Rubber hose animation was the first animation style that became standardized in the American animation field. The defining feature is the curving motion most things possess, resembling that of a rubber hose. While the style fell out of fashion during the 1930s, there has been a minor revitalization of it in recent years with works such as the video games Cuphead and Bendy and the Ink Machine, and the film Steven Universe: The Movie.
In the early days of hand drawn animation in the 1920s, the studios' main areas were not in Hollywood, but New York City. Animation was a new phenomenon and there were no experienced animators; yet there were skilled artists working on newspapers, creating comic strips in a time when even the comic strips themselves were relatively new. Many of them became fascinated with the introduction of moving drawings, and saw them as new possibilities and challenges to use their skills on something they found more exciting than the newspaper strips.
For this reason, many of the first cartoons had many similarities with moving comic strips. The artists experimented with what worked and what did not, and what they could and could not do. In the strips, they had no need to think of their work in three dimensions or how they moved, but at the same time this extra aspect gave them the opportunity to introduce gags and elements not possible in comic stills. Moreover, because the drawings had to be mass-produced to create the illusion of movement, they had to come up with a compromise where characters were less detailed and time-consuming, but at the same time alive and complex enough. As animators gained experience through trial, error and collaborations, cartoons became more professional and dominated by specific rules of how to make them.
The studios had to be sensitive to any new business trend to survive the competition. A consequence of this was that the style and design of the most successful and popular cartoons had a great impact on the rest of the animation business. One of the earliest examples was Felix the Cat, who quickly spawned imitators at different studios. Combined with the natural evolution of animation, this resulted in a dominating design that would be known as the rubber hose style, despite individual differences between the studios. Bill Nolan is credited with the introduction of this animation style.
Rubber hose animation gradually faded away as cartoons were made more sophisticated, especially by Walt Disney. Disney wanted to make his cartoons more realistic and have them follow much of the same rules as live action, a direction that would later be named full animation. Disney saw animation as a potential surrogate for live action, where he could do what was impossible in live action once it achieved his demands of realism. This direction did not allow the fluid bodies seen in the rubber hose style and, due to Disney's success, this trend was spread to the remaining producers of cartoons through demands from their Hollywood distributors.
Rubber-hose trademarks appeared in some later cartoons, including those of Tex Avery for MGM, The Warner Siblings for WB Animation, or Ren and Stimpy, but the original style and its influence became a part of animation history by the start of the 1930s, and went out of favor by the mid-1930s. Fleischer Studios held to it the longest, finally conforming to the more contemporary West Coast animation style by 1940. The style's influence, however, still continues into the present, with shows like Adventure Time incorporating some of rubber hose animation's elements, and Cuphead the video game paying full homage.
While there are not many uses of rubber hose animation today, there are some media that pay homage to the animation style.
Main article: Get a Horse!
In 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios produced a 3D animated slapstick comedy short film using the style. Get a Horse! combines black-and-white hand-drawn animation and color CGI animation; the short features the characters of the late 1920s Mickey Mouse cartoons and features archival recordings of Walt Disney in a posthumous role as Mickey Mouse. It is the first original Mickey Mouse theatrical animated short since Runaway Brain (1995) and the first appearance of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in a Disney animated production in 85 years.
Some video games use rubber hose animation, including Epic Mickey, Bendy and the Ink Machine, Cuphead, and early Sonic the Hedgehog games, shows and comics. Skullgirls includes the playable character "Peacock", whose visual design and attacks draw from 1920s animation tropes. Bendy and the Ink Machine' s characters are based on 1920s rubber hose animation, having the appearance of old black and white cartoons. Smite has two gods with skins that take inspiration from the rubber hose animation with Baron Samedi as Funny Bones and Cthulhu as Toon Mania. The animation for each of Cuphead's numerous characters and creatures relies heavily on techniques pioneered by the animation style; its creators wanted players to feel as though they were watching a 1930s cartoon. Sonic the Hedgehog also had rubber hose limbs, especially in the games in the 90s. An example of his rubber hose limbs is evident in his trademark pose with one hand on his hip, a waving finger and crossed legs, seen on the box art of his original game. He also uses some exaggerated running poses. The 2023 video game Pizza Tower shows the characters animated in a similar, cartoonish art style.
The Japanese trading-card game Yu-Gi-Oh! and the franchise it is based around features a line of cards called 'Toons', based on 1920s American animation styles (to contrast with the Japanese animation style of most cards).
In the manga One Piece, the protagonist Monkey D. Luffy eats a fruit that gives him the ability to stretch like rubber, which he enhances using techniques similar to those in rubber hose cartoons, such as blowing air into his arm to increase its size and punching power. When awakening all its power as "Gear 5", Luffy gains the ability to use fighting techniques based on other rubber hose animation style, such as tearing a piece of ground like a mat to deflect attacks, while he himself (and those that are in his vicinity) also behave similarly to rubber hose cartoons, such as having his head deform around a spiked club and take its shape, or cause people around him to have exaggerated eye pops. It was confirmed at a later interview that Gear 5 is heavily inspired by Tom and Jerry cartoons.
While "rubber hose" characters can be amusing, it is difficult to create a subtle acting performance in this style of animation. Rubber-hose animation handles squash, stretch, and other distortions in a technique that calls attention to itself.