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Director: Don Bluth
Release date: July 3, 1982
Dissatisfied with the studio’s policies, Don Bluth left the Walt Disney Studio in 1979, taking some fellow animators with him, thus severely delaying the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).
Bluth set up his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make animated features in the spirit of the early Disney masterpieces he admired. In doing so, he became the first serious competitor of Disney in the animated feature field since Max Fleischer, who had made two animated features in 1939 and 1941.
‘The Secret of NIMH’ was the brand new studio’s first feature, and a testimony of Don Bluth’s high ambitions. Like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ it is set in more or less modern times, in a rural era, but here all similarities stop. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is darker, and more mature than Disney’s film. It’s more akin to the earlier ‘The Rescuers‘ (it’s about mice and a rescue mission), to Disney’s next movie ‘The Black Cauldron'(grim atmosphere, swords and sorcery), and even to the non-Disney film ‘Watership Down’ (rodents grouped in all too familiar societies, a goofy bird helping the heroes). The rich and detailed backgrounds look all the way back to ‘Pinocchio’ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Despite all its ambitions, the film therefore lacks a forward-looking vision. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful film, and both the voice cast and the Disney-school animation are top notch throughout.
The story is based on the children’s novel ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by Robert C. O’Brien, and tells about the mouse Mrs. Brisby (a mother, a very rare type of hero in animation films), who tries to protect her sick son from the coming of the field-destroying tractor. In her quest she gets help from the goofy crow Jeremy and by a society of highly intelligent rats, living in a bush nearby.
The whole atmosphere is dark, and grim; the cat, the spider and the owl all look way scarier than anything in any Disney film since ‘Fantasia’ (1940), and there are no less than three deaths in the end. The rats also bring in some misplaced and hard-to-believe fantasy elements, including a magic mirror, an amulet with gravity-defying powers, and an epic sword-fight.
In spite of the great voice acting, the only characters really to come off are Mrs. Brisby (great acting by Elizabeth Hartman), Aunt Shrew (Hermione Baddely), and Jeremy the crow (voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise). The rats come into the story rather late and one gets the feeling that Bluth wanted to tell too much in too little time, leaving the viewer puzzled after the film is over.
With all its flaws, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ remains Bluth’s most satisfying film, together with one of his last films, ‘Anastasia’ (1997). After ‘The Secret of NIMH’ Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the more successful ‘An American Tail’ (1986) and ‘Land before Time’ (1988), but after those more commercial and less original films his productions became more uneven and forgettable, never fulfilling the promise he appeared to have made with his firstborn.
Watch ‘The Secret of NIMH’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Michel Ocelot
Release date: 1982
Using beautiful designs inspired by medieval woodcuts, little animation and no dialogue, Ocelot tells about a young hunchback who tries to win the heart of a beautiful princess, but who’s maltreated by the nobility and ridiculed by the crowds. When he’s stabbed in the back, he becomes an angel carrying the princess off into heaven.
Despite the paucity of animation, the film is beautiful and moving, if not as impressive as ‘Les trois inventeurs’.
Watch ‘La légende du pauvre Bossu’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: René Laloux
Release date: March 24, 1981
In the science fiction film ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Jaffar, the muscular pilot of a spaceship, tries to rescue the little orphan Piel, who is the sole survivor of a massacre on the dangerous planet Perdide.
Jaffar’s only means of contact with the little boy is through an egg-shaped microphone which Piel calls ‘Mike’. Jaffar is aided by a jolly old man called Silbad, and two little telepathic creatures Silbad rescued from a flower, called Jad and Yula. His only passenger, however, the evil prince Matton, on escape with a treasure, tries to kill Piel in order to get sooner to Aldebaran…
‘Les maîtres du temps’ was René Laloux’ second animated feature film and it shares many characteristics with his first, ‘Le planète sauvage‘: it’s a science fiction film based on a novel by Stefan Wul and using designs by a famous french illustrator, this time comic artist Moebius (Jean Giraud). ‘Les maîtres du temps’ nevertheless is less outlandish than ‘Le planète sauvage': it’s an ‘ordinary’ cell animation film and Moebius’s drawings are less surreal than Topor’s. Yet, they still manage to give the film an otherworldly quality. Especially his designs of Perdide are disturbing, rendering it an uncanny, dangerous planet, indeed.
Moebius’s style is very visible throughout the picture, except for the humans, who are drawn pretty uglily and fail to live up to Moebius’s own high standards. Only the little orphan Piel and the jolly old man Silbad are true to Moebius’s designs. Consequently, they are both very believable and likeable characters, where the others remain flat cardboard examples of ‘the hero’, ‘the beautiful woman’ and ‘the villain’. Their animation, too, remains stiff and unconvincing In contrast, the funny little gnomes Jad and Yula are rendered very flexible and are responsible for some of the most beautiful animation in the film, which was practically all done by the Hungarian Pannonia Film Studio.
‘Les maîtres du temps’ is far from perfect, but mainly thanks to Piel’s character, with whom we can identify immediately, it’s a film with a heart. This, combined with some impressive science fiction images, especially of Perdide and of the planet Gamma 10, make the film one to return to over and over again.
