Tell us more about the distinction you draw in the book between figurative and embodied performance. What assumptions about the nature of acting and spectatorship are implicit in these different styles of animated performance? What accounts for the shifting popularity of these different models over time?
Whether a performance is figurative or embodied stems from how the behaviors were intended by the animators and understood by the viewers (which often are not the same experience). They aren’t opposites; they are registers that may overlap, like bass and treble adjustments. Figurative performances are given by cartoon characters (which I call toons, as used in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) whose interest derives mainly from their exaggerated physical traits. These could be a funny walk, caricatural references outside the film, or a distinctive way of talking (like Goofy’s “Uh-hyult, uh-hyult”).
Think of early Mickey or early Bugs. They were beings who were types (small-town boy and slick trickster, respectively). Their behavior was hostage to the collections of attributes, quirks and attitudes that constituted their actions. So Mickey was a caricature that blended recognizable traits borrowed from Charles Lindbergh and Buster Keaton; Bugs was hyperactive and nutty. Several have pointed out that he’s a schnorer, a friend or guest who takes excessive liberties. The repetition of their singular mannerisms was part of the humor. The figurative performance mode wasn’t limited to animation. Comedians like Harry Langdon, Jacques Tati, Roberto Benigni, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen in his first films exploited it too.
Embodied performance reflects animators’ Stanislavskian goals and their expectations (or hopes) that viewers’ empathetic understanding and belief in the temperament and uniqueness of the character would understand, accept, and “complete” it. The later ‘thirties Mickey, say in Moose Hunters, integrates him into a believable environment. He responds to it as the viewer or any individual might, with some degree of unpredictability. He engages in banter and give-and-take with Donald and Goofy, who are foils with their own individuality. The animators and we spectators readily imbue them with characteristics that go beyond their simple existence. We care about the fate of the chums and the outcome of the story.
It may be too complicated to explain the mechanics of the change here, but the figurative and embodied modes complemented and competed all through the 1930s and 40s. Although Disney took his filmmaking far in the embodied direction, Langer shows that the figurative New York style could intrude even in that studio, as in the “Pink Elephants on Parade” number in Dumbo. Most of the Disney princes are figurative too—necessary placeholders in the plots in need of some “princeness” to redeem the princesses.
For various reasons, the public and critics grew tired of the embodied approach. The popularity of films from Warner Bros., MGM, and later from UPA avoided the embodied style or actively parodied it (Avery’s Screwy Squirrel, Jones’ What’s Opera, Doc?).
It also became clear that the enormous investment in hardware (such as multiplane cameras) and the immense animation infrastructure of the Disney studio was not necessary to achieve empathetic characters. There’s Wile E. Coyote, naturally, but UPA’s Gerald McBoing Boing might be the best example. Jones’ geometric romance in The Dot and the Line, seen in this light, tested the minimal graphic investment needed to “embody” character.
Today there are plenty of examples of embodied acting in animation—Disney/Pixar’s Up or Brave, for instance, which have a retro feel because of it, and despite their sleek digital surfaces.
The vast majority of animation, though, is figurative and exists in work for television and video games. These are stock characters in conventional roles doing conventional things. The personality is supplied imaginatively by the viewer/user, or programmed as a combination of preselected attributes.
Your titles call attention to the degree to which Walt Disney has dominated our understanding of American animation, even as your books make a concerted effort to discuss a much broader range of animators and studios. Why do you think animation history still remains so deeply under the shadow of the Mouse?
Having just done some holiday shopping at the Disney store, I’m inclined to say that it’s all about character. The Disney formula for “toons” always has and continues to emphasize a certain definition of personality. There’s limited individuality, meaning that certain expressive behaviors are allowed—let’s say Ariel’s rebellious actions—but never exceed the tightly enclosed limits of the character as a figure—those defining the role of “princess” in the mermaid’s case. Another aspect that makes Disney characters eternal, to borrow the marketing lingo for a moment, is that they are believable versions of people, acting out childlike behaviors. We all know (or maybe are) someone like that. Peter Pan is one of those types. Disney films also are full of adolescent folks playing at being grownup—Ariel, Tiana, Wendy, and Snow White (and Remy, if rats have adolescence). But even that is regressive, since their behaviors are clearly childish. They’re playing house. They are not believable performances of adulthood (which can be relatively boring).
Cartoon characters, Disney’s especially, succeed because they are designed to invite consumers to complete them imaginatively and to fully embody them. These characters often are diminutive versions of imagined selves. The possibilities are endless—aggressive, passive, maternal/paternal, sexy, smart, and even plush avatars. There was a stuffed Pumbaa in the store that I found particularly sympathetic…. Now conglomerate Disney enters our lives at some level almost daily, and whether these entertainment commodities are cinematic, or athletic in the case of ESPN, or the transcendental fantasies of the theme parks and cruises, or the plastic princesses, the company’s in the business of selling mediatized bodies performing, whether real, simulated or virtual.
Of course, Mouse, as Variety calls Disney, has been perfecting the machinery for bringing this concept to consumers by way of various points of retail merchandizing for about 80 years. As for the animated films, the studio during its successful periods has been adept at anticipating and reacting to consumer interests. The immediate embrace of Winnie the Pooh as a collectible object and then the gradual acceptance of “Princess” as a desired existential category. On the contrary, we could cite the lack of traction for other franchises like Merlin and King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone), or “Kevin Flynn” (Tron). This suggests that animated filmmaking is like other Hollywood enterprises in the sense that box office trends ultimately are unfathomable because consumer response remains largely unpredictable.
A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.
Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.