Cartoon Characters With Surprisingly Deep Backstories

Bring out your tissues

Cartoon Characters With Surprisingly Deep Backstories
Donald with his nephews. Credit: Disney

Once solely the domain of children's entertainment, nowadays, a lot more effort goes into making cartoons enjoyable for all ages. A big part of this is a lot more thought going into certain characters, their feelings and motivations.

As a result of this, quite a few characters have grown beyond their one-joke schticks, and even in older shows, we often find characters with backstories much deeper and more complicated than we realised.

1. Donald Duck

Donald in his army days. Credit: Disney.

In many early Disney theatrical shorts, Donald Duck, while sometimes quick to anger, is mostly a lighthearted character, usually serving as one third of a comedic trio with Mickey and Goofy. However, throughout WWII, Donald was chosen to star in a series of propaganda films, wherein he serves as in the U.S military. One of these shorts, Commando Duck, sees Donald on a mission to wipe out a Japanese airfield, and is the only Disney theatrical short in which a regular character directly engages with enemy forces.

In shorts produced after WWII, his temper has worsened, and he seems to have become more sensitive to loud noises, a weakness his nephews often exploit when playing pranks on him. In recent years, some fans have theorised that in the post-war shorts, Donald is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In the 2017 Ducktales reboot, any references to the War have been omitted for obvious reasons, but Donald still suffers from trauma of a different kind, stemming from the disappearance of his twin sister, Della. Donald still suffers from anger management issues, but unlike the classic shorts, where his quick temper is treated as a humorous personality quirk, 2017 Donald acknowledges that he has a problem.

Della's disappearance leaves Donald as the sole guardian of his three nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The season 2 episode 'Whatever Happened To Donald Duck?' reveals that Donald, wanting to be the best parent he could, sought anger management counselling soon after taking custody of the boys. While he still has a temper, he learned to focus, channelling his anger into protective instincts towards the boys.

2. Wilt (Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends)

While it is rarely mentioned, Wilt from Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends has clearly been through some rough times. He has a missing arm, a damaged eye, and various scars scattered over his body. Some fans theorised that Wilt may have sprung from the imagination of a disabled child, possibly an amputee which, as well as Wilt's missing arm, could have explained his unwavering politeness; particularly his need to hold the door open for everyone in the episode "Store Wars." Unfortunately, the truth behind Wilt's disfigurement is much more brutal.

Wilt was created by a bullied child, Jordan, to help him improve his Basketball skills. Together, Jordan and Wilt become a formidable team on the Basketball court. Jordan's former bully creates his own imaginary friend with which to challenge them, and true to his name, Foul Larry, this friend is the King of playing dirty. While protecting Jordan from Larry, Wilt is grievously injured, his eye crushed, and arm mangled beyond repair. Devastated by the incident, Wilt flees, making him the only Imaginary Friend in the series to have willingly left his creator.

3. Chuckie Finster (Rugrats)

For Rugrats first three seasons, the whereabouts of Chuckie Finster's mother was not touched upon. She was mentioned once or twice in the early days, but never seen, with the show quickly shifting to portray Chas Finster as a single father.

Season 4's "Mother's Day" episode, the first Rugrats ep to premiere in prime time, finally revealed the truth. Chuckie's mother Melinda Finster died of a terminal illness when Chuckie was a baby. While the earlier events of the episode clearly hinted at the cause of death, the final reveal of Melinda's demise is truly heartbreaking. Few would have expected to be confronted by the topic of death while watching a cartoon about babies.

Adding to this, Chuckie's eyes fail him at a young age, leading him to see everything as some sort of monster when he is not wearing his glasses. This, along with the loss of his beloved and calming maternal influence, probably explains why he is so easily frightened throughout the series.

4. Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

In the early episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Iroh serves as little more than a companion for his banished nephew, Prince Zuko, offering wisdom and advice that Zuko usually misinterprets, or chooses not to take. He can fight competently, and often does to help Zuko, but would much prefer to avoid it.

