Animation and what Happened to Anthropomorphism?

© Donald Richardson, February, 2007


The current screening of the film, Miss Potter, a study of the life and work of the English writer and illustrator, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), together with the staging in Sydney of the Snuglepot and Cuddlepie musical, which is based on the work of Australian writer and illustrator May Gibbs (1877-1969), raise the issue of the phenomenon of anthropomorphism in art. Both these artists wrote about, and illustrated graphically, the adventures of certain animals as if they were human - with the ability to plan their actions, to reflect on them and to discuss them, in English.

Potter's books on the likes of Peter Rabbit and Miss Twiggy Winkle were published from the early years of the twentieth century and Gibbs' books first appeared in the decades after the First World War. Many living Australian adults were 'brought up' on them. In anthropomorphizing their animal characters, Potter and Gibbs adumbrated what has become perhaps the dominant genre of the motion-picture industry - animation.

They were participants in an aspect of the artistic and literary zeitgeist of the turn of the century that started in 1865 with the illustrations by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's Alice books and, two years later, Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat. In 1918, Norman Lindsay's much-admired The Magic Pudding was published and both he and his brother, Lionel, drew cartoons of anthropomorphized koalas (as symbols for ingenuous Ozzies) in the 1920s. Ernest Shepard's illustrations for AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh appeared in 1926 and those for Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows in 1931.

While the illustrators of the earlier works were restricted by the hand-engraving process, the two last authors had the advantage of the invention of the photographic line-block, by which black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings could be transferred mechanically to the press.

Why did the public embrace this genre so willingly? And why has the animation movement developed so successfully? Undoubtedly, humans have an innate ability to empathize with non-human things. This is not only why we invoke 'Hughie' to send us rain, keep animals as surrogate children, give proper names to our vehicles and enjoin the oven to heat faster, but it also is the reductio ad absurdum of Romantic art - the most maudlin expression of which must be Sir Edwin Landseer's painting, Monarch of the Glen (1851), which depicts a magnificent buck deer as 'emperor' of all he surveys.

The psychological explanation - as the Oxford Companion to the Mind tells us - is that the human brain has 'a general structural similarity with the brains of other vertebrates', and so 'we might expect similarities in behaviour' between humans and other animals. 'The main difference, of course', the Oxford Companion to the Mind adds, 'lies in the complexity of human language'. This has necessitated that cartoonists, illustrators and animators develop the 'speech-bubble' in the graphic form and voice synchronisation in animated films. Thus, anthropomorphic entertainment is accomplished and validated. It is a total fiction, of course, but - because it has become so omnipresent in the entertainment industry and is so convincingly hyped - is rarely recognised as such.

When, in 1919, Australian cartoonist, Pat Sullivan (1885-1933), turned his comic character, Felix the Cat, into an animated film, he stylised the form of his feline into simplified line-drawings. This transformed the gentle, humane anthropomorphism of Gibbs and Potter into something less sensitive and graceful: facial expressions and bodily movements were both condensed and amplified and - thus - made more potent. Everything extraneous was eliminated - details of clothing, even most of the background. Heads, and the eyes in them, were enlarged so that expressions - which were confined to the grossest - would be conveyed to even the least intelligent and most inattentive. Mouths were reduced to upwardly - or downwardly - curving arcs, or studded with greedy, or angry, teeth.

Walt Disney and many others followed Sullivan, but added little new in principle. This applies even to the latest computerized animations, another fact that is rarely recognised.

But, the radical simplification and symbolization made impossible the subtlety, reflection and sensitivity of Potter's and Gibbs' characters. Raw emotion, cupidity, stupidity and naked violence became the major themes of animated films, and this has become increasingly so as the genre has developed. This is a worrying trend. What can it be doing to the developing minds of our very young - to whom we subject the phenomenon daily, by the hour, in 'children's entertainment' television programmes? What is most worrying is that the reality of the effects of the violence on its victims is played down - or, even, eliminated. That a Road-runner can be squashed flat three or four times in a ten-minute film and, each time, get up - showing absolutely no sign of concussion - and run again is hardly an education in the either the ethics of human interaction or the realities of life. It is no justification to claim that these characters are 'only animals' because their appeal relies entirely on the fact that they are stand-ins for humans. Why we find such violence acceptable when perpetrated on animals than it would be on human subjects is a mystery. But, while the audience may identify with the satisfaction of seeing justice done - eventually - to the down-trodden and exploited, if we reflect on why this is entertaining and amusing to us, we also find that Schadenfreude lurks not far below the surface.

It is obvious that a violent script is easy to write because it does not depend upon anything but the basest and grossest of human motivations. And it is well recognised in the entertainment world that violence is so predominant in movies and on television because it easily transcends language barriers and, thus, sells internationally, whereas stories and humour are more culturally moderated. But, is there any wonder that naïve teenagers, nurtured on the vicarious thrill of the super high-speed chase and fun-crash (in which no-one gets even scratched!) believe that they can beat the police driving at 100kph in the city?

The outstanding exception to all this is, of course, the Sesame Street TV programmes, in which the anthropomorphism is non-violent and clearly dedicated to the humane education of young children. The true inheritors of the Potter and Gibbs tradition, they illustrate that animation does not have to be violent to entertain or inform.

Once there was considerable discussion about the morality of anthropomorphic representation, although this has disappeared from the public agenda in recent years. Many felt that condoning the attribution of human thoughts and values to animals blinds the naive to the true nature and needs of animals and, thus - through misunderstanding - leads to mistreatment. Zoos usually refuse to give names to their charges for this reason. Many will have smiled at the attempts of a young girl to get a pet dog to lie still in a cot. And adults who ought to know better keep huge mastiffs in fifth-floor flats - and wonder about the flatulence!

Despite this, anthropomorphic violent animation has become inherent in our cultural environment - presumably because it is so easy to produce and so competent at attracting the attention of the unthinking. And, in exhibitions like the The Marvel of Manga, currently in the National Gallery of Victoria, which is a survey of the work of Japanese manga-inspired artist, Tezuka Osamu, it is celebrated as art.

This is what has happened to anthropomorphism, and now may be the time to reflect on it.