I was looking for those
animated characters that will be forever fresh as long as cartoons are
enjoyed. These are not one-dimensional characters as are most cartoon
characters. Three of these are animals acting like humans, and the
fourth is a human who often acts like an animal. Here are my candidates
for greatness in order of appearance on movie and TV screens.
MOUSE: It is hard to
imagine the impact that Mickey Mouse had on audiences. It’s no
exaggeration to say that Mickey’s debut coincided with a low point of
animation. Factory-produced animation had robbed the silent era cartoon
of its sense of fun and attitude. Cartoons were very much alike by the
last part of the 1920s, and no new character had really captured the
public imagination since Felix the Cat about a decade earlier.
Audiences booed cartoons regularly, and many theatres had decided not to
show them. Mickey changed all that. Now cartoons were liberated from
formulaic and predictable gags by a spunky little fellow who brought fun
back into cartoons. Mickey’s films were fast and furious, a blend of
humour and incredible inventiveness. You never knew what would happen
next, but it would do so with wonderful creativity.
© Walt Disney Studios 2004
It’s been said that Gary
Cooper and James Stewart represented the average “good” American to
audiences around the world. Mickey was another, and more, somewhat
like Chaplin, as he could combine both comedy and pathos. In one
Christmas cartoon he is homeless and so poor he gives his dog Pluto away
to a rich family who wants him. Mickey later roasts his Christmas hot
dog over an outside fire, with a Pluto snowman as company.
He was an ordinary guy who never looked for trouble, but could acquit
himself well when his rights
or girlfriend were in trouble. Mickey saved animation and the
painstaking efforts of The Disney Studio pointed the way for how sound
and story would be used in the 1930s. Unfortunately Mickey got pushed
aside by other characters until he eventually became a hanger-on in
insipid cartoons, bearing no resemblance to his original black and white
© Walt Disney Studios
Today he is little more than a corporate symbol, called upon to be the
host of films, TV shows and theme parks. Why Disney doesn’t re-issue
Mickey’s best works on video and DVD is a mystery. There was a period
from 1968-1978 or so when it was impossible to see Mickey Mouse
classics. We are entering a similar period now.
Pure anarchy onscreen,
the unsung Marx Brother. Often compared to Daffy Duck, but Daffy was
just screwy. Donald was mean. It wasn’t enough to win, you had to make
your opponent suffer. Fighting back when oppressed was common in many
cartoons, but Donald was the oppressor! In many cartoons everything is
fine until Donald decides to pick on some weaker character, be it an
ant, a bee, a bird, Chip and Dale or some other creature just minding
its own business as Donald doesn’t mind his own.
© Walt Disney Studios
We all know people like Donald, and hope that their meanness will turn
against them as Donald’s does on him. Donald has only himself to blame.
He can dish it out, but he can’t take it. He's greedy like Daffy Duck,
self-centered like Daffy, but out to harm where Daffy is out to overcome
or humiliate when confronted. Donald never believes in “live or let
live, and when his plans backfire, he is incensed and usually goes into
a blind rage. “I want to fight!” he yells in one of his earliest films.
Truly ahead of his time, Donald is one mixed-up character, totally
selfish and above all, mean. He was an antidote to all the other
characters of his time. As Trevor Howard says in the 1945 film
"Brief Encounter," in discussing the drabness of post World War II
existence, “Thank heaven for
we were all mesmerized by the concept behind "Who Framed Roger Rabbit,"
that cartoon characters were real toons who went to work and had lives
outside the confines of the cartoon film. We had seen it before,
however, in the person of Bugs Bunny, who always seemed to be a real
movie star acting his role. Bugs soon developed into his own rabbit in
the capable hands of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and then with the best
cartoon director of them all,
©Warner Brothers, Inc.
Bugs befriends the weak against people who are like Donald Duck, or
defends his own rights. When they are attacked, he responds with
panache, “Of course you know this means war.” Once his code permits him
to retaliate, he does it with style and relish, knowing each character’s
psychological weakness, rather than their physical one, since they are
usually bigger and tougher characters exaggerated into everything from
huge lumberjacks to lumbering sumo wrestlers from Japan
that he would seem to have little chance of defeating. But, unlike
other cartoon characters in the movies, Bugs Bunny has read the script.
This allows him to get mad, then get even his way, which often means
exploiting the opponent’s psychological weakness with absurdity. This
can include dressing up in disguises (yes, even in dresses!) as
opponents defeat themselves and Bugs remains in total control of the
situation. His appeal to audiences may have been partially explained by
Chuck Jones when he said that he likes to think he’s Bugs Bunny, but
knows he’s really Daffy Duck..
heaven for Homer Simpson! He has evolved into the most complex
character animation has ever drawn. Simple on the surface, here is a
complete character. Capable of great love and great selfishness, he is
who we don’t want to become and who we fear we are sometimes like.
Homer may not always tell it like it is, but he will always tell us how
he really feels about things. The difference is that if we feel as he
does about something, we usually keep quiet about it! Archie Bunker
tells us what he thinks about politics, and Homer tells us and shows us
what he thinks about life today.
© Matt Groening Productions, Inc.
As with all well-written characters in any media, he has an inner soul,
though at times one at war with itself. He can find the worth of the
world in something as simple as a donut, and his advice
to his children in his day is the equal to that of other great
philosophers in theirs: Don’t try too hard so that when you fail you
won’t be too disappointed. He’s no eternally optimistic Ralph Kramden
with his crazy schemes. He knows they may well fail but half tries
anyway, thus expressing true nobility, at least for our times.
Obviously his wife sees the good in him, burdened as that is with all
the baggage that goes with it. He doesn’t ask much from life, so why
does it ask so much from him? Television cartoons come and go with
deserved regularity, but The Simpsons march on. It’s gone from Bart’s
show to Homer’s.
If you want proof, see how many times in a week someone quotes Homer or
mentions one of his escapades to sum up the human condition.
The Simpsons has become a parable for our times, with Homer as the main
focus. Thanks to Homer and The Simpsons, we know there can be greatness
in television animation, and there’s room for much more of it. Now,
there’s no excuse.
The Walt Disney