Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Sardonic Appeal VS Cloying Cuteness

When Disney animators and fans think of "appeal" they tend to think about this kind of stuff, cuteseypie sissypants smooth tasteless stuff that's aimed at infants, moms, Cal Arts animators and adults who choose alternative lifestyles.
Disney Cute

Cal Arts Cute
This is the modern descendent of Disney "appeal". It's not at all based on any true human feelings or experiences. It's merely the autopilot way of designing characters that follow what animators think is the way cartoons are supposed to look - animators who love Disney and let hardly any other influences into the medium without painting over them with big round wet sad drippy eyes.

For some reason, no matter how hard they try, they can't seem to make any human characters cute or appealing at all. It's a mystery to me.
By the way, I'm not against this kind of cute. It's great for 5 year olds. But we could sure use some variety in mainstream animation. This isn't the only kind of "appeal".

Alternative Lifestyle Animation Fan Cute

Disney would roll in his grave if he knew who his most ardent fans were and what his style inevitably led to:Now just who do they aim these modern Disney characters at?


Anyway, there are many more ways to achieve "appeal" in cartoons without resorting to infantile or effeminate cuteness.

Sardonic Man Appeal

I like a lot of cartoon styles that have a more observant and honest outlook of humanity.
These cartoons by Virgil "VIP" Partch really portray humanity in its rawest and funniest forms.

VIP especially understands men in all their appealing hairy, brutish ugliness.
It's ironic that VIP started at Disney's as a storyboard artist. I can't imagine what they were thinking hiring someone whose whole outlook was the complete opposite of Disney's.

Actual men in real life must have some appeal, even though most of us are nothing like what Disney cartoons consider appealing. We manage to get girls without looking like Bambi or Disney bland male leads. I think VIP captures exactly what it is about men that is appealing. I don't know why animated cartoons are so afraid to caricature life and true emotions and motivations. Instead they continue to slavishly copy one bizzare man's strange naive outlook of life - even decades after his death.

Virgil Partch Here We Go AgainVirgil Partch Here We Go Again


George Lichty is another great cartoonist whose outlook of life is more honest and observant than the general run of animated cartoons.
George Lichty Grin And Bear It


Don Martin also fits this cartoon outlook, as does Brant Parker. I wish I could find good examples of Parker's early Wizard Of Id Sunday pages to show you.

These kinds of cartoons appeal to more sophisticated and adventurous tastes than do Disney cartoons and their descendants.

When you are a little kid, you tend to like white bread and American cheese - anything without texture, contrast or strong individual flavors, but as you get older your taste buds get bored and crave spicier, more interesting and varied flavors. You start to like European salamis, pickles, sharp cheese, mushrooms and even crustaceans.
This stuff has more texture and may look rude, but it sure tastes better than baby food.

It's very odd to me that animated cartoons have stayed in the tasteless white bread stage for so long. Don't our retinas crave some more spicy varieties of visual flavors?

Like George Baker:

We have enough of a rich history of other types of cartoons to be inspired by - and lots of foods too.


Anonymous said...

Never heard of VIP 'til now. What great stuff! The emotions do feel very real.

I think you need more meat in your tasty category. Steak, perhaps? Mushrooms definitely belong there. I wasn't able to appreciate the texture of a mushroom until I was 18. It's a mature fungus.

Kali Fontecchio said...

This post changes every ten freakin' minutes.


I <3 Paul, Elvis, and Zac Efron!

d ( ^______________^ ) b

two thumbs up

Elana Pritchard said...

Cool post! I have always wanted you to touch more on the IDEAS behind actual appealing cartoons. If a cartoon is based around some plastic robot idea and not around life there's no way I'm going to like it because I'm not going to be able to relate to it. Maybe the reason CalArts/ Disney animators feel they have to carbon copy stale/robotic designs is that they haven't really gone out and grabbed life by the balls. Or tits, depending. (We like to keep all of the genders happy here.)

Blogger is being weird so hopefully I didn't publish this like 5 times. It's great and all but that's too much.

Anonymous said...

Here's a full flavored food: http://www.pennmac.com/images/3497

Plain Cauliflower: bland and irritating.

Hot Cauliflower: a completely different texture with the spiciest pickled juices that will ever shoot up your nose.

krakit said...

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Kali Fontecchio said...


Yay Sausage!

Caleb said...

So the more inbreeding, the less body hair. I don't know if that species has adapted to survive.

Jonathan Harris said...

Wow, we really can learn about anything reading this blog!
I really want some salami now, thanks John.

Mike Caracappa said...


I was a student a Cal Arts character animation, graduated 2 years ago. I was also one of those kids, having grown up heavily influenced by Disney Animation. It was, at one time, the end all, be all of what I thought animation should be, and it wasn't till about half way through school when I discovered I wanted more than what Disney offered artistically, everything I thought I knew has come crashing down, and I've been left in a state of confusion about who I am and what I want to say with my work. I've been reading your blog for awhile now, and have read most of your opinions regarding Cal Arts and the mediocre impact its had on animation today. What I find frustrating is the lack of any real caricature when it comes to most animated films, particularly in satire. There is no real attempt to hold up a mirror and show human beings as they are. Wall-e, for example, was very frustrating. The scenes on the Walmart ship, where the humans are fat blobs, are still given cute Disney proportions. I think the cuteness comes off as a crutch for the filmmakers for something that should have been more grossly caricatured. It not only would have been funnier, but I think the films messsge would have had a stronger impact. Most animated features now are just endless routines of chatty characters with medicore dialogue/design/voice acting etc. And the sad truth is no audience in the US is going to know any better. Its not their fault, but they've been used to Disney running the show for so long, trying to show them something else is difficult. I don't blame Cal arts students for this either, but I think alot of them are blindsided by the idea of getting into Pixar or Disney that they forget themselves... by making cute films with cute stories to appeal to those studios and never taking a chance to say something on their own. There's always alot of emphasis in the animation industry on getting and keeping a job at a studio, as if not having one would be a mark of failure. And I know alot of people who feel that way when they're not working (I've felt it too). Animation is such a narrow field in this country, its not suprising so many artists would be scared to say something on their own with their work... Something, god forbid, not Disney.

mike f. said...

CalArts animators love sausage, too. You can see it in their drawings...

Roberto González said...

>>There is no real attempt to hold up a mirror and show human beings as they are. Wall-e, for example, was very frustrating. The scenes on the Walmart ship, where the humans are fat blobs, are still given cute Disney proportions. I think the cuteness comes off as a crutch for the filmmakers for something that should have been more grossly caricatured. It not only would have been funnier, but I think the films messsge would have had a stronger impact.<<

Exactly what I thought! Finally I find someone who agrees on that. I already knew about Wall-E's plot before I watched it and the idea of the human blobs sounded especially interesting for me. When I watched the movie I found those designs extremely dull and boring.

I would like to know what's unappealing about Boo from Monsters Inc, though...Also, it seems that the animators did try to caricature human gestures. I recognize some of Boo's expressions in real children all the time.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! I was wondering if you can do a post (or point out a previous one, cuz you have lotsa entries!) on what you see as a cute and appealing human character. Your example of the little girl from Monsters Inc. got me thinking that she's really not all that cute. I actually found her a bit creepy. >.>

Alain-Christian said...

"It's very odd to me that animated cartoons have stayed in the tasteless white bread stage for so long. Don't our retinas crave some more spicy varieties of visual flavors?"

I watch a lot less American animated programming than I used to. I'm not even excited when I hear them announce something new. Most of the time it's some ugly angular thing done in flash.

I was a fan of the TMNT reboot for a while; the writing was exceptional. But they changed the look of the show TWICE to be less detailed and more angular. I guess you could it lost it's appeal me me. I'll never understand why people mess with a good thing like that? The SAME THING happened with the ORIGINAL TMNT run. Does nobody remember how they changed too much on the show and kids didn't like it anymore? The look was fine but they made it ugly.

The last great American show I watched was Super Jail. Augenblick Studios has been on my radar since their work on Wonder Showzen. One word comes to mind when I witness an Augenblick short: delicious.

I also watch a lot of anime. What's your opinion of anime?

Deniseletter said...

"A more observant and honest outlook of humanity"I would like this to happen but I notice some obstacles to do so:
Moreover perhaps is that traditionally the most cartoons are aimed for kids and not to adults.For me this is a limiting or a kind of prejudice that with time it gives a censure of the other adventurous views.Mad Magazine,one of my favourites is more for adults.R&S regardless of I love them a lot,it was criticized in other country where I live according to the TV station and after hearing complaints that the show deals with scenes disagreeable to the senses they decided to stop their transmitting on TV.They didn't understand this cartoon could be aired and promoted for adults.

