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The Vacuum Issue 10 spacer Issue 10
Wise Beasts Daft Beasts
by Leontia Flynn
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There's an idea that dogs are loyal, cats are cold and, in Enid Blyton stories and Edward Thomas poems, that badgers are ancient and vaguely British. In terms of great fictional beasts though - especially cartoon characters - these biblically fixed personalities are only ever borne out by dogs, who, by and large, tend to play themselves. Lassie, Benjy and the Littlest Hobo never really behaved like anything other than dogs of above average talent, and this was enough.
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Cats, on the other hand, while transparently evil, have had a surprising number of characterisations. Rabbits have also been represented diversely - shrewd and kind of annoying (Bugs Bunny) and, conversely, nice but dim (Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh), the rabbit spectrum ranges from cute and benevolent (Easter Bunny types, bunny girls) to hyperactive and neurotic (Alice in Wonderland) to capable of Great Evil (Watership Down) - but where rabbits are individuals, cats tend to appear in double acts with smaller animals, putting them in danger of stereotyping. Tom and Sylvester are hapless and frustrated when foils to Jerry and the irritating yellow bird. Cats in cartoons like this have slapstick personalities, the opposite of the personalities cats have in life. They are just examples of wishful thinking.
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Wise Beasts Daft Beasts
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It's far better, for both parties, when cats and mice appear in mixed company; this allows them to break out of their binary oppositions and become idiosyncratic. There is the hallucinogenic Cheshire cat and the sleeping doormouse in Alice in Wonderland. This is mirrored in Bagpuss, in which the cat sleeps all the time and the mice, industriously, build a chocolate biscuit factory. Both programs have curiously druggy undertones, but at least depart from the old chasing-each-other-with-bombs routine. It's better still when these animals are entirely independent of each other. Cats, then, get to be literary: Stevie Smith's Cat that Gallops around Doing Good (a likely story), Saki's Tobermorey, the talking cat, and the Practical Cats in Old Possums Book Of -. The downside of the last is the manifestation of cats as Cats: the Musical, although Midnight is an alright song. Mice, meanwhile dominate the cartoon front, with the negative elements here (the anodyne Mickey Mouse and the macho, perverted Mighty Mouse - which should never be shown to children) compensated for by Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, without a cat to typecast, displaces its stereotyping on to Penfold - as in The Wind in the Willows, moles are always supposed to be endearing just because they have tiny eyes.
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Pigs, similarly, are meant to arouse our sympathy just because we eat them. This happens in Babe and Charlotte's Web and, for different reasons, Animal Farm. Piglet from Winnie the Pooh is the exception, and maybe Porky the Pig. Pigs are everyman figures, despite being freakish and terrifying in real life. Horses are either reliable beasts of burden or milestones in middle class female adolescence, as in Animal Farm/ Black Beauty/ My Little Pony. Somewhere between the two is Champion the Wonder Horse - a kind of horse version of Lassie for boys.
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Birds - although not ducks (Daffy, Donald, Orval) or Roosters (Foghorn Leghorn) - are generally depicted as quite bright. The woodpecker bookend in Bagpuss is the academic Professor Yaffle. More normally the bird standard bearers of intelligence are owls. There are all those owls in Harry Potter, and in The House at Pooh Corner, Wol is the only animal who can write - he leaves a sign saying "bakson buzy bakson" (meaning, "back soon, I'm busy, back soon"). 'Owlish', in fact, can mean "looking solemn or wise". In Edward Lear's poem, though, the owl sails away with the pussy cat in a beautiful pea green boat, and that's just naïve.
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Among the more exotic animals, it's the cat family again that hogs all the variety. Panthers, in particular, get a surprisingly good deal despite their likely candidature for hazily photographed local wild-beast-on-the-loose, and can either be crazy dancers (the pink panther) or kindly patrician figures (the Jungle Book). Even The Jungle Book's evil tiger - Sheer Khan, voiced by George Sanders - is counterbalanced by the cutsieness of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, and Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes. On the other hand, Balloo from the Jungle Book suggests that bears tend to be saddled with the role of jolly clown. As with Yogi Bear or Gentle Ben, the emphasis tends to be laid on their loveable (despite deadly) nature.
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When beasts are going to be stereotyped, the ones outside the mammal kingdom - the slimier ones - would seem particularly in danger, but children's t.v. has been kinder to toads than Ireland was. Baron Greenback from Danger Mouse may be the arch villain, but Toad of Toad Hall, from Wind in the Willows, is silly rather than evil, while Gabriel, the toad from Bagpuss, is a charming musical type. Snakes, thanks to a Judeo-Christian hegemony are almost never good - apart from a happy dancing one, who helped pronounce the letter 's', in a cartoon I've forgotten or possibly made up.
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Wise Beasts Daft Beasts
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