Heroes, as they say, are born and not made. This is never true in animated cartoons. Even if a hero is born with super powers, it is because writers and artists deemed it so. Heroes and villains fit three categories: protagonists, antagonists or antiheroes. Again, keep in mind that animated characters have little time for development unless they star in long-running series. A cartoon protagonist must make a quick, strong impression or end up as the answer to a trivia question. Let's explore a few characters that succeeded and failed, and take a critical look at why. Once we are able to do so, we have the basis for future critique. Disagreements are, of course, welcome.
There are different classifications of heroes in animated cartoons. They include everyman, eponymous heroes, super-endowed heroes or antiheroes. (I do not make distinctions between animal, robotic or humanoid heroes: the rules for all are pretty much the same.)
The Eponymous Hero
This is a character with no special powers or abilities. He/she is intended to be a typical representative of the normal population. Most of this characters adventures and conflicts arise from events in the environment. Everyman characters tend to be reactive, which results in audiences wondering how situations are going to resolve. Sometimes this sort of hero is proactive, and audience involvement comes from watching how a task or goal is achieved (or not). Anime characters tend excel at this, and there are as many anime shows that deal with everyday life as those featuring aliens, robots, and demons.
Advantages of the "everyman" hero include the following: Audience identification is typically high. It is much easier to imagine one's self going through the same situations, except that there is a wonderful comic touch involved. The frustrations and joys are far more vicarious when one watches Goofy battle a home theater system to the point where there is no longer a house to put it in than there is watching Superman duke it out with Doomsday.
Because the situation rather than the character dictates the action, an eponymous hero can have a more developed personality and more nuances than super-powered counterparts can. After all, it is through ingenuity and pluck that their conflicts are solved, and their identifiable flaws that sink them. Eponymous heroes have a very small locus of control over things, and thus their victories can seem like efforts of genius while their failures touch universal chords in audience members that have faced similar situations.
The eponymous character has flexibility; one can cast it in a number of roles. Elmer Fudd can be a mad scientist, millionaire, wabbit hunter or Viking, but Batman and Wonder Woman cannot, nor can He-Man or Mighty Mouse.
Disadvantages of using an eponymous hero are obvious. If the situation or conflict is not crucial enough or the motivation for the hero to act is low, it is very difficult to make a good cartoon short or film. The challenge must be at least equal to the character, or there is simply nothing to kick against. A writer or animator can neglect (or simply fail) to develop the nuances of personality needed to make the character interesting. Or, the character can be a one-note pony in terms of response, making a cartoon predictable and boring.
Successful Eponymous HeroesSpongeBob SquarePants: This character has no incredible powers or abilities. He owns a pineapple home, has a service-level job, hangs out with a buddy and has a girlfriend (after a fashion). SpongeBob usually has to face problems caused by his own stubbornness, his tendency to misread situations and external nuisances such as Plankton, who perceives SBSP as a weak link. What SB has is a shining personality that only the most angelic nine-year-old could possess, and the steadfast determination to repair his many screw-ups. The lengths to which SB will go to achieve a goal or right a wrong are often a great source of comedy. The sponge may be naïve but he possesses an internal code of honor that audiences identify with.
Porky Pig: If the Warner stable tried to intentionally produce an everyman hero, it could not have done better. Creator Friz Freleng and then Tex Avery had early turns with Porky, but Bob Clampett turned the pig into a star by putting him into absurd and at times surreal conflicts. Pitted against characters who were less sane than Porky often worked well, as did putting the pig in command of operations or other characters that spun out of control. Porky, up to the present, never had the magical realism that other Warner characters commanded; Tweety or Bugs might produce a sputtering stick of dynamite from some unseen dimension, but it would be totally out of character for Porky to do this. The pig even struggled against a vocal handicap, no matter how amusing Mel Blanc was able to make it. Porky usually triumphed through wit, inventiveness and his unfailing good nature. Even as Porky faded from lead roles, he remained as loved as any other Warner icon.
Huckleberry Hound: One of the very best examples of the flexible everyman, Huck portrayed a number of roles with unshakeable aplomb and a twangy Dixie accent. Huck was deceptively clever; although it might not seem so, Huck was so much in control of his cartoon shorts that he could even afford to break the fourth wall and compliment his foes to the audience. Huck had no powers and appeared to make his living very much like the rest of us (with perhaps a bit more pain involved). Modern fans may not know that Huck was, in his day, as popular as any animated character on screen or TV.
