Are Realistic Characters Endangered in Animation?

King of the Kill case
For all the inherent silliness that went on in King of the Hill, the characters wer very much grounded in reality and could exist in any neighbourhood.

The impetus for this post comes from (of all places) The Onion, who’s recent piece entitled ‘TV Viewer Relates To Totally Unbelievable Character That Could Never Exist In Reality‘ highlights the fact that some characters in entertainment have become quite far removed from reality and yet are presented as being supposedly realistic characters.

Characters are meant to be somewhat unrealistic; we’ve been accustomed to that for years thanks to many an anvil being dropped on a Looney Tunes character. And before that, Davy Crockett, a completely unrealistic character and yet a hero for millions of kids despite the fact that his fictional depictions took huge liberties with the true American hero.

What the Onion piece should contemplate is how characters, by their vary nature, evoke reactions and emotions among the audience; that’s their purpose. You know how there’s that one person you know who’s really boring? Well they’re realistic but could never be portrayed on screen because they would not elicit anything from the audience.

Cartoons feature many wild and zany characters for the simple reason that kids respond better to visual and aural stimulae than adults do. If you’ve ever watched the Simpsons with kids, you’ll know that while kids and adults will laugh at a visual gag, only the adults will get the innuendo or pun. The same goes for Pixar films and their dual-appeal.

The problem of the unbelievable character occurs when they are made to seem completely believable. Shows like Dexter, Mad Men and anything on MTV, all purport to portray realistic, believable characters even though many such characters could not exist as-is in reality.

This blogger’s concern is when will we begin to see such characters infiltrating into animated circles? OK so animated drama is a bit scarce, but it is increasing. Fortunately, the comedic slant of many animated shows give them enough leeway to create unrealistic characters because they can. The problem is when an animated TV show stops being comedic and instead attempts a serious tone.

Arguably, the Simpsons was the pioneer in the regard with its veil of comedy masking a complex family drama. Such a situation persisted because of the unspoken rule that the Simpsons couldn’t do anything that a normal family couldn’t do. Once that rule went out the window (and when that was depends on who you ask), we started to see Homer become more overtly unrealistic and his character suffered as a result.

The point to all of this is that as animation develops in popularity, we are going to see a broader range of characters, and it is preferable to see ones that could exist in real life as opposed to those that are portrayed as being real when they could never be.

What do you think? Will animated characters go to far? Have they gone too far? Let us know with a comment!

4 thoughts on “Are Realistic Characters Endangered in Animation?”

  1. In school we were told we would need to justify why our short film pitch should be animated (as opposed to shot with actors) which resulted in a slant towards the fantastic, or at least unrealistic, in terms of both situation/story and design. Obviously this goes against the “animation is a medium, not a genre” idea but it’s because of this need for justification that many creators may shy away from realistic scenarios.
    The mention of Dexter reminds me, I forget who said it but around the time Monster House came out there was discussion about why the movie was animated because these were all normal kids in a normal neighborhood and, with all the crazy vfx being thrown around in movies, the house itself could have easily been an effect. Basically it came down to the thought that the movie would’ve been too scary for young kids (the target audience) if it were shot with real people – using animation instead of actors (even mocap, but that’s a rant for another day) creates a sense of unreality that separates the world of the movie from the world of the audience. So too Dexter, however unrealistic his character may be, is utterly terrifying because he’s an actual human in the audience’s actual world, and not a cartoon.

  2. I for one welcome our new unrealistic overlords. I always thought animated cartoons serve a purpose in this world because THEY ARE NOT REALISTIC. They are BELIEVABLE. I watch a cartoon to get what I cannot in real life. What’s the point of making them like everyone you meet in real life? That would be redundant and an unnecessary waste of money and resources. It’s like Genndy’s quote when talking about Hotel Transylvania, “If I wanted to see realistic actors, I’d see a live-action film!” I hope those never go out of style.

  3. I’m a little late to the punch, but I don’t have anything to do. I see your perspective andrewk, but your points backing it up simply aren’t correct.

    Assuming that there’s no immediate gain from realistic animation, the mere observational knowledge required to pull it off has its own creative gains.

    If that weren’t true, you’d still have to account for the fact that there are things achievable in animation that aren’t achievable and/or desirable in live action film. You can’t see a microscopic view of what goes inside the human liver for instance or portray a dinosaur stampede. As for real life, it’s physically feasible for somebody to bang their head twenty times underwater on the bottom of a boat dock, but I don’t see any takers.

    I respect that animation is a place for unrealistic fantasies but that’s not exclusively what it’s for. If animation can handle realism, there really is no good reason it shouldn’t. People aren’t going to enjoy less realistic animations any less just because there’s an alternative. When they want to watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon they’ll go ahead and do it.

    I disagree with you, Charles Kenny, on one thing. You don’t need to be realistic to be dramatic. I enjoyed the anime series Kaiba which was dramatic despite being completely unrealistic. The main character has a hole in his chest at the beginning of the series until he transfers into a girl’s body. Drama or comedy is a matter of presentation, not a matter of realism.

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