Most cartoon characters are inspired by someone or something familiar; that goes for even the most un-human characters like Bender Bending Rodriguez from Futurama or Mickey Mouse. Whatever it may be, it is likely that the animator has based his invention on some aspect of real-life.
The same may be said of course about any fictional character in animation and live-action productions because regardless of how original we think something is, it will have stemmed from a subconscious trigger of a past moment. And those triggers are pulled every day of our lives.
Sometimes animators may admit to having been inspired by real-life places as well. Never Land from J.M. Barrie’s The Adventures of Peter Pan is believed by some to be the name coined after Australian immigrants in the early 1900s spoke of a place back home in the middle of nowhere.
Most of the time, the thinking behind a character is hard to distinguish; what’s more, some animators may not want us to know who or what gave them the notion. But on occasion, they’re gracious enough to spill the beans about the germ of inspiration; as is the case with Popeye, Dennis the Menace, Tinkerbell and of course the 15 characters in today’s list.
15 Bugs Bunny = Clark Gable
Most of us will have heard of Clark Gable. He was most famous for playing the character of Rhett Butler in the epic movie Gone with the Wind (1939) and he became known in the 1930s and 40s as the “King” of Hollywood. American actor Robert Taylor said of Gable: “[he] was a great, great guy and certainly one of the great stars of all times, if not the greatest.”
Gable won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the 1934 comedy It Happened One Night. In this movie he played a sarcastic newspaper hack and in one scene he is seen standing with a well-to-do heiress at the side of a road. As Gable munches scrappily on a carrot, he talks from the side of his mouth. This was all animator Friz Freleng needed for the character of Bugs Bunny.
14 Aladdin = Tom Cruise
The Middle Eastern folk tale Aladdin has inspired books, comics and stage, TV and film productions. The most well-known retellings of the story of the poor street boy who uses a genie’s power to turn into a prince is arguably the 1992 film Aladdin starring Scott Weinger, Robin Williams and Linda Larkin. This film won countless awards for its music and sound editing, and the performances of the cast.
The character of Aladdin was obviously already in place when the film was penned but that didn’t stop the animators at Disney basing their character on Tom Cruise, who at the time was appearing in films such as A Few Good Men (1992) and Far and Away (1992). They wanted a character with a little more sass about him than he had in the original story. That meant: being cocky, overly self-assured, and having great eyebrows.
13 Ariel = Alyssa Milano
We all know the story of the Little Mermaid: “A mermaid princess makes a Faustian bargain with an unscrupulous sea-witch in order to meet a human prince on land” (IMDb, 2017). But did you know that the story for the 1989 film is actually based on an 1839 fable by Norwegian author Hans Christian Andersen?! Back then of course, the Victorians were fascinated by unknown sea-life. They didn’t have the advanced technology for underwater research as we do now (but even so, there are still things we don’t know).
Anyway, when it came to Disney’s version of the story, and an inspiration for the character, they wanted someone who was relatable to girls at the time in mannerisms and attitude towards love and life. They opted to design her around Italian-American Alyssa Milano. She, at the time, was 17 and had acted in three films including the comedy “Speed Zone”.
12 The Vultures = The Beatles
It’s an unlikely rumour but when Brit Pop sensation The Beatles were asked to put their voices to the Vultures in Disney’s animation The Jungle Book (1967) their schedule didn’t allow them any time to oblige. We think The Beatles would have relished the opportunity to be involved with an iconic animation such as this. Who knows what the real truth is? Nevertheless, most experts agree that the Vultures (voiced in the end by Chad Stuart and Lord Tim Hudson) are carbon copies of the Fab Four.
Stuart and Hudson did manage to voice the birds with some striking accuracy of the Liverpudlian dialect we associate with the band. Ziggy, Dizzy, Buzzy and Flaps accents stand out to those who suspected as much about The Beatles involvement. At the time of the film’s production The Beatles were one of the most famous (perhaps even the most famous) bands in the world.
