Saturday, August 04, 2007

Stock Disney Characters - The bland lead -UP FOR TESTING PURPOSES ONLY

Does this kid have any of the ingredients that you need to make up an individual character? Like:

A Specific Design
A Unique Voice (an extinct concept)
A Specific Personality
Specific Mannerisms


Disney characters belong in a category by themselves.

They are neither realistic specific individuals culled from observation of human nature, nor are they imaginative creations from a cartoonist's mind.

They are creatures in limbo. Neither real nor cartoon.

Most Disney characters have one simple personality trait and a visual gimmick to help us see it. Tramp leads with his butt, Sneezy sneezes, Captain Hook sneers, Smee wiggles his fingers, etc.

The odd one even might have 2 traits although I'm struggling to think of one that does. These one and maybe 2 trait characters have been recycled for decades by animators and executives whose only influence seems to be other Disney cartoons or Disney imitators.

It's as if there is a group of people who live in a tent somewhere in the middle of the earth and have no contact with the upper world. They have never seen real humans interacting, so can't caricature real human psychology in its infinite variations. They have also never seen any other artists' characters or interpretations of humanity. They have only other Disney and Disney imitations to study. Actually, in the last 20 years, they have started to be influenced by Saturday Morning cartoon characters, so now we have a strange mix of stock Disney with stock Filmation characters.

For decades, we've have endless repetitions of a small handful of stock stylized cliched characters. Why is this so?

It all started with Walt Disney himself. It took him years to get to the point where his characters evolved even one superficial trait. His first star character had not a single trait.


Mickey is The Ultimate Bland Character
His appeal completely depends on how cute the individual artists can draw such simple shapes.

He's made of circles and ovals and has no personality.

He doesn't even have a distinct voice. It's just Walt in falsetto-which sounds exactly like anyone else doing a falsetto.

He's very cute though and is a good character to train your youngest kids to understand cartoons with.He makes a good logo.

Bland Evolves From Mice To Boys
Here's a puppet that longs to be a real boy.

The drawings are very well constructed but there is no design.

It's not a specific puppet and it doesn't have a personality.

He has a mildly distinct voice, unlike the later generations he spawned.
This basic generic boy design has been in continuous use for 6 decades now...

Pinocchio turns into a "real boy"Peter Pan instructs a group of different sized versions of himself.

Milt Kahl Perfects The Bland Boy LeadAdd some angles and you get this modified generic boy design, using very strong construction and clever proportions.

It's very good drawing but suggests nothing unique about the character

he is merely a well constructed symbol of "boy". Any boy.

The Disney boy was never this well drawn again...

How Many Times Can We Use The Same Kahl Boy?tone him down and re-use him

After you take out the one thing that made the character worth watching...the good drawing, and all that's left is the blandness.

None of these characters have a personality or a unique look, nor a unique voice - nothing to make him a character. It might as well be a talking stick with a wig.

Decade after decade the stick gets more and more watered down.
add some Don Bluth influence

...sometimes he's even a girl
here's what the bland boy/girl becomes when you take away the good drawing and construction...
a Saturday morning cartoon version of Pinocchio in drag.

Again...Note that the bland fish is the same "design" as the bland boy in drag.

Milt Kahl Boy And His Robot

Milt Kahl seems to have had a lot of assistants, each of whom are the only true purveyors of his legacy.
Iwao Takamoto was once Milt Kahl's assistant and did his own version of "Wart". This TV version actually looks better than most of the expensive quality theatrical versions from the next group of Kahl assistants that followed.

Modern Version Of Bland Lead BoyIn the 80s Disney had an influx of Saturday Morning cartoon artists and influences, and the principles that held together the classic Disney cartoons began to melt away.

Take the same basic generic design and add uncomfortable proportions and use vague shapes for the details...

Here's a movie that has 2 bland lead characters. Once in rodent form, and then again in human form.


Nondescript in design (a realistic rat with googly eyes) and in personality.

(Character description from the Ratatouille website)

This description does not say anything about the character's personality. It tells you he can smell well and that he has a dream. The Rat tells you that himself many times in the movie.

