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Cartoon physics


Cartoon physics

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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 and mugs an appropriate reaction.[1]

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

The idea that cartoons behave differently, but not randomly, 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"[2] 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.

The situation is so well-understood that it has been used as the topic of jokes for decades, as in the 1949 Looney Tunes short High Diving Hare, in which Bugs Bunny explains, "I know this defies the law of gravity; but you see, I haven't studied law!"

More recently, the cartoon characters Roger Rabbit and Bonkers D. Bobcat have their own variations on the theme, explaining that toons are allowed to bend or break natural laws for the purposes of comedy. Doing this is extremely tricky, so toons have a natural sense of comedic timing, giving them inherently funny properties. Bonkers also warns that the loss of this sense can lead to unfunny and even dangerous situations, perhaps explaining why cartoon violence, but not the real variety, is always funny.

In 1993, Stephen J. Gould writing in New Scientist noted that "... new, looney toon analysis reveals that these, seemingly nonsensical, phenomena can be described by logical laws similar to those in our world. Nonsensical events are by no means limited to the Looniverse. Laws that govern our own Universe often seem contrary to common sense."[3]. This theme is further described by Dr. Alan Cholodenko in his article, "The Nutty Universe of Animation" [4]


Why is it funny?

Adherents of evolutionary psychology have suggested that the humorous effect of cartoon physics is due to the interplay of intuitions between physics (objective) and psychology (self-perception). The physics module predicts that the cartoon character will fall over the cliff immediately, while the psychology module anthropomorphizes the force of gravity and thus see it as vulnerable to deception, as long as the actor is self-deceived .

In short, it can lead to the humorous situation where a cartoon's logic is governed by what "makes sense" (is consistent) rather than what "is" (natural law).


Commonly cited cartoon physics "laws" include:

  • No matter what happens to cats, they always return to their default shapes.
  • Any body passing through solid matter will leave a dent or cutout conforming to its perimeter. (This is obviously not true in real life; a flimsier body will break and leave a different-shaped hole. Compare to the conspiracy theories regarding the fate of American Airlines Flight 77, which left a hole in the Pentagon not conforming to its perimeter.)
  • Explosives, even if detonated close to a character's face, will cause only scorching of the skin. (Prior to the efforts of the American Civil Rights Movement, characters would often take on the appearance of blackface.) Similarly, a gun discharged directly into the face will not fire an actual bullet.
  • If a character walks off a cliff, they will not fall, and continue to walk on thin air, until they notice they have walked off the cliff. In some cases a character can avoid falling, even if they are aware there is no ground below them.
  • Alternatively, when a character runs off a cliff, notices the situation, and begins falling, at first only the body below the neck falls, during which the neck is stretched for a few seconds before the head follows.
  • If a character falls from a tall building, another character from the same floor will be able to run all the way down to ground level in order to catch the falling character before he/she hits the ground.
  • Characters are allowed to "swim" or blow themselves upwards a short distance in the air before falling normally to gravity.
  • When a character chops the only thing holding another character from falling (such as a tree branch) the chopper will fall, together with whatever he/she was standing on (such as the tree or the ground) and the other character will remain floating in the air (branch included).
  • An explosive device taken by one character will not explode until it is given back to the original character who triggered the device. Also applies to booby traps.
  • A boomerang, when thrown, will not only change direction, but will actively hunt out its thrower so that the thrower may catch it (or be hit by it), regardless of his or her relation to the initial point of the throw.
  • Motion reference frames are arbitrary. For instance, an outboard motor in a pan of water on wheels causes the motor and pan to move together. Likewise, a fan and a sail attached to a wheeled platform will cause the platform to move.
  • A gun may be fired any number of times without being reloaded.
  • Any fall is survivable.
  • Holes can be physically picked up and moved. This also applies to mouths.
  • When somebody gets hurt, bandages and plasters may appear instantly, without any person obviously having applied them.


Anvilology is the study of (cartoon) physical principles of anvils, as studied at "Acme Looniversity" in the animated series, Tiny Toons.

  • Everything falls faster than an anvil (so that the evil character can hit the ground first and then be crushed, but not killed, by the anvil).
  • Anvils are readily available.
  • Anvils have mass but not much weight, so that they are very hard to push around, but it is possible to jump out of a plane with an anvil instead of a parachute and not notice until the parachute is opened while airborne.
  • Anvils can stay in the air until noticed by a character, at which point they fall on the character.
  • If a character moves out of the way of a falling anvil, the anvil will shift its position over the character before falling, so that it crushes (but does not kill) the character.