11 Milhouse = Josh Saviano
Milhouse Mussolini Van Houten the long-suffering best friend of Bart Simpson is a 10-year-old boy whose character was the work of the series’ creator Matt Groening. He has blue hair and bigger than normal nose, and he wears thick lensed glasses to correct is short-sightedness. He may be intelligent but has no social skills or common sense. He dresses appropriately to the zany colours of the show, in a purple t-shirt (beneath which is a pot-belly) and red shorts and shoes.
Like other characters from the show he is instantly recognizable. For animators, being able to make something thus is an incredible feat. But we expect you didn’t know that Bart’s long-time gullible patsy was based on the character of Paul Pfeiffer from the Wonder Years. Pfeiffer was the hero Kevin's best friend, nerdy and allergic to most things in life. He was played by Josh Saviano.
10 Marvel’s Comic Book America Chavez = Beyonce
When Marvel was looking for a design for its new America comic book cover it wanted to choose something relevant to the self-assured nature of the young American. It opted to include the new heroine of the book Miss American Chavez, a superhero like no other who is proud and confident of her own differences. America Chavez is a Latin American lesbian, outlandish, assertive and unapologetic.
The Marvel artists’ design paid tribute to Beyoncé, who they considered was the epitome of a strong, Latino role model. The cover of the comic is drawn to emulate the singer’s “Formation” music video. Artist Joe Quinones told Entertainment Weekly in 2017: “America is a comic that is all about representation, feminism and fighting for what’s right. America Chavez hits hard, looks fabulous and makes no apologies along the way. I could think of no better parallel than Beyoncé”.
9 Genie = Robin Williams
The same cartoon that based their Aladdin on Tom Cruise also took inspiration for the character of Genie from actor Robin Williams. In fact, they were so taken with the possibility of Williams landing the part as well that, according to the LA Times, the directors and producers even drew Genie to resemble Williams in the hope that he would be convinced to take part in the production.
The dialogue was ad-libbed by Williams to a great extent and many of the jokes are his. Animator Eric Goldberg later said of Williams’s involvement: “Robin totally got what kind of potential animation had in utilizing his talents. If you think back on a lot of animation voices over history, especially from 1930s and '40s, many were radio actors. They could express so much with their voices... What Robin had in common with them is a set of vocal chords that were 100% elastic.” (LA Times, 1992)
8 Willow = Charli XCX
Willow is a blue bird that along with the other angry birds Stella, Poppy, Luca, and Dahlia pops pigs. She always seems to wear an orange and yellow striped hat and underneath this we see tufts of colourful blue hair. It is said that the reason she wears the hat is to hide the other colours of her hair. She likes the colour blue: that much is obvious. But what of the other parts of her character?
Well, for the answer to that we must visit the inspiration for the character, namely British singer and songwriter Charli XCX. Her colourful appearance is mirrored by the songstress, so too her confidence and her sense of standing up for what she believes in. XCX is known to be an avid supporter of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and Save The Music Foundation.
7 Smurfette = Katy Perry
The 2011 film The Smurfs is based on the original Belgian comic from years ago and features the acting voices of Hank Azaria, Neil Patrick Harris and Katy Perry. It took five years for film producers to negotiate a deal for the rights to make the film. It centres on the Smurf’s blue moon festival and is true to Pierre Culliford’s origin concept, complete with Papa Smurf, Grouchy Smurf and Gargamel.
The Smurfette of the movie is not only based on Katy Perry but after she had landed the part, animators were also able to add her natural mannerisms to the character. Smurfette is a risk-taker, adventurous and active, but so too is she aware of her own strengths. In a village comprising mostly boy smurfs, she has an overriding want to be noticed and appreciated for her independence. She’s also said to be caring, thoughtful, intelligent and resourceful.
6 Rocko = Woody Allen
Rocko’s Modern Life is an American cartoon which features a nervous and over-thinking Australian-immigrant wallaby called Rocko. After moving to the United States Rocko is plunged into a world unlike any he used to know. His timid character is forced to encounter situations that are either dangerous or grate on his sensitivities. He is joined in his adventures by his dog Spunky and neurotic friends Filburt and Heffer.
