21 November 2010

Facebook meme: Favorite cartoon characters

I had to think a bit about my favorite cartoon character from childhood.

Least favorite character would have been easy. I hate Woody Woodpecker. I also dislike Popeye, though not quite as much. Donald Duck is also particularly annoying for his malicious stupidity.

As a child, I liked The Pink Panther a lot. Dastardly and Muttley were also fun to watch, particularly when they were up against Yankee Doodle Pigeon. Tom and Jerry were great. However, I think my favorite cartoons were the ones featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Sadly, they don’t seem to be available as a DVD set.

Of course, I can’t help noticing that all these favorites have something in common: failure. Repeated failure.

In the case of the Pink Panther, it was often nature that was against him–a cloud following him, an annoying insect keeping him awake, a mouse raiding his refrigerator. Sometimes it was more surreal, like an asterisk that wouldn’t stay the right color, or an angry rock. Often the entire cartoon was about Pink’s repeated failure to do something as simple as crossing the street or getting some sleep.

Dastardly and Muttley, of course, were consummate failures. And whereas the Pink Panther was essentially good-natured, Dick Dastardly was a cheat and Muttley was his stooge, so we felt allowed to enjoy their failure. I wasn’t a big fan of any other Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but I’d always watch anything with Dick Dastardly in it.

I watched Tom and Jerry all the time too. Same idea, but with the conflict reduced to its most primal level–two characters, one good and one evil–and the violence turned up to comically absurd levels.

The Road Runner cartoons superficially seem very similar to Tom and Jerry or Dastardly and Muttley. What makes them better is that they have multiple levels of narrative.

On the surface, there’s the simple conflict of biological imperative: the coyote wants to eat the road runner, like Tom wants to eat Jerry. There’s a lot of the same cartoon slapstick violence too. But the coyote manages to be a more sympathetic character than Tom: in some of the cartoons, we are shown how desperately hungry he is. (In one of them, he is reduced to eating dirt.)

Then there’s the competitive narrative. Often the coyote seems to want to catch the road runner by beating him in a race, waiting at the start line for the bird to pass, then setting off after him. Like Dick Dastardly, the coyote always cheats, and always loses. Another straightforward message.

As you watch more cartoons, though, you start to realize that the coyote is really guilty of overplanning. Many of his schemes are overcomplicated. He won’t use a simple gun or net; instead he’ll launch anvils into the air or attach himself to a giant catapult. So we begin to see that the coyote is offering us a cautionary tale about bad project management.

Finally, you begin to notice the narrative of coyote as consumer. Like us, he keeps buying the latest and greatest lifestyle-enhancing products; and like us, he always ends up disappointed by them in some way. When his rocket boots injure him or his Acme fly paper sticks to him, we identify with him because of the shoddy consumer goods we’ve purchased.

So yeah, I think overall, the Road Runner cartoons were my favorites.

Having said all that, pretty much any cartoon directed by Friz Freleng or Chuck Jones is worth watching. Tex Avery’s Droopy cartoons are also awesome, though I don’t like many of his other post-Bugs-Bunny characters.

© mathew 2017