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By Valerie Kalfrin · October 25, 2015
Whether they’re working with pixels or pencils, animators fill us with awe. They create not just worlds from scratch but characters whose eyes and body language alone speak volumes, even if they never utter a word.
The first trailer for The Good Dinosaur, opening in November, enchanted us from the moment Arlo, a young Apatosaurus, locked eyes with a mop-topped cave boy who offered him berries. We were enthralled with glimpses of this simple friendship, from howls at the moon to Arlo twirling through the grass around the boy to whip up a swirl of fireflies.
We now know that Arlo talks (!), although the cave boy, whom Arlo names Spot, is still a bundle of growls and soulful gazes. We don’t hate on Arlo for being articulate, but the charm of that first trailer reminded us how some of the most-affecting animated characters are the ones who say the least.
What follows is a roundup of some of our favorites, in alphabetical order.
Animation has a whole crowd of nonverbal but expressive characters, usually secondary ones. Evinrude, the mustachioed dragonfly who serves as an outboard motor in “The Rescuers,” valiantly summons extra pep even when he’s “plumb tuckered out.” The magic carpet in Aladdin uses every bit of his fabric and tassels to slouch, freak out, dust off a fez or cheer. Perry, the platypus on Phineas and Ferb, is an agent of action, even though he gurgles. Scrat from the Ice Age series takes a page from Wile E. Coyote, with buggy eyes, long nose and raggedy fur to epitomize crazed frustration.
All owe a tip of the yellow circus cap to Dumbo, who in 1941 was the silent lead of his eponymous film. The little elephant ridiculed for his enormous ears has eyes as sweet, innocent, and open as the toddler he is. Each emotion—whether he’s hurt, lonely, hopeful or triumphant—is right there in those baby blues, as plain as the trunk on his face.
Before bringing Shaun the Sheep to life as a TV show and a 2015 film, Aardman Animations created this stop-motion dog and his owner, Wallace, an inventor of various contraptions. Gromit wears the brains and common sense, if not the trousers, in this relationship. He uses resourcefulness and perseverance to foil a thieving penguin and a maniacal dog in several adventures the pair has had since 1989’s A Grand Day Out. He’s loyal and often unflappable, but Gromit nonetheless conveys loads of wit and exasperation through the tiniest of gestures, such as a wink or a raised eyebrow.
Spot of The Good Dinosaur is the rare human who speaks little in animated films these days, but in animated shorts, wordless people continue to beguile. In 2012, Paperman showed how a lanky office worker attracts the attention of the woman of his dreams. The following year, the offbeat short Mr. Hublot from France offered a twist on a tale about a man and his dog. Mr. Hublot is an obsessive-compulsive with dots for eyes and elaborate goggles living in a steampunk world. When his fascination for a robotic dog disrupts his daily routine, his out-of-whack idiosyncrasies speak to how much he struggles with his newfound affection and the life he’s always known. Even if we don’t know what the counter on his bald head signifies, we can imagine him puzzling out a compromise as the numbers tick by.
In the original How to Train Your Dragon book series by Cressida Cowell, Toothless makes up in mischief what he lacks in size. On the page, the dragon is about as big as an iguana, able to sit on pal Hiccup’s arm with ease. DreamWorks Animation wanted to heighten the bond between Toothless and the hapless Viking hero, and so the black flying creature of the 2010 film was born. (The dragon’s almond-shaped eyes and round snout make him a sort of cousin to Stitch, the blue alien from 2002’s Lilo & Stitch; writer-director Chris Sanders worked on both films.) The film Toothless has retractable teeth, magnificent wings, a sly sense of humor, and body language evocative of a dog or a cat, depending on whether he’s sitting with glee or curling up to sleep. He’s also full of stirring nuances, such as when he hesitates for a second before nestling his nose into Hiccup’s outstretched hand.
Japanese writer and director Hayao Miyazaki has gifted us with many imaginative stories (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo), but 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro is one of his most endearing, thanks to the plump, pointy-eared creature of the title. Looking like a cross between a cat and a rabbit, Totoro is a woodland spirit who befriends two young girls after they move to the country while their mother is ill. He punctuates their adventures with roars, bounces, amused eyes, and a wide grin of wonder, such as when he discovers the sound of rain on an umbrella. (The creators of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3 pay tribute to Miyazaki by giving Bonnie a plush Totoro, who juggles the Pizza Planet aliens, among other fun.)
WALL-E and EVE
Film has a soft spot for emotive robots, such as 1999’s Iron Giant and Baymax in 2014’s Big Hero 6. But in 2008’s WALL-E, the titular robot and his sweetheart, EVE, hold the screen for a huge chunk of the film without any humans and about nine different words between them. The boxy, run-down WALL-E is left to clean up the Earth’s trash after humans have blasted into space. He falls hard for EVE, a sleek, egg-shaped probe searching for signs of new life. Her blue-blip eyes crinkle and she chirps an electronic giggle when WALL-E introduces her to the delights of dancing and bubble wrap. But even on his own, WALL-E, his binocular-like eyes, and claw-like fingers telegraph whimsy, loneliness, yearning, and resilience. (WALL-E builds such a strong emotional connection that Karl Iglesias of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program uses a scene from the film to illustrate creating a strong emotional response in the online course “Pixar’s Emotional Core” at Screenwriters University.)https://www.