After ‘Les maîtres du temps’ Laloux would make yet another Science fiction feature, now based on drawings by French comic artist Caza: ‘Gandahar’. Unfortunately, it would prove to be the weakest of the trio.
Watch the trailer for ‘Les maîtres du temps’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Abe Levitow
Release date: April 21, 1967
Stars: Tom & Jerry
in this short Jerry is a secret agent who is after a huge stock of cheese, kept in a safe and heavily guarded by the evil ‘Tom Thrush’ (THRUSH was the arch-villain organisation of U.N.C.L.E. In the original series).
Director Abe Levitow and story man Bob Ogle clearly enjoy spoofing the spy cliches. The two are greatly helped by composer Dean Elliott, who provides a very apt sixties spy film musical score. This makes this entry also enjoyable for people who have never watched the original series, but who are familiar with, for example, James Bond.
This short has little to do with Tom & Jerry as originally conceived by Hanna and Barbera, but it is an entertaining cartoon, nonetheless. The film was to be the duo’s last enjoyable theatrical cartoon.
Watch ‘The Mouse from H.U.N.G.E.R.’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Abe Levitow
Release date: April 7, 1967
Stars: Tom & Jerry
The story, by Bob Ogle, is inspired, if not anything new (it’s in fact the reverse of the classic Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Saturday Evening Puss‘ from 1950): when Tom goes to sleep, Jerry rises to play drums with his hep-cat mice friends in the nightclub ‘Le Cellar Smoqué’.
This, of course, keeps Tom awake, and he desperately tries to get rid of the mice, only to succeed in bothering a large bulldog living in the same apartment block.
Unlike the other Tom & Jerry’s by Chuck Jones’s unit, this short has a lively jazzy score penned by a remarkably inspired Carl Brandt. In short, everything seems to come together for once in this cartoon, making this one of the best of the Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry’s.
Watch ‘Rock ‘n’ Rodent’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Bill Justice
Release date: July 18, 1956
Taking the cartoon modern-style to the max, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ brings jazzy versions of two familiar addition songs: ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’.
This simple and unpretentious idea leads to one of Disney’s most daring cartoons. The first song only uses characters made out of words and throughout the picture startlingly modern backgrounds are used, which constantly change and which are totally abstract, giving no sense of space whatsoever. The animation, too, is mostly very limited, although some animation is reused from the ‘All the Cats Join In’-sequence from ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).
George Bruns’s score is strikingly modern for a Disney cartoon, using genuine bebop jazz. In comparison, Louis Prima’s dixieland jazz in ‘Jungle Book’ from eleven years later is much more old-fashioned.
In all, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ is a neglected little masterpiece, and Disney’s modest, but most daring contribution to the cartoon avant-garde.
Justice would direct four more specials: ‘A Cowboy Needs a Horse’ (1956), ‘The Truth about Mother Goose’ (1957), ‘Noah’s Ark’ (1959) and ‘A Symposium on Popular Songs’ (1962), all strikingly modern in design.
Watch ‘Jack and Old Mac’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack Kinney
Release date: May 21, 1954
‘Pigs is Pigs’ is probably the best of the lot. It’s a story in rhyme and song about a railway station employee who does everything by the rules. At one day he has a dispute with a Scotchman about whether guinea pigs are pigs or not. The guinea pigs remain at the station until the bureaucrats of his company have found out the answer. Unfortunately, the animals multiply by the hour, soon filling the complete station.
The designs and animation of this short are highly stylized, making ‘Pigs is Pigs’ a prime example of ‘cartoon modern’, despite its 1905 setting. The scenes at the railway company are the best, ruthlessly parodying the aimless ways of bureaucracy.
Watch ‘Pigs is Pigs’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ward Kimball
Airing Date: March 9, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Ward Kimball, Wernher von Braun
The documentary includes information about rockets, weightlessness and concludes with an exciting account of man’s first space travel, based on the designs by rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. Von Braun is one of three German scientists featured in the program, the others being Willy Ley and Heinz Haber, demonstrating the enormous influence of German scientists on American science. Ley had fled Nazi Germany in 1935, but Haber stayed there till the end of the war, and Von Braun was even responsible for the deadly V2 rocket, a technical tour-de-force, but also the Nazi regime’s most fearful weapon.
‘Man in Space’ is shortly introduced by Walt Disney himself, quickly giving the presentation to director Ward Kimball, who remains the main host of the program. His own wacky cartoon animation style is featured in a short history of man’s attempts to enter space, and in Haber’s accounts of ‘space medicine’. Throughout the movie, the use of animation is sparse, and the animation itself very limited. Nevertheless, its use is very effective, especially in the visionary concluding part, with its typical fifties science fiction designs.
‘Man in Space’ would be followed by ‘Man and the Moon‘ (1955) and ‘Mars and Beyond’ (1957), taking ideas on space travel even further.
