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Anthropomorphism in Disney Movies

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2320 words Published: 13th Jun 2017

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In the Disney world, not only can inanimate objects become alive, but life is expected of them. (Field, 1945:57). The depiction of animals and objects has played an important role in the world of Disney and is central to its oeuvre. The relationship with nature has become the source of inspiration, taking one back to the fantasies in which imagination and reality merge together to create a divine cosmos where animals speak, plants and trees act consciously and inanimate objects feel emotion. Disney transports us to a universe free from time and space, where one can retain their lost youth and enter a place of adventure harping back to an imaginary world only a child can behold. Disney successfully endows animate and inanimate objects with energy of their own, associating them with human nature, suggested by their profile or purpose:

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Here everything becomes so splendidly relative- a beetle lumbering along with heavy self-importance becomes a great big fellow… and immediately assumes the role of some diminutive little creature darting about with playful determination to outwit the other’s stupidity… What, for instance, is to an enlightened soul more obvious than an insect orchestra?… And for instruments? Well, why were flowers shaped like trumpets? (Field, 1945:56)

To relate to the animal world is an impulse that has occurred throughout history, first recorded in hieroglyphics and ancient Palaeolithic cave paintings most notably the Lascaux caves which depicts the everyday occurrences and encounters between the species of human and beast in their natural surroundings and environment, preserving history. From a historical perspective, the use of anthropomorphism has been apparent within entertainment for centuries in particular vaudeville, but mostly through illustration. Illustrative literary sources have proved widely influential to animated film acting as a vehicle to enhance form and style. Artists such as Ernest Griset, John Tenniel, Honoré Daumier and Arthur Rackman previously interpreted animals in their work and the Disney animators praised their ability to caricature society and human behaviour. Titles such as Aesop’s Fables and the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine were illustrated by J.J Grandville and later by Gustav Doré with many well known fables and follies being re-used in Disney.

The story-telling aspect of animals that possess the power to talk, comment and become intertwined with human characteristics compliment a fable creating a timeless contribution to literary tradition. It is important to protect and renew these stories as they continue to be popular and act as a bridge between young and old. Robin Allan notes that ‘as humanity has become less dependent on animals for its day-to-day life, this century has seen an increase in the anthropomorphic impulse, from Beatrix Potter in the nineteen hundreds to Kermit the Frog in the nineteen eighties’ (Allan, 1999:20).

Over time, animals have progressed from being regarded as work animals to being ones of domestication, bestowed with quasi-human qualities.

Disney was intrigued by the miniature worlds of insects and animals and aspired to seek out the understandings of character and personality in order to perfect movement believably, exaggerating the traits and features of humans and creating a likeness to a person’s appearance. Disney’s concern with the caricature urged him to study personality because for him, it was the action that held great importance. Disney summarised in 1935:

The first duty of the cartoon is not picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen, but to give a caricature of life and action. The point must be made clear to the men that our study of the actual is not so that we may be able to accomplish the actual, but so that we may have a basis upon which to go into the fantastic, the unreal, the imaginative – and yet to let it have a found of fact, in order that it may more richly possess sincerity and contact with the public “I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real unless we first know the real. (Disney, cited in Watts, 2002: 108)

There is a huge amount of emphasis on the elements of a picture being not a mere representation but an individual that can step out of the page, talk to you and be alive. What became known as ‘hyperrealism’ meant that each character became more aware of their bodies, encompassing its own personality in which the illustrators must learn and understand; ‘Mickey is “not a mouse, but a person.” The story crew will psychoanalyse each character, and from each man’s suggestion will evolve on paper a character with defined proportions and mannerisms’ (Hollister, 1994: 26). Walt Disney encouraged the study of movement through the establishment of an art school. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand et al, 1937) focused more on fantasy, with endearing little animals, however in Bambi the artists had to get closer to nature, and were trained in animal locomotion and anatomy with live animals being brought into the studio and artists being sent out on field trips to zoos and the natural environment (De Roos, 1994: 56).

By observing traits and mannerisms of the living and combining it with animal characteristics, artists could also look deeper into the action; unearthing mood, personality and attitude, to create a character that would be adored by the spectator in which Steven Watts describes as ‘personality animation’ (Watts, 2002: 108). This style of animation became a trademark for Disney and allowed figures to enjoy freedom from restraint. Sergei Eisenstein, Soviet filmmaker and theorist likens Disney’s work with totemism, in which humans have an embedded spiritual affinity with animals or plants:

In Disney’s works’ animals substitute for people. The tendency is the same: a displacement, an upheaval, a unique protest against the metaphysical immobility of the one-an-forever given. It’s interesting that the same kind of ‘flight’ into animal skin and the humanization of animals is apparently characteristic for many ages, and is especially sharply expressed as a lack of humaneness in systems of social government and philosophy. (Leyda, 1988:33)

Animals are represented as spiritual beings, linking them closely to the world of humans, but their natural detachment and own sense of personal worldliness creates a barrier. Referring back to the plasmaticness of the animated form, Eisenstein focuses on the metaphorical role of the animal story in which the animals renounce authority. During the era of the American depression, the theme song, Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? from the short Three Little Pigs became an iconic anthem. David E. James discussed Eisenstein’s views on Disney’s early work:

Disney’s films were then a lyrical, limitlessly imaginative revolt against the disciplinary regimes of the capital, against the big grey wolf who “in America is behind every corner, behind every counter, on the heels of every person” especially those of the working class. (James, 2005: 271)

There is an emphasis on the importance of cartoons and animated animals being able to liberate humanity from the woes of life, representing a certain freedom and acting as a vehicle to make statements be it political or cultural. The concept of ‘the real’ gave animation the possibilities to explore and expand the peripheries of fictional space. Eisenstein explored the appeal of the ‘plasmatic’ and the flexibility of animals and objects with the ability to change and reanimate at will. ‘The very idea…of the animated cartoon is like a direct embodiment of the method of animism…And thus, what Disney does is connected with one of the deepest traits of man’s early psyche’ (Leyda, 1988: 129). Eisenstein focuses on Merbabies (1938) in which animals substitute for other animals, in this case fish are substitutes for mammals; ‘An octopus with four legs, a fifth as a tail, a sixth as a trunk. This is a reconstruction of the world…according to fantasy. You tell an octopus: be an elephant, and the octopus becomes an elephant. You tell the sun: “Stop!” – and it stops’ (Leyda, 1988: 3). Sergei Eisenstein was overwhelmed by Disney’s appeal and his mastery, with his ability to perfect technologically but also to understand the inner psyche of human thoughts, feelings and ideas. Eisenstein believed that these hand drawn cartoons were a metaphor for human liberation, reviving the passion and everlasting power of youth when people still aspired to become ‘whatever they wish’ (Leyda, 1988: 21).

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As the world had to endure the oppressions of daily life, cartoon shorts acted as a popular art form, filled with gags and comedic performances by animals acting as a ‘comic relief and morale-raiser-in-chief…The cartoon animal could always bounce back’ (Wells, 2009: 13). The Disney narratives establish a moral paradigm that offer a fairy tale happy ending with the victory of good over evil, whilst still having to struggle with trials and tribulations along the way. This classic formula presented by the Disney Studio allows an anthropomorphic animal to engage and communicate with the viewer with narratives symbolic of the unavoidable vicissitudes humans have to endure in life. Wells demonstrates this:

…characterised by initial establishing of spring or time of new birth or community ritual, normally followed by a rupture in this apparent calm and continuity, prompting a new journey. The character finds new friends, and through adventures, trial and suffering, overcoming major challenges, resolves any schisms and overcomes. Community is restored, main character completes journey and is advanced spiritually and practically. (Wells, 2009: 124)

Through anthropomorphism, animation uses the act of performance by animals to challenge how we perceive ourselves. Through Disneyfication, the Disney films address a family audience, combining visual pleasure with mature themes whilst still entertaining and educating. Paul Wells suggests there is a ‘moral ecology’ within the Disney narratives. For example in Bambi, ‘it’s assumed…that wild animals inhabit a moral universe and that people would do well to emulate the innate morality- the natural law- of the wild’ (Wells, 2009: 76). Humans seek out a mutual understanding by use of adapting a moral ecology with the animal.

Disney instructed his workers to uncover the subconscious of the viewer in order to bring to life the feelings, fantasies and dreams that each of us has had at some point during life. Steven Watts notes that ‘a preoccupation with the dream state in Disney’s early films triggered a fusion of intellect and emotion, superego and id’ (Watts, 2002: 108) to the extent that audiences forget their extraordinary beginnings. The animated film draws human and animal into the same unconscious, primal remit in which both adult and child are reconciled with the specifities of the animated filrm, and this is through spectacle. Steven Wells explains:

“it is important, then, to once again consider what is distinctive about animated depictions of such animals, and in amore specific sense this seems to lie in the relationship between inherent primal connections between humankind and animal and the ways in which animation can formally and self consciously predicate its design and motion to recall such connections. These essentially operate in two ways- as a model of empathy through juvenilisation and interrogative awe, played out through spectacle.” (Wells, 2009: 81)

There is arguably an association between childhood and animalism, and the fantasy that is offered to us through culture, whether it is through toys, circuses or children’s literature. Animals often had a very special place during childhood with anthropomorphism being the result of this alliance. Richard deCordova observes that animalisation in the world of children holds a powerful purpose as it associates the child with nature and thus establishing their innocence and their detachment from the overpowering elements that corrupt the fabric of social life:

“The child’s relationship with nature and association with innocence on the one hand and primitivist vitality of the other could be effectively concretized through symbolic procedures that linked the child to animals.” (deCordova, 1994: 211).

Not only are children being bound with nature, they are intertwined with a basic, primal kinship with animals. The innocence of youth is illustrated through animation by awarding each character with juvenile characteristics bringing together both child and animal. With animals and children, hierarchy is flattened and the two can act as equals, to the point where children are more compatible, emotionally and spiritually alike to animals than to their adult peers.

Animation creates a model for which through the factors of change, the affiliation between the two species can be explored. Animated characters can chose who they want to be: animal or human, innocent or rebellious of neither of these. They can act as a representational aid to address issues that could not easily be addressed directly and because of the form in which they are presented, it is generally accepted. Anthropomorphic films unify both man and animal, enabling a relationship unachievable in reality, in the same way literature has done before it.

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