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Why Is It So Difficult to Make Cute Cartoon Characters?

Over on question-and-answer website Quora, someone posted a very simple question: Which is the cutest cartoon character ever created? The answers from Quora members cover a broad spectrum, some more obvious (Tweety, Pokemon, Pooh) and others less so (Gertie the Dinosaur, Night Fury from How to Train Your Dragon).

So what makes a cartoon character cute? You could reduce the answer down to a few basic characteristics: big eyes and head, fluffiness, warmth and chubbiness. “Cuteness is based on the basic proportions of a baby plus the expressions of shyness or coyness,” wrote Preston Blair in Advanced Animation. According to Blair, other cute traits include:

  • Head large in relation to the body.
  • Eyes spaced low on the head and usually wide and far apart.
  • Fat legs, short and tapering down into small feet for type.
  • Tummy bulges—looks well fed.

But cuteness is far more complex than even Blair’s set of rules; some consider E.T., Yoda and WALL·E to be the epitome of cute, despite their furless, odd appearances. Cuteness and a character’s perceived hugability aren’t always determined by aesthetic appeal. “Cuteness is distinct from beauty,” wrote Natalie Angier for The New York Times. “Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap.”

In essence, any creature deemed cute is one that speaks to our nurturing instincts. The cuteness of an infant can motivate an adult to take care of it, even if the baby is not a blood relation. Even more, studies have found that humans transfer these same emotions to animals (or even inanimate objects) that bear our similar features. Finding Nemo combined all of these psychological elements perfectly—you can’t hug or cuddle a fish, yet adorable Nemo, with his fin damaged from birth and his human-like facial features, appeals to our caregiving instincts. In fact, every character in Pixar films, whether it’s a clownfish or a car, features forward-facing eyes, the most crucial feature for achieving an emotional connection with the audience.

But with any extreme comes another. If a character is too cute and sugary sweet, the audience can develop skepticism. “Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, ‘Let’s not worry about complexities, just love me,'” philosopher Denis Dutton told The New York Times. It is for that very reason cuteness stirs uneasiness and sometimes feels cheap.

After all, the adorable, smiling face of a child can hide the havoc he just wreaked by breaking all of his toys. “Cuteness thus coexists in a dynamic relationship with the perverse,” writes Daniel Harris in his book Cute, Quaint, Hungry And Romantic: The Aesthetics Of Consumerism. You could call this the Gremlin Effect—a character with an underlying creepiness. Troll dolls (which were recently acquired by DreamWorks Animation) and Cabbage Patch Kids are the inexplicable result of this paradox.

There’s no denying a cultural need to pigeonhole and perfect the attributes that could be popularly deemed cute. In his fantastic short essay on Mickey Mouse, biologist and historian Stephen Jay Gould asserts that Mickey’s changing appearance over time is a physical evolution that mirrors cultural attitudes toward cuteness. As the Benjamin Button of animated rodentia, Mickey’s eyes and head have grown larger, his arms and legs chubbier. Mickey has become more childlike and, most would say, more cute and less rat-like. Mickey isn’t the only character to undergo this transformation. The teddy bear, first sold in 1903, started out anatomically similar to a real bear, with a long snout and gangly arms. Today’s teddy bears more closely resemble the Care Bears, with pudgier features and colorful fur.

Audience don’t always need Mickey’s goofy grins and huge eyes to connect with a character’s cuteness. Pictoplasma, the artists’ network and conference that celebrates characters extracted from context, reveals how sometimes it’s our own invented narrative that blasts a character into hall-of-fame cuteness. As Pictoplasma co-founder Peter Thaler said explains, “It’s a horrible example, but Hello Kitty has no facial expression. You don’t know if she’s happy or sad; you just see these two dots. You’re projecting all the narration, the biography.”

Our ideals of cuteness continue to evolve, a trajectory in visual culture that has birthed Hello Kitty and Japan’s kawaii movement, Giga Pets, Furby, Elmo and Slimer. Often the most exciting, memorable cute characters are the ones who bear negative traits that reveal the vulnerability. Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel from Ice Age, is adorable and loved by audiences even more for his greed. Cuteness, perhaps then, is not just about an objective set of physical features—it’s also about a behavior that compels audiences and connects us emotionally to the character.

