Cartoons conquer hearts and move billions of dollars. But that’s not all, friends: animation also plays on the political chessboard. It has done so since its beginnings: during the World Wars, cartoons taught children how to recognize the enemy; in times of the Cold War, its protagonists translated ideology into the language of animation. Today, they are one of the tools of soft power.
What do the Ice Princess, the Parr family and some round, yellow beings have in common? One, that they are cartoon characters; two, that these cartoons are American; and three, that they are the most profitable characters in the animation industry: the two parts of Frozen, the sequel to The Incredibles and The Minions have been the most successful cartoons at the box office worldwide. If you broaden the focus, eight of the top ten box-office hit animated films are produced or distributed by Disney. And they’re all American.
But animation is not a fairytale kingdom, but a highly competitive industry. And the competition doesn’t end at the box office or at the audience level: the messages transmitted by cartoons reach the minds of the little ones like a hypodermic needle, hypnotizing them through the screens and whispering to them what they have to do and how they should behave… Or this was thought at the dawn of television and propaganda. It was believed that a television stimulus provokes, as an injection, an almost automatic response in the public. That’s why the character of Superman was accused of inducing the little ones to jump out of the window, in an attempt to learn to fly.
Time has shown that messages on the screens do not schedule automatic responses. But their role should not be underestimated. Power has changed, and force has left the pedestal to influence, persuasion and seduction: soft power. One of its ingredients is the media industry. The box office data makes it clear what media empire dominates in animation today. And animation is the key to children’s hearts.
War is child’s play
In the Chicago of 1914, the dinosaur Gertie came out of his cave, devoured a tree trunk and bowed to the spectators, under the orders of the animator Winsor McCay. She was the first protagonist of a properly characterized cartoon, with a personality and a story to tell. Gertie played, cried and ate; therefore, she entertained. With Gertie’s creation, McCay opened a new horizon for animation, which before was more focused on technique and message than on the drawn beings. But entertainment was not the only task of cartoons. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United Kingdom led the young animation industry with a different purpose: up to 95% of the British cartoons produced between 1914 and 1918 had a propagandistic purpose.
Those were the years of the First World War. As the conflict escalated, cartoons were gaining strength. Some praised the values of the homeland, others ridiculed the enemy. In the United Kingdom, propaganda ceased to be the exclusive prerogative of the State and was transferred to the world of business. Children were not yet the target audience of the young animation industry, since its efforts were focused on raising the morale of combatants and civilians, and they were generally short and silent pieces. Besides, they touched the pocket: like films, cartoons were projected in public spaces -theaters and movie theaters-. Everything changed in 1928, when the American Walt Disney taught a mouse to whistle by synchronizing music with image. From then until today, Disney has become the leading animation company worldwide, and Mickey Mouse continues to attract viewers and investors.
The inter-war period laid the foundation for contemporary cartoons: longer pieces, more realistic characters and a focus on children. At the same time, households around the world began to give a timid welcome to a new member: television, although its use did not become popular until the 1950s. The young industry was covering more and more regions. In 1936, the Soviet Union created the state animation studio Soyuzmultfilm, which continues to exist under the same name in Russia today (Soyuz means “union,” and refers to the Soviet Union). Cartoon schools and private studios have appeared in Argentina and Mexico. From South Africa to Egypt and from Tokyo to Sydney, animation was perfecting its techniques and making its way into the hearts of the little ones.
Then came another world war, and this time it was translated for the little ones into the language of animation. From the United States, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. On the Nazi front there were as many animals, this time with a strong anti-Semitic message. From the state animation studio of the USSR, a diabolized Hitler threatened to take away the freedom of Soviet citizens. In Japan, the boy drawing Momotaro defended his homeland from the American invaders. But since war is not about copyright, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were not exclusively in the service of Disney. The Vichy government used these characters to portray the United States as an enemy of the French people. Disney’s emblematic mouse, mounted on a bat, also attacked Japan, but lost to the Samurai in a Japanese propaganda cartoon of 1936.
