Animated features are in a great place right now. Last year
in particular was probably the most diverse the industry has ever seen. So much
so, that it’s hard to think back to what seems like the dark ages; a time when
only one entity was responsible for the bulk of American feature output:
Disney. There were many factors keeping them in pole position, but above all,
it was cute characters that stood them apart from the pretenders to the throne.
You probably don’t believe me, do you? There were many
traditionally animated features released over the years that were not made by
Disney, but a great many were only moderately successful at the box office.
Even Snoopy, at the height of the Peanuts’ specials success, couldn’t turn a
profit. But for anyone who tried to ape the Disney style, the biggest
pitfall was, yes, the character design.
It might seem obvious, but character design is perhaps the
critical aspect of any animated piece of entertainment. The design has to
convey a lot of non-verbal information and has to do it in such a way that a
vast and diverse population can all read them the same way.
Humans use clothing and accessories to project a perceived
self-image in the hope that other humans can read it and form the necessary
viewpoints without a need for a verbal explanation. Animated characters must do
all that and more because they cannot answer questions. More often than not,
their design is over-exaggerated so that there is no second-guessing on the
part of the viewer.
What does all this have to do with Disney you say? Well
Disney has for the longest time focused on creating entertainment that is aimed
at families (or at least it was; it seems to be aimed ever more at kids these
days.) Families are diverse units, and what might look appealing to kids, might
be revolting for adults; and vice versa! What Disney has perfected, consciously
or not, is a design aesthetic that oozes cuteness. All the characters are cute
in some way, and that turns into a real advantage when your competitors aren’t
as devoted to attaining the same degree of cuteness.
Some of the studios and individuals that have attempted to
beat Disney at its own game, have found themselves coming up short at the box
office on a resoundingly consistent basis. Just look at films such as
Anastasia, The Prince of Egypt, All Dogs go to Heaven, etc. All films of
varying overall quality to be sure, but all having a common element of
generally off-putting character design, no? For films that are trying to
attract all ages, they and their compadres seem to have a real lack of charm
and cuteness about their characters.
Even Disney seemed to lose sight of their mantra with the
later films in the renaissance period. The 1997 film Hercules has some truly
rough-hewn characters. Even if Megara is one of the best characters overall
ever to grace a Disney film, viewers must still overcome her angular and awkward
The advent of CGI resulted in a marked shift in attitudes,
and with everyone including Disney apeing the Pixar style as closely as
possible, a remarkable degree of similarity appeared across multiple studios.
This has resulted in a rather standard character design aesthetic for CGI
characters that, yes, is rather cute-looking. Large eyes, smooth features and
attractive curves are the order of the day, and they are certainly doing
studios’ bottom lines no harm at all.
Is there a downside though? Sure there is. Disney’s CGI
female designs as of late have lacked a large degree of differentiation or even
attractiveness, being as Anna
Smith at the Guardian puts it “unrealistic.” While cute characters can do
wonders for a film’s performance, they are still prone to becoming stale if
overused. I fear that both Disney and Pixar have ridden the current style just
about as far as they can after 20 years; without radical changes, they may find
themselves flogging a dead horse.
Thankfully there are plenty of other producers and directors
who are willing to take creative charge and pursue styles that differ from the
traditional favourites, but that are nonetheless cute in a a different way.
Think Tomm Moore and Secret of Kells, or Bibo Bergeron with A Monster in
Paris. Both films are at opposite ends of the animation style scale, but both
embody a unique character style that can still be considered cute.