The Four Greatest Cartoon Characters
By Peter Adamakos

Peter Adamakos 
Peter Adamakos is an animation producer and director
who founded Disada Productions Limited in 1971.

He has also been a collector of original animation artwork for over 35 years.
 His collection has formed the basis of major museum exhibitions
 in many cities, including Montreal, New York, Toronto,
Tampa, Paris, Atlanta, and Brussels.
He also teaches animation. 

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.

1.   MICKEY 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 persona.

© 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.

2.   DONALD DUCK: 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
Donald Duck!”

3.   BUGS BUNNY: In 1988, 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,
Chuck Jones.

©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..

4.   HOMER SIMPSON: Thank 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

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 Company

The Simpsons

Contact: Peter Adamakos  

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