Animated Acting: Playing the Trickster

If you are looking to create a fun animated character with a strong visual acting style, consider the trickster.

I recently re-watched the 2013 Chinese film, Journey To The West.  It’s directed by Stephen Chow, who is my favorite working film maker.  The story involves a young demon hunter, and one of the demons he sets out to find is the classic character from Chinese folklore, the Monkey King.  The Monkey King is a trickster, and the actor portraying him here gives an excellent example of how a trickster acts.  Tricksters are not necessarily good or evil, but are almost always self serving.  The trickster is false.  The trickster has no reliable character to play, he acts in whatever way he thinks will serve his purposes.  The character falls outside the bounds of what is commonly seen in modern cinema. They are ancient characters, and will always have the potential to be entertaining.

In this movie, the Monkey King has been caught and imprisoned in a cave by Buddha.  His goal is to escape. When the young demon hunter enters, the Monkey King first sets out to win his confidence.  I really like his movement in this first clip.  His excessively graceful posing and gestures are a classical way of demonstrating good character.  His goal is to get the young man to take away the seal that prevents him from leaving. (BTW, the dubbed voice is awful, try to watch movement and not think about that.)


The young man is too simple and kind to fall for the trick.  He is not suspicious at all, he just doesn’t do what’s expected.  When the first trick fails, the Monkey King then tries to intimidate him with tall tales. His demeanor turns serious and threatening.


Again, the trick fails. The young man isn’t easily frightened, which is why has no reluctance to be a demon hunter.  After that scene, the Monkey King tries to escape, but the magic holding him in causes him to be painfully whipped by the clinging vines.  As he is down, he turns to acting pathetic, to win sympathy.


The pretty girl that just showed up has a strong romantic interest in the young man.  The Monkey King now has someone else to try to trick into helping.  So he resorts acting like a flirting man in a disco trying to win over the pretty girl.  Again, his physical acting is very strong.


The next clip is a spoiler, in case you are interested in how this section of the movie turns out.

Finally, the Monkey King simply mentions that he hasn’t seen the full moon in centuries.  The young man chooses to do a good deed for him.  At that point, we see the Monkey Kings true character.


I am not the first person to point out that one of animations greatest characters, Bug Bunny, is a trickster.  All the trickster needs someone to trick. Where the Monkey King had the young demon hunter, Bugs Bunny  had Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, or some other dupe.  To be in control, Bugs has been known to act like he is dead or dying:

He has pretended to be someone he’s not.

Sometimes he’s dressed in drag.

He will be pathetic if it might help.

He has even resorted to begging.

The trickster is a fun character who has over acting built into his or her style.  You don’t have to hold back.  The antagonist can also have interesting reactions, as seen above.  We need more tricksters.  How deep is your bag of tricks?


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