Watch ‘Man in Space’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Chuck Jones
Release date: August 8, 1955
Stars: Porky Pig, Sylvester
This time they’re camping out when they’re visited by a bird-like alien. The alien takes their complete camping site to outer space. As in the former cartoons, Porky remains completely unaware of what’s happening, while Sylvester sees it all, much to his horror. In the end we see them drive off into the horizon on a strange, strange planet.
‘Jumpin’ Jupiter’ is a beautiful and well animated cartoon, and arguably the most enjoyable of the Porky-Sylvester pairings. The action is helped by Carl Stalling’s particularly inspired music, which matches the science fiction setting perfectly.
Watch ‘Jumpin’ Jupiter’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: August 7, 1954
Stars: Tweety & Sylvester
He goes straight to hell, where a bulldog-like devil tells him he can return to earth because he has still eight lives left. Unfortunately, back on earth Sylvester loses his lives fast, especially during a chase at a carnival.
‘Satan’s Waitin’ shows some similarities to the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Heavenly Puss‘ (1949), including bulldog devils and a heavenly escalator. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most original and most inspired of the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons, on par with the celebrated ‘Birds Anonymous’ from 1957.
Watch ‘Satan’s Waitin’’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: January 14, 1955
Stars: Donald Duck
This leads to a great satirical cartoon, ridiculing hunting and hunters. It even contains a parody on ‘Bambi‘!
‘No hunting’ feels like a Goofy short featuring Donald. Like in the Goofy shorts, most of the humor comes from the contrast between the narrator’s lines and what is shown on the screen. It’s a very enjoyable Cinemascope cartoon, which deserves to be more widely known.
Watch ‘No Hunting’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 110
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Grand Canyonscope
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Bearly Asleep
Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: August 13, 1954
Stars: Donald Duck, Humphrey the Bear
It also introduces the fidgety park ranger, voiced by Bill Thompson (more commonly known as the voice of Droopy and Mr. Smee in ‘Peter Pan’, 1953). The park ranger would star in five cartoons. In this short he orders the bears to mix with the tourists, something they gladly do, because this means getting fed. Humphrey, however, is stuck to Donald, who doesn’t share a crumb with the bear. This leads to Humphrey making more and more desperate attempts to obtain food.
Donald is hardly anything more than a straight man in this short. But it’s an entertaining film, nonetheless, featuring beautiful backgrounds.
Watch ‘Grin and Bear it’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 107
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Dragon Around
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Flying Squirrel
Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: March 5, 1954
Stars: Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
In this strange and original cartoon Donald is a bachelor in San Francisco during the 1920’s, who falls in love with Daisy, but who flees from the prospect of marriage, after having a horrible nightmare.
Like Mickey in ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ (1932), Donald has a rather distorted view of married life. While Mickey was haunted by hundreds of little kids, Donald’s fear is virtual slavery.
This short is narrated by an eloquent voice over (reminiscent of Donald’s dream voice in the cartoon of the same name from 1948), supposedly Donald’s ‘written’ voice. Most of the gags originate in the contrast between what’s being said and what the viewer sees.
‘Donald’s Diary’ is a very atypical Donald Duck cartoon. Maybe because it was not directed by his regular director Jack Hannah, but by Jack Kinney, whose own Goofy series had stopped the previous year. The short uses strong and beautiful 1950’s backgrounds, more angular animation, and a very different design of Daisy. Moreover, Huey, Dewey and Louie are not Donald’s nephews here, but Daisy’s little brothers.
‘Donald’s Diary’ was the fourth of five Donald Duck cartoons Jack Kinney directed. In it he reused some animation from his first Donald Duck cartoon, ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face‘ from 1943.
Watch ‘Donald’s Diary’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: May 8, 1948
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam
In ‘Buccaneer Bunny’ he’s a 18th century pirate called Seagoin’ Sam. This idea of Sam as a timeless foe was a masterstroke, and in the following years, Sam would be Bugs Bunny’s nemesis in a wide variety of settings, like the American war of independence, the Sahara desert, ancient Rome and the middle ages.
‘Buccaneer Bunny’ is a wonderful start of this series, consisting of wonderful gags, including a beautifully timed multiple door gag. Bugs Bunny also does a great Charles Laughton parody, disguising as captain Bligh, as portrayed by Laughton in ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1935).
Watch ‘Buccaneer Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: November 28, 1947
Stars: Donald Duck, Chip and Dale
In this cartoon they are named for the first time, and it’s also the first cartoon in which they are two distinct characters, although Dale still lacks his characteristic red nose here. Here they’re teamed against Donald Duck for the first time, their former adversary being Pluto. The short marks the beginning of a series of twenty cartoons, only ending in 1956, at the very end of the era of Disney shorts.
The story of ‘Chip an’ Dale’ provides the blueprint for the series: Donald wants to chop some wood for his winter cottage, and chops down the dead tree in which Chip and Dale live with their storage of nuts. In the subsequent scenes the lively duo tries to prevent Donald from burning up their tree and to get it back. The result is a cartoon of excellent comedy, not only between the chipmunks and Donald, but also between the two little critters themselves.
Watch ‘Chip an’ Dale’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 66
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Wide Open Spaces
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Drip Dippy Donald
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: