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Animatsiya in English

Why we prefer Eastern European cartoons

Why we prefer Eastern European cartoons

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drawing, old man
Amid from Cartoon Brew recently posted about "Music Box with a Secret", which I talked about a few days ago. In the ensuing discussion, a poster named Nicholas wrote what I think is a pointed summary of the difference in characterization between the animation in the West and in Eastern Europe:

Well, my love for many of the Eastern European cartoons and lack of it for the majority of the American ones has more to do with the characters. In many Eastern European films (not in this one, which I find unpleasant) the characters feel like charming, warm, imperfect, amusing, thinking and feeling creatures with a complex set of qualities that makes them a great companion. As a child I would love to have a creature like this for a friend. American characters always look like they are trying too hard to be entertaining, and I would prefer to keep away from somebody like that. They are egocentric, demanding, hyperactive, loud, over the top, in your face caricatures who might occasionally be funny but nobody in their right mind would want to spend any time with such a nuisance in real life. They look like they would be pulling your hair and screaming in your face and forcing you to do ridiculous things. So whether it’s the Incredibles or Duffy Duck, or Family Guy, I often watch them with mixed feelings of amusement and certain distaste, as one would watch a circus clown, kind of: do your tricks, some of them are funny, but please don’t get too close. So my point is that of course all is a matter of taste, but unlike what somebody said about having a sense that “Eastern European cartoons were made with the expectation that no one was watching”, they WERE made for an audience, but a different audience.

This is indeed a defining trait of most Soviet cartoon heroes. Some popular examples (subtitled): Cheburashka (films 1, 2, 3, 4), The Kitten Named Woof (films 1, 2, 5), Buttermilk Village (films 1, 2). Characters are more likely to be vulnerable and kind than stylish and showy. This began to change in the 1980s with films such as Tatarskiy's "The Koloboks Investigate" and Cherkasskiy's "Treasure Island" (part 1, part 2), which were more circus-like. Tatarskiy's first choice of profession was actually to work in the circus.

There is another difference that is more universal. To make it clear, I will begin by quoting Paul Wells' classification of the cartoon body from his 1998 book Understanding Animation, p.188-9:

-The body is malleable - it may be stretched over long distances, be compressed or extended, take the shape of another form, fit into incompatible spaces, etc.
-The body is fragmentary - it can be broken into parts, reassembled and conjoined with other objects and materials.
The body is a contextual space - it can be a physical environment in itself, which may be entered into and used as if it were ostensibly hollow.
-The body is a mechanism - it may be represented as if it were a machine [in either the literal or Deleuzian sense].
-The body has impossible abilities (i.e., it can fly, lift heavy objects, experience violence without pain, etc.).
-The body directly expresses explicit emotions (i.e. it fragments in surprise, contorts in terror, etc.)
-Bodies of humans/animals/creatures which are apparently incompatible are rendered equable in size, strength, ability etc.
-Bodies may re-determine the physical orthodoxies of gender and species.

These apply to much American animation. None of these traits except for the last two are typical of Soviet animation. (Tatarskiy's 1981 cartoon "Plasticine Crow" was revolutionary precisely for the reason that it did have the other traits)

I remember not liking “Looney Tunes” very much when I first experienced it as a kid (I started out watching only Russian cartoons) for basically the reason that the characters were not “real” to me; I could not believe in them. They broke the laws of physics, got sawed in half, even died, and were back the next frame as if nothing had happened. No consequences, no progression, the next scene always a reset button.

This never happens in Soviet animation, no matter how modern the art direction is. If someone falls, they get hurt. If someone dies, that’s it. There are consequences to actions. Even the popular “Nu, pogodi!” series is like this, which is its main difference from “Tom and Jerry”, to which it is often compared.

As a bit of an aside... maybe this explains (or is explained by) the never-ending American optimism for new beginnings. “The past is past”. Elect a new president and everything will be fixed… and after he does an awful job, believe the same thing about the next one. “I can stop any time I want to”, etc.
  • from nicholas

    Ha! I was maybe hoping my comment would provoke some minor defensive response from an american cartoon lover with at the best, but to be quoted...!!!
    I like your observation about the freedom from physics and consequences in American animation, and the suggested relation to the American optimism. It seems to me that animation creators from the two sides had different ideas about serving their audiences in mind. Eastern European animation is often about feeling and serves as some kind of consolation, as if keeping in mind that people watching it have emotional needs and are familiar with the concept of pain and suffering, and don't take it lightly. American animation is created for a purpose of entertainment only, satisfying no emotional needs, as if implying that you guys (audience) have no real problems, we are just here to save you from boredom.
    • Re: from nicholas

      Yet another very pointed observation, Nicholas...

      To me, it seems like the chicken-and-egg question - did these cartoons influence the culture, or was it the other way around - or (probably) was it a kind of positive feedback loop? There is indeed a cultural trend here in the West - talking about problems ("pain and suffering") is NOT DONE in polite company. Everyone asks "how are you?", and the only acceptable answer is "good". The idea is that if you put on a kind of fake happiness, that fake happiness becomes real. And so you get the American parenting technique of cheery deceit:

      ^ when that kid is older, he is going to smile, too. ;)

      Ironically, the result of that relentless forced cheerfulness is a vicious callousness that can be seen everywhere in art and conversation, in which any tragedy can be the brunt of a joke. Because mockery is the path of least resistance - other feelings have not been given as much practice, and their expression becomes awkward. The Road Runner cartoons derive almost their entire humour from vicious schadenfreude. Even in more varied, recent animation such as 'The Simpsons', the default reaction is mockery - and when a character says or does something heartfelt, the show will mock them for it as often as not.

      A brilliant commentary on this was done by Polish animator Alek Wasilewski in his short film, "Smile": http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/165898
      • Re: from nicholas

        [blockquote]when that kid is older, he is going to smile, too. ;)[/blockquote]
        We hope!

        It's quite an interesting thought you put in here between the differences in Eastern European animation versus it's American counterparts when it comes to feelings over entertainment. I sometimes get tired of the sort of tropes we have been brought up with in our culture and often go for stories that offer consequences and progression myself.
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