Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part VII
Donald Duck was the penultimate example of conflict within the self. Donald would battle various pests throughout his explosive career, but the early version of the duck was that of a bomb waiting to go off. Donald would even take on inanimate objects, which always seemed to have a sneaky way of striking back. Cartoons such as the aptly named Self Control (1938) featured the duck taking the advice of a radio host that advised him to count to 10 whenever a tantrum loomed. Naturally, the challenges are legion, and in the end, Donald's losing battle to keep his cool supplies the fun and it's the radio that's smashed to bits.
It can be argued that these two characters set the tone for self-defeating characters. This sort of conflict is fun because we root both for and against the protagonist. Anytime a character has to act against himself or behave in ways that do not conform to his personality, we can enjoy the comeuppance and resultant humility. An example: Timmy Turner, despite having the help of not one, but two omnipotent Fairly Oddparents, was his own worst enemy. At times Wanda and Cosmo would look at each other in weary resignation before granting Timmy's stupid or selfish wishes. Timmy lacked insight much of the time, and could not foresee consequences. To put it simply, he got everything he deserved. Yet, no one watching the show wanted anything truly bad to happen to Timmy; we just enjoyed the entertaining way he learned his lessons.
Of course, there are examples of animation in which both types of conflict ends in defeat; witness Chris Landreth's fascinating, harrowing short film Ryan, in which a talented animator loses a battle against his own self-destructive tendencies. Again, heroes often meet defeat and even death at the hands of their foes in manga-based anime.
This leads us to the final rule: The settlement of conflict in cartoons varies with the sophistication of the characters, story, and plot; the higher the level, the more options a writer/director/animator has. Protagonists can be maimed or killed if a complex storyline demands it. Ashitake, the hero of Princess Mononoke, spends most of the film dying. The two protagonists in Grave of the Fireflies are both dead before the film begins. Some protagonists die in an act of sacrifice, something one would certainly never see in a Felix the Cat or Heckle and Jeckle cartoon.
However a cartoon film or short may end, one thing is universally certain: Without a solid conflict at its core, it may as well not even begin.
Next month: Semester Break! Time for some fun from your doctor of toons.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.