When he runs on all fours like a real rat it's amazingly animated. When he stands on 2 legs and acts, he acts just like every Disney character from the last 30 years, not like an individual.


Here's a Disney bland boy that brags in the movie about how bland he is. And he gets the girl anyway. The Sassy one.

The design is slightly different than the regular Disney boy. He has a big nose now and no jaw. That probably took a lot of guts to make those changes , but it made him even wimpier than the regular bland lead. The expressions and gestures are still the same as every Disneyesque character, whether boy, girl, man or rat. He still acts like the girl in Rescuers - with a bit of Medusa thrown in.

I have to admit, this is the first time I've seen a movie where every character actually tells you what their personalities are-even the one that admits to not having one.

Disney wanted you to know what each of his characters' single trait was. He named each character after his one trait to be sure you got it. Happy, Sneezy, Grumpy etc...

But he also wrote scenes that demonstrated what their characters' simple personalities were.

Now the movies are so unsure of whether the story is carrying itself, that they have the characters tell you not only everything they do (exposition) but...who they are. I don't think there is even a word for that yet.

But it's completely acceptable, even to the critics whom the movie calls worthless.

(Character description from the Ratatouille website)

Of course having bland characters in animated movies is not a handicap. Not while every other movie is equally bland. Moms still take their kids to animated movies to see talking animals and humans with big heads.

I just want to make the point that they aren't going because of the rich personalities or story. These movies must have some other attributes that bring people in. For now, I'm just focusing on personality and character.

Why do bland characters exist in the first place?

What is the purpose of characters with no distinctive traits?

I have a theory that I don't totally believe. Most animated features want to outspend the competition. The films are built on special effects, spectacle, details, crowds and a showing off of how much money they can burn. With that kind of story maybe strong characters would distract the audience from the impressive flying money.

Maybe the film makers think you need a central character with no distinctive traits so that you can piggy back him through the movie and experience the expensive special effects, wobbly cameras and spectacle through him.

You project your personality onto the blank slate and go on a roller coaster ride.

I personally think that is a rotten excuse to have a bland character and to tell you the truth I doubt that's what the makers of these pictures have in mind.

Why are there blands then if it's not on purpose? Because the cartoon makers don't actually think about what they are doing or why. They just do it by rote. I doubt they even realize these characters are bland. They just have watched so many Disney, Bluth and Pixar movies growing up, that they automatically absorb the stock formulas and repeat them robotically when they get their chance to make a film.

Marc Deckter, on the other hand gives them more credit than that. He thinks they are completely aware of the blandness they wring and that it's on purpose.

Next thrilling post:

Marc Deckter has a scientific explanation for bland characters in film and cartoons. (similar to his defense of Muzak)

Followed by:

The Disney Evil Homosexual


Anonymous said...
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Scott said...

The reason Pinocchio has no personaility is simple... he was just "born". He's a puppet who has just come to life and therefore is a blank slate...he's not supposed to have a personality.

He acts exactly as he should...a real naive kid that hasn't developed their personality or character yet but makes a lot of mistakes along the way. The performence is actually quite brilliant.

I'm enjoying these posts quite a bit... looking forward to the Evil Disney Homosexual one.

JohnK said...

I'll but that. It doesn't make the character any more interesting to know that though.

Now explain Gepetto.

Gabriel said...

you know what, sometimes i think i'm going crazy. It's so easy to say Shrek sucks, but then this rat movie comes out and everyone is in love with it. I haven't watched it yet, but i've read so much about it in the last days that i think i should, even if i hated the trailer. At least i won't be bashing something i didn't see. I'm glad someone who knows better took the trouble to tell me that yes, the rat has no design. I was going through a serious conflict here. Could the whole world be wrong? Am I the only one who doesnt like how those characters look? Have I become jaded? Or isn't my taste refined enough?
Thanks for this post, John, it's a beacon of sanity in these times of senselessness. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

Hey John,

I don't know that the people who make these "characters" have any sort of creative deficiency, I personally think it all goes back to that line about Mickey looking good on a logo. You can slap that mouse anywhere you'd like because he fits. These feature films are drawn and produced on two different sides of a coin and, unfortunately, the side that gets the most creative input is the side that is concerned with having the best marketing.

The "Art of..." books for sale at Barnes and Noble lead me to believe that at one time or another some authentic character was planned for the final cut. It just didn't look good enough on a lunchbox. Or maybe the art was drawn afterwards to appeal to the Cal-art students.

That's just my opinion, anyway.

Clinton said...

My first characters were without personalities and were boring. Later on, I created new characters based on close friends and the end result turned out very good :)

Out of all the Disney characters from the golden age, Maleficent is my favorite. Eventhough she wasn't in the movie all that much, her first scene was very good and I thought her personality was more broad than the other characters. I think the disney animators has to really concentrate on the villain's personality because they can't draw the villain too scary, but they also have to show their hatred for the good guy. i guess that's why i always root for characters like Medusa, Prince John, and the Snake.

JohnH said...

Ouch, harsh statements about Iron Giant and Ratatouille....

...but you're probably right. Sometimes blandness is called for. What could be called bland from one point view could be called centered from another.

What these guys all have in common is that they're intended to be Everymen. Everyman, from his roots in medieval literature (, was defined by his ordinariness. Everyman characters are common in all sorts of writing, and they are defined specifically by their blandness. Lead characters are most likely to be this kind of bland, because if they're too well-defined it's thought the audience won't self-identify with them.

I'm still not completely convinced that Hogarth is bland in personality though. But even so, this is all awesome explanation.

The Great Sir Josh said...

Gepetto is a great fisherman, a good toymaker and always ready with a musket. Also very easily manipulates his cat through cruelty and neglect.

That's all there is to say about him, he doesn't even show up all that often.

stevef said...

Great blog, and an interesting theory. But I have one of my own:

In a great story, the lead character must go through a change to grow as a person in some way.

BUT, in order for that to happen, the lead character must start out with some negative traits that need changing. And that makes producers and studio executives mighty nervous. Can't have politically incorrect lead characters. Look how long it took The Simpsons to get to the big screen.

In the book, Pinocchio is such a cowardly and coniving little twerp that he actually gets hung! Wanna bet that scene never made to the story boards. Forget Uncle Walt. The Hayes Office would've screamed bloody murder.

If "Sleeping Beauty" had had any character development, by the time she hit 16 the princess would've told the faries "I hate you!" put on some leotards, and started hanging out in coffee houses with Bobby Darin. But teenage rebellion won't get a character printed on bedspreads and pillowcases. Got to keep her bland and harmless.

I can't explain Gepetto, but I can explain why Stromboli scared the hell out me as a little kid. Tytla.

Ryan G. said...

>>Maybe the film makers think you need a central character with no distinctive character so that you can piggy back on him through the movie and experience the expensive special effects and spectacle through him...

I think you got it here John..

I also think that being really specific is that it bases itself on sterotypes which as you know in our hyper-sensitive society is off limits, especially for studios that make cartoons directed at kids.

Nico said...

The Evil Disney Homosexual?? I wonder who THAT'll be...

Insightful stuff John... that photo of Peter Pan and the "six different sized versions of himself" really proved the point. They all had the exact same features and expressions.

miss 3awashi t said...

evil homosexual!! X333 egad now that would be a great villian but i have a feeling that's not what you meant.

Gabriel said...

the evil homosexual he mentioned already exists. Scar, Jaffar, etc. I can't wait for that post!

PCUnfunny said...

"He acts exactly as he should...a real naive kid that hasn't developed their personality or character yet but makes a lot of mistakes along the way. The performence is actually quite brilliant."

The film should have made fun of niavity, then it would have been entertaining.

"He makes a good logo."

I fuckin' died when I read this. This is the quote of the century.

Anonymous said...
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Stephen Worth said...

I worked with a "Bluthie" way back in my early days in animation. She reacted with horror to any specific character or personality that she hadn't seen before. It was as if there were "appropriate" types of characters for animation and then there was the rest of the world. The closer it got to the Milt Kahl boy, the more "quality" it was to her. It's as if since the days of the nine old men, a whole group of animators have been trying over and over to imitate them with various degrees of lack of success. They keep remaking the same character hoping this time, they'll get it right.

