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Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: June 9, 1947
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
‘Coo-Coo Bird’ is the second and the better of two Woody Woodpecker cartoons of 1947 about sleeplessness, the other one being ‘Smoked Hams’. In his struggle with inanimate things, Woody resembles Donald Duck a lot in this cartoon, not too surprising as Donald Duck was well-known to director Dick Lundy, who co-created that character. ‘Coo-Coo Bird’ even anticipates a very similar Donald Duck cartoon called ‘Drip Dippy Donald’ (1948) in which Donald is kept awake by a dripping tap.
Watch ‘Coo-Coo Bird’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Release Date: September 23, 2005
Luckily, they actually like each other, but then Victor accidentally marries the deceased Emily who takes him to a world underground, while Victoria is forced to marry the evil lord Barkis…
‘Corpse Bride’ is a typical Tim Burton film, especially in its art direction, in its 19th century, gothic setting, in its dark humor, and in its jolly portrait of death. Because the film is also a Danny Elfman-penned musical, it feels like a successor to ‘The Nightmare before Christmas’ (1993). Nevertheless, it is far more enjoyable than that sometimes tiresome film: ‘Corpse Bride’ features only three songs, two of which help to tell the story. So, even though one could do without the musical element, it doesn’t dominate the complete film.
Also, the art of ‘Corpse Bride’ is a great improvement on ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. The dull greys and blues of the living world contrast greatly with the vivid colors of the underworld, which is clearly more fun to ‘live’ in. The designs of the puppets are extreme, and their almost flawless animation is jawdroppingly rich and expressive. The story is lean, and focuses on the three protagonists, Victor, Victoria and Emily, who all three are very likable characters. The voice cast is impressive, and includes Johnny Depp (Victor), Emily Watson (Victoria), Helena Bonham Carter (Emily) and Christopher Lee (Pastor Gallswells).
All this make ‘Corpse Bride’, together with that other stop-motion film ‘Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘, the best animated feature of 2005/2006, surpassing all computer animated films of those years. It proves that traditional animation is still viable and relevant in the computer age.
Watch the tailer for ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Gitanjali Rao
Release Date: May 2006
In this film Rao contrasts the dull and lonely reality (in grey tones) with the colorful matchbox-based fantasies. The mood is poetic, and the film progresses at a gentle speed. Rao’s designs are sometimes naive, but her animation skills are splendid. She’s absolutely one of the masters of painted animation. Especially noteworthy is her animation of the cat. Also important is Rajivan Ayyappan’s sound design, which is spot on.
‘Printed Rainbow’ is by all means a mature work. Rao’s work is even more impressive, when one considers that she wrote, animated, directed and produced the film on her own in India, a country with a rather short animation history. Although India has made some strides in commercial animation, independent animation is still very rare. Thus Rao’s work is all the more wonderful. Luckily, more people saw it that way and Rao’s film won no less than 22 awards.
Watch ‘Printed Rainbow’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: March 8, 1958
Stars: Daffy Duck, Porky Pig
Like earlier entries, such as ‘Drip-along Daffy’ (1951) or ‘Deduce You Say’ (1956), Daffy fails completely in acting out the hero he is supposed to be. In this cartoon Daffy Duck is Robin Hood, but he has a hard time proving that to a skeptical Friar Tuck (Porky Pig). He does so by relentlessly trying to rob a rich nobleman who rides on a remarkably little donkey in a hilariously silly fashion.
This nobleman character is totally unaware of the antics around him and is a late addition to a series of similar odd characters that populated many of Jones’s early films, like the Minah Bird (1941-1947) and the bearded sailor in ‘The Dover Boys‘ (1942). Daffy’s attempts, on the other hand, are more akin to those of the Coyote in the Roadrunner series. The best gag is when he tries to swing on a rope, Erroll Flynn-style, shouting “Yoicks and away”, only to crash into multiple tree trunks.
Porky is redesigned completely into Chuck Jones’s late design: with ridiculously cute eyelashes, anticipating similar redesigns of Jerry in Jones’s Tom & Jerry cartoons seven years later. The redesign is not a success, Porky looks a little too feminine and too cute for the purposes of the cartoon.
Watch ‘Robin Hood Daffy’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date: July 20, 1957
Stars: Speedy Gonzales
By then Friz Freleng had redesigned McKimson’s creation in ‘Speedy Gonzales’, which had won an Academy Award.
McKimson’s returns to Speedy Gonzales actually results in one of Speedy’s finest films. Here Speedy tries to protect two drunken mice called Pablo and Fernando from a large grey cat. ‘Tabasco Road’ is a very talkative cartoon, but it’s also inspired and charming, especially because of the characters of Pablo and Fernando, who are as intoxicating as they are intoxicated. The best gag, however, is when Speedy’s action appears too fast for the viewer, and Speedy replays it for us in slow motion.
Watch ‘Tabasco Road’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: November 10, 1956
Stars: Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote
Of course he rather has real meat, and his attempts to catch the roadrunner include a spear on a chord, a revolver on a spring, a catapult, a bundle of maces, a half-sewn-through ladder, a wheel of dynamite sticks and a rocket.
The best gag is saved for last, in which the coyote has assembled several rocks above the road. When these fail to fall on the roadrunner, the coyote nervously tries to make them fall until he realizes that he succeeds and they will fall on him. He then brings forth a sign saying “In Heaven’s name, what am I doing?”.
‘There they Go-Go-Go’ contains the most abstract backgrounds ever conceived in a Roadrunner cartoon – Maurice Noble really pushes the limits here. Nevertheless they were reused the next year in ‘Scrambled Aches’.
Watch ‘There They Go-Go-Go!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: January 5, 1945
Stars: Pepe le Pew
Oddly enough, in this cartoon Pepe turns out to be a fraud, being married and having two children. Even his voice changes in the end of the cartoon. But before this surprising finale he’s genuinely Pepe, complete with quasi-French accent, strange hop (including Stalling’s typical theme music), and a love for cats that look like skunks.
Only, in ‘Odor-able Kitty’ this is a male cat, who deliberately disguises himself as a skunk to get a happier life. He has one, until Pepe hops along. In the end, the cat washes himself and returns to his former life as victim of maltreatment, exclaiming “this is the life!”.
Pepe le Pew’s character didn’t really develop after this film, and all his films have more or less the same story as his debut film. Nevertheless Pepe would be one of the most successful of the characters conceived by Chuck Jones, second to the Roadrunner and the Coyote, only. He lasted until 1962, starring fourteen more cartoons.
Watch ‘Odor-able Kitty’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Shamus Culhane
Release Date: October 4, 1944
When the barber appears to be gone away, Woody himself steps in, maltreating a large chief and giving an Italian construction worker ‘the works’, singing the complete aria ‘Largo el factotum’ from Gioacchino Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville’.
‘Barber of Seville’ is probably inspired by the barber scene from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940), which is set to a Hungarian dance by Brahms. The cartoon in its turn probably inspired Chuck Jones, who would use the opera’s overture in ‘Rabbit of Seville’ (1950), with even better results.
‘Barber of Seville’ was the first Woody Woodpecker directed by Shamus Culhane. Culhane was an animation veteran, who had worked at Fleischer, Iwerks, Van Beuren, Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Culhane obviously understood the character better than his predecessor Alex Lovy did: the gags in ‘Barber of Seville’ are faster and funnier, and the story is more consistent than in most of the earlier Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
Moreover, Woody Woodpecker looks better than ever before. Layout man and color stylist Art Heinemann redesigned the character to make him less grotesque, and more appealing. Unfortunately, Culhane would direct only ten Woody Woodpecker shorts, before he left the studio to set up one of his own to make animation films for television.
Watch ‘Barber of Seville’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Frank Tashlin
Release Date: November 3, 1944
Unfortunately, Killer-Diller, “the wolf destroying ram” is now in charge, giving the wolf a hard time, especially when the wolf dresses up as a sexy female sheep tot lure the ram away. When to get rid of the horny ram, the wolf reveals himself as being a wolf, the ram simply replies “so am I!”.
