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The idea that cartoons were born for children is pretty common. However, as far away from the reality. Since Disney became the king of the land, turning animation part of the film industry, his philosophy had been dominating the market until the end of the century. But, animation, not even in Walt Disney intentions, was never only for kids. We must not forget that Disney is more interested in being wearing with the moral of the times than in understanding the child’s mind. For more painful it could be, Disney himself, barely before to die, said that it was never an artistic point, it was always a business, and while the box office worker that meant the people wanted it because that is what all is about and it was always!

Then, everything started with Disney?

Yes and not. Better start from the beginning.

In the early 20th century EEUU was inside of a thick and speed industrialization process. The modern America was born during the so-called “America’s formative period”, between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries when an agrarian society of small producers was transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations. And, a little place called Hollywood was a good example of that. At the beginning of the 20th century, Hollywood was anything else than an orange plantation. One day, “D. W.” Griffith passed for there and thought that it was a perfect place for shooting, full of wonderful opened landscapes, peaceful people, and sun. It was 1910 when he shot “In Old California” the very first film ever filming in Hollywood.  Three years later, C.C. B. Demille arrived to shoot “The Squaw Man”, the very first production filming.

The largest production company, at late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the French Pathe, until the I World War arrival. It was in 1914. Four years later, 1918 the world had changed and Hollywood was about to become a new power in a new era without any barrier in front of it. Like a volcanic explosion, the development of the new industry was a phenomenon that seemed to have own life, and this was unstoppable.

Mary Pickford - Ziegfeld - c. 1920s - by Alfred Cheney Johnston. Restored by Nick and jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans Website: Enjoy!
Mary Pickford  1920s

In 1909, the Selig Polyscope Company established the first permanent studio in the Los Angeles area.  In 1910, the “Star System” knew his very first American name: Florence Lawrence, the “Biograph Girl.” Barely later, Mary Pickford became the first million dollar contract, the “America’s Sweetheart”. Long before 1920 Hollywood already was Hollywood and the actual nature of the blood in his veins was as well already crystal clear, money. Nobody could imagine how big it was going to be, how capable of influencing the public opinion and the individuals the existences of the Star System was going to be.



In that decade animation was still looking for his way. In 1911, Mc Cay had imagesmade “Little Nemo” that was a remarkable success, to the point that four years later Mc Cay decided to put colour in the film, and he did it by hand frame by frame. Gertie the Dinosaur saw the light the year of the First World War, 1914. This same year, John Bray opened his studios and made animation series, “Colonel Heeza Liar”, possibly, if not the very first recurring cartoon character ever created. In 1915, Max Fleischer, who was then Art Editor for Popular Science Magazine, invented the rotoscope. Bray, who was already making his animation series, was intrigued by Fleischer’s invention.


KOKOHe decided put Max’s brother in a clown suit hired Max with the idea to make a series about a clown, “Koko,” going out of the inkwell; the thought of the famous “Out of the Inkwell” series was born. But with the arrival of the war, Bray KokotheClown-decided to send Max and Jack Eventual, a brilliant mechanical draftsman, to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where they made some first training films for the US Army. Koko, the clown, had to wait for better times. After the break, Max came back to New York and finally started to make “Koko, out of the inkwell” for Bray Studios. The success of “Little Nemo” probably was an inspiration for “Out of the Inkwell” series, which, in turn, was an inspiration for Disney’s “Alice Comedies” series.


It is remarkable the work by Mc Cay, who, always looking for innovations, made “The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918. It was a real action film, with the first integrated animation scenes, about re-creating the never photographed 1915 sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania. At twelve minutes it has been called the longest work of animation at the time of its release. The film is the earliest surviving animated documentary and severe, dramatic work of animation. It is a work of propaganda, maybe the first one in animation. It affected in deeply the public opinion about the war and the role what EEUU must play in it.

The Sinking of the Lusitania Winsor_McCay_-_The_Sinking_of_the_Lusitania_still_-_periscopes.large

“The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918

Until 1928, the animation was a vanishing novelty. During the 20’s less than 23% of theatres carried animated short, the demand wasn’t high for them. “Felix the Cat” and “Out of the Inkwell” were the only series of importance of that period, and even they were starting to lose steam by the closing of the decade. However, “Felix the Cat”, who came right from comic strips, had been able to develop merchandising about himself.   Koko the Clown, the protagonist of the “Out of the Inkwell” series by Fleischer Studios, was, without any doubt, a successful series, but far away from the real life films capacity to produce money. Cartoons were slower and complicated to produce than real films and the results were good for entertainment and laugh but anything else. Cartoons were not for children, but they neither could produce the deep emotions than audiences experimented with real actions films.