Rocko is a thoughtful character who gives people the benefit of the doubt, yet always seem to come off the worst in situations. The animators admitted that the inspiration for such a meek and mild character who also obsesses about cleanliness, was based on the early persona of American comedian and screenwriter Woody Allen. In his early works Allen plays a neurotic man who seems never to be able to find success in his person life.
5 Ranier Wolfcastle = Arnold Schwarzenegger
It will probably come as no surprise to you that when Matt Groening was searching for a character that could represent the tough-guy actor he took inspiration from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has appeared in over 30 films including The Terminator and the 1990 hit Total Recall. Having begun a career in bodybuilding early in his life Schwarzenegger was renowned also for his physique, which earned him the illustrious Mr Olympia in 1970.
It needs to be said that like many of Groening’s other characters Ranier Wolfcastle has his flaws. He is portrayed as unintelligent, and unlucky in both love and acting career. He is also associated with the adult movie industry and is mocked by the people of Springfield for being homophobic. These traits are obviously not based on Schwarzenegger but the actor’s long-time ambition to join the world of politics did become realised in 2003.
4 Azteca = Jennifer Lopez
The 1998 movie Antz has a star-studded cast. The movie, which centres on the efforts of a corrupt soldier ant to begin his own colony, starred such greats as Woody Allen, Dan Aykroyd, Anne Bancroft and Gene Hackman. The movie site Rotten Tomatoes in 2010 raved about it: “Featuring a stellar voice cast and loads of good humor, Antz should delight both children and adults.” And it did. It was nominated for eight awards and won two.
One of the female ant love interests called Azteca was the friend Woody Allen’s character Z. She falls in love with Corporal Weaver (played by Sly Stallone) after Z and Weaver swap places in order for Z to get to know Princess Bala. The animators used Jennifer Lopez as the inspiration for the Azteca and it was a bonus to them that Lopez was also able to play the part in the film.
3 David S. Pumpkins = Tom Hanks
NBC announced in the fall of 2017 that the zany hero of Saturday Night Live, David S Pumpkins would be made into a cartoon character to be aired at Halloween. Pumpkins first appeared on the show in 2016 as a seasonal comedy addition. The idea came from Bobby Moynihan, Mikey Day, and Streeter Seidell who according to Seth Meyers were looking for a “Santa Claus for Halloween” (The Seth Meyers Show, 2017). Pumpkins’s dialogue was witty and sharp and his main role was to extol the virtues of the real meaning of Halloween.
The character was played by Tom Hanks. He was to voice the Pumpkins cartoon aswell and was joined by Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage as well as the sketch creators. Pumpkins arrival on Saturday Night Live was an instant success and so it would seem was the animated Halloween special.
2 Lady GooGoo = Lady Gaga
This one got Moshi Monsters into a spot of bother in terms of trademark laws. The children’s social network Moshi Monsters developed a character called Lady Goo Goo who sang parodies of songs by Lady Gaga. The Guardian in 2011 reported that Lady Goo Goo had had a great deal of success with songs such as The Moshi Dance and Peppy-razzi. But it would seem the parent company of Moshi Monsters had not sought permission to use the Gaga brand in their production.
Gaga is renowned for cracking down on companies who wish to use her image and brand for commercial gain. Alistair Shaw, a solicitor said of the case: "Tribute bands and parody songs have been around for years but what this case shows is the potential power of registered trademark law to put a stop to some of their activities." (The Guardian, 2011)
1 Fry = James Dean
There is much debate online about whether the character of Fry from Futurama is based on anyone. Some think James Dean. A redditor in 2013 said of the rumours: “Not to get crazy Philosophical but I think it is kind of a doppelgänger of the original James Dean character in the same way Bender is based on John Bender from "The Breakfast Club." Fry, is made to look like the iconic smooth talking, cool James Dean; yet is a bumbling, good natured but ultimately idiotic buffoon.”
Certainly the quiff of blonde hair and the reckless attitude are similar. And the clothing: red jacket, white shirt, and denim pants are exactly what James Dean wore as Jim Stark in the hit 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause. In the film, Stark feels betrayed by those who love him and becomes increasingly delinquent in his behaviour. He has no real friends, but one love. Sound familiar?