potentially dangerous foes like Red-Hot Ryder were too mentally slow to challenge Bugs. The Warner stable of directors quickly figured out that Bug's foes had to be more powerful, and Yosemite Sam, Marvin Martian and the Tazmanian Devil filled the bill. This is one good reason why Bugs Bunny is still around and Herman the Mouse isn't.
We are hooked when Wile E. Coyote hatches each scheme, if only to see how the Road Runner escapes destruction. Recall some of the Popeye cartoons wherein the sailor, in mortal danger, is unable to reach his spinach. How about Daffy Duck, surrounded by a squadron of Chester Gould-inspired super criminals? Or Price Philip facing a malevolent hell spawn of a dragon to save his beloved? A triumphant dénouement, when well staged, holds our attention and creates satisfying art.
A second sort of conflict also deserves examination, and this concerns the protagonist against self. Many hilarious and noteworthy cartoons were generated using this simple premise. It took a few years until this sort of cartoon developed. While Popeye battled Bluto in the beloved classic Fleischer shorts, Warner Bros. was producing sport hunter vs. crafty game fare. The short-lived Iwerks studio was pitting Flip the Frog against ghosts, bullies, robots and mean bosses. The Disney studio, however, was experimenting with characters that created their own conflicts. There was no seminal cartoon that exemplified this style; rather, it was the result of slow evolution as personality animation was perfected.