  • Shazbot

    Certainly the “cute” factor has helped spawn the popularity of the current “My Little Pony” TV series – although its designs aren’t just cute, they’re clean and contemporary, giving them a maturity “Hello Kitty” could never claim. As for Mickey, he evolved too much, eventually losing his childlike bouncy energy in favor of a pedestrian sleekness. I’m really really happy with his “new” look in the shorts Disney is currently working on. He looks like himself again, but with the contemporary edge the aforementioned Ponies have. I have to hand it to Disney – this time it might actually succeed in bringing back the Mouse.

    Frankly, I don’t think there are enough cute characters being created, by which I mean characters with visual appeal. A lot of new cartoons are infested with ugliness – such as Flapjack and well, a lot of the student cartoons that are featured here. Such stuff might please a segment of the animation industry, but I bet won’t succeed with the general audience. As Chappell’s article points out, people like cute – so why not work WITH that instead of against it?

    • I agree completely. There’s a reason I’m so taken with Chris Sander’s recent character in “Chunky” the Macawnivore from The Croods (who delivers the cute factor not just in physical appearance but also personality).
      I do feel like this has become the age for appreciating truly ugly
      character design, and it’s left me hungry for the return of some cutie

      As for cutest, I’m going to agree that Pussyfoot is in the top, although a personal favorite of mine is Mew from Pokémon.

    • JLG

      I don’t at all agree that Flapjack’s characters are ugly, but your general point is dead on. We are totally in an age of ugly. The culture in general (at least in the US) seems to be in this very contrarian mode where anything beautiful, sensitive or cute is shot down HARD. It’s a very ugly, cynical mood we’re in—–and coming from a cynical person, that’s really saying something. How can cartoons help but reflect that in some way?

    • Fascination with ugly, I guess. When you’re making a cute character, you have more limits so it can be hard to make a cute design that’s also original. I imagine a lot of ugly characters, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, are the result of experimenting, often by people who are bored with the usual cuteness.

      But yeah, I’m always a fan of cute.

    • guest13

      its not a matter of working against it…simply putting depth and visual ingenuity and fresh styles. maybe if you weren’t a retarded Elmira who yearns for things to cuddle until they asphyxiate on their own blood from their crushed rib cages, you could appreciate the brilliance of something that’s not simply another Disney wannabe.

  • Joseph_Hudak

    Glad you mentioned Japanese cuteness (kawaii) as an example of foreign cuteness that in many ways follows Western views of “cute” but also is uniquely domestic and doesn’t always translate well overseas.

    It seems more recently, with the growth of multimedia, a lot of the more modern examples of cute start out as a sort of “cult cute” in which there is a sort of perceived edge or some counterculture element of “anti-cute” that (initially) prevents it from being mainstream cute. Characters like Stimpy and Spongebob come to mind, semi-grotesque cute characters that took time to become more widely accepted as cute.

    Japanese kawaii characters and sensibilities in Western cultures also took more time to be more widely accepted while often being in the realm of cult or niche cuteness. In some respects, Japanese Kawaii culture is more aggressive in attempting to introduce more offbeat and unusual examples of cute in hopes they catch on with modern youth while the mainstream cute is increasingly more self-referential and self-parody.

    In the modern mainstream, it seems modern cute characters need some sort of quirk in order to make them endearing. Cuteness alone is no longer enough.

    • jmahon

      At Sanrio, employees and designers are required to create/design one “cute” character a month, which go through a process of elimination (and more recently, online voting) before they’re put through a trial run on merchandise like stickers or stationery. Some of their most memorable characters have been created through this method, and often one of the year’s characters will be a massive runaway hit and spawn an entire franchise about just them. Rilakkuma is one of these, originally created as a doodle it was submitted and shot upwards and is now close to Hello Kitty in terms of popularity in Japan. There’s even a little “ranking” board for these characters.

