One strange quirk about animation is that cartoon characters more often than not only have four fingers. Mickey Mouse, Homer Simpson, SpongeBob SquarePants, Looney Tunes, the Flintstones, Tom and Jerry, the Genie in Aladdin, and so many other animated characters all have just three fingers and a thumb. It’s not immediately obvious, but once you notice it, you’ll see it everywhere. So what’s up with the four-finger design choice? The animation-centric YouTube channel ChannelFrederator digs into this animation mystery in a fascinating new 10-minute video.
It turns out there’s not one concise answer, but a whole bunch of different factors that influenced the four-finger aesthetic. For one thing, it simply makes hands easier to draw. In the era of hand-drawn animation, having one less digit on every character in every cel could potentially save animators a ton of time, which, in turn, saved companies a ton of money. But there are other factors as well. A lot of early animation featured a rounded character design made up largely of circles (think Felix The Cat and Mickey Mouse). That didn’t leave a ton of room for rounded fingers on a rounded palm. As Walt Disney put it, “Using five fingers would have made Mickey’s hands look like a bunch of bananas.”
But there are even more factors at play too, like the fact that so many cartoon characters are animals, who we don’t necessarily associate with having five digits anyway. Plus four fingers strikes the perfect balance between a character looking alien, as they can with three fingers, and crossing over into the uncanny valley, as they can with five. The video also digs into the similarly complicated set of factors that influence why Japanese anime characters generally do feature hands with five fingers. That includes everything from superstition to Yakuza tradition. And ChannelFrederator explains how an ancient Japanese caste system still has a long-lasting impact on animation in Japan today, one that’s even caused Disney to pay retribution to lobbyist groups to avoid controversy over their four-fingered characters.