Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part III
Mighty Mightor, for example, was that and not much else. He was a limited, reactive character with no discernible personality and no reason to have one. He-Man of Eternia, Mightor's thematic descendant, was more emotionally nuanced, but limited by the simple context of his show. One of the funniest aspects of the late Adult Swim series, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, was the way such two-dimensional characters were forced to function in a different context and in different roles.
There are times when character designs need to be altered. There are usually two reasons for that. The first has to do with making them more expressive actors. The most obvious example is the visual updating of Mickey Mouse by Fred Moore for the film Fantasia. Mickey was given a full pair of eyes with pupils. Previously, Mickey sported the "pie-cut" and later, solid oval design. Neither was appropriate for the refined artistic standards of the 1940's Disney studio. Try this: Picture The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence using Mickey as he looked in 1935. The trend toward realism went too far in attempting to give Mickey three-dimensional ears in The Little Whirlwind (1941). Popeye, originally a very unusual character design, was refined as his popularity grew. The same is true for Mr. Magoo, Fred Flintstone and even the original Simpsons. The result? Better actors.
Another reason character designs are altered: Updating by new generations of artists for new generations of viewers. Some months ago, I discussed the triumphant revision of Mighty Mouse by Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi. It is my opinion that there is generally nothing wrong with this, as long as the designs are recognizable. I am not among the critics of Jessica Borutski's retake on the classic Looney Tunes characters. These characters actually look as if they can do what they were designed to do without calling too much attention to themselves. The designs are much more satisfying than those used in Loonatics Unleashed, which was simply a poor concept.
Character designs today rarely change or update. Part of this is because very few animated series today last longer than three seasons. Branding and licensing issues virtually demand stable character design. Only a handful of animated films have sequels, and radical changes in design are not expected. A lesser reason is that some characters are considered iconic and not to be fooled with, as Ms. Borutski quickly learned when she came under fire from traditionalists. Only through revisionism can we see significant changes, and no one is falling over themselves to produce new versions of Rocky and Bullwinkle or Beany and Cecil.