Felix the Cat 6 felix_cat_wooden_jointed_figure followfelix


“Felix the Cat,” created by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, saw the light in 1919 with “Feline Follies,” Paramount Pictures. It will be a hugely successful throughout the 1920s. The world must wait until 1922 for Disney opened Laugh O Grams first studios, and two years more, 1923 for he decided to move to the Hollywood land of gold. And nobody, not creators, no distributors, not the audience, had any thought about the necessity of any calcification for films or advises about the contents. There were no distinctions of any age. There were films and cartoons. And, sometimes, cartoons in films or real life stars in cartoons.

During the 10’s, Hollywood went from being a good place for oranges to become the world capital of cinema. It would be not a geographic location in a map anymore; it had converted in the Emerald City of Oz, the place where the Star lived and everything was possible, the capital of glamour, hedonism, and fun. And, of course, eccentricity, dreams, and money. At the end of the decade, Hollywood was a truly gold mine which a clear reason for existing, make money. You could make whatever you wanted, but, the principle was clear, whatever you want if it means money.  That is what it’s all about…

HOLLYWOOD 5The called Star System was surprised but itself, and his powerful capacity to make money and move masses. At the end of the decade, First National Pictures was one of the largest film companies. It opened a studio in Burbank in 1917 and signed a contract with Charlie Chaplin, it was a nine picture deal, becoming the first actor with a million-dollar deal. Next year, the company signed a new millionaire contract with Mary Pickford. But, no one was better to pay than Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was lured in 1918 by the first multiplier, multi-million dollar a year deal to make six feature films within three years with Paramount. And, remember, one million dollars in 1920 had not the same value than now. Life smiled to Hollywood, and nothing and nobody seemed able to stop it.

Animation was in his way, but that was a bit slower than real action films. Everything looked to be smooth, perfect and millionaire for Hollywood business. But, there is always a “but”.



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Zootopia is a classic lesson in cinema. Full of reference to the history of Hollywood, its script technically perfect, it’s a good model for teaching new writers how the magic can only emerge when the whole set and the relationship between the parts is working in harmony. A story is not the result of the addition of his individual parts, but a lot more.

Nick Wilde, Disney, 2016.

In cinema, like in the rest of the creative world, there are trends; some kind of structures or characters which are fashionable. The audience decides. It is not a rule, it’s a trend. But, cinema loves what works, because that’s what it’s all about, the box office. And now, there is a particular second main character who seduces the public with his tricky charm, the Disney sweetened version of the trickster.


One of the directors, Rich Moore, (the other being Byron Howard,) explained that they eventually made the decision to switch the narrative focus from Nick Wilde to Judy Hopps.


About two-thirds of the way through production, we changed the story to Judy’s story, because Nick, being kind of a cynical character, he didn’t like the city of Zootopia. He was kind of oppressed by the city of Zootopia. And in our movies, we want the audience to like the world, not dislike the world. And it was very confusing with our main character as someone who didn’t like the city, how do we feel about this world? So we said, let’s just try, as an experiment, making Judy the main character — since she’s an optimist, she sees the best in everything — let’s try making it her story and see what happens.

Beyond this kind of spontaneous vision of the modern film process, I would like to have a close look with you at this eternal –never disappointing- second character cliché of the trickster, now, definitively remastered by Disney.


The protagonist is only one among a lot of other key points to be considered if you want to paint a good story. As much as it may seem, characters are not people; through them, we show different aspects of human nature. Every story is about  a specific conflict and you are going to build a little group of different characters in order to show diverse features of the same problem. The protagonist needs a companion or companions, who allow him to express his points of view, and to face, in one way or another, his fears. A second character, based on some aspects of the archetype of the trickster, is something that the audience always love, especially when your main character is a  smartie-pants cute bunny. That means contrast, and contrast gives colour and rhythm, guarantees the funny opposition and exciting relationship.


Have a look at Han Solo, Flynn Rider (Tangled), or Jack Sparrow just to name a few. Disney has a strong background in  this kind of characters. Baloo, The tramp, Genie, Thomas O’Mally… the list could be long. It’s well known, Disney’s habit to feed his stories and characters with his own precedent works. It is not a particular Disney religion; Hollywood feeds on itself and the audience loves when it does. In fact, it is not necessary to have a Masters to notice how the adult public enjoys recognizing some of the most classic films ever inside of Zootopia. However, it is not needed either the audience knows every resource used to make a film in order that the trick works.


Personally, I had a deep feeling of deja vu seeing Zootopia. I could not avoid the memories of the old Robin Hood film. Not only because, in this animal world without humans, the animals play our roles like in all the Disney movies that filled my childhood, but for the old trickster fox recycled with pants and tie, but still the same. Sort of Jack Sparrow played  with the classic Paul Newman elegance, a sweet trickster more in accordance with to Disney animation standards, who, agreeing with the moral of our  times, finished as a policeman; so sad after the pre-requisite slice of psychoanalysis of  his societal problems, based in his childhood traumas.



