Monday, March 28, 2011

Character Spotlight: Figaro

Pinocchio is full of endearing characters - the innocent puppet boy himself, the beautiful and benevolent Blue Fairy, the goofy and loving Gepetto, and on and on. One character - Jiminy Cricket - even went on to become one of Disney's chief mascots (perhaps behind only Tinkerbell and Mickey Mouse himself in order of Company spokes-toons). But there is another Pinocchio character that had a career beyond his appearance in this film (most of it long ago, but recently slightly returning): Figaro the Cat.

First, though, let's look at Figaro in Pinocchio itself. Figaro isn't really part of the main plot, nor does he have any kind of subplot or storyline himself. He's just there to provide comic relief, and he fulfills this function superbly, effectively stealing the few scenes that he's in. He's an adorable fuzzball one moment, cranky and petulant the next. He's a bit like certain kinds of candy: switching quickly from sweet to sour, but always delicious.

Watch both of those flavors in full effect in this scene from Pinocchio, as Figaro is ready to drift off to sleep and keeps getting interrupted by Gepetto:

Figaro is barely anthropomorphized - anyone who's ever lived with a cat will recognize the Figaro shares a lot with his real-life counterparts: the way he wiggles his rear before pouncing, the way he raises a paw to swipe at dangling objects, his general attitude. You don't need to watch any DVD extras or read a making-of book to know the Disney animators studied the movements of real cats when animating Figaro: you can clearly see that in the results. Aside from being given more traditional cartoon eyes and more human facial expressions, Figaro is very much a cat.

Figaro was such an endearing presence onscreen that audiences wanted more of him - and they got it as the little black and white cat went on to appear in several cartoon shorts. Continuity with the movie (and even with the other shorts themselves) was thrown out the window. Sometimes, Figaro (along with his Pinocchio co-star Cleo) belonged to human owners, as in this 1943 short where the little cat takes the starring role and is thwarted in his attempts to eat his co-star by a woman who calls herself Aunt Delilah:

Maybe Aunt Delilah eventually got sick of Figaro's attempts to eat Cleo, kept the fish and kicked out the cat. Because in his next appearance, he's no-longer living with the fish and the woman, but belongs to Minnie Mouse herself, and has to play second fiddle to Pluto (or the indignity!) in 1944's First Aiders:

Figaro still belonged to Minnie, but returned to the starring role in his next short,1946's Bath Day. Apparently nobody told Minnie Mouse that cats are pretty good about bathing themselves (side note: one alley cat that appears in this looks a lot like Pinocchio's other cat, Gideon, at times):

Figaro got top billing in just one more short, 1947's Figaro and Frankie, this time taking on a role perhaps a bit too much like Loony Tune's Sylvester, attempting to eat Minnie's newest pet, a little yellow canary named Frankie. Frankie totally starts it, though. Also, I'm noticing a recurring device in which poor Figaro is forced to kiss his enemy at the end of most of these cartoons: first Cleo, then Pluto, now Frankie!

After that, it was back to playing second banana to Pluto in two more shorts, first coming closest to his Pinocchio routes in Cat Nap Pluto in which Pluto is exhausted from staying out all night, and Figaro keeps trying to wake him to play. In addition to returning to more of that sweet and sour mix, it also features some great real-cat inspired animation. The 1940s and Figaro's career in animated shorts both ended with 1949's Pluto's Sweater. Still living with Minnie, Figaro here has a pretty small part, taunting Pluto for a silly sweater he's made to wear before eventually getting his comeuppance.

That undignified end was the last time Figaro appeared onscreen for 50 years, until retuning in 1999 as Minnie's pet cat in the television series, Mickey Mouse Works. I'll admit I wasn't even aware of this series before researching this post, and... it doesn't look like I was missing much. You can see Figaro not doing very much in this cartoon from the series about Daisy imposing on Minnie's hospitality. That same year, he popped up briefly in Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas. In recent years, he's shown up yet again as Minnie's pet in the preschool-aimed show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. He shows up very briefly at the end of this clip. It's possible Figaro has more substantial appearances in the show other times, but I can't bring myself to watch anymore of it to find out. Knock yourself out if you want to go looking.

So while it's still been a very long time since Figaro's really been given the spotlight, he has had more of a life outside of this original feature appearance than most Disney characters. And who knows, he could still get another starring role someday. By my count he hasn't used up all nine of his lives quite yet.

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