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Who Is The Oldest Cartoon Character In The World?

Walt Disney may have birthed the animation industry as we know it today, but the art form itself dates back long before the days of Mickey Mouse and Snow White. And arguably the first character to kick off this dominating medium was a little clown with a cigar.

In 1911, cartoonist Winsor McCay created the animated short film "Little Nemo," based on his surreal 1905 comic strip series "Little Nemo in Slumberland." The film primarily takes place in live action, as McCay, accompanied by other entertainers from the time, such as actor John Bunny and fellow cartoonist George McManus, wagers a bet that he can make 4,000 drawings move within a month. Despite their doubts, the artist succeeds in his mission as the film's final two minutes consist of the "Nemo" cast coming to fully animated life, with the first moving figure being the clown Flip smoking a cigar. 

While works such as J. Stuart Blackton's 1906 "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" and Émile Cohl's 1908 "Fantasmagorie" preceded it, "Little Nemo" was a huge leap forward in character animation. Even if they lack the anatomical complexity of Disney's work, the cast is nevertheless able to pair their recognizable and personality-filled gestures with bizarre movements that perfectly capture the fantastical strangeness of McCay's comic. 

For its time, "Little Nemo" was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before, even proving influential to Walt Disney in his early days. Little would they know, this was far from the last of McCay's animated achievements. 

Gertie was one of the first dinosaur movie stars

Long before the days of "Jurassic Park," Winsor McCay used his animated magic to bring life to one of the most enduring cartoons ever crafted with 1914's "Gertie the Dinosaur." Much like "Little Nemo," the short begins with a live-action McCay betting that he can animate a dinosaur while at a museum with some acquaintances. He presents his work during a dinner, which showcases the titular Apatosaurus obeying various commands given by an off-screen McCay while getting herself into mischief. 

Presented as a vaudeville act where the real McCay interacted with his animated creature on stage, "Gertie the Dinosaur" was a groundbreaking achievement at the time. Not only is Gertie considered the first movie dinosaur, forever cementing the prehistoric creatures as movie icons, but the craft used to bring the animal to life pushed the limits of the medium. The process was especially laborious this time around. While McCay utilized key and looping animation techniques that saved time, he and art student John A. Fitzsimmons had to also trace the background in each frame. 

It all paid off, however, as McCay brought a more believable sense of weight and physics to Gertie than his previous characters, all while still imbuing her with a humorous personality. In 1994, "Gertie the Dinosaur" was selected by 1,000 industry professionals as the sixth greatest cartoon of all time in the book "50 Greatest Cartoons." And even decades later, Winsor McCay's creations are still being honored in other ways.

Little Nemo has other adaptations...including one with Jason Mamoa

Winsor McCay's style made huge leaps following 1911's "Little Nemo." But the film and the comic series it was based on remain McCay's claim to fame even over 100 years later. Part of the legacy of McCay's enduring series is the array of cinematic adaptations that aimed to breathe new life into his imaginative world. 

The first came in 1989 with the American-Japanese animated co-production "Little Nemo in Slumberland." Like the comic, it follows Nemo venturing to the mystical Slumberland, but this time around he must also face the dreaded Nightmare King, who seeks to cause chaos in the fantastical land. The project had an infamously troubled production, with some surprisingly big names such as Hayao Miyazaki, Brad Bird, Ray Bradbury, and even George Lucas contributing to the film one way or another. As a result of the hectic production, however, the film flopped at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.

In 2022, audiences got another "Little Nemo" adaptation with Netflix's "Slumberland." The film loosely adapts the comic, depicting a female Nemo (Marlow Barkley) who embarks on a journey to reunite with her long-lost father alongside Flip (Jason Mamoa), here shown as a goat-human con artist, as opposed to the clown from the original comic. Helmed by  "I Am Legend" director Francis Lawerence, the film currently sits at a 40% Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes, with many criticizing its over-reliance on spectacle.