Director: John Hubley
Release Date: March 27, 1952
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Rooty Toot Toot © UPAIn a time when most Hollywood animation studios produced chase cartoons featuring anthropomorphized animals, UPA and director John Hubley come with a court drama about a murder…

That we have something different in our hands is underlined when during the opening titles we watch a choreographer being billed. Indeed, ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is something different, and widely praized as one of the most beautiful cartoons ever produced.

Based on the traditional murder ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’, it’s set in a court room. We come to know how the jealous girl Frankie shot her lover Johnny down, when she caught him with singer Nellie Bly. Then Frankie’s lawyer, Honest John, comes in with a rather different story…

‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not a flawless cartoon. Phil Moore’s music is a rather unsuccessful marriage between musical and jump blues, lacking strong melodies. It even threatens to wear the action down. One can only guess what the cartoon would have sound like in the hands of a more capable composer.

Morevover, Honest John’s account of the murder is a missed opportunity. It’s too silly and too cartoonish (the following bullets come right out of the chase cartoon) to be believed. Indeed, the lawyer himself declares it to be fiction, making all claims of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ being a sort of cartoon ‘Rashomon’ out of place and unfounded. In substance ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is much more akin to that other great musical court cartoon, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?‘ from 1935, which is also based on a traditional text.

No, the real attraction of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ lies in it looks: practically every frame is a beautiful illustration in itself. The colors and designs, by Paul Julian, are elegant and stylish; simple, yet sophisticated. There’s a perfect harmony between characters and backgrounds, and the stark colors enhance both character and mood.

The animation, too, is superb. John Hubley didn’t think much of his colleague’s Bobe Cannon’s ideal of “drawings that moved”. Instead we watch moving characters, and it’s clear where the choreography comes in, for many characters move with a ballet-like elegance, especially Frankie and Honest John. The movement of the characters is often unreal (as in Nellie’s curling arms), but always delicate. It’s no surprise that the animation was done by the able hands of veteran animators like Art Babbitt and Grim Natwick. When the Jury declares Frankie not guilty, the cartoon bursts in a frenzy of bold design that has to be seen to be believed.

Even if ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not perfect, it’s a masterpiece nonetheless, and one of the best cartoons UPA ever produced.

Watch ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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