If you watch The Simpsons or South Park - cartoon serials where gangs of doodles get to demonstrate the wisdom in modern stupidity - you come to feel that the characters are really doing something quite old-fashioned. They may be media savvy and product-articulate, these yellow-faced goons, but in essence they go in for the kind of stuff that used to have people rolling in the aisles of the music halls.
Homer Simpson is a kind of Grimaldi, an air-guitar-playing, nacho-chomping version of Dan Leno: he does songs, he falls on his arse, he has trouble with machines, with self-worth, and he goes in for disguises, catchphrases, patter and multiple personalities. The old comics were human, of course, but the startling thing about the newer television cartoon characters is that they often appear more human than real people, more alive than anybody you've ever met. It doesn't happen so much in the cinema nowadays, though. Modern movie actors are much like ourselves, only better-looking, with faster cars; people like Tom Hanks or Helen Hunt derive the major part of their appeal from what we might call their apparent ordinariness, and only occasionally, as with Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, does an actor come along who seems to have the superhuman plasticity of a cartoon. These movie actors, whatever else they happen to be, are works of animation: they can make their faces, and their emotions, do anything, and they live their on-screen lives in stark defiance of death.
LRB 22 August 2002 | PDF Download