Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The 3 Archetypal relationships in Warner Brothers cartoons

I was recently thinking about this short story I read a long time ago by Ian Frazier called Coyote vs. ACME (because it was a clever premise), and it made me start thinking about Warner Brothers cartoons in general. I noticed that there are three distinct patterns in the protagonist/antagonist dynamic of these short cartoons.

Elmer Fudd/Yosemite Sam(and occasionally the Tasmanian Devil) vs. Bugs Bunny(and to a lesser extent Daffy Duck)
: Bugs Bunny is clearly the hero in these cartoons. While Elmer Fudd usually garners at least a little sympathy, Bugs Bunny is far and away the character you are rooting for. By his own admission, Bugs is a little stinker and a wise guy, so we marvel in watching him outsmart his adversaries and use their own faults against them. Bugs Bunny represents who we want to be... we want to be the one with the quick quip, and the street smarts to get out of any situation and that's why we root for them. His opponents are no match for his wits and that is something we desperately desire in real life as well. I know that Bugs was based at least a little bit on the Br'er Rabbit legend, so those same qualities should indeed be evident.

Sylvester the Cat vs. Tweety Bird/Hippety Hopper(The Baby Kangaroo): Sylvester is a sympathetic character. I mean, we want to like him and we sort of want to see him succeed. But at the same time, because Tweety Bird is so small and Hippety is so cute, well, we don't want to see them as victims either, so unfortunately, Sylvester and his desires to consume or best his opponent will never come to pass. And the reason I know that Sylvester is supposed to at least garner a fair share of the sympathy comes from how he is portrayed outside of these cartoons when he is paired with either Porky Pig or Spike and Chester. He is a lovable loser in the game of life, but we understand why he has to lose... because the odds are slightly against him and that's why we relate to him, and why we love him despite the fact that the character he is currently taking on is also one we don't want to see lose. (OK, truth be told, I am not a huge fan of Tweety Bird but I know that in other circles he is a beloved character). Personally, I'd rather be friends with someone like Sylvester than Tweety, and I am sure, if you really think about it, you probably do have friends like him.

Wile E. Coyote vs. The Road Runner: In any other context, Wile E. Coyote would be a villain, but because of the nature of his folly, we love him. We've all had the experience of crafting an elaborate plan and having it backfire disasterously on us, and we've all strived for a goal which we could never reach. Or we've felt that our genius was never appreciated and that is what Wile represents for us. And look at his prey... a cocky little burst of speed with virtually no personality and no brain, an entity of pure flash and no substance. We've all worked with someone like that. We want to see Wile get the Roadrunner... but it is something we will never see. Wikipedia compared the struggle to Sisyphus, but I think Tantalus is a much better comparison. The Coyote is a hero with no satisfaction, one who goes hungry because he knows what he wants and refuses to give in until he gets what he wants. I mean, characters in novels have that kind of motivation... he isn't a paragon of good, but he is a good paragon nonetheless. In Native American mythology, the coyote was both a figure of humor and inventiveness(and occasionally a buffoon)... which should sound familiar to anyone who has watched a Coyote vs. Roadrunner cartoon.

And when you contrast the character vs. the Road Runner against his battles with Sam the Sheepdog and Bugs Bunny, other facets come out. While he is clever against Sam, the surrounding story makes him out to be just another workin' man, just trying to do a job, and there are no hard feelings when the day is done, and there is a lot of honor in that. And to make him less likable against the very popular Bugs Bunny, they had to add a certain verbal arrogance so you could root against him, but still, that hapless, lovable ineptitude shines through even that facade. To put this whole thing in perspective, Chuck Jones once said, "Wile E. is my reality, Bugs Bunny is my goal."

It wasn't until I thought about it that I realized just how sophisticated these character interactions really were and in noticing it, I see so much more about literature and storytelling as a whole. Perhaps the writers and animators at Warner Brothers gave the American public a lot more credit in their golden age than they may have today.


Mel said...

WB cartoons have always, ALWAYS been my favorite. And Wile E. my favorite of all the characters.
And yes, there are some very intricate, subtle things happening in those 'toons; but the main reason I love Wile E. is because you can feel sorry for him, or, alternately, you can laugh uproariously at the teeny tiny silent *poof* of dust-cloud at the bottom of the cliff.

MC said...

He is all about the sympathy. He is heroic in failure.

Jess said...

Outstanding post! Bugs Bunny is, and always has been, my hero.

MC said...

Because he certainly doesn't take shit from anyone.

Bluesky_Liz said...

I've always liked the predators better than the prey. I hated that poor Sylvester is always being hit on the head with a broom. Poor coyote always looks so hungry.

And I'm more for Daffy than Bugs.

MC said...

See, I like the early Daffy Duck cartoons when he was just off the wall crazy. And I do feel sorry for the hunger of that poor, poor Coyote.

Elly said...

I wish someone would make an alternative cartoon where Slyvester eats Tweety & Wile E. Coyote eats the Road Runner...ahhh one can only dream. I agree with bluesky_liz, the predetors always make me sad when they get injured & they must be so hungry. =[

MC said...

I am sure there have been a few alternative comics that dealt with the issue, under the radar of Warner Bros. but it is unfortunate that they have gain so much power as of late to sue over that kind of thing.

The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy cartoons seem to take this relationship to the extreme, as Scratchy the cat seems to be a wonderful all-around character who is brutally victimized with no provocation by a malicious animal that is further down the cartoon food chain.