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Mr. Bean Goes to the Cartoons

25 Jul, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

One of the most ordinary guys in the world is also one of the most recognized faces, and that face will get even more exposure Sept. 30 with the DVD debut of Mr. Bean: The Animated Series Vols. 1 & 2 from A&E Home Video.

“In the end, the whole point of Mr. Bean is that he's a very ordinary guy,” said Rowan Atkinson, who has built a career on his comic expressions, physical comedy and irrepressible characters.

Although even the live-action Bean is a kind of cartoon, the animated Bean presented unique challenges for Atkinson, who is used to working out the expressions and gestures he plays out in front of a TV or movie camera.

“The problem with [animating] Mr. Bean is that all the comedy comes from the visual elements. To a certain extent, the making it funny is out of our hands,” Atkinson said. “The business of actually instigating laughter is not really in my hands.”

That's a big change for a man who agrees with colleagues who say he insists on going over every detail repeatedly before a live performance.

“I don't improvise in any shape or form. I can visually, but I can't improvise verbally,” he said. For that reason, “It's not harder to script, but it's harder in terms of the sheer volume of material you have to create. The problem is, the animators have to make the jokes work in an entirely visual context. I was able to provide a kind of template that they work on. They were able to pick out scenes and say, ‘How would he react if the doorknob came off in his hand? How would he look at that?’

In those situations it was up to Atkinson to preserve the integrity of the childlike, self-indulgent Mr. Bean by serving as a model for expressions that would be reproduced in animated form.

“It's definitely more fun to be live,” he said. “The animated side is to inject other people's performance with the character. It's really other people's performance, because it's the animators bringing the character to life.”

And bring him to life they did, for an animated series that is showing in the United States on select PBS stations. The Sept. 30 release (prebook Sept. 2) includes 18 episodes in the two-disc set at $29.95.

“In theory, it creates new opportunities because it's cheaper to send him up in a hot-air balloon in a cartoon. You kick yourself if you don't take advantage of every opportunity. It arguably raises the bar,” he said. “I hope that -- as much as we could -- we played with the medium to do things we could not do in reality.”

To do the character, live or animated, Atkinson explained how to get in touch with the Inner Bean.

“Imagine what you would like as a 9-year-old and do it. I find it disturbingly easy. It's because he's so far removed from my own personality that I have the comfort to improvise so easily,” he said. “Occasionally I've done appearances for book signings or chat shows in character. It's a wonderful sort of security blanket to be Mr. Bean. And once I'm him, I do the most outrageous sorts of things. I find it all extremely relaxing. I feel quite safe within this fictional cocoon.”

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