The title of this post might make it sound like this is another “animators are actors with pencils” speech, but it’s about casting characters into roles other than who they were to begin with.
Recently I was reading an essay by Peter Kramer on Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith. Part of his approach was through the idea of “Comedian Comedy”. This is any show where the comedian’s personal style is more important than the character he is playing. Mr. Kramer paraphrases Frank Krutnik:
Comedian comedy is characterized precisely by a fundamental mismatch between the identity of the performer…and the role he assumes within the fiction.
Actors like Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, and Jack Black bring their own distinct personalities to every comic part they play. Audiences come to see the actor do his special thing, rather than understand the nature of the character he’s cast to play. It is a special place in performance. Krutnik writes:
The comedian is marked within the text as having a privileged status compared to the other characters/actors: he is less fictionally integrated and has a relatively disruptive function in relation to the fictional world.
While this is rare in animation, it does happen. I am thinking of Mickey Mouse in a few of his classic shorts, like Gulliver Mickey or The Brave Little Tailor. He played Bob Cratchit in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, along with Scrooge McDuck an the rest of the Disney gang. Mickey’s casting as Bob Cratchit seems a natural direction for him, rather than a mismatch. A more disruptive example would be Daffy Duck playing Robin Hood. He’s clearly not heroic figure to begin with, but that’s part of parody. Cartoon characters are great for parody of classic work. At this point, Star Wars is a classic work, and hats of to Seth MacFarlane for putting his Family Guy cast into it. Please comment if you can recall any other examples.
To be able to do move beyond their origins, characters cannot be too extreme, too specialized. A toy spaceman, a talking car, a one eyed monster, or a superhero are made to fit into unique contexts. It’s easier to create a “Teenage mutant ninja turtle” than a “funny mouse.”