Ultimately, nothing is accomplished at all.

See ya

julian said...

hi john! awsome post! that theory about why they always use bland characters in the leading rol so the money invested in special efects and stuff shows more sound intersting i don't think that is why. im sure the producer and directos think the characters are super cool with a lot of personality and edgy design

there is not much diference betwen this rat and the rats done by disney or bluth. most of the people i work with loves this type of character designs, they are used to it and the idea that they actually are bland does not even pass through they head

i think it a masive brainwash and it is going to be near a century that the world have been eatin walt's bland taste so it's hard to question something that is stuck so deep into our brains.

i really want to know more about thins evil disney homosexual thing!!

pappy d said...

Anything can happen in an animated cartoon, yet it doesn't.

Daniel said...

As a non-artist, I'd love to see some counter-examples of non-bland characters just as a study in contrast. I get what's being said here, but some of this makes me wonder what a non-bland boy would look like.

Ardy said...

These posts keep getting better and better. Thank you for explaining to people what I always thought was obvious, these movies suck. And I know it's sad, but I honestly believe that the people making these movies are completely unaware of their own bullshit. People don't make movies anymore based on what they know or feel, they base them on other movies. Everything is just an idea cribbed from cribbed from an idea... and each time it happens they whittle the ideas down until it's nothing except the hollow structure of an idea. I think we should just burn every film ever made, so we can start over. Or maybe hide them away somewhere (the Disney Vault?) until we're mature enough in our thinking to view them again.

Well great post anyway.

Mr. Semaj said...

Hey, go easy on Pixar. Their human designs are far better than anything that's coming out of other CGI studios, esp. when you look at how far they've come in the past 12 years.

Take the same basic generic design and add uncomfortable proportions and use vague shapes for the details...

Um, wouldn't that be an example of "organic shaping"?

Just curious...Have you ever met any of the Nine Old Men, or anyone who worked for them? If so, have you ever shared with them how "bland" their characters are?

PCUnfunny said...

"Their human designs are far better than anything that's coming out of other CGI studios, esp. when you look at how far they've come in the past 12 years."

Pixar is doing better then any CGI studio out there but they have a very,very long way to go.

Hayden said...

the pixar animatos are very talented and should not be compared to disney. disney may have bought the studio but they have no creative control.

Anonymous said...

Here's a challenge for some of you guys: try to explain Tarzan's (the kid version)personality just by looking at him. I can't find one yet, but can YOU?

I can't, so far. It's either the dreadlocks or the loincloth, but I got nothing.

Rachh said...

okayy.... umm I have a question for you... have YOU ever tried to make an animation? because you go on and on about them not having personalities and every thing is the same and stuff... but making an animation is harder then you think, especially a 2 HOUR movie.
I found your blog by looking for information for this project I'm doing for school about disney (the project could be about whatever we want, they ont actually make us write papers about disney) well anyway... I've actually made a small animation myself (I'm only in 10th grade... so it wasn't really that elaborate) but I spent 4 days practically drawing non stop to draw 350 drawings... and when I put it all together... you know how long it was? ONLY 23 SECONDS... you have like no idea how much work it took me to make a 23 second animation... so u can't expect ever single drawing in every single movie they've made to be unique... that's just way too much work...
oh and people... don't DARE criticize the WONDERFUL artist that made these AMAZING movies.. did you guys know that Milt Kahl was like the best people drawing person disney has ever had?? and that he NEVER had to use a model?? he visualized EVERYTHING..!! do you know how fucking hard that is?? NO you have absolutely no idea!! because if you had ever tried you wouldn't have written all that shit!! okk... sorry maybe I've exaggerated a bit... it wasnt really what you wrote that bothered me... but maybe it was more of the comments... but anyway... i just wanted to make it clear that making a animated movie is way harder then you think...
ohh... and about the mickey being all round and stuff... its because kids like it... and... the movies are kind of made for kids... so... i mean... thats kind of the reason... because why would they structure the characters in a way kids wouldn't like... if the movies are made for them??