Cartoon collision physics

Cartoon collision physics are a subset of cartoon physics regarding the laws of collisions. Note that these laws deliberately refer to male subjects; bad things do not generally happen to women.

For a given cartoon character C:

  1. If C runs into a wall,
    a: If the wall is too thick, C will strike it and flatten out like dough, often regardless of clothing.
    b: If the wall is thin enough, he will leave a hole in the wall in the shape of his body.
  2. If C runs into something made of metal, he will dent it in the shape of his body.
  3. If C runs off a cliff, the impact crater he leaves will conform with Rule 1b.
  4. If C has a fragile body,
    a: Running into any wall will cause him to be squashed into a musical instrument (usually an accordion), or
    b: Any collision or fall will fracture him into a zillion pieces.
  5. If C runs into a wall which has been painted to look like part of the landscape or a tunnel:
    a: If the "camera" angle blends the painting with the actual landscape, he will enter the landscape or tunnel as though it were real.
    b: If he was the one who painted the wall, he will just run into the wall — see Rule 1.
    c: If the "camera" views the painting at an angle such that it is, without doubt, a painting on a wall, he will just run into the wall — see Rule 1.
    d: Trains or large trucks are often known to drive out of walls painted in this way, usually just after the painter has slammed into the wall and is feeling sheepish for having fallen for their own ruse. However, if the view of the oncoming vehicle is blocked, then the vehicle will apparently stop.

Laws of Cartoon Thermodynamics

The Laws of Cartoon Thermodynamics are physical laws in the cartoon universe identified by Trevor Paquette and Lt. Justin D. Baldwin and popularized by film critic Roger Ebert. They overlap greatly with the older concept of "laws of cartoon physics".

  • Any body suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation (plus an interval for live falling bodies to express an appropriate emotion).
  • Any body in motion will tend to remain in motion until solid matter intervenes suddenly.
  • Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter.
  • The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twenty flights to attempt to capture it unbroken.
  • All principles of gravity are negated by fear.
  • As speed increases, objects can be in several places at once.
  • Certain bodies can pass through solid walls painted to resemble tunnel entrances; others cannot.
  • Any violent rearrangement of feline matter is impermanent.
  • Everything falls faster than an anvil.
  • Guns, no matter how powerful, or no matter where aimed, will do nothing more than char flesh, blow away feathers, or rearrange beaks. In certain ocasions, they leave a perfectly circular hole that goes completely through the body of the character being shot, but this does not affect his/her health in any way.
  • Any given amount of explosives will propel a body miles away, but still in one piece, charred and extremely peeved.
  • Arms holding large falling weights are infinitely elastic, but will eventually drag the holder along.

Anime physics

Anime physics can be considered a subset of cartoon physics - a set of rules used in cartoons to twist or ignore the laws of physics for humorous or dramatic effect. These are commonly seen in anime but not so common in cartoons. Normally, these are referenced from popular series in the past. Note that many of these laws only apply to shounen series.

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 the name of the "special move" used in the attack, or for bystanders to comment on the situation), or by looping three times.
    • Similarly, transformations (especially those animated with stock footage) also seem to stop time until completed, allowing them to be used to counter attacks, or not allowing the person to be attacked while performing them.
  • An angry or embarrassed 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 and the male will usually survive.
  • Attacks strong enough to shred entire planets will not destroy anyone's pants (but will usually destroy all other clothing). Conversely, certain explosions can destroy a female character's clothing without significantly harming her body—in some cases, without her initially noticing this.
  • Any fire-based attack on a character will not completely burn his/her clothes but will leave black stains instead.
  • Hair is usually more resiliant then the rest of the body, or regenerates in an infinitly small amount of time. Attacks which seriously damage, or even kill a character, will leave its hair intact, although sometimes messed up. When severe damage to the hair does occur, the hair is fully regenerated and identical to its appearance before the violation at the moment the character is healed. This has no connection to the amount of hair required to grow back, nor to the amount of time available.


  1. ^ In a neologism contest held by New Scientist, a winning entry coined the term "coyotus interruptus" for this phenomenon—a pun on coitus interruptus and Wile E. Coyote, who fell to his doom this way particularly often.
  2. ^ O'Donnell's Laws of Cartoon Motion", Esquire, 6/80, reprinted in IEEE Institute, 10/94; V.18 #7 p.12. Copy on Web
  3. ^ Stephen J. Gould, Looney Tuniverse: There is a crazy kind of physics at work in the world of cartoons (1993) New Scientist
  4. ^ Dr. Alan Cholodenko, "The Nutty Universe of Animation, The “Discipline” of All “Disciplines”, And That’s Not All, Folks!" International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.