This cartoon is full of zany silent comedy, with frequent looks into the camera by the poor wolf, anticipating similar looks by Chuck Jones’ Coyote in his Roadrunner series.
Watch an excerpt from ‘I Got Plenty of Mutton’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: December 12, 1942
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Bugs Bunny is bullied by a large magician, leading to his catch phrase “Of course you realize this means war”. In the second part of the film Bugs Bunny wrecks the magician’s show, and finally the magician himself.
Bugs’s catch phrase was borrowed from Groucho Marx, an important inspiration on Bugs Bunny’s character anyhow. The line would become typical for Bugs as directed by Chuck Jones. Unlike Bob Clampett, Jones would treat the rabbit not as intrinsically mischievous, but as reacting to injustice placed on him.
The large magician in ‘Case of the Missing Hare’ is the first of many particularly large adversaries Jones gave to Bugs, all bullying the rabbit into action. Thus, the magician is the direct forerunner of e.g. the warehouse keeper in ‘Hare Conditioned‘ (1945), the crusher in ‘Rabbit Punch‘ (1948) and Giovanni Jones in ‘Long-Haired Hare‘ (1949).
‘Case of the Missing Hare’ shows that by the end of 1942 Chuck Jones’s mastery over material had become fully realized. The cartoon features his typical character designs, extravagant key poses, original camera angles and sense of design. The latter is exemplified by background artists Gene Fleury and John McGrew’s very unnatural backgrounds. In the first part we watch pink trees and yellow skies. In the second part they got even bolder, reducing the backgrounds to abstract forms in two colors, only.
In its typical and original design and cinematography ‘Case of the Missing Hare’ looks forward to Jones’ mature work of the late forties and fifties.
Watch ‘Case of the Missing Hare’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 14
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: The Hare-Brained Hypnotist
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Tortoise Wins by a Hare
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: March 28, 1942
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd
‘The Wabbit Who Came to Supper’ was Friz Freleng’s second Bugs Bunny cartoon, only, but he understood the brassy character completely. The highlight of the cartoon is the scene in which in the middle of a chase a clock chimes and Bugs bursts into a convincing New Year routine… in July. This scene not only shows the fresh character’s overpowering personality, it also shows Bugs Bunny’s ability to produce necessary attributes out of nowhere, this time confetti and streamers.
Bugs’ design, however, is rather unappealing and uncertain in this cartoon. And Elmer Fudd, too, has the less appealing alternate fatty design, which Robert Clampett had introduced in ‘Wabbit Twouble’ (1941). Luckily, this design was short-lived and lasted only four cartoons.
Two years later Hanna and Barbera would use the same plot idea in the Tom and Jerry cartoon ‘Million Dollar Cat’ (1944) with even better results.
Watch ‘The Wabbit Who Came to Supper’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 8
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Wabbit Twouble
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: The Wacky Wabbit
Director: Chris Wedge
Release Date: March 15, 2002
The Ice Age itself is depicted well, with lots of crispy ice and snow, and a fauna that matches the period. We watch various North-American ice age mammals, like mammoths, ground sloths, saber-toothed tigers, Glyptodonts, and even the South American species Macrauchenia (which looks like a llama with a trunk). The only mishaps are the two Brontotheres, mistakenly referred to as “rhinos”, a group of species that had died out 34 million years earlier. Fortunately, the makers didn’t fall for the trap of making dinosaurs co-exist with early humans (although we see one trapped in the ice, in a scene that is nonsensical anyhow).
‘Ice Age’ was Blue Sky’s first feature film and it posed serious competition to Dreamworks and Pixar with a different, yet equally interesting style of computer animation, which was more based on caricature, exaggerated animation and angular designs. The latter unfortunately lead to rather ugly designed humans.
The story of ‘Ice Age’ has uncanny similarities to the computer animation successes of 2001, ‘Shrek’ (a moody giant and an annoying chatterbox travel together), and ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (strange creatures trying to get a little human kid home). So in this respect, the film tells us nothing new. Its extras can be found in the cartoony character Scrat, whose antics bridges the main action, and in the numerous gags on evolution.
