Cartoon characters as ‘native’ to screens; in this recursive image, Donald Duck views a penny arcade peep show – an image ‘contained’ in a box – in A Good Time for a Dime.
Otherness factors large in Disney’s Dumbo, where Dumbo is an outcast among the other animals.
A similar strategy of mixing styles can be found in The Three Caballeros, where Donald Duck takes a guided tour of Central and South American locales, crossing borders by stepping into photographic images, and ending with a hallucinatory sequence which further blurs the boundaries between animation and photography.
Pain becomes performance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, expressed in yelps and grimaces (even though Toons don’t get ‘hurt’) and conveyed through visual conventions (the fluttering birds indicate that Roger has been knocked out, but are not in line with the script, which calls for stars).
On the sound stage for the ‘filming’ of the cartoon, the role of Toons to entertain humans is underscored as Roger is berated by his human director.
Toontown is presented as a technicolor dystopia, as singing birds give way to loony chaos and excess.
Clash of the Titans features both monstrous creatures and fantastic helpers, who hinder or help Perseus in various ways, and the liminal Calibos. Calibos is played by an actor in close-up and is a stop-motion animation in long shot – and he is also a character torn between two worlds, at odds with himself.
In the beginning of Cool World, the Spike of Power rips a hole in the boundary between the Cool World and the real world.
Almost everything in the Cool World is monstrous and grotesque, including the buildings.
Crude charcoal drawings, which float randomly across the screen, also represent an underclass of animated images.
The white gloves Holli wears when she seduces Jack recall the iconic gloves worn by Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, as if Jack is being seduced not by Holli alone, but by the whole of animation.
Holli’s transformation into human form underscores her dual nature through a slow dissolve from the rotoscoped image to the cinematographic shot of Kim Basinger ‘underneath.’
Popeye takes his licks in Dave Fleisher’s Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.
In Ren and Stimpy, bedtime hygiene becomes a masochistic routine in “Insomniac Ren.”
Animated characters, in their origins within and ontological attachment to the filmic and digital media which construct them, might be thought of as in certain ways native. With their profilmic existence instantiated on paper, glass, and screen, they are formed in the media of their production but are not in the conventional sense mediated, for they come to life in the very process of mediation. Spatially, they are residents of screens, confined to its borders – always elsewhere, but always in their place.[open endnotes in new window] Temporally, they are products of the movement of film in a way distinct from that of live-action filmmaking, as cinematic motion produces their respiring anima – not captured images reinvigorated after the passing of the original moment, but each time a birth, a nativity.
In their location and movement, animated images are other – unlike the photographic, separate from the real. And in that they are other, they are often othered in ways that produce cultural difference in tandem with, and even concealing or subsuming, the difference in imaging practices. This othering can happen diegetically and performatively in the way that animation has historically employed caricatures of race, class, and gender, but this is a case of one otherness coinciding with another, the difference of race and gender superimposed on the difference of animated and photographic images. Animated characters, these native bodies, are othered lest they encroach too far into the realm of the photographic. The “looniness” typical of many cartoons, and indeed the most iconic ones, can be associated with a racial or classist quality in that it typifies the manner, appearance, and hierarchical place of bodies that fall into a certain category of images.
The plastic cartoon body (or “plasmatic,” in Sergei Eisenstein’s term) becomes a repository for this otherness; it is compelled to accept and endure certain abuse as it is mashed, battered, and stretched to capacity. Through looniness, the othered image performs its otherness within familiar discourses of difference (as in minstrelsy, in which black people were made to look buffoonish and dim-witted) and is comically punished for being other. Even the naturalistic “illusion of life” aesthetic which came to dominate in Disney animated features almost invariably included elements of the monstrous, the grotesque, the gigantic and the miniature, in addition to the animation of inanimate objects, as embodiments of difference. Hence even when animated films strived for realism, the otherness of animation has often been preserved in the bodies of figures that more clearly manifest or avow their otherness.