However, Zuko was not always so wise. As the series unfolds, it is eventually revealed that Iroh, not Zuko's Father Ozai, was originally supposed to be the next Fire Lord. His 'Blood boiled with the desire for power', and he willingly fought in the Hundred Year War, taking territory for the Fire Nation. When his son Lu Ten falls in battle, the heartbroken Iroh lost the desire for power, giving up his claim to the Fire Nation throne. After travelling the world for a time, Iroh's perspective on life changes, and he comes to believe there may be a chance for peace between the Four Nations. In time, he helps guide Zuko onto the path of peace as well.

5. Mewtwo

The version of Mewtwo's beginnings that most Western audiences know — seen in the English cut of Pokemon: The First Movie — seems bad enough. Mewtwo is created by scientists to use as a test subject for Team Rocket's evil leader Giovanni, who seeks to use him as a weapon. Sadly, this is not the whole story.

Another early section of the film, "The Origin Of Mewtwo," (cut from the original English release for being too dark and depressing) delves deeper into the backstory. The professor in charge of creating Mewtwo had recently lost his young daughter Amber, and attempted to create a clone of her alongside Mewtwo, as well as clones of Bulbasaur, Charmander and Squirtle. Soon, the clones begin to communicate telepathically, with Mewtwo and Ambertwo forming a particularly close bond. Sadly, the other clones are too weak to survive the cloning process, and soon begin to fade away. As Ambertwo fades, she reminds Mewtwo that life is wonderful.

Mewtwo's mental anguish over the loss of his friends almost overwhelms his still-fragile body, and the scientists are forced to wipe his memories of the other clones, returning him to a fully unconscious state. When the fully grown Mewtwo wakes sometime later, he vaguely remembers Ambertwo's final words:

"Life is wonderful... But why?"

6. Mr. Huynh (Hey Arnold)

Of all the sad backstories in Hey, Arnold!, Mr Huynh's is by far the most heart-wrenching. In one episodeArnold struggles to come up with a gift for Mr. Huynh after drawing his name in the boarding house's annual Secret Santa. Spending some time with Mr. Huynh in hopes of discovering a perfect present for him, Arnold soon learns more of his housemate's sad history.

Years before the series begins, Mr. Huynh lived a contented life in a small Vietnamese village with his young daughter Mai. Sadly, his happiness couldn't last, as the Vietnam War broke out. A single helicopter came to Mr. Huynh's village with an offer of help, but they only had room for one refugee. With a heavy heart, Mr. Huynh gives up Mai, allowing her to be taken to safety in the unknown city where Hey Arnold! takes place.

After the war ended, Mr. Huynh traveled to America to search for Mai, but had thus far been unable to find her.

Thankfully, with some secret assistance from bully/secret admirer Helga, and an initially unhelpful council record keeper, Arnold manages to locate Mai and reunite her with Mr. Huynh, just in time for Christmas.

7. The Ice King (Adventure Time)

Portrayed as a typical one-dimensional villain in the earliest episodes of Adventure Time, it is eventually revealed that the Ice King is truly a much deeper character. The Ice King was once a human archaeologist named Simon Petrikov. Intelligent and kind-hearted, Simon doted on "his princess," fiancée Betty, and in the days of the Mushroom War, became a guardian to the vampire girl Marceline after finding her alone in some ruins.

Sadly, things went downhill for poor Simon after he came into possession of a magical crown. Upon placing the circle of jewels on his head, Simon began to suffer blackouts, strange visions and memory loss. Afraid, Betty left, and with his blackouts worsening, Simon eventually abandoned Marceline for her own safety. The crown eventually warped Simon's body and mind, leaving him with no memory of his former self.

8. Tommy Pickles (Rugrats)

Didi comforts Tommy.

In the words of his best friend Chuckie Finster, Tommy Pickles is:

"The bravest baby I ever knowed."

Throughout nine seasons of Rugrats, Tommy courageously leads his friends from adventure to adventure without a second thought. While no explanation is really needed for this, the show gives one anyway.

A flashback sequence in the Mother's Day special, showing Didi Pickles visiting baby Tommy in an incubator, strongly implies that he was born premature. Tommy Pickles is brave because he may have had to fight for his life from the moment he was born.

Nowadays, more and more people are recognising animation as a medium suited to great storytelling. Let's hope this brings us more stories like those above.

pop culture
Kristy Anderson
Kristy Anderson
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Kristy Anderson

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