Mattieshoe said...

I think you could've done with Sparing Rachh the humiliation he now faces with his complete ignorance.

oh god.

Rachh said...

umm.. excuse moii??
ohh and... im a HER!! mr.ingnorence...

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to the party, but calm down, Racch! John was NOT insulting Milt Kahl. In fact, if you look at his recent posts, he talks favorably of his work on Song of the South.

It's just that these characters have no personality: they're pose-able mannequins with similar construction.

Anonymous said...

And we KNOW cartoons are FOR KIDS.

But why can't we knock 'em around a bit?

Heather said...

I agree with most everything you've said here and you've provided some very useful material.


You don't seem to have taken your own advice. Unless you are, in fact, placing yourself in a different category with different expectations that these individuals. Your Ren and Stimpy adult party for example. The animation is stilted and contorted, the lip syncing off, and their episodes deriving humor from tits, awkward sexual innuendos, and gross body humor. In fact, this is always what I've seen in this show. It all appears very basic to me. They are in no way 'bland' but hardly a breakthrough in animation and unique character development.

You've nitpicked ruthlessly at these artists, in a way that implies we should take ourselves too seriously. Whether or not these characters have become generic, they were wonderful starting points and genuinely good ideas.

If you try to hard to be different from everything else, it sucks the natural element right out of art and in turn, produces something forced and stiff.
Avoid generic consistency but learn from what you know and try to translate it into something that is you.

Paul said...

John; you're not wrong about the blandness factor, I'm one of those that swallowed it too as a young unthinking cartoon consuming gob. I think the studios just don't want to freak people out by showing truly uniquely constructed like the Ed, Edd and Eddie type kids. Too bad but that would require some testicular fortitude and creativity beyond the boardroom.

Pokey said...

stevef said:
In the book, Pinocchio is such a cowardly and coniving little twerp that he actually gets hung! Wanna bet that scene never made to the story boards. Forget Uncle Walt. The Hayes Office would've screamed bloody murder."

I read the original book back in the late 1960s [a 1946 edition] and was horrified to see Pinnochio DO such POETIC JUSTIC as
---Step on Jiminy Cricket
---Do something foolish so's his arms get burned off
----and too many others to remember.

"If "Sleeping Beauty" had had any character development, by the time she hit 16 the princess would've told the faries "I hate you!" put on some leotards, and started hanging out in coffee houses with Bobby Darin. But teenage rebellion won't get a character printed on bedspreads and pillowcases. Got to keep her bland and harmless."

THAT would be QUITE the "Shrek"-ish anachronicism, Steve...YOU oughta write a SCRIPT for that..or storyboard....

Columbia's live action second "Gidget" flick [the one with the late Deborah Walley, "Gidget Goes Hawaiian",1961] actually tried something like that..Gidget is basically wholemome but tries to rebel several times at going to Hawaii [Gasp! Someone hates HAWAII?] is seen:
----being accused of being pregsant [she's not]
----lindy-swong-pdancing on an elaborate set
-----imagining that she is a....STRIPPER!
-----getting wolf whistled at LOL
And the nasty girl, is pretty raunchy for a "squeaky clean girls" movie..Compare with Columbia;sd subsidirary Screen Gems Sally Field version.

The most that Disney "princesses" did years ago was Cinderella trying to escape from the stepmother [only Cinderella isn't "rebelling" against a good-thinking character] and Alice in Wonderland not listening to her clearly mature sister and also talking impatenitly to various characters [the first of which is more "rebelling" fact among the females, Alice was probaly the closest they had to Ariel in terms of Alice's stubborn persona.."Do you think it's funny..well, I DON'T"].

Then there's Peter Pan and HIS many escapades with the mermaids and Wendy...yeah, Peter Pan is bland..

So there were some exceptions, plus that live Columbia Pictures family Gidget movie I gave, but year, "Steve F", you're right as shown by Snow White and S.Beauty and others, what I mention [just naming Disney] were exceptions. Christopher Robin and the other boys weren't much better, but what about Mowgli back in 1967? He stood up to Bagheera, hell even his best friend [as if Bagheera wasn't!] Baloo.