Films that mix animation and live action underscore the way that the native figures of animation have generally been contained within the visual and narrative strategies that form their otherness. J.P Telotte shows how these films, which combine the imaging technologies of cel animation and photographic cinema, often reflect difference and separation diegetically. For instance, Disney’s The Three Caballeros (1945), featuring Donald Duck and live actors in South American locales, and Song of the South (1946), with Uncle Remus (James Baskett) and Br’er Rabbit, play with borders and fences, cultural difference and racial prejudice, in ways that draw from and problematize the difference and separation between humans and cartoons. Similarly, if rather innocuously, in Warner Bros.’ You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940), Porky Pig, having had a difficult time on the Warners lot, “seems to find [its] reality a bit too much for him and rushes back to the relative safety – and visual simplicity – of his cartoon world” (Telotte, 164). The contrast between animation and photographic cinema brings the differences between classes of images into starker relief, and their juxtaposition in the same frame provides opportunities for an analysis of the tensions between them. When the screen borders that keep these worlds are breached, the defining differences between images are troubled.
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988), the photographic and animated worlds are literally separated by brick and mortar. Although human and “Toon” characters interact, there exists an enduring tension between the two worlds. There’s also a certain amount of prejudice toward the Toons, who are rarely taken seriously and are often undone by their own looniness. Telotte notes that the Toons are cast as a racial underclass: ghettoized in the human-owned Toontown, performing in the segregated Ink and Paint Club, and subject to an unfair disciplinary system that grants them fewer rights than humans. Telotte connects the lower social status of the Toons to their nature as animated images, borrowing Jessica Rabbit’s line to suggest that they are all “drawn that way” in the sense that they are created to serve and entertain humans – their raison d’etre.
However, while the Toons serve the human characters in the story, their creation and existence seem to have occurred somewhat independently of humans, as the humans are unable to “erase” them before Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) invents the “dip.” Rather, the characters belong much more to the audience and to our world more than the world of the film. Their mistreatment there, which they largely accept, cannot simply be limited to the racial or classist discourse evident in the world of the film. That is, a similar discourse informs the production of animated characters in general, as if these figures were created as an underclass of images subservient and other to photographic realism. Telotte attributes the difference to the lowly place of animation within studio production. However, we must also consider the intra-diegetic tensions between production technologies as they are personified and embodied. More than simply drawings, the Toons are characters who share space and narrative attention with the humans and draw their share of viewer sympathy. In this we find an ethics of the cartoon character and the animated body as oppressed and othered images with implicit desires of their own, and hear echoes of W. J. T. Mitchell’s question, “What do pictures want?’
Mitchell writes: “If pictures are persons, then, they are colored or marked persons” (75). If pictures in general are secondary to unmediated reality, then the irreferential animated image, which does not have the same connection to the material world that a photograph does, is further marginalized. The “colored’ or “marked’ nature of its painted glass and plastic body position the animated image as subaltern, or of lower status – that which Mitchell invites to speak. Who Framed Roger Rabbit narrativizes the desire of animated images in the often unrealized wants and emotions of the characters. Roger’s pining over Jessica is one example, or their desire to avoid the “dip’, though the more salient desire is a broader and more universal one – that Toontown be deeded to the Toons, that they might have more claim on legitimacy within the world of the story. The liberatory celebration that follows the discovery of the will that gives them Toontown and the puncturing of the Berlin-like wall that encloses it underscore the sense of self-determination as a basic “right”of pictures.
However, although they secure their place, it is still a Toon place, a loony place, and they have not gained a status equal to that of the photographic humans. Toons, as animated characters, seem designated to be imagistically subservient, and the fall of the Toontown wall does not resolve the cultural differences that separate the two worlds. What would these animated characters say if they were allowed to “speak,” as Mitchell invites pictures to do? The thought recalls the humorous “outtakes” during the closing credits of Pixar movies, or Nick Park’s animated series Creature Comforts (2003-2005), in which audio from unrehearsed interviews with members of the British public is given the form of stop-motion zoo animals. The allure of these scenes is the opportunity to see animated characters behave like humans – to throw off the performance of character as an actor would.
