The magic of animation film lies in brining fantasy to life. Illustrators and animators capitalize on representational versatility to critique and parody reality so as to challenge social norms and engage audiences. Animation’s continuous process of erasing and reconstructing images and characters mimics the imaginative and playful realm of childhood to create a world of endless possibilities.
One of the ways animation transforms imagination into reality is by utilizing and developing animal characters. Haven’t you ever wondered why animals are so prevalent and essential in animated features? Or why every human protagonist has a pet animal?
Some say that animal characters are the best ways to engage the audiences, appeal to their childhood memories, and challenge social norms. Animal characters are a great source of entertainment and a good way to elicit compassion and convey powerful messages to a broad audience.
To fully understand this phenomenon, here’s a list of reasons why authors and illustrators make a deliberate decision to include animal characters in their narratives.
Animal characters help the narrative
Illustrators use animals to tackle challenging topics. By personifying animals, animation studios can supplement their narratives, provide space for comedy, and reconcile the challenges associated with representing adult behavior. Fictitious animal behavior helps address sensitive issues that might otherwise trigger unfavorable reactions. What’s more, when crafted well, animal characters offer emotional distance from difficult topics such as pain, violence, reticence, fear, and death.
By escaping the rigors imposed by the natural and rational world, on-screen animals can be easily adapted to convey the desired meaning of the story. Such characters lend themselves easily to tales with morals because their circumstances and characteristics are open to manipulation to achieve a storyteller’s narrative goal. Overall, illustrators utilize animal characters to suspend disbelief at the action and focus on the development of the plot.
We can relate and identify
Humans and animals enjoy a primal connection that enables society to find animals appealing, a phenomenon that crosses over to on-screen animals. Animals have always been central to human survival and have been cherished throughout human history. The human connection with and attachment to animals continues to resonate through society even today, especially through animation.
World-renowned neurologist, Sigmund Freud, hypothesized that children saw themselves as equal to animals, finding human adult behavior more confusing and less relatable than the actions of animals. Much like children, animals are instinctual and their emotions are simple and pure. Illustrators and animators seek to appeal to a child’s emotional connection to animals when developing a movie.
Furthermore, animal characters become universally relatable as they transcend limiting markers such as race, gender, and nationality. They float free of such labels and, therefore, can bring the benefits of a clean slate to their role. Delinking human identity from a character’s personality and existence allows audiences to easily identify and connect with the character.
In addition, the metaphorical nature of these characters opens up the possibility of different readings, allowing the work to “speak” to every child and adult personally. This is not to say that gender and racial stereotypes do not persist among animal characters as they do mirror human culture, but their animalistic traits often make for easier interpretation and appeal.
Raising awareness and empathy
For children, animation serves as a window to the outside world and helps shape their values and raise their awareness. Animations reflect a fantasy world adults and children idealize and, for this reason, illustrators often use on-screen animals to convey social messages and inspire change.
Research has indicated that many children prefer animal stories to stories with human characters. Authors and illustrators, therefore, make deliberate decisions to include animal characters in their stories and to put them to use in a purposeful distortion of reality. By enabling direct communication with the environment around them, children are encouraged to place themselves in the shells of these characters, to see through their eyes and to think in their stead. Essential lessons on love, pain, friendship, sharing and respect are gleaned in the process.
Animation studios develop animal characters to elicit empathy and compassion for the world around us. Authors highlight specific and relatable character traits in order to appeal to human emotions and vulnerabilities.
Personhood is Universal
Humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood or individuality. Animation studios employ animal imagery to illustrate that a character doesn’t have to be human to be brave and to defend what is right.
Pixar movies have, at least, one main character that is not human but possesses human levels of intelligence. What makes the message of these films so powerful is the partnering of non-human and human
characters when they recognize a shared sense of purpose. In combining forces, the team has both non-human and human enemies who reject and condemn their behavior. These movies employ animal characters to demonstrate the importance of personhood for all living creatures. Through these films, these otherwise strange non-human entities become unmistakably familiar and akin to us.
As previously discussed, animal characters in animation films are used in a very decisive way. They can be used as an image of satire to appeal to adults or as an image of ‘silliness’ or ‘cuteness’ to appeal to children.
Historically, animal characters were used exclusively for humor. The differences and similarities between these characters and humans offer great opportunities for mediation through humor. Illustrators use exaggeration to create an enjoyable and visually stimulating experience of levity and play. Children, for example, recognize and relate to the ridiculousness and incongruity of animal characters.
Love them or hate them, you just cannot ignore them. Animal characters are here to stay in animation films and will continue educating and entertaining children and adults alike for generations to come.