Yesterday I began to contemplate specific aspects of character development in animation and my musings have turned into a series of articles—namely, analyzing which animated characters from history are the most fascinating. First, as any Socratic thinker knows, I have to define my terms: by fascinating characters, I mean interesting—in and of themselves. These characters attract as much attention—or more—than the plot, itself. They are like disco balls (or train wrecks in some cases)—you can’t not watch them.
One rule I gave myself was to choose from animated characters not derived from literature explicitly. For example, Alice from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, wasn’t chosen because it’s hard to decide who deserves credit for Alice’s fascinating nature, Disney or Lewis Carroll. This little list of mine is hardly definitive or exhaustive since I haven’t seen every animated film and I keep changing my mind, but it is still a good list and I hope you enjoy the countdown. I’m going to release all 10 as separate essays and I expect my number one selection to be highly controversial and surprising.
NUMBER 10: Norman Babcock (ParaNorman, Laika, 2012)
In full disclosure, I am trying to spread the love around to different animation companies for this list because my tendency would be to pick all Disney and Pixar characters, but I know that really wouldn’t be fair or accurate. Laika is a weird, amazing studio that has put out three solid (and disturbing) stop-motion feature films. Their sophomore effort, ParaNorman, introduces us to Norman, a boy who can talk to dead people and who I find to be one of the most fascinating characters in animation history. He is looked at as a freak and is tormented for being morbid and weird, (which he genuinely is with his obsession over zombies and horror films) but there is so much sincerity and bravery in Norman, that he is impossible to discount.
Norman is a kind, thoughtful character, which right off the bat is not ordinary for animated children. Normally, child protagonists have to learn hefty coming-of-age life lessons about selflessness and humility, but Norman is living such a strange life that he has already gotten past his selfish brat phase (if he had one) when we meet him. He is friendly and compassionate with the living and the dead. He isn’t like Cole in The Sixth Sense, who is terrified of his ghostly accompaniments—Norman communicates with them openly, even the dead animals. He also handles himself with meekness and calmness when bullied, which shows maturity far beyond his years.
Besides his laudable nature, Norman also shows extreme bravery in intense situations. At one point, he has to remain calm while being hurled headfirst into trees in the forest by a crazy witch; at another he is being attacked by the corpses of the men who killed her. The darkness of the film definitely pushes the target audience a bit beyond the standard Disney age, and we encounter so many frightening visuals of death and the supernatural, that it is fascinating simply to watch an animated young boy handle himself so well. His final encounter with the witch of Blithe Hollow is incredibly thought-provoking and emotional for a film, cartoon or not.
Norman is also fascinating for his bizarre character design. He fits in with all of Laika’s purposely unappealing characters, (they seem not to agree with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston about that being an important principle of animation) except his face is filled with genuinely appealing emotion. His ears stick out to the side like a monkey and his eyebrows and hair are excessive to say the least, but you grow to love it all by the end. His best friend, Neil, is also unappealing and weird, but it is only through Norman that we begin to care about that character.
ParaNorman is a fun, frightening film with odd, creepy turns. I admit that I did not initially care for it (whereas our Editor Marc Vibbert absolutely loves it). After watching it again and really taking in what the filmmakers accomplished, I think Norman is an exceptionally fascinating character. He maintains enough relatable fear and anxiety that we don’t see him as fake as a video game character, but he also exudes sweetness, creativity and heroism that land him on this prestigious Top Ten List.
Coming Soon: Top Ten Most Fascinating Animated Characters – Number 9