      Not to sound like a big nerd, but I find this method fascinating, and I wonder if something similar could ever succeed over here in the west. You see products sell here with these characters, and a similar deal went on with characters like Strawberry Shortcake/the Care Bears/Rainbow Brite years ago, but I wonder if it’d be impossible to do so today without a TV show first.

      • jonhanson

        The anime Paranoia Agent has a really interesting take on Sanrio style character creation.

    • I think you’re right: characters need quirk, or some very identifiable trait that makes them more endearing. If Hello Kitty were introduced today, I wonder if she’d catch on. Today, she’s almost become more of a design element applied to consumer products. She’s certainly not quirky. A character like Tarepanda, on the other hand, has a built-in quirk; since “tare” means “lazy” a personality trait is written right into the name, making the character much more memorable from the start.

  • jmahon

    In terms of distilling cuteness into extremely base forms, San-X (Sanrio) has the Japanese market cornered. Go look up “Nyanko”. Inspired by that, the internet is in love with the character “Catbug” from Pen Ward’s ‘Bravest Warriors’ on the Cartoon Hangover youtube channel, who has the actual voice of a 5-year-old boy, which makes it even cuter.

    Even further, simplified to just a little blob with a face a toddler could draw, “osen manjuu-kun” are I think the epitome of cuteness… in my opinion, anyway. They’re so simplistic yet, when I see them, I can’t suppress the deep seeded urge to go “aaaawwwww!!” and give it a sqeeze. Creating cute characters isn’t very hard, but I feel like there’s a stigma against it since it seems childish, infantile and annoying. That isn’t necessarily untrue… but I think we all need to look at cute baby seal pictures once in a while.

    • AmidAmidi

      Some characters like those of Sanrio or Strawberry Shortcake/Care Bears exist only to be visually cute. In her piece though, Chappell Ellison argues that cuteness is not simply a visual concept, but a deeper value that can be developed through personality and storytelling. The latter suggests a route by which something can be cute without being cloying and infantile.

      • jmahon

        yeah- as cute as Sanrio characters are, few of them have any deep personality. Their simplistic look might hinder the kind of expression needed for any sort of deeper connection, maybe. The ones that do, such a Hello Kitty which had a very popular cartoon made that solidified the character’s personality, hold the highest spots.

        Speaking purely from nostalgia, I watched Strawberry Shortcake as a little girl and I loved her for her personality; from what I recall, at least in the original animated specials, she was cute because she was always nice to everyone else, etc etc. Lots of people I know bash cartoon characters driven by TV shows, which may or may not be a cheap way to establish enough personality for anyone to ever care about them, but I guess it serves a purpose.

        edit/addition, concerning the article: What about the growing trend of blending cute/sexy together? I personally think it skirts the edge of being creepy, but especially in more recent movies and video games, the ideal girl is becoming one who looks more and more younger and “cute”, versus someone more womanly. In Bioshock Infinite for example, the producers of that game mentioned in interviews leading up to it’s release that their direction for the female character Elizabeth was originally to make her about 16-17 years of age. After some screenshots from the game showed her in overtly sexual attire, to diffuse the backlash they changed her official age to 18, while not altering her looks. I’m not sure I specifically agree with the direction more recent games/movies have been taking concerning this, but it could be easily argued they’re only trying to emulate anime or disney movies or something and it might just be my personal feelings on the matter. Are they blurring the lines between such things, nowadays?

        • Agreed on the mannerisms. Creating a “cute” design isn’t too difficult, but if you want your cute character to stand out, they need some unique aspects, perhaps in behavior.

          As for the cute/sexy combos… I think that could, at least in part, be some anime influence that carried over. It could also be that those characters offer an appeal to a wider audience. People who want the sex appeal get the sex appeal, people who like cute things get the cute. And for the people who want the sexy, making the character cute in addition to sexy adds some “lovable” appeal. They’re not just hot, they’re fun to hang out with too!

      • Right, like Amid said. Baby seals are incredibly cute, but Wall-e made me cry and want to give free hugs to strangers. Cuteness is more than looks, it’s about a character that bears traits and mannerisms that pull at your heart strings.

