Importance of Caricature



This  marvelous comparison of reality versus caricature by the ever creative and humorous Chuck Jones from his autobiographical book, Chuck ReDucks.

Caricature — it’s one of the “12 Animation Principles” if you remember.

My favorite artists in this field are those whose caricature (both in design and performance) is so good, that you start to accept it as the real thing. The devotion to making the work believable is so authentic, it becomes real. Among such artists, the great Chuck Jones comes to mind. So do Charles Schulz, Glen Keane, or Bill Watterson.


Amongst the greatest characters ever created, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes‘ beauty, ingenuity and humor lie it’s in simplicity in design and caricature of real life.

There has been such great technical advancements in 3D digital technology that we’ve become a little too accustomed to and inundated with realism, both in design, story structure and character performance (as evidenced by the copious amount of motion capture and frame by frame duplication of live action reference). I suspect this is just a phase as we grow familiar with (and tire ourselves of) the “realism” eye candy bug, and begin to place our focus back onto to things more substantial, such as originality, beauty and sincerity — the real essences of our medium and of all art.


A very funny moment from the first Toy Story by Pixar. Despite it’s age, it still stands, in my opinion, as one of the best animated films ever due to its originality, story-telling and all-around creativity.

I’ve always believed that this medium’s greatest disadvantage (its limitations in realistic representation and acting performance), is precisely its greatest advantage. Namely, that where it fails in microscopic details in comparison to live action, it’s relatively stronger when it comes to caricature, namely exaggeration in terms of the boundaries of believability.


The 1994 film, The Mask, starring the marvelously creative Jim Carrey, was a tribute to Tex Avery’s Wolf shorts. This character’s rubbery, transformational nature made him really fun and enjoyable to watch in a live action setting.

So, even if hyper-realistic representative art has its place, like in VFX, is it not wiser to continue to explore the medium more creatively, rather than be obsessed with the duplication of reality? Why invest so heavily in that which has such a low rate of return (relatively speaking)? Let live action be live action, let cartoons be cartoons. In the words of Frank Thomas:

“You are in a crude medium. There is no way of getting the refinement, the delicacy you’d like to get.”

Although Frank Thomas’ words referred in part to the limitations of the hand-drawn nature of the medium, I believe they were also referring to the limitations of the kind of subtlety that can be achieved in terms of representation, not so much mere physical “appearance”, but of performance. With the exception of the most capable superstars like Glen Keane or James Baxter, it’s near impossible to deliver the kind of acting that live actors can deliver, at least not on a consistent, convincing basis.


Scene from Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt by James Baxter. Baxter’s acting choices are among the most sincere and believable in the entire industry. His animation skill is so high, that it’s near impossible for others to duplicate such complexity in a medium of simple lines and color.

Although improved storytelling, camera work and animation acting over the years have allowed for more subtle and quiet performances, the beauty of this art form still comes from the juxtaposition of seeing a screwy rabbit delivering a line that we all can understand or enjoy listening to.


The preposterous idea of a rabbit dressed in drag triggering the excitement of human hunter can only work in animation, thanks to Chuck Jones and Warner Bros.

On the flip side, sometimes this implicit “crudeness” gives the world just the right amount of believability,  so that we can relate to it’s characters and understand the deepest, hardest ideas without making it unbearable to absorb or experience, especially to a potentially broader audience. This is most definitely the case in the film, Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata.


One the most powerful films ever produced by the giant of Japanese animation, Ghibli Studio’s Grave of the Fireflies, is a beautiful yet piercing film that deals with the harshest of subjects — the cost of war.

Limitations in the visual believability of a cartoon can be a boon to artists at times, forcing him/her to use cinematic staging and creativity to deliver ideas even more powerfully than if you just “acted it out,” as can be seen in this shot by Bill Tytla:


The love and tenderness displayed in this scene is so heartbreaking and beautiful, that it’s hard to believe there could be a better way to portray those same emotions. From the 1941 Walt Disney Classic, Dumbo, animated by the legendary Bill Tytla.

At other times, animation, in it’s glorious “cartoon” design, can take it somewhere that even live action itself can not go — a platform delivering daring and meaningful messages about life without pandering or melodrama. In Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo’s animated short film, The Dam Keeper, the subject matter of rejection and retaining one’s principles regardless of outside acceptance, would lose it’s power in live action, while at the same time becomes more palpable to younger audiences to savor and absorb, even if only, subconsciously.


The Tonko House production, The Dam Keeper, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film of 2014, is a gorgeous example of the poignancy that can be achieved with caricature in design, color and movement.

So don’t beget the limitations of this art form, for it’s precisely those limitations, regardless how much technology advances, that makes it truly great, and not merely a weaker and cheaper alternative (which it no longer is) to live action cinema. Let’s hope that a positive reception to the releases of films like Pixar’s Inside Out and Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, mark a big return to the more visually imaginative and joyous advantage that this medium offers.