The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons And Culture by Paul Wells (book review)

For those who are looking at the title, ‘The Animated Bestiary: Animals, Cartoons And Culture’ and wondering what ‘bestiary’ means, it’s the examination of animals. In this case, animated animals and, especially in its origins in the early cartoons and why they were favoured instead of humans was it being easier to animate. For those of you who remember my reviewing of another animation book a while back and the prince in Disney’s ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarves’ being reduced in scenes because he didn’t look ‘realistic’ tends to illustrate that problem. Even so, writer Paul Wells points out that not all animals look good standing on two legs and uses cows as an having an udder problem. Thinking about it, I can’t recall many bulls standing on two feet neither. Likewise, later Disney films such as Bambi’ (1941), ‘Lady And The Tramp’ (1955) and ‘One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ (1961) went back to animals on four legs, well except for Bumper but rabbits do have two options.

Using animated animals as a metaphor isn’t hard to spot but they also can be shared across cultures as well. Wells points out how certain animals have more human-like facial features making it easier for association. Considering how we give human characteristics to animals anyway, why should that be surprising? Thinking about that, you do have to wonder why rodents are thought of as sly when both rats and mice actually have bulbous eyes so shapes of the face are also important. I did have a further ponder and there was a bout of animation shorts with caricatures of famous actors of the time that seems to have side-stepped this as well. I suspect the real problem is realistic humans. As Wells quotes from Chuck Jones, if you want real people then you shouldn’t be doing to animation.

I’m glad Wells referred to Hallas & Bachelor’s animated film ‘Animal’ Farm’ (1954) and how it was the aesthesis of the Disney culture but animation was finding its way at the time, especially with other companies versus the Mouse company that was swamping everything else out. ‘Animal Farm’ moved totally away from humour but into political metaphor and aimed at adults than children. Thing is, I doubt if George Orwell’s book could have been filmed in any other way and no other animation house has tried to better it since.

I’m less sure if Wells gets it about Bugs Bunny, especially when he took on the Hildebrand female role as in ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ but then he should have as we British don’t find it unusual for men to be in drag in theatre and panto productions. I should point out that Wells is British so a bit puzzled on this. Bugs Bunny was also the master of quick disguise, something you wouldn’t catch others from the Warner Bros stable.

I do find it odd that some of Wells’ animation examples aren’t available to buy because there is no way to check his assertions, although he does provide some samples of the art. He does look at the opening animation credits of ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’ (1996) as created by Richard Williams using animal symbols of different countries. After I finished reading the book, I did have another ponder as to any influential examples he could have included and that had to be ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) and their animal likenesses were because they were drawn that way.

In some respects, I think occasionally it would have helped had Wells had shifted a little from university stance and gone a little more tongue-in-cheek on some aspects. Using anthropomorphic animals can also be used for fun and slapstick that you would have frowned on if humans had done. Think of that with the likes of Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner.

Wells does make a useful point that cartoon characters have appeal across different countries and easily recognised although under different names. However, I do think he needed to have balanced this out and see if any human-looking animation figures were just as easily recognised. It isn’t as though he didn’t touch on Aardman Animation.

There aren’t many books out there dealing with this subject so if you want some inside knowledge of cartoon animal popularity, then you will learn from something from this book.

GF Willmetts

June 2017

(pub: Rutgers University Press. 223 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £23.95 (UK), $23.53 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8135-4415-1)

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