Relying on a cliché can be comforting because you're building on something that's a known quantity. It can be easy to rationalize as well. After all, you say you want to show off your skills as an animator - not as a character designer - so why not just draw characters that are only slight variations on what we've all seen before? Why waste timing searching around for a fresh design when you really want to spend your time focusing on animating?
Well, because re-using an old design will inevitably cause you to fall into the same expressions and acting patterns as whoever animated it the first time - it's unavoidable. You won't be able to divorce your mind from the performance you've already associated with that design. You won't invent a new personality because that would be impossible - your mind already perceives that design as having a personality assigned to it. Any audience that sees it will have a hard time forgetting the personality they already know and accepting whatever new character you're trying to sell. It's an uphill battle and it's pointless.
So what if your dalmatian design isn't quite as good as Pongo? The world already has enough good Pongo drawings. Bring something new into the world that only you can do. A flawed piece that has originality is worth a thousand perfect yet lifeless copies.
One last time, I will repeat myself and say that it's all well and good to study animation and learn from what other people have brought to the art, but please please please study real life for inspiration and do your utmost to infuse the world of animation with all of the wonder, weirdness and personality of the real world.
True life is always wackier than anything we can create. If you made a student film about a rich old woman who dies and leaves all of her money to her pet dog, people would roll their eyes at what a silly and clichéd idea, and yet, it happened recently in real life.
I haven't seen "King of Kong" but I love this trailer because it's a movie about real people that look like real great personality types. Based on the trailer it appears to feature a guy who oozes arrogance because he's held the high score record on "Donkey Kong" for twenty years and has parlayed that into a Barbeque sauce empire. Again, if you created that character people would think he was too cartoony to be believed. Then he's set in conflict against a guy that appears to have failed at too many things to count and has decided that breaking the "Donkey Kong" high score is his holy grail, the accomplishment that will bring meaning to his life and that failing in this goal may bring him to utter ruination.
Now I don't know how the movie really portrays these guys and I don't know what these people are actually like in real life. Are they really that caricatured? Does the arrogant guy really answer his phone that way? I don't know, but if you were animating a vain character and you had a scene of him tossing his head back to fluff his hair, people would roll their eyes and say "that's such a cliché. Nobody really does that". And yet that guy did that very thing in the movie trailer! Did you see that?!?! Could this guy really exist? Does he really that think that being good at "Donkey Kong" makes him that much better than anyone else? Did he really use the word "brutality" to describe "Donkey Kong"? Are we still talking about the game with the plumber who jumps over barrels? Does he really talk about himself in the third person?
Seriously, nobody could write this stuff. I just love that he describes "Donkey Kong" as "brutality" because it shows how amazing he thinks he is for beating it. His choice of words reveals a lot about his character.
The point is that reality is way wackier than any cartoon ever was, and way better. I get more entertainment out of watching people in public than any sitcom. Get your ideas and inspiration from real life, not from cartoons. The guys that made the old cartoons that you love didn't sit around watching animation all day because that wasn't possible back then. They studied real people because they knew that that was the best place to get ideas.
I once talked to a student who was telling me about the time he had to animate a walk cycle for his animation class. No character design was given so he told me that he decided to use "Mowgli" from "The Jungle Book". He told me he wasn't sure how Mowgli would walk so he just copied the "Shaggy" walk cycle from "Scooby-Doo".
Good grief, what more can I say to convince you that animation needs to look outside itself for fresh ideas?
I always notice that there are people who draw great "running" and "walking" poses for storyboarding. There are a couple of stereotypical poses that everybody uses to say "this character is walking" or "this character is running". Crack open any cartoon book and you'll see them.
I always feel like a complete boob because I can't bust out those easy walk and run poses. Part of it is that I can't stand to use those stereotypical poses. They work really well, so I should, but I can't bring myself to because I always feel like every drawing should describe the personality of the character, as well as their mood at the moment. Every person in the world has a different walk that describes their personality. You can tell by a person's walk what kind of mood they're in, how tired they are, what age they are...people walk differently on their way into work than they do when they're heading outside to get some lunch and different still when they're heading home. People run differently to catch the ice cream truck than they do when they're running towards their long-lost love and differently still when there's a murderer chasing them.
So a lot of the time my walking and running drawings look kind of dopey. They're not always successful, and they probably would be if I just repeated the same stock poses every time. But I'd rather be original and end up with a crummy drawing once in a while. I hope you'll take the same risk.
Whenever I have to board out a run or a walk I pull out the Muybridge photos. I still like looking at them because they help me picture a walk in three dimensions. You never end up drawing a walk or a run from the side. A lot of the time it's from a dramatic angle - like the camera is down low or high up and the character is coming towards camera or going away. That's when Muybridge is helpful because your mind can deal with adding the perspective as well as the mood and personality and the photos can be your reference for where the limbs will be in space in relation to one another.
If you don't have any books with the Muybridge photos, Amazon.com has a great selection of different editions to choose from.
I bought an edition of the Muybridge photos that can be used as royalty-free clip art and it came with a CD of high quality jpegs. So here's a little taste of reality that you can use for inspiration next time you need some reference. There's a lot more to share so I'll post more soon. Also there's a version with animals I want to get so I'll post some of those someday too.
This are very high-res so click on them to see them big.