In my book, I classify this expression as the Eager Smile (top, left). Whatever name you give it, this particular pose has inspired thousands of cartoon versions, where artists have found the smile/wide eye pattern to be highly effective in creating character appeal. It has been a popular animator’s strategy for decades, with Bugs Bunny (top, center) and Mickey Mouse, the pioneers, and Woody (top, right), a more recent and very successful successor.
Once an artist is committed to a character design with perpetual Hyper-Alert Eyes, there are certain advantages and disadvantages in terms of emotional range. With such characters, all facial expressions are potentially exaggerated – anger, in particular. Anger, in fact, is so easy to express with hyper-alert characters, that it’s no wonder that Donald Duck (left) is so often, and so effectively, out of sorts. The combination of the strongly-marked frown and the extra-wide eye is a formula for comically intense rage (think: Elmer Fudd). Donald also demonstrates how a tiny grimace in the very corner of the mouth – even with the rest of the mouth (beak) neutral - is all you need to make the entire mouth look angry.
The downside of designing Hyper-Alert characters is that other expressions can be more challenging to create. Since Hyper-Alert Eyes typically do not include visible eyelids, lids need to be specially (and temporarily) introduced to express conditions like sleepiness or winking. Sometimes this is awkwardly accomplished; Flik (left), the ant character from A Bugs Life, does not wear his added-on-looking eyelids very convincingly.
Sadness, as well, is also much more effective when the iris is occluded from above, which requires the elimination of Hyper-Alert Eyes. While the Pixar team did a good job of introducing natural-looking eyelids for Woody (left)—to express his state of sadness, they did not go far enough in lowering his lids.
Sad Woody by Pixar animators.
Sadder Woody by Faigin.
Perhaps they didn’t want to give up his Hyper-Alert look? Having no such qualms, I have modified Woody’s eyes (left, below) to look much sadder by lowering his eyelids until they partially obscure his irises. Because of these disadvantages, if a character designer plans on having a character express sadness with regularity, s/he might think twice about the wisdom of using Hyper-Alert Eyes in the first place. Disgust is also impossible without closing the eyes, and fear and surprise are hard to distinguish from each other if the eyes are already extra-wide to begin with.
Stylized characters inhabit their own universe with its own rules. Hyper-Alert Eyes are a great example of a stylization of the face which is not literal, cannot be duplicated with motion capture, and potentially adds much more energy to an animated scenario.
“Complex Smiles – Eager” from “The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression,” page 226, by Gary Faigin, 1990.
Bugs Bunny, animated cartoon character, created by staff of Leon Schlesinger Productions (later Warner Bros. Cartoons), featured in Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies.
Sheriff Woody Pride (a.k.a. Sheriff Woody and Woody), main character of “Toy Story” (1995), produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Donald Duck, animated cartoon character, created in 1934 at Walt Disney Productions; most famously drawn by Al Taliaferro, Carl Barks, and Don Rosa.
Flik, animated cartoon character, starring in “A Bug's Life” (1998), produced by Pixar Animation Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.