    • Lulu

      San-X is a completely different company than Sanrio

      Know-it-all Japanophile out.

  • RickyB

    Some would argue that beauty demands a lap too.

  • MJ

    Robert Ryan Cory can pin down the mathematics to this question – I guarantee it.

  • Natalie Belton

    I think a big part of a cute character’s charm can come from it’s own visual uniqueness or quirkiness. This is why more unconventional cute characters, such as Wall-E and the Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, are becoming more popular in recent years. Of course, there’s also the ‘its’s so ugly it’s cute’ factor.

  • I would argue that it is hard to create significant cute characters simply because there are so many of them already and so many other things that are cute. Cuteness is in great abundance in commercial design much as sugar is in great abundance in our food. Basic cuteness may be the easiest shortcut to “appeal”.

  • Some cute characters are those that sadly don’t come stateside like
    – Calimero
    – The Wombles
    – Bagpuss
    – The cast of The Magic Roundabout
    – Doraemon
    – Rastamouse

  • David

    I have nothing to add or argue, just wanted to say I enjoyed this more thought provoking article – I come back for the news, reviews and goss but these more in depth studies are an excellent sideline! :)

  • JLG

    I tend to draw “cute” instinctively. (Even when I’m trying to make an darker point, often the first response I get is “Aw, those kids are so cute!” It can get irritating, but hey—- I’ve got no one but myself to blame.) I’m capable of drawing grotesque and “big-nose” characters as well as the next guy, but ultimately it’s like putting on a costume.

    Thing is, cute isn’t always so easy to nail down, since it isn’t always so obvious as Preston Blair spells out. Some characters fall into the spectrum of what I call “quirky cute”—-they have a deliberate oddness or even slight grotesqueness to the design that somehow registers as “awwwww” anyway. I would put Wiley Miller’s (“Non Sequitor”) child characters in this category.

    In another part of the spectrum are the characters from Adventure Time, who are downright adorable but in a way that’s also a deliberate SPOOF of “adorable.” (At least it seems that way to me.) They and their world are cute in a way that somehow manages to be both innocent and sly at the same time, because they’re pressing the “awwww” button while also winking at you subversively.

    I don’t swallow all of John K’s ideas, but I admit he has an interesting take on “cute.” He believes that “cute” isn’t something you can fake—-if it’s just not something you genuinely respond to personally, you’re not really going to be able to pull it off so well as an artist. The example he often gives—albeit from his own observation and not from actual interviewing—is Robert McKimson’s versions of Bugs Bunny, Porky, etc. I see what he means.


  • matt

    I can’t go past Dumbo. He’s gorgeous. And I especially like him because he goes against the rules even set forward by Disney. As an elephant, his eyes are really small in relation to his head and body. The blue eyes do make them visually come forward and seem bigger against the skin/backdrop, which is clever design. I love this sort of thing that goes against the grain and constantly try this or other unusual approaches when giving options for character designs. Usually they wuss out and go the big-eyed route though. Dumbo wouldn’t make it through these days.

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    According to John Canemaker’s book on the Raggedy Ann feature film directed by Richard Williams, this was one of animator Tissa David’s trademark moves: always having the character making eye contact with the viewer at some point.

  • Phaeton99

    What I take away from this article is that, though based in the biological, impressions of “cuteness” are highly subjective to both cultural and personal perceptions — both tending to be somewhat mercurial — ensuring that no enduring, universal standard of “cute” is realistically possible and making it a challenge for artists to find the most effective combination of features to ping off contemporary sensibilities without stepping into the off-putting uncanny.

    This puts it in the same territory as “beauty”, it would seem.

  • I’m a big fan of cute. When I watch that Puss in Boots movie, I’m squealing the WHOLE time! And when you watch any Shrek movie in the theaters, the whole audience goes “Aww!” when he does the cute face.

  • TimmyH

    Take a look at Disney’s ‘Dinosaurs’. (One film where the characters’ eyes were on the sides of their heads) Many difficult/awkward shots in this film because of this.

  • want to see cuteness ^^??