Cute Animals in Cartoons, Why?
Why are there animals in cartoons? Do creators want to send an environmental message or educate the next generation about environmental issues?
These are the questions I asked Flayne Art while we were coming back in our French hometown for the New Year festivities. Flayne Art was a high school classmate. He is now working for a cartoon company in Paris. I thank him for his time and ideas.
Why are there animals in cartoons?
“Having animal characters instead of human is practical. Creating human character is difficult. I mean human beings are really similar to each other. We are the same species so we look almost the same. Nonetheless, if you take animals, you have access to an infinity of shapes, colors and textures. Animals are definitely easier to manage when you design your characters.
Look at Kung-Fu Panda, the hero is the panda and he is the only one in the neighborhood. Then you have Oogway, the turtle representing the slow and wise master. Character designers even called some characters by their animal name : Crane, Monkey, Tigress… These differences make characters easier to differentiate for young children. Imagine a movie of this cartoon, it would be terrible because all characters would be similar, unless you dress them with very different outfit.”
“There is another simple reason why animals are in cartoon : they are cute. Most of mammals and birds are furry and fluffy so everybody wants to pet them. People love animals for these qualities. Animation studios use this to create a more saleable product.
The artist can create a character, create its movement and expression, but at the beginning he doesn’t decide to create it. There is a marketing specialist who looks at what other studios do, what people watch, what would bring audience etc. This guy decides if your next cartoon hero will be an animal, a human or a car. It’s sad to realize but to be successful the cartoon industry has to answer the demand. In my opinion, today marketing and the search for profit is a high priority which doesn’t let that much room for pure creativity.”
But don’t you think there are other reasons than design and marketing? After all, animals are deep inside our society culture, right?
“Yes, for sure, cartoon creators are using the general culture and ideas people have about an animal. For example, a cat trying to catch a mouse. In this cartoon, having animals also enable the scenarist to be very violent with its characters. Doing things you couldn’t do with real human, but with animals it looks cute and funny.
Furthermore, there are stereotypes and common believes toward animals. The cartoon creator only uses human inner instinct inherited from our ancestors who struggled to survive in the wild. Usually predators with big teeth are pictured as villains while peaceful herbivores are the heroes. It’s a way to simplify the plot for children who easily identify the good and the bad side. That’s why, with its sharp teeth and its reputation of being dangerous, the wolf is represented as the bad guy in most stories and cartoons.
Sometimes, cartoons are turning stereotypes and popular culture upside down. For example, look at Hoodwinked, the modern version of the famous folktale Little Red Riding Hood. ¡SPOILER! The wolf is an innocent citizen of the forest while the bad guy is the little cute rabbit. The morality of this story is to not jump to conclusions too quickly by believing stereotypes.”
Finally, do you think animals in cartoon are making the next generation aware of environmental issues?
“Sometimes yes, but most of the time, the plot follows a cultural trend. Sending a green message is not the first goal of the cartoon, but a side effect of a good story people are willing to watch.
Two recent cartoons are obviously sending a green message : Norm of the North and Happy Feet. Both heroes are rejected by their society and act as a messiah in human society. Their goal all along the movie is to convince human to preserve the ice at the poles. A green message sent to the public to reduce global warming and change the system. The animal becomes the allegory of this peculiar environment : polar ice.
If you look at Japanese animated movies, particularly the Ghibli studio, Miyazaki Hayao voluntarily takes a strong position for environmental causes. Nausicaä from the Valley of the Wind released in 1984, was considered the first environmental animated movie. In this cartoon, the world is destroyed and the air is toxic. Insects invaded the earth and are living in a huge forest which releases deadly spores. Nausicaä is living in a small village next to an acid sea. After various adventures, she discovers that the forest is actually purifying the environment polluted by years of industrialization and war between previous human civilizations. This is a strong message.
Nature is found in all Miyazaki’s art. And it is often pictured through the traditional oriental point of view: a mystified Nature where animals are spirits and gods. This sacred Nature is opposed to human industrialized and aggressive society. This perception of Nature is sending a message but it is most importantly, a story rooted in Japanese culture.
Although these cartoons call the public to act for the environment, it is first inspired by society unconscious attachment to Nature and its tied willingness to protect it.”
To conclude, YOU have to create the demand by educating your relatives, by making them love and respect Nature. Then you may see more animals in cartoons (instead of cars) and more cartoons about environmental issues.