Cartoon physics

From Academic Kids

Cartoon physics is a joking reference to the fact that animation allows regular laws of physics to be ignored in humorous ways. For example, when a cartoon character runs off a cliff, gravity has no effect until the character notices that he is standing on thin air.

The phrase also reflects the fact that many of the most famous American cartoons, particularly those from the Warner Brothers and MGM studios, unconsciously developed a relatively consistent set of such "laws" that have become regularly applied in comic animation.

Adherents of evolutionary psychology have suggested that the humorous effect of cartoon physics is due to the interplay of different mental modules adapted to physics and psychology. The physics module predicts that the cartoon character will fall over the cliff immediately, while the psychology module is drawn to anthropomorphize the force of gravity and thus see it as vulnerable to deception as long as the actor is self-deceived.

The cartoon characters Roger Rabbit and Bonkers T. Bobcat have their own variations on the theme, explaining that toons are allowed to bend or break natural laws occasionally, so long as it's funny.



The idea that cartoons behave differently than the real world is virtually as old as animation. Walt Disney, for example, spoke of the plausible impossible, deliberately mispronouncing the second word so it rhymed with the first.

Specific reference to cartoon physics extends back at least to June of 1980, when an article O'Donnell's Laws of Cartoon Motion appeared in Esquire magazine. A version printed in 1994 by the IEEE in a journal for engineers helped spread the word among the technical crowd, which has expanded and refined the idea. Dozens of websites exist outlining these laws.


Other commonly cited cartoon physics "laws" include:

  • Everything falls faster than an anvil (the fundamental principle of anvilology).
  • No matter what happens to cats, they always return to their default shapes.
  • A large amount of explosives, even if detonated close to a character's face, will only cause scorching of the skin.
  • Cartoon collision physics totally differ from those of the "real world", for example a character fleeing in sufficient terror can punch through walls, trees, etc, leaving a precise cookie-cutter outline of himself in that medium.

Anime Physics

Anime, especially youth-oriented or comedic series, has developed a similar set of rules that also twist or ignore the Laws of Physics for humourous or dramatic effect. Many are similar to those used in American cartoons, although some are different. Examples include:

  • Dramatic moments tend to distort time, either by slowing it down (usually long enough to call out the name of an attacker, or for bystanders to comment on the situation), or by looping three times.
  • Human Bodies contain more blood than they would normally, often under high pressure.
  • An angry girl will be able to hit any male (usually one who is romantically involved with her) hard enough to knock him into low Earth orbit.
  • Characters have an extradimensional storage space normally used for the concealment of weapons or tools. This is usually an oversized mallet in the case of many females. Because of this, this space is commonly known as Hammerspace.
  • Any character of superior athletic ability can jump no less than ten feet into the air.
  • Fight attacks strong enough to shred entire planets will not destroy anyone's pants.
  • Conversely, certain explosions can destroy a female character's clothing without significantly harming her body -- in some cases, without her initially noticing this.

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