Animating Animals: Personification versus Realism

If you are anything like me, you really like animation. And, if you like animation, you might have noticed that a lot of animated films and television shows star or include animals. Some are the main characters, some talk but are supporting characters, and some act as animals naturally would. From first til last in that list, the character designs become less and less anthropomorphized. That is, they have fewer and fewer human-like traits. This is mostly because the audience relates more to characters which exhibit human behavior, and also because animators can express emotion and a wide range of movements if they make them more like humans.

In the first category, the animals as main characters, are some of the most famous cartoon characters. Mickey and Friends, Bugs Bunny and almost all of the other Loony Toon characters, Kipper, etc. These characters are all animals, but they walk upright and display human behavior. They live in houses, and wear clothes (well, some of them) and act just as humans would. But they’re animals, which makes them cute and likable.

Big eyes are great at showing emotion and showing the goodness of a character. If you pay attention to it, you may notice that the heroes’ eyes are generally larger and have bigger pupils than those of the villains. And, if you remember, Mickey and Friends used to have solid black eyes, until Fantasia, when Mickey’s eyes were changed to include a pupil, allowing for a wider range of emotions and expressions and also allowing the audience to relate more to him. In movies like The Lion King, where all of the characters are animals but they remain looking like animals, their eyes are drawn more human-like, in order to be able to express emotions well. They also move their paws or wings or hooves in a way to suggest hands.

The second category is animal characters who talk but aren’t the main characters. These characters retain their animal appearances, with the exception of the eyes and sometimes exaggerated features. One of the best examples that I can think of is Sebastian from The Little Mermaid.

I wouldn’t say that he is a halfway point between anthropomorphic characters and fully animal characters, because his design is leaning more towards the latter, but his face is an exaggerated and humanized version of a crab face. Some other good examples of characters in this category are Odette’s animal companions in The Swan Princess and the chicken and dragon characters in The Quest for Camelot.

The final category, that being animals who act like animals, is probably about as common as the other two categories, but those characters don’t stick in our minds as much. Speaking of The Quest for Camelot, the horses are not anthropomorphic. They act like horses in reality would. Thus, they are drawn more realistically. This doesn’t mean that we can’t sympathize with them, though. In particular, Muddy from The Long, Long Holiday stands out, because he acts exactly like a pig would in real life, but I felt exactly as attached to him (maybe more) as I did for all the human protagonists.

Thank you for taking the time to read! Do you have any observations of your own on this topic? Please share them in the comments below! Did you read because you like animals? Head on over to Zazzle and Redbubble, where we have lots of fantastic animal designs. Until then, goodbye, and I’ll leave you with a picture of Djali, an animal character somewhere between the second and third categories, from my all-time favorite movie.

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3 thoughts on “Animating Animals: Personification versus Realism”

  1. Speaking of The Lion King, which I watched again very recently, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I felt a certain connection between the adult Simba and Quasimodo that I never had before, and it had to do with how both of their eyes were animated. Quasi carries with him a tremendous amount of shame over who his appearance and the burden he’s made to feel he is on his master, Frolo. Simba is also very ashaimed, bearing the weight of responsibility for his father’s death. Although Quasi is fully human and Simba fully lion of course, I found there to be a profound similarity in each other’s eyes and facial expressions. When they are feeling most forlorn, their eyes are downcast and their faces slack in a very similar way. Because the Lion King predates Hunchback by a couple of years, I feel that there is some Quasi being born in Simba, and some Simba that lives in Quasi.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from there, and I googled some images of adult Simba to see the similarity. Something I also noticed was the hair. Both red, of course, but I saw that Simba’s hairline (on his forehead, not the mane) was the same as Quasimodo’s. Maybe this framed the face in a way which made you see the similarity more clearly. I think that their shared emotions (although Simba has a lot of guilt and Quasimodo does not, at least not primarily or in general) contribute to their closeness more than anything else. Although character designs are different, animators need to express emotions in a human way, and so they will draw movements and expressions that represent shame, fear, joy, etc. in a similar and recognizable way. Maybe what you’re picking up on is the humanized aspect of Simba, which is expressing a similar thing to Quasimodo? It’s very interesting to think about…

      1. Yes, you are spot on about their strikingly similar hairlines, just above their foreheads, framing how/why I view them both as so much alike. Perhaps the point that I see their overall expressions as most similar is when Simba hasn’t yet decided to return to Pride Rock and is, for maybe the first time in years, confronted with the role he played in Mufasa’s death; and when Quasimodo is chained up, feeling hopeless and defeated, and made to witness the death of someone he really cares for, whose capture he unwittingly aided. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post and for looking more deeply into the shared likeness of Simba and Quasi. I really appreciate your feedback!

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