The highlight of the film, however, is the 2D animation of mural paintings depicting Mannie the mammoth’s painful memory of the loss of his wife and son. This is a stunning tour-de-force of both daring and emotional animation, still a rare feat in computer animated feature films.
‘Ice Age’ was a huge success, and has spawned a number of sequels, none of witch mastered to keep the lean storytelling of the first film. Moreover, the stories had less and less to do with the ice age setting. Even worse, in ‘Ice Age 3′ dinosaurs had to come along, after all…
Watch the trailer for ‘Ice Age’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: October 31, 1968
‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’* is Bozzetto’s second feature, and it a great improvement on his first (‘West and Soda‘ from 1965).
The designs are bolder, the pace is higher, the timing sharper, and the story more original. The film starts rightaway with a hilarious history of the VIP superheroes through time. It then introduces our heroes, the superhero SuperVIP and his weak little bespectacled brother, MiniVIP. They end upon an island where a super-villain plans to turn mankind into brainless consumers.
The result is a very nonsensical superhero story, told to a great effect, with the minimum of means and very limited animation. It also shows Bozzetto’s aversion against consumerism, a theme he would expand upon in his masterpiece ‘Allegro non troppo’ (1976). unlike that latter feature, ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ remains virtually unknown. This is a pity, for this funny film deserves a wider audience.
Watch and excerpt from ‘Vip mio fratello superuomo’ yourself and tell me what you think:
* also known as ‘My Brother Superman’
Director: Bruno Bozzetto
Release Date: 1967
In this cartoon Bozzetto reduces a man’s whole life to several minutes. The main character’s life takes place in and between depressingly tall grey buildings. He is only allowed brief episodes of sheer joy : during is boyhood, when he falls in love, and when he becomes a father. These short episodes are depicted by colorful pictures of nature, accompanied by lyric music.
‘Una vita in scatola’ must be Bozzetto’s most perfectly timed cartoon, and it is his first real masterpiece.
Watch ‘Una vita in scatola’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Release Date: October 31, 1927
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
At one point his girlfriend drops by, only to give him the cold shoulder, so Oswald pretends to be a lifeguard. The girl in turn pretends to drown, but then she really get suck into the ocean by a giant fish. Oswald comes to the rescue and earns a passionate kiss.
Although this film still contains some stiff animation and designs from the early twenties (for example the dog customer), most of the animation is very flexible and lively, especially that of Oswald and the sea. Many of the hot dog gags were reused in the Mickey short ‘The Carnival Kid’ (1929).
Watch ‘All Wet’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Kōji Morimoto, Tensai Okamura & Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: December 23, 1995
Seven years after ‘Akira‘, Katsuhiro Otomo returned to the animated screen with ‘Memories’, a package film, which impresses, but fails to reach the heights of ‘Akira’.
Based on his own short stories, ‘Memories’ consists of three unrelated parts: Magnetic Rose, Stink Bomb and Cannon Fodder, which are discussed separately below.
‘Magnetic Rose’ starts the Memories trilogy, and it’s arguably the feature’s most satisfying episode. It is the only part that clearly deals with memories (Kon’s favorite future subject). In this episode a rescuing squad of space garbage collectors is ensnared in the memories of a long deceased opera singer, who still seems alive in her remote satellite home in space, blurring the boundaries of reality.
Even though the science fiction setting with its touches of horror is typical anime, the underlying drama is very mature and quite unique. This episode’s screenplay was penned by future director Satoshi Kon. Kon certainly established himself with this screenplay, and he would further explore the theme of memory and loss in ‘Millennium Actress’ (2001), and the blurring of reality and fantasy in both that film and ‘Paprika’ (2006) with even more spectacular results.
In ‘Magnetic Rose’ the characters are from all over the world, and this is one of the few anime, where the Japanese character looks distinctively Asian compared to the European characters.