This same idea is parodied in the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which briefly explores the conceit that Toons “act” in cartoons, playing roles instead of being themselves. But in each of these cases the humor is drawn from the absurdity of the idea that “character” can be abstracted from “cartoon character.” In animation, body and character are inextricable – another defining aspect of native figures which posits them as excessively close to themselves and their milieu, unable to achieve an intellectual distance from their embodiment and the loony world they inhabit (and a correlation with Mitchell’s theory that pictures are also gendered female, as women are often theorized as being overly tied to their bodies). Ultimately, it is human (photographic) rationalism that they are incompatible with, and which holds them in comic otherness.
When animated figures breach the boundaries of their native spaces and enter the photographic world, they also often take monstrous form, and particularly as monsters existing to be slain by live actors. A cursory review of visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen’s filmography is illuminating. In his fairy tale works which are entirely animated, such as The Story of King Midas (1953), the sympathetic animated characters exhibit human qualities; in his work creating visual effects for live-action films, such as Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) and Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis, 1981), his creations are mostly monstrous creatures who threaten and are eventually destroyed by the humans. Not by coincidence, the voyage to mysterious lands is a common trope in these films, diegetically preserving the sense of separate spaces for the photographic and the animated, and the place of native images beyond the vitreous boundaries of sea, air, space – and screen.
Darkness and the grotesque characterize the chaotic, semi-animated locales of Cool World (Ralph Bakshi, 1992). The Cool World is presented as a sort of dismal underside of Las Vegas (as if it needed one), but it seems more a droll nightmare from a troubled unconscious. Where the Toons were preoccupied with their looniness, the grotesque “Doodles” that inhabit the Cool World are consumed with relentless, senseless violence. With comic brutality and pratfalls inspired by the antics of Wiley E. Coyote and Tom and Jerry (minus Jerry’s charm and the Roadrunner’s casual bemusement), the barbarism of the Doodles removes any sympathy for the characters and overemphasizes the plasticity of the indestructible cartoon body through its continued abuse.
The contempt for the Doodle body in general is countered by the fetishizing of Holli Would, voiced by Kim Basinger. Her constant, sensual dancing draws the drooling, eye-popping gazes of everyone around her, and she is clearly a Doodle of a different stripe. Her rotoscoped movement and realistic stylization set her apart from the other denizens of the Cool World, in an “ill-fitting conglomeration of images that consistently proves both fascinating and puzzling, attractive and even repulsive” (Telotte, 195). Even within the Cool World, characters are othered differently, from Holli’s smooth gyrations that render her close to human, to the pliable grotesque of the other characters, to the crude charcoal “ghosts” that float periodically across the screen, situated still in the realm of drawing, outside of character.
Telotte notes that Holli’s desire “to be real” is an appropriate one, given her realistic styling. We also can go further and note that the style of her animation not only expresses a desire to become human, but positions her uniquely to “pass” as human, as her naturalistic look, rotoscoped movements, and confident sense of her own body make her more akin with the bodies of the Real World. With the exception of some curiosity from the similarly-styled Lonette, she is the only character who desires to enter the photographic “real.” She seems keenly aware of her otherness, of the social position Doodles inhabit relative to the Real World, and aspires to upward mobilization. This desire is manifest in an interesting reversal of conventional spectatorship, as film footage of Marilyn Monroe is projected on the wall of her apartment – the fantasy, for the native figure, of the photographic world (not necessarily the real one, as Marilyn Monroe was in many ways the fantasized imagistic counterpart to the real world Norma Jeane).
The “oldest law of Cool World” – no sex between Doodles and Noids (humans) – is a prevention against a certain miscegenation, notably enforced by noirish human detective Frank Harris (Brad Pitt). The unthinkable result of such an affair is a breakdown of the boundaries that separate Doodles and Noids, allowing Doodles to enter the Real World and become human. (Although humans are somewhat out of place in the Cool World, there is no equivalent prohibition against their entry, which further establishes the lower class status of animated characters.) Holli seduces Jack (Gabriel Byrne), the artist she has summoned into the Cool World, into having sex with her, and she transforms into a human (that is, into Kim Basinger). They travel back to the Real World, but soon find themselves to be images still, in a curse of bastardization that disallows them from entering the photographic world. Jack's hands turn into puffy cartoon hands, nearly causing him to crash his car, and Holli flashes with increasing frequency into a buffoonish clown – a very different image from her original form, which conveys the sense that while she may have been nearly human, she is a Doodle still, and among humans her Doodle-nature is manifest in the grotesque body.