Nick Wilde and Robin Hood are like two peas in a pod.  And, like Robin, he is not actually the bad guy, and he is not “Wild-e” because he is a fox, but because he is outside of the rules,  of course. To be outside of the rules is the essential requirement for being a trickster. However, the Disney trickster is a likable happy fellow always ready to make you smile, and it is impossible not love him and his style. You have to. He is adorable, a little cheater, a bit of a liar, but adorable. He always is going to have a peculiar style, a swing, and a light playboy touch. He gives you the perfume of freedom, but, overall, he will show you eventually the value of integral things, friendship, love, loyalty…. This kind of clean stuff. Please, do not be confused here. This is not an everyday trickster this is a Disney trickster.


The tradition of this kind of trickster version in Disney commenced long ago…All started with a mouse. Sorry, (it is a reflex), all started with a mouse fox. Actually with a one called Reynard the Fox, or the red Fox. It was long, long time ago.


Just after the Snow White success, Uncle Walt started to furiously buy the rights of whatever sort of story he thought could be good for cinema. Not only because he wanted to keep the future possibility to go ahead with it, also because he wanted to be sure that no one else could make it. These politics are very common in Hollywood productions companies. One of the stories that earlier fell into in his hands was Reynard the Fox. By 1937, Disney was already interested in making the story of Reynard, a red fox and an outlaw in the worst kind of way. Walt  had moral problems with a character who had no sense of decency or honour. Reynard would have to wait until someone was able to find a way to make him suitable for Disney standards. Walt was thinking about Reynard for decades, but, unfortunately, he died without having to see the transformation of Reynard into Robin Hood.  Ken Anderson, a Disney legend, was who came up with the idea. After all, Robin is the perfect good boy outside of the law. Larry Clemmons wrote the story for 1973 animated Disney film.  A new legend was born.


But, who is Reynard the Fox?


Reynard is one of those magnificent characters whose origins are lost in the mists of time  of the ancient European fairy tales. One of the oldest references is the French tale, Le Roman de Renart by Pierre de Saint-Cloud around 1170.  This tale already sets the typical setting. Reynard has been summoned to the court of King Noble, or Leo, the lion, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim, the wolf. I am pretty sure that Disney knew him through the American version written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith, who in turn, probably knew the Ward Henry Morley version, who made a translation from William Caxton’s English in 1481 and published in 1889 as part of Early Prose Romances. Reynard is the main character of a literary cycle of allegorical French, Dutch, English, and German fables, an anthropomorphic red fox and, of course, a trickster figure. All these fables are filled with anthropomorphic animals of whatever kind and the whole Middle Ages are full of amazing manuscripts filled with wonderful illustrations of them.

It is fascinating to see these illuminated manuscripts with Reynard and his fellows more than one thousand years old already playing the same roles that we still use in comics or films today.

Jacquemart Gielée: Renart le nouvel

Handschrift, um 1290/1300






circa 1460

Source  Book of Hours/ Livre d’heures/ Stundenbuch – Utrecht, Master of Catherine of Cleves, Lieven van Lathem (illuminators); Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum (MMW), Den Haag: Ms. 10 F 50, fol. 6r




In the medieval bestiary, you can read,

The History of Reynard the Fox edited by Henry Morley, LL.D. William Caxton’s English Translation of 1481 originally published as part of Early Prose Romances George Routledge and Sons London, 1889

Reynard the Fox was medieval Europe’s trickster figure, a nasty but charismatic character who was always in trouble but always able to talk his way out of any retribution. (…)In editing this edition in 1889, Morley modernized the spelling of words still in common use in his day but did not attempt to modernize the style of the text. The result is a readable text that has all the flavor of the original.

In 1945 an American version appeared, written by Harry J. Owen and illustrated by Keith Ward and it is not difficult to appreciate the influence of Ward drawings in the work or Anderson for Disney Robin Hood.

rey1 _rey31 rey25 rey30 _rey14 _rey16 _rey17 _rey5

Keith Ward, 1945


robin 1   robin 2     robin 3  robin 4

robin 5

Robin Hood  Disney, 1973

Nick Wilde is that sort of secondary character who the audience love as much as the protagonist, sometimes even more. It’s the case of Jack Sparrow, for instance, who, I promise you, is not the protagonist of the story. However, according to the audience, he is, definitely, the Main character!


Zootopia is a detective’s story. Hollywood knows everything about that genre. The very first film detective appeared in 1909 during the silent era. It was French and it was a series as well. It was called Nick Cramer. Coincidence or homage? Who knows… does it matter?


But, one thing is crystal clear, to create is to re-invent. New writers are usually afraid of taking into consideration an old classic masterpiece and that is a rookie critical mistake. Mickey Mouse is anything but an Oswald evolution and if you want to know something about adventures all you have to do is to read Homer or Virgil. The interest of the story does not lie in the fact that nobody heard it before; but in your particular,  personal, and unique view point of it. That is what creation is all about.



Paris, March 2016