Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part III
Another wicked (in every sense of the word) example of character design reinforcing thematic structure is found in Rhode Montijo's and Kenn Navarro's Happy Tree Friends. The very simple character designs are a seemingly intentional parody of such saccharine children's fare such as Care Bears and My Little Pony. The Friends are unbearably cute and sweet-natured; they never harm one another, at least intentionally; they are typically victims of freak accidents, fate or the forces of nature and gravity. One gets the unerring sense that their graphic dismemberments and eviscerations befall them precisely because they dared to be so appealing. If this cartoon used character designs similar to those in Bambi or Watership Down, the results would have been neither funny nor entertaining. (Those of you who would laugh over Thumper and Flower trailing their own guts, harken back to the column addressing "taste," or check yourselves into the nearest psychiatric inpatient facility).
Although nothing could make Squidbillies worse than it is, the cartoon features ugly, unappealing character designs that leave no possibility for acting. Crude, poorly drawn and sloppy, these characters barely lend themselves to animation. It is impossible to care about their violent and often senseless deaths. An argument can be made that this was done to reflect the cartoon's environmental context, but I don't buy it. This is simply a bad cartoon show dragged down to a lower level by inferior character design. Co-creator Dave Willis was also responsible for 12oz. Mouse, a show equally deficient in character design. The primitive characters in that show did not even service the plot, which was a pretentious mess of absurdist drivel to begin with. Pity that: Willis' record of accomplishment on other projects shows him to be a man of considerable wit.
Complex characters that perform complex functions can represent the apex of animated acting and storytelling, if the original story supports them adequately. It is difficult to think of a more cogent example than that of the seven dwarfs in Disney's landmark 1937 feature. Bill Tytla and Fred Moore (among others) refined the highly individuated characters repeatedly until they could express nuances that live actors would have been hard-pressed to emulate.
Complex character designs that do not perform complex functions can be taken two ways: they are either designed to do very limited things, or the contexts in which they operate are as limited as they are. Such characters are exemplars of the "in-between" school of characters design. They are often well-designed and attractive, but display one-note acting capacity, even in their best cartoons.
Let's discuss visual, as well as functional aspects of character design in this regard. The attractive, anatomically detailed superheroes of Hanna-Barbera's cartoons during the 1960s will serve us here. Most of them were designed by comic book artist Alex Toth. Although their designs were sophisticated, it's impossible to call them complex characters.