Holli seeks to obtain the Spike of Power in order to fully join the real world, placing her hope for an improvement in status in an overdetermined phallic image. Instead it releases the Doodles into the human world en masse, turning Holli, Jack, and a number of casino denizens into Doodles, infecting the photographic world with baser behavior and bodies (though perhaps not much of a step down for the barely sentient beings at the slot machines). Once the Spike is returned, forcing the Doodles back to the Cool World, forbidden desires that once crossed imaging technologies are resolved by downgrading the status of the Cool World humans (Frank and Jack both become Doodles), while returning the rest of the Doodles to their place.
That the characters of the Cool World, despite its apparently independent existence (at least before 1945, when the movie begins), consider the human world the Real World demonstrates their acceptance of their othered status in a sort of false consciousness drawn directly into their character-bodies. Their abjection positions the animated Cool World as the other that the photographic Real World needs to constitute its place as subject and center of the imagistic universe. The comic book store that sells the “Cool World” comic books, appropriately named Real World Comics, is complicit in this segregation as the site for geek culture – a space outside the prestige of the gallery and museum for the consumption of images that are the back alley reflections of their upscale counterparts.
The otherness of animated characters relative to the photographic helps conceal the fact that it is in actuality the human actors who are interlopers in the world of the screen – the native territory of animated figures – rather than the other way around, with animated characters intruding in various ways on the physical world, as is often depicted in films. This otherness is taken to extremes in Cool World, and in this the film works as a parody of the need to keep the two realms separate and unequal (even as the film returns to such a separation as its status quo). Parodic elements are embodied in Harris, the Noid detective who keeps the Doodles in line and preserves the division between the two worlds. As an authority figure, Harris is above the Doodles. His mannerisms support his status, as he eschews the looniness and irresponsibility that characterize the Doodles. However, he’s in love with a Doodle, and this motivates his transformation into a Doodle in the end.
In addition to their containment on screens, the rubbery bodies of cartoon characters have from their inception been subjected to a continual barrage of violence. Although the cartoon character is only one form of animated images, it is probably the most visible and well known, and certainly the most prolific. Notable cartoon characters hold iconic positions within popular culture, but in animation’s history remain beleaguered figures that take their licks and keep smiling. Characters and bodies of a certain disposition and plasticity are required to fulfill the call to bear the violence of images – that is, the violence directed toward images for being images. These whipping boys (or ducks, coyotes, dogs, cats, mice, bears, hunters, and sailors – though almost always “boys”) of the golden age of cartoons – and their contemporary counterparts in SpongeBob, Ren and Stimpy, and the like – seem positioned as the dark shadow of photographic imagery, and indeed of other, more vaulted animation as well, such as the Disney “illusion of life,” which seeks to pass amidst its photographic counterparts.
“The image is usually spoiled of its own existence as image, devoted to a shameful complicity with the real,” writes Jean Baudrillard in his essay “The Violence of the Image” (n.p.). Animated characters, and cartoon characters in particular, can be seen as the scapegoats for this complicity of photographic images that both too nearly touch the real and simultaneously threaten to replace it. That photographic images might themselves avoid being other and threatening to the “reality” they represent, the status of the other shifts to animation and the cartoon characters that are bashed, blasted through, and dropped from cliffs. Confined within the otherness of the screen, as ink-dipped ghosts with no earthly referent, they are available for this violence, and their bodies designed for the violence they are called to sustain – violence that brings pain and elicits stars, bumps, and disarticulation, but which always fails to kill, that the bodies might sustain an endless amount of punishment. The second class status of animated images not only protects the privileged status of the photographic, but also masks or tempers anxieties surrounding the photographic replacement of the real by offering up living images less real and more natively imagistic – a relation that helps preserve notions of the photographic as part of reality, rather than its replacement.