I find myself continually fascinated with racial politics in animation and the notion that cartoon villains are often painted with a broad brush. Cartoon characters? Broad brush? Who knew? Of course animated characters are caricatures. Isn’t that what cartooning is all about? Yes, I know. It’s Chris Rock’s jive-talking zebra in Madagascar all the way back to the groovy black crows in Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Stereotypes, right? But, it’s also cartooning. It’s what we do as animation story tellers and it’s guaranteed to offend people no matter what decade we happen to be working in.
This animation storyteller of color could be accused of offending white people back in the sixties when we developed story for Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. After all, who were we caricaturing in our story? There’s the pompous Colonel Hati. An elephant who is clearly the waffling, blustery Nigel Bruce type Brit. If you were from the UK would you find his character offensive? What about our sly, cunning villain, Sher Kahn? Now, there’s a sneaky, sophisticated stereotype given marvelous voice by George Sanders. Finally, what about those four blokes from Liverpool? I’m sure you remember the Vultures voiced by Chad Stuart, Lord Tim Hudson, J. Pat O’Malley and Digby Wolf. I doubted we’d get any push back by poking fun at these rather funny white guys. And, poke fun we did.
And, speaking of white guys, can you imagine what would have happened if Walt Disney had decided to use black performers to play the monkeys in The Jungle Book? Louis Prima and his band, Sam Butera and the Witnesses were Italians, so I guess we were off the hook. Of course, there were a number of cool, hip black performers who could have been just as effective, but the Old Man wasn’t about to go there. Sometimes all you want is a great performance - and even a casting choice is rife with racial politics. Looking back on the recording sessions with Louis Prima in 1966, one event comes to mind. Songwriters, Robert and Richard Sherman were explaining the song, “Oo, Oo, Oo, I Wanna Be Like You” to Mr. Prima and his band while they looked on seriously. Suddenly, Louis Prima blurted out, “Are you trying to make a monkey out of me?” Without missing a beat, Richard Sherman replied, “No! You’re an ape! These guys are the monkeys. The room suddenly burst into laughter and the tension was relieved.
You might say we dodged a bullet by casting white dudes in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book. No one ever accused Walt of being a racist because he made fun of the Brits. We covered all bases both upper and lower class. Of course, no one ever accused Walt of being insensitive to Italians because of King Louie. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is one black guy doing a voice in The Jungle Book. He’s my old pal, Scatman Crothers and he gives voice to one of the monkeys in the movie. The “Scatman” received no screen credit on the film. Because of racial politics, this was a black performance better left unknown.
Here we are in 2014, and I’ll guarantee people will still complain about a casting choice in an animated motion picture. No matter what we do, we’re sure to offend some person, some group or ethnicity. That’s the risk of being a cartoon maker, but it’s a risk I still don’t mind taking.