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Ashley Long  |  6/5/2019 4:50:44 PM

How do beloved cartoon characters compare to their real-life counterparts?

By Dr. Ashley M. Long

Animals have played a key role in American animation since the early 1900s when cartoonist Winsor McCay released films such as “How a Mosquito Operates” (1912) and “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), and Paramount Pictures distributed “Feline Follies” (1919 to 1921), the first cartoon series to feature Felix the Cat, one of the most famous animated characters of the 20th century. The incredible success of these motion pictures spurred what historians now call the Golden Age of Animation. This entertainment era spanned from the 1920s to the 1960s and produced thousands of 5- to 10-second shorts, feature films, television shows and commercial advertisements, many of which highlighted animals as their lead characters, including Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Pink Panther, Dumbo, Bambi and many more.

One of my absolute favorite cartoons from this period is “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends” (also known as “Rocky and His Friends,” “The Bullwinkle Show,” “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and “Rocky and Bullwinkle”). The original series, created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, included 156 episodes that ran twice a week from 1959 to 1964 on the ABC and NBC television networks, where it became one of the highest-rated programs of its time. The title characters of the show included Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel, a flying squirrel, and his best friend, Bullwinkle J. Moose. The pair were forever coming up with new inventions, getting into mischief, saving the world and trying to outrun notorious superspies, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Today, the show and its memorable characters can be seen in many formats, including live-action movies, advertisements for fast food chains and insurance companies, and as computer-generated reboots on subscription-based channels. But, in my opinion, nothing beats the original!

Given widespread viewership of classic cartoons like “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” animators who created popular series have contributed to the way we view wildlife through their portrayals of stereotyped animal behavior, just as the animator’s observations of animals likely influenced the development of their characters. For example, in film and on television, dogs like Astro (“The Jetsons”) and Scooby-Doo are often characterized as dim-witted but loyal, while cats like the Cheshire Cat (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Lucifer (“Cinderella”) are often characterized as mischievous and up to no good. We can also see examples where animated characters look very similar to their real-life counterparts (e.g., Figaro the Cat from “Pinocchio”), while others are depicted with colors, patterns or clothing that is unlikely to occur outside the animated world, such as Hanna-Barbera’s Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Snagglepus.

In the next few installments of Timber Tales, we’ll take a closer look at how our beloved cartoon characters compare to their real-life counterparts, starting with the southern flying squirrel, one of three flying squirrel species native to North America that is found in woodlands throughout the eastern United States, including Louisiana. Can southern flying squirrels really fly? Would they ever cohabitate with other animals? Do they make noise as they are traveling around the forest canopy? Stay tuned to learn the answers to these questions and more!

— Ashley M. Long is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the AgCenter.

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