Ted said...

Is the Bar Guide cover painted by Partch? It's much more appealing than his simpleline work...

J Hobart B said...

I think people's tastes in cartoons do evolve beyond the white bread stage, and that's why so many of us end up seeking out things like your work, Beavis & Butt-head, Bill Plympton, etc.

But executives don't know about that stuff and how fun it is, so we end up with everything on TV still pandering to little kids who still eat American cheese.

limaCAT said...

Disney would roll in his grave if he knew who his most ardent fans were and what his style inevitably led to:

Sorry for killing this discussion by invoking Godwin's law.

Guy said...

I would like to know what's unappealing about Boo from Monsters Inc, though...

Are you serious? She's the most monstrous-looking thing in the movie.

Jizz Wad said...

Great post as usual!

My drawing skills have improved so much just by reading this blog. Thank you.

I wonder what your views are on Nick Park? By that I mean 'Wallace & Gromit' not Chicken Run or the CG flick.

His storyboards and characters I think are really strong and he does seem to have a something personal to show on the screen especially in 'The Wrong Trousers'.

He seems also to have implemented a un-Disney design for his 'cute' Shaun the sheep character in 'A Close Shave'.

Niki said...

"Now just who do they aim these modern Disney characters at?"

Men's pants.

I've seen that Don Martin Picture before! Long before I came here too.Man, I was like, what the!?

I like Pineapples, although they look stabby and gross. kinda.

Honestly there are very few things that make me proud to be human: the pineapple (express too), old cartoons (some new), George Bush (for he's hilarious)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading Sad Sack growing up. Great post.

While this is a ego filled question, have you ever thought of doing a post to comment on the art styles of peopel that comment or read your blog?

I enjoyed the critque you recently did, but a broad post like this of different reader styles would be cool.

Lion said...

"I also watch a lot of anime. What's your opinion of anime?"

Anime also suffers from the "cloying cuteness" issue in the most basic elements of its style. Probably the most distinguishable feature of an anime character is their face, which is often rendered like boneless putty. Even so-called shonen titles use this convention.

Take "Bleach" as a contemporary example. Tite Kubo clearly knows his way around a human skeleton. I'm in love with the way he draws hands and feet in particular, and on some pages I've even mooned over the way he renders a wrist. But then you get above the neck and his faces are two-dimensional blobs. He can draw good facial bone/muscle structure--the craggy, meaty, and elderly characters prove this--but he chooses not to for the characters that are supposed to "look good."

Hans Flagon said...

TMNT style shifts were partially due to the schism between the original creators intentions and skills, and the subset of that that became redone and started making hand over fist money. Indie Comic gets picked up by beleagured major, then Saturday Morning Cartoons and Toys. The original creators had enough influence (ownership) to bend the product anywhere among the continuum.

The Littlest Toaster (was that the name?) actually probably would not have gotten the small amount of distribution that it did, if not for the cloying cuteness. It actually was less cute, and had a more enganging story than cartoon features had in years, which was why it was championed by the Ebert Types. You have to remember the state of the industry at this time. Features were still pretty much for VHS electronic babysitting so the moms could get the rugrats out of their hair, and any junk would do.

There were multiple things happening that helped bury the once relatively dominant sardonic style. If Don Martin had not gotten the MAD gig, he still could have found work doing Studio Cards, those Mod Adult Greeting Cards. But Cartoons had to be made in increasingly simple ways, Sitcom dads stopped coming home to a pitcher of Martinis, and Childrens TV became a battle ground for anti-violence pablum pushers. The main buyer of Gag Cartoons surviving was the New Yorker, which had gone completely bland, abstract and sketchy possibly to appeal to advertisers. Animated Cartoons were no longer shown or marketed to mixed audiences, they were sold like Pampers as a way for mom to get more free time, the more sleep enducing soft edges the better. Kid appeal, or anyone appeal, was secondary, just make it bland and safe.

Jeff said...

Another excellent post.

Trevor Thompson said...

Isn't George Lichtenstein (sp?) the chap whom inspired Rod Scribner to do the wild and crazy style he developed for Clampett's cartoons?

- trevor.

perspex said...


love that salami...

Tim said...

I think there is a common confusion between Disney "cute" and Disney "appeal".
Things that fall under the cute category are definitely the big-eyed, soft furry woodland creatures that get re-interpreted with more saccharine for nursery wall paper.
But appeal has to do with making something, even the grotesque, a good visual design. For examples from the Disney canon: Malificent, Baloo, Sher Khan, Cruella, Mad Madam Mim, every single character from "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom", Windwagon Smith,etc. All great designs that don't feel like Freddie Moore dunked in syrup.
When Frank & Ollie spoke of appeal in their first book, I didn't get that they meant "cute". They just meant good design.
Posts like this one help delineate between the two.

Caleb said...

“I've been reading your blog for awhile now, and have read most of your opinions regarding Cal Arts and the mediocre impact its had on animation today.” -Mike Caracappa

The word that every artist dreams of, “mediocre.” It’s good to hear from someone who’s been through the Cal Arts system. Like Disney they keep saying they’re the best, so it must be true. There is an essay called “The Loss of the Creature,” that talks about the dangers to society when generations blindly follow (Disney animation) without doing their own analysis (of life).

Even the best Cal Arts, Disney, Pixar films in the last 25 years have just done the bare minimum of story-telling. Why would you make another Short Circuit movie? “Because my computer says it’s easier to draw robots.” They’re hoping you will enjoy the movie more than they do, which is probably not the best way to make films. Or, even more disturbingly; they actually think it's a masterpiece of entertainment. The real artists there are the advertisers that whip up enough enthusiasm to get people to watch “Short Circuit 3: Wall-E’s Search for a Personality.”

Disney commercials are still squawking about “the Vault.” They talk about it like they have no control over which movies get put on the backburner. One of these days, I’m gonna break into that goddamned vault (is it in the basement at Euro-Disney?) and share all the hoarded magic with “the people.”

I think the internet is helping people see the good, vintage cartoons that stopped being shown on tv by the late 80’s. At least, they won’t have an excuse anymore.

Whit said...

The New Yorker cartoons devolved until their captions were sometimes interchangable with Seinfeld sitcom writing. One of their recent cartoonists, Bruce Erik Kaplan, (signs his stuff 'B.E.K.') was a Seinfeld writer.

Caleb said...

By the way, this is what you'll look like if you keep making movies like Wall-E and Plucky Fish (Nemo).

kalena said...

Thank you so much for posting all those wonderful Virgil Partch images. I did not know these cartoons existed until today. They really are inspiring and fun to look at. Keep up the fantastic lessons, I learn so much more about cartoons here than at school.

tiny dean said...

I've seen that Disney beefcake art before (not that I went looking for it intentionally....seriously) and I still find it disturbing.

While I do like SOME of Disney's "cute but bland" work (not so much the modern stuff) I do agree that Disney, as well as other modern animation studios, need to try be more adventurous in almost every aspect of their output, especially character design.

HemlockMan said...

I'll never forget the first time I saw Virgil Partch stuff. I had a much older cousin who had a Phd in Sociology. This would have been around 1965 or so. I was at his house rummaging through his paperback collections of POGO and PEANUTS and saw some VIP cartoon books on one of the shelves. I'd already seen Don Martin, and this stuff was "like" Don Martin, but smarter. Even as a little kid I liked the stuff. I couldn't have been but seven or eight years old.

Edgy. Heck, yes.

Hans Flagon said...

A lot of the fall of sardonic appeal coincided with the growth of suburbia. There is something very urban about Sardonic appeal. Urbane.

Kids used to be able to pick their own movies, and walk to the theatre. Kids like edgy.

When theatres moved to malls, and the kids had to be driven there to see a flick, kids lost some of their autonomy in what to choose. and the parents would gravitate towards flicks that would not get the tykes hyped up. Lazy parents do not like edgy.

Occasionally the pendulum swings back, and someone realized they can kick Misterrogers ass in the ratings by mixing up some slime for old fashioned slapstick, and you have a market for gross out humor again, garbage pail kids, Ren and Stimpy.

patrick said...

Correction: You mean, Disney would roll in his cryogenic chamber if he knew what his style led to

John A said...

You've been posting so many great ideas here lately, I haven't had enough time to readthrough them all, let alone respond. If you want to see Disney principles taken to horrific extremes, you don't have to look any further than the namby-pamby baby talking characters that populate Don Bluth's films. Once considered a likely candidate to run the studio, at some point he obviously went insane and never recovered. Most of his films are unwatchable.

You are right to wonder where all the MEN went at Disney studios. You should read, if you haven't already Jack Kinney's book, "Walt Disney and Other Assorted Characters". Kinney tells stories about REAL people that worked for the mouse factory before before it got its giant stick up its butt and its offices weren't filled with confused basket cases.

Tim said...

On a side note:
You have probably noticed that VIP often drew extra fingers on his character. Sometimes hands had seven or 8 digits. When asked why, he responded he was making up for all the years he spent at Disney drawing only 3 fingers per hand.

Aaron said...

I love me some sharp cheddar!

Louise Smythe said...

One thing I think is lacking the most in modern character design is lack of personality. I feel this way about a lot of modern cartoons especially. I go see the new Disney and Pixar flicks and I try to justify them, and while some of them are good for certain reasons (pretty rockin' stories), there are always problems with bland characterization. I get so bored with the human characters in Pixar's films especially. Even their new movie called UP, despite the cool old man design and nice colors, has very bland humans.

I mean, look at the Simpsons. There's a toon that's been around for a long time and it hasn't really lost appeal or its audience yet. It's famous and liked by a lot of people, and it isn't some cutesy CGI film with birds and rabbits. It's actually kindof a crude 2D show, and that's what I find so appealing about it. That's why I liked the Simpsons Movie trailer a lot, I guess. :D

I'd also love to see more stuff like what Ralph Bakshi was doing with films like Heavy Traffic. I love the character design in that movie - it's very gutsy and fun to look at, and it tells you about the characters personality and it isn't afraid of being rough or offensive.

On another note, it's kinda refreshing to hear from some CalArts animators. I'm studying illustration at Washington University in St. Louis, and it isn't really well known like CalArts is. But to the point: ever since I really got interested in storyboarding and character design, it seems like all I hear about from things I read and people I meet, CalArts is the end-all be-all place to study if you are interested in the animation business. It really freaked me out at one point last year and I felt like I needed to transfer in order to increase my chances of getting a job, but reading this blog is comforting and helps me realize that while some schools may have better reputations than others, it's really up to the student to learn what they need to know. I learn so much just by reading this blog! BIG thanks to John K for that.

krakit said...

I finally figured out a way
to subscribe to the blog.
Yay! I clicked on the RSS
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Dr.Burke said...

Great blog. Bottom line on "appeal" is that it is subjective and a matter of taste. Thanks for exposing so many people to new artists, new ideas, and critical thinking.

fandumb said...

Man, I LOVE 'The Brave Little Toaster'. It's basically a bunch of appliances going through a LOT of crap just to get back to the boy who owned them. In my opinion, in terms of design (and only design) it's just the toaster and the blanket who are a traditional form of cute. The lamp and the radio are ADORABLE!
It's a good film. It has a lot of quiet moments where the film just takes a breath and calms down, as well as a few fun moments here and there, and a LOT of really SCARY scenes, too! Genuinely so. The appliances each endure something that nearly gets them killed each time! The story isn't cloying as it appears, but the lamp and the radio especially are really cute.

fandumb said...

Mind you, the film was made on a low budget, and even then the animation wasn't that bad. Why I like the lamp and the radio is that they're cute in a different way from the toaster and the blanket. The lamp is the goofy comic relief character, and he is animated in a very alive manner, very dynamic. As for the radio, like Tom Servo from 'Mystery Science Theater 3000', he doesn't even need EYES to be cute!

fandumb said...

If you look at Jerry Rees' website, you'll see a painting idea for a poster for the film, not the final one, but it's very creative, has nice use of colour and strong shadows. It has the toaster running through the night as a silhouette, his/her eyes lit up and frightened, and the tagline says "It's 10:00 PM. Do you know where your appliances are?" See for yourself!

As for the rest of the film, the colours are surprisingly muted. Would you expect that for an '80s kids film? If anything, the only brightly coloured characters are the 'cutting edge appliances', the only real villains of the story, and the animals in the film's only pointless scene, the meadow scene.