Directed by Tensai Okamura, ‘Stink Bomb’ feels like a comical interlude between the two more serious outer episodes. The story is set in present day Japan and features a very stupid, but surprisingly indestructible protagonist who turns into a nonsensical lethal weapon. The story is simple: our ‘hero’ accidently swallows the wrong pills, wich turn him into a lethal weapon, sweating poisonous gasses that kill everything in sight. Although he remains unaware of this, he becomes the cause of the destruction of Japan. This story is rather silly, and there’s a lot of broad comic acting, but the short also has some disturbing undertones, with the fear of mass destruction weapons and corrupt governments played out well.
Otomo himself directed the last and most beautiful sequence of Memories. This episode has an original graphic style that doesn’t resemble any other anime. The film is ‘shot’ in one long camera take (with a little bit of smuggling, but very impressive nonetheless) and deals with an alternative, distinctively European, world where a totalitarian military regime enters every aspect of life.
In this sequence we’re following a single family. They live in a city were all work and school is directed to the war with a mysterious and unseen moving city. This war is fought entirely by using cannons. Despite the caricatured humans, the atmosphere is hardly comical, but dark and disturbing. However, the drama is less engaging than in ‘Magnetic Rose’. Nonetheless, because of its unique style, and strict control of cinematography, ‘Cannon Fodder’ is a small masterpiece.
Watch the trailer for ‘Memories’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: August 2, 1986
Its story is set in a parallel world, which has a genuinely late 19th century European feel, but where flying machines are very common. The strange machines imagined for the film are both wonderful and convincing.
We follow the two orphan children Pazu, a poor mine worker, and Sheeta, who falls from the sky carrying a mysterious amulet, which reveals that she’s a Laputan princess. Followed by the Dola clan, a gang of pirates led by an old pink-haired woman, and by the military led by the enigmatic gentleman Muska, the children seek out to find the flying island.
Unlike other films by Miyazaki, ‘Laputa’ knows a real villain, the ruthless prince Muska. While the children admire Laputa for its nature, and while the pirates and the soldiers are only after its treasures, Muska seeks the island’s destructive possibilities to obtain world power. On the way, the film moves to a grander and grander scale, with a finale on the floating island that shows us dazzling heights, and which doesn’t eschew many killings, making ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ Miyazaki’s most violent movie.
‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ is akin to the earlier ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind‘ in its focus on the importance of love and nature and its aversion to short-minded people only interested in power and destruction. Despite its violent finale, ‘Laputa’ is more overtly a film for children than ‘Nausicaä’. Its focus stays with the rather naive children, and it contains more humor, especially in the depiction of the pirates, who are almost used as a comic relief only.
In any sense, ‘Laputa’ is a powerful film: its depiction of an original made-up world is convincing, its animation is outstanding, and its message complex and far from black and white. It once again shows the mastery of Miyazaki and the Ghibli studio.
Watch the trailer for ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ah Da
Release Date: 1980
Three monks visit a house on a hill top to meditate and to worship Buddha. Unfortunately, they have to fetch their water in the lake below. Only after a fire they are willing to cooperate in this.
The film uses clear and simple designs and very elementary backgrounds. Its storytelling is very lean, and uses no dialogue. Unfortunately, like many other Chinese animation films, it also suffers from slowness. Ah Da clearly takes his time, telling his story on a leisurely speed. The result is a meditative film, the comedy notwithstanding.
Watch ‘Three Monks’ yourself and tell me what you think:
* this film probably is best known by its French title: ‘Les trois moines’
Director: Frank Tashlin
Release Date: October 30, 1937
Stars: Porky Pig, Petunia Pig
The siblings inherit their estate from their late uncle Solomon (who’s a caricature of Oliver Hardy). Unfortunately, the evil lawyer Goodwill is after them, changing himself into a dr. Hyde-like character. Strangely enough he insults somebody in the audience, the “guy in the third row”. This to his own regret, for it’s this guy who saves Porky and his siblings in the end! This type of dimension-defying humor was a novelty at the time and would become a Warner Bros. trademark in the late 1930′s and early 1940′s.
Watch ‘The Case of the Stuttering Pig’ yourself and tell me what you think: