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Film and media

Why cartoons have animals

Why do adults and children like to see animals as characters in fictional stories and cartoons, especially when stories about animals are so confusing?

Everyone knows that Micky Mouse (a mouse) lives in a house and has a pet Pluto (a dog) and a friend Goofy (a dog that talks). I recently caught up with The Reef (Wonderworld Studios), a CGI animation involving a cute female fish who’s the love interest of a killer shark, and The Ant Bully (Legendary Pictures) where two co-worker ants (I think) are courting, but there’s still a queen of the colony, the one who lays all the eggs. In any case there’s no consistency within and across stories. Mickey (Disney), Jerry (Tom and Jerry, Warner Bros) and Mighty Mouse (Terrytoons) are confusingly different species of mouse it seems.

Anyway, here are nine reasons I can think of for this baffling bestiary — or animal melangery.

1. Almost human: Non-human animals are the closest thing we have to humans, but are sufficiently different for us to make them do and be whatever we want. They are more flexible and adaptable than human beings. This is good for storytelling

2. Symbiosis: Humans are a pet-loving species. The story goes that we co-evolved with other animals adapted to living side by side with human populations: eg dogs that scavenge off our scraps and in return bark off intruders, and eventually helping us to hunt. We have a biologically wired sympathy with animals. So they make good companions in our stories.

3. Darwinian: We are creatures who compete, and we like stories about contest. Cats chase mice, sharks eat smaller fishes, lions chase zebras, coyotes go after geococcyx californianus, and hunters hunt ducks and rabbits. As a hunting species we thrive on stories of the hunt. Once-upon-a-time such stories transmitted and enhanced our hunting prowess.

4. Anthropological: According to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss human societies grab whatever is to hand in constructing their myths and meaning structures. A tribe will identify with bears or eagles if they are to hand. In other parts of the world it could be mountains, trees or leopards. Gangs and football teams choose to identify with tigers, rockets, weather elements, and whatever fits. Thanks to world travel, education and the mass media there’s a whole zoo of traits, characters and behaviours to choose from and with which groups and individuals can identify. We use what’s around us, in our practical dealings, languages and story-telling. Levi-Strauss calls this “bricolage.”

5. Jungian: The psychologist Karl Jung argued that our myths and narratives typically follow some kind of interaction between key archetypes, such as great mother, father, wise man, and trickster. The trickster is a recurrent type in myth and folklore and is often associated with elements in nature, including animals: coyote, fox, raven, monkey. These are “mischievous” animals that try to deceive us, and confound rationality. They make us laugh, and they are cunning deceivers. Children’s stories and cartoons are populated by animal tricksters: the mouse that outsmarts the cat, the wise-guy rabbit, the deranged duck — the hunted becomes the hunter, roles ambiguated and reversed.Statue of a fox with a red bib

6. Matter out of place: According to anthropologist Mary Douglas we tend to be disturbed or disgusted by things that are in the wrong place: shoes on the dinner table, saliva on the salad, a snail on the pillow, a mouse in the biscuit tin. Nothing is disgusting in its own right; just the unusual relationships set up by its misplacement. There’s little that’s disturbing about noses, eyes and mouths, but eyes that look like human eyes on an animal face create something close to monstrous. Animal ears on a human body have a similar unsettling effect. Animals feature in the menagerie of monsters, imaginary and real, that populate our stories. Mixing up animals with different attributes in the same stories (Pluto and Goofy) also lures us into the realms of the monstrous.

7. Exaggeration: Animals present as caricatures of human beings. See previous post on exaggeration. “Realistic” representations of humans in cartoons are difficult, and can look wooden and cadaverous. Animals are already caricatures and so are easier to draw.

8. Metaphor: If monsters are made up of human and animal parts out of place, then metaphors are objects in the wrong place (ie misclassifications). Mice that have pet dogs, ants that make love, fish that talk and caterpillars that read are category errors, which is to say metaphors. Metaphors are part of our language and thinking.

An ape chewing bark and looking at the camera

9. Supremacy: Man is superior to the animals in that he can stand upright and look to the heavens (said Vitruvius and Milton). We oscillate between wanting to see our inferiors struggle as entertainment (bear baiting, cock fighting, lion taming) and as vulnerable creatures to be petted and nurtured. Some representations of animals have big eyes and other human features and behaviours that make them “cute,” so we can incline to parent them, like children.

Mole, Ratty, Toad, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, Rupert, Mowgli, Bagheera, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Kermit, Br’er Rabbit, Monkey, Pigsy, Horse, Bunyip Bluegum, Sam Sawnoff, Snowy, Tintin, Gromit, Lola Bunny, Tobermory, and Great Uncle Bulgaria — spot the human in this list.

Here’s a great digital short by the very human Callum Barton, Chris Prescott, Egle Petrauskaite, Hu Wang, Katja Taksholt, and Ruixin Ma, tutored by Heida Bjork Vigfusdottir.

Bibiography

  • Armitt, Lucy. 1996. Theorising the Fantastic. London: Arnold.
  • Borges, Jorge Luis. 2002. The Book of Imaginary Beings. Trans. N. T. di Giovanni. London: Vintage.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1993. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana. First published in 1949.
  • Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hyde, Lewis. 1998. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. New York: North Point Press.
  • Jung, Carl G. 1986. Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. London: Ark. First published in German in 1934-1956.
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology 1. London: Penguin.
  • Radin, Paul. 1956. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Wells, Paul. 1998. Understanding Animation. London: Routledge.

Notes

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

26 thoughts on “Why cartoons have animals

  1. Hi Richard
    Nice post.
    I was wondering about animals in cartoons as a kind of communion with nature like the woodland creatures in Snow White parodied in Shrek or powerful mythic forces behind nature as in the Fish/Child/Goddess Ponyo.
    I supose this includes leviathans or relationships to powerful creatures like Aslan which raises the cross over to live action.

    Regards
    Mark

    You may like this old siggraph submission which intersects a couple of the themes

    Posted by drmarkwright | May 5, 2012, 11:09 am
    • I wonder if we really are interested in stories about animals, or rather stories about people, and sometimes their interaction with animals. Inspite of nature documentaries that try to make them otherwise, the lives of animals are pretty boring to us. Putting animals with humans though makes for something interesting. Turning the animals into humans through anthropomorphism conflates the two categories (or is it kingdoms) — talking rabbits, problem solving kangaroos, altruistic dolphins — it’s really about people, with some non-human animals thrown in. … Must get a dog!

      Posted by Richard Coyne | May 6, 2012, 5:01 pm
    • University of PennsylvaniaResearch Study on evacuation duirng Hurricane IreneWe’re interested in household evacuation duirng Hurricane Irene and its effect on people with pets.If interested, please visit surveymonkey.com/s/upennpetstudy to complete a brief survey or email with any questions or concerns.

      Posted by Michel | June 8, 2012, 12:00 pm
  2. Another interesting sidebar is that humans in many cartoons (especially Hanna-Barberra) have only a thumb and three fingers, as a realistic hand moved into the “creepiness” factor of “too realistic” human cartooning, referred to as the “uncanny valley” in robotics and 3D cartooning. I found it fascinating that the human-inhabited/animated bodies in the movie Avatar also were missing a finger on the hand, similar to human cartoon characters.

    Posted by composerinthegarden | May 8, 2012, 8:27 pm
    • Regarding hands and fingers. It seems to vary with the level of realism. Top cat or Simpsons have three fingers where as Snow White has five. Also maybe a speed cost thing? Scooby-Doo humans have full hands though.

      Posted by drmarkwright | May 10, 2012, 11:06 pm
  3. Cartoon hands also are often covered by gloves, perhaps to conceal the nails, which would involve too much distracting detail. They are also disproportionately large. I guess it’s all about exaggeration. Gloved, 4 digit hands could also be paws, claws, talons, feet, flippers or feathered wing tips — animal parts. Cartoon hands seem to be a hot topic on the Internet, or should I say the Interweb. See penguin feet above.

    Posted by Richard Coyne | May 8, 2012, 10:10 pm
  4. I do think animal characters are more lovable than human characters in animation.

    human beings don’t really know what happened in the animal’s world, but we tended to understand them with the ready-existed philosophy in our mind. This turned out that the animal world in our imagination is very much similar to ours, but they are probably happier than us. by the way, there are some shared attributes, like mating, competition and the mother will take care of her children (in most cases).

    the earliest idea of using animal character started in folk tales and literature, there were nature worship at very early time. but the worship seems to be almost about trees, stones, sea, river and those long-live things.

    p.s: From this point of animating, I would like to say that, the idea of animating the inanimate objects such as cars and toys is a real breakthrough.

    p.p.s: Haven’t read Owell’s Animal Farm, but the animation was a classic. I do surprised that pig started the revolution and was depicted as clever species that had leadership. This contradicted to the stereotype of pig which is always connected to stupid. There are also films such as “Babe” picturing the animal worlds.

    Posted by yushuohuanxiu | May 10, 2012, 7:24 pm
    • There is work from human development that suggest that children’s toys like dolls and teddy bears act as transitional objects. They allow children to gain emotional separation by expressing difficult feelings in a safe way. People will also come up to strangers In the street and pat their dog. Maybe these things are connected to how animal cartoons work?

      Posted by drmarkwright | May 10, 2012, 11:32 pm
    • Thanks YUSHUOHUANXIU for illustrating the parenting hypothesis in relation to animals. Cartoon animals are loveable, cute, innocent and happy just like children. Pig! — now there’s a tail (sic). In Adventures in Wonderland Alice finds herself nursing a squealing baby that turns into a pig. Infants and dirty little pigs: there’s something in Freud about faeces as the first gift of a child to its approving parents, that later gets transferred to the gift of a baby (or the other way round). Mind you, the pigs that I recall from the school farm outside Melbourne were mud-encrusted, hair-tufted monsters. My other encounter with piglets was at a conference dinner in Segovia, where waiters produced intact crispy suckling pigs that were then chopped with a cleaver. Perhaps we were just full of paella, but our appetite for freshly grilled babies was easily sated.

      Posted by Richard Coyne | May 11, 2012, 5:10 am
  5. People are always curious about the things which are different from daily life, especially the children. The cute animal with human behavior or super power is more easier to catch the attention.
    Moreover, sometimes, we just can’t accept the inferiority of ourselves. The animal character is a good choice to help people do some soul-searching,and tear down the source of my aberrant nature。

    Posted by wjingyi | December 7, 2012, 4:13 pm
  6. As Tolkien says, ‘This is, naturally, often enough what children mean when they ask: ‘Is it true?’ They mean:’ I like this, but is it contemporary? Am I safe in my bed?’ The answer:’ There is certainly no dragon in England today’ is all they want to hear’, I suppose a reason why cartoons have animals is to tell children these are not true.
    Most animals characters behave like a human and this cannot happen in the real world. Cartoons which have many animal characters in it are mainly for children viewers. In Japanese cartoons most characters are humans and their cartoons are for adults.
    Walt Disney said. ‘There’s nothing funnier than the human animal.’ ‘When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.’
    Animals characters have both human personalities and attractive animal appearances. These two features are keys to success. This is the other reason why cartoons have animals in my opinion.

    Posted by S. ZHANG | December 17, 2012, 7:04 am
  7. in my opinion, many children watch cartoons. And, for children, pets have the same height with them, and they like them. so, dogs and cats appears in cartoon. Then, other cartoon characters are created.

    Posted by Yameng Guo | December 17, 2012, 11:59 pm
  8. Yet another animal contribution: Two dogs dining. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVwlMVYqMu4

    Posted by Richard Coyne | March 14, 2013, 6:21 pm
  9. Here’s a recent note from my colleague Liam Ross: “From Agamben’s work, you could add the theological explanation; that animals are given to us to describe our possible attributes (fox, cunning; bee, busy; etc). Our dominion/stewardship of the animal kingdom entails a caring for and a cataloguing of these attributes, as a kind of biological-lexicon of possible subjectivities. Animal cartoons seem to follow this trajectory; caricatures of animals are not just exaggerated images of animals, since animals are already exaggerated images of humans, animal cartoons are doubly-exaggerated images of human qualities.”

    Posted by Richard Coyne | December 3, 2013, 1:31 pm
  10. As to the first reason “Almost Human”, I got some insight about it. When we facsimile a picture/painting/sculpture or paint from life, it is much more easier for us to paint an animal than a human being. Why? The furry skin of many animal images diminish the difficulties to pain the detail (but dealing with the texture is also a challenge), but I think overwhelmingly there is no such different. The only reason why we got this impression that painting animal is more easier, is because we are not familiar with them. We can not tell what is the difference between two one-year-old giraffes in front of us, but we can tell apart a twins after meeting them just several times. —— The reason why I mentioned this is that, we don’t actually know what the animals are thinking about, just like it is hard for me to know what they really looks like, or say, recognise them. As a result, every word since might be weird for a person to say, it seems reasonable even just suitable when it comes out from an animal’s mouth.

    Posted by kimo | December 13, 2014, 2:13 pm
  11. Hey, animator here. I would say all of that factors into it, but speaking from experience designing my own characters, the main reason is pretty simple: If you wanted to watch something with normal humans in it, you could just watch literally anything besides a cartoon. A big part of why we tend to gravitate towards designing non-human characters is just because we can. One of the biggest appeals of animation is creating fantastical worlds where the impossible is the norm.

    (Also you don’t have to give them clothes if you don’t want to, and that usually means they’re a lot easier to draw)

    Posted by BananaBoy | April 23, 2017, 8:12 am

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