Unsuccessful Eponymous Heroes
Many of these come out of the Hanna-Barbera stable, especially when the studio began stamping out one-note, funny animal characters who were more distinguishable by their vocal performances than their animated ones. They were generally not very flexible, but that was mainly due to the predictability of their scripts, which allowed very little expression of personality. Audiences could identify with them for perhaps a short or two, but stardom would never be their destiny.
Wally Gator: Wally had one identifiable goal: going AWOL from a zoo, and the variations on this theme were less imaginative than one might expect. His voice was derived from that of comedian Ed Wynn, an imitation that was already overdone by the time Wally made his debut. Wally had a lively personality, but not one sufficiently distinguishable from many other of the same ilk.
Barney Bear: This character's signature was a take on actor Wallace Beery's "slow burn" reaction. Slow-paced cartoons often bogged down Barney, and his naturally sluggish personality did not help matters much. Most of Barney's shorts dealt with frustrations that could be painful to watch. Barney was almost like a reverse-engineered Woody Woodpecker in that he was lethargic rather than hyperactive and tended to absorb punishment and humiliation rather than dish it out, and this character did not jibe with the psychology of American culture during the WWII and post-war years. Even knowledgeable animation fans may be surprised to learn that Barney's career lasted for 15 years and 26 cartoon shorts (1939-54). By example of contrast, The Tasmanian Devil appeared in only five Warner theatrical shorts (that he did not even star in), and achieved greater stardom.
The entire cast of Mission Hill: Rarely has a contemporary cartoon about contemporary young adults missed the mark so completely and wretchedly. Minor cult status aside, this show and its characters had very little one could identify with, and the "Generation Y" audiences it hoped to snag only confirmed that. Quirky slackers are not much fun to watch. In order to have a slice-of-life comedy, the characters really ought to have lives in the first place. Andrew, Kevin, Jim and Posey could have used the kind of intravenous hotshot that Kevin Smith could have cooked up. As a result, these subjects had chacteristics rather than motivations. Add poor character design to the mix, and a short run is guaranteed. When supposedly hip twenty-somethings like these are the last people you would want at your party, that's way uncool.
Questions for the critic: Review, either in your memory, or preferably on DVD, some random cartoons from different eras that feature non-super powered, non-magical characters (who are also not antiheroes). They can be human or animal, but they must meet the criteria listed above. Do these characters seem to have flexibility? Could they play other roles? Do you identify with them or do they leave you cold? If either is true, is that due to the script or the character? If you never saw this character(s) again, would you consider that a loss? What was it about the character that made you identify with it or reject it?
A note regarding feedback from last column, since discourse is one of the most exciting parts of criticism:
I cannot completely agree with "Anonymous" that there is a difference between "character" and "actor" in an animated work. Anonymous does have a point that the animator is truly the actor. Still, it must be noted that the animator is an actor by proxy only. I am reminded of an anecdote that I believe is attributed to Chuck Jones: Jones was introduced to a young boy who was told that Jones was the man who drew Bugs Bunny. The boy corrected the speaker by telling him, "He doesn't draw Bugs Bunny. He draws pictures of Bugs Bunny."
A character and its actions are inseparable. I cannot diminish the role of the animator, but that is not who we see on screen, and it is likely that thousands of people passed Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Milt Kahl or Dick Nolan on the street during their lifetimes without knowing who they were. Imagine a Bugs Bunny short performed by live-action footage of the animators drawing the characters.
Also consider that Bugs Bunny (since I started this answer with him) passed through various hands over nearly seventy years of screen life; was there ever a version of Bugs Bunny that was so out of character or painfully out of place (except for Space Jam) that you could not identify him as Bugs? Were all of his animators and directors over the years of such equal and artistic talent? Or is Bugs so well established that he truly is an actor no matter who handles him?
In the end, Bugs Bunny is not completely who the animator says he is. Bugs is also who the audience says he is, a process built up over decades of consistent, well-honed characteristics and their expression.
Next month: Think we're done with heroes? Not by a long shot. The examination of this most crucial of protagonists continues. Meanwhile, keep the feedback coming!
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.