Capture of the Disney cartoon “Teaching for Death: The Making of the Nazi”, from 1943.
The animated propaganda of the Second World War served several purposes: it taught children to recognize the enemy, raised the morale of the civilian population and encouraged, but also educated, soldiers. During the conflict, the public received anxiously the cartoons, which resulted in a great affluence to movie theaters: ninety million weekly spectators in the United States and twenty million in Germany. Of the five hundred animated short films produced in Hollywood between 1942 and 1945, 47% were war-related. However, the conflict put limits on exports: American-produced cartoons were banned in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
Two bears and one destiny: the cartoons during the Cold War
When World War II ended, peace did not come at all. The next four decades were known as the Cold War, due to the indirect confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. During this period, the two superpowers formed blocks of alliances, promoted arms races and externalized conflicts. The cartoon industry also did not remain on the sidelines.
An unwitting Cold War protagonist is a teddy bear named Winnie the Pooh. For NATO countries it was yellow; for Warsaw Pact countries it was brown. Because the Soviet cultural industry rejected American production, some stories have had a double life, one on each side of the Iron Curtain. Disney produced its first film about Winnie the Pooh in 1966; the Soviet Union did so three years later. The yellow Winnie did not enter the USSR; the brown Winnie did not leave the socialist bloc. The Ugly Duckling or Mowgli are also some examples of the duality of cartoons during the Cold War. In other cases, the protagonists changed, but the premise remained the same: an American gray cat chases, one episode after another, a cunning mouse; a Soviet gray wolf tries to capture a small rabbit, but always fails. Outside the borders of the USSR, but within its orbit, Mickey Mouse found a reflection in Topito, the protagonist of a Czechoslovakian cartoon.
But not all the movements of Cold War animation went in parallel, there were also collisions. The antagonism between the two blocks resulted in a distorted picture of the enemy’s values. In this sense, the role of Walt Disney, who was extremely critical of the USSR, should be noted. The American cartoons explicitly showed the evils of communism; the Soviets, those of capitalism. Other examples were more latent, from the association of abundance with laziness and evil on the part of the USSR, to the confrontation between two antagonistic worlds -some authors state this is what happens in Disney’s Little Mermaid: its protagonist escapes from a rigid and patriarchal sea kingdom to the mainland, where he is free to fulfill his dream: to walk. The animation also covered the two Cold War races: the arms race and the space race. Children and animals drawn from the two superpowers flew in spaceships, reached the Moon and built nuclear shelters. Marvin the Martian, the Warner Brothers factory character who was the enemy of Bugs Bunny, is another example of how the Cold War landed in the animation industry. Dressed in red and wearing military gear, coming from another planet and always threatening to destroy the Earth with sophisticated weapons, Marvin looks like a personification of the Soviet Union; not surprisingly, his first appearance was in 1948, when the division between the US and the USSR was beginning to be evident. Even armed conflicts found a representation in the animated universe. Mickey Mouse returned to the war as an American soldier in Vietnam in an anti-war project alien to Disney. He died, shot, in minute one. Opposition to the Vietnam War was also manifest in Soviet animation.
In war, anything goes, and animation offers a great tool: the possibility of ridiculing the enemy. Beyond grotesque or devilish characters, a more subtle way to do it is through the use of voice and language. The Russian accent characterizes a stray dog in The Lady and the Tramp, and one of Aladdin’s thieves also places great emphasis on the “R”. Since the Soviet Union, language has also been used to characterize negative characters. For example, the English expression “oh, yes” was used as a constant refrain by the Italian mafia characters Banditto and Gangsteritto, as well as by a crafty -and evil- detective.
The drawings not only pointed to the “bad”, but also educated in values through the creation of the “good”. This black-and-white division persisted during the Cold War long after televisions were turned to color. The cartoon characters put a face to the values on each side of the conflict in a context where ethics were defined by ideology. The defense of the common good against individualism; the workers’ struggle against the entrepreneurial spirit, the brown communist Winnie against the yellow capitalist Winnie. And yellow won the day.
A duck as an ambassador and the least disinterested friendship
“How cute he is! We have to become friends,” exclaims Masha when she sees the panda, a new character, for the first time. Masha is the star of the Russian cartoon series Masha and the Bear and a popular girl: she has more than seventy million followers among her Youtube channels in Russian, English, Spanish and Portuguese. If Masha’s Youtube followers were citizens of a European Union country, this would be the second largest, just behind Germany. The series has been translated into more than thirty languages and is broadcast on Netflix. Since March 2020 it has also been shown on official Chinese television, a country that has the panda as its traditional symbol. This is how Masha became friends with the panda in real life. It is not the first time that a Russian cartoon finds a place in the Chinese market. In 2013, the Kikoriki series, partly funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, also welcomed a panda. Four years later, the Chinese State Television Agency and the creators of Kikoriki agreed on a joint production, in which the panda would take centre stage. Panda diplomacy -a visual term referring to the expansion of Chinese soft power- also reached the Czech Topito, which triggered a dispute over the character’s license, which ended up in the Prague High Court in 2019.
Masha’s friendships do not end in China. The fact is that her creators made exporting a priority from the very beginning. Even the protagonist’s traditional Russian scarf facilitates the promotion of the series in mostly Muslim countries. In addition to translations and subtitles, Masha and the Bear adapts to the target regions through a localization exercise: any text that is part of the animation, for example, the signs, is translated. However, Masha’s popularity also finds detractors. Some accuse the cartoon of being Kremlin propaganda, for example, because the bear is a symbol of Russia. Whether one shares this claim or not, it is clear that with great power comes great responsibility, and Masha and the Bear have conquered, through the screens, the hearts of millions of children in more than a hundred countries.
But if there is one animation company that dominates in the field of export, it is, again, Disney. The power of this media empire is such that Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse are sometimes compared to cultural ambassadors. Walt Disney himself participated in American diplomacy through his travels, which promoted Disney and, therefore, the values of his country. Politics and corporate interests have also intersected in the search for a new audience. Thus, in the 1940s, Donald Duck befriended a Brazilian parrot and a Mexican rooster in an attempt to attract viewers in Latin America. Today, the Disney empire is diverse and omnipresent. Its business plan rests on four pillars: audiovisual production, theme parks, media networks -for example television channels or digital platforms- and merchandising. In 2018, the already nonagenarian Mickey Mouse brought home 3 billion dollars thanks to the commercialization of products with its image.
While American animation sets trends at the box office, the Old Continent is lagging behind. European cartoons only account for one fifth of its market, where, once again, American productions predominate. But they are not the only players on the board: media companies in Asia are gaining weight. Since the second half of the 20th century, the outsourcing of the most technical and laborious tasks to countries such as Japan, India, the Philippines or South Korea has become popular in order to reduce production costs. However, today this pattern is being reversed and the animation industries of Japan, China and South Korea see their profits take off and land on all continents, including Europe.
The United States, Canada and China were the main recipients of Japanese cartoons in 2019. Source: The Japanese Animation Association
Behind the screens
Cartoons entertain, educate and amuse. Cartoons make the box office, move the advertising market and frequent product placement. Animation not only opens doors to children’s hearts, but also to their parents’ purses. This symbiosis, shaped by time, is perfect: children need cartoons, cartoons need children. But their power is not only economic, but also political, the soft power. It is said that in order to dominate an enemy, one must educate his children. And, although there are no longer such clear and global enemies as during the Cold War, the most popular cartoons are still the American ones.
A lot has happened since the dinosaur Gertie first came out of his drawn cave, and some of the most beloved animated characters can now blow out seven or eight dozen candles for their anniversaries. Through the screen, successive generations of children learn about sponges, ducks, bears and mice. Childhood, the golden age of life, is intertwined in the memories with the adventures of their favorite characters. And that is why the secret formula of animation has one last and main ingredient: love. That’s it, folks.