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Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: September 10, 1994
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Lekce Faust’ (literally ‘Lesson Faust’) is Jan Švankmajer’s second feature film. It contains much less animation than his first feature film ‘Něco z Alenky’ (Alice) from 1988 and can be considered his first live action movie.

However, this film is still much connected to his earlier work, mostly through the use of life-sized puppets, which goes all the way back to ‘Don Šajn’ (Don Juan) from 1969, and of advanced clay animation, which Švankmajer first used in ‘Možnosti dialogu’ (Dimensions of Dialogue) in 1982. Moreover, there’s little dialogue in the film, with the first lines only appearing after 15 minutes. Instead, the film relies heavily on stark imagery and exquisite sound design (there’s no musical soundtrack), just like in animation film. The English dub, by the way, is excellent, and there’s no need to find the original Czech version.

Švankmajer retells the story of Faust in his own unique way, with an inner logic that is unique to his brand of surrealism. For this Švankmajer uses texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two Faust plays (1808 & 1832), as well as Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus from 1592, enhanced with text traditions from Czech puppet theater productions based on the same legend. Even a part from Charles Gounod’s opera ‘Faust’ from 1859 is used in a scene that features four ballerinas and which is probably the least essential and least successful episode in the entire film.

Importantly, the film stars an unnamed everyman (played by the deadpan Petr Čepek in his last role before his death in 1994), who’s slowly lured into the devil’s clutches. By using the most common protagonist imaginable we’re given the opportunity to live the nightmare the man experiences ourselves. There’s a sense of ‘this could happen to anyone’, with which we enter the bizarre series of events.

The film starts with two characters handing out copies of a map with a red spot but no explanation to passers-by. Our man gets one, too, and has a short look at it, before he discards the piece of paper. Nevertheless, immediately strange omens pile up around him: he watches a doll’s head getting crushed between two doors, a black chicken flees his home apartment, and when he goes eating he finds an egg inside his bread. As soon as he opens the egg, the man seems to be lost, and the next day he goes exploring…

The film mostly takes place indoors, and like in ‘Alice’ there’s a genuinely claustrophobic feel to it, with a total lack of logic with which the different spaces are connected. This of course contributes to the nightmarish atmosphere that stays throughout the feature. Nevertheless, Švankmajer occasionally returns to outdoor scenes, sometimes very abruptly, with staged sets switching to scenes taking place in nature, parks or ruins, and vice versa. But sometimes more naturally, with the man reentering the streets of Prague a couple of times.

Yet our hero never stays out of the clutches of the devils for long, and all too soon his curiosity brings him back to the theater set where he more or less has to play his part. For a long while, the man takes the whole play for a joke. It certainly doesn’t help that the part of the good angel is played by a puppet as well, making the man’s only chance to repent by all means a rather silly occasion. Thus only too late the man realizes that the devil will indeed collect his soul.

As the film progresses, the man transforms more and more into the character of Faust, and he becomes more and more a puppet himself. Indeed, several important scenes, like the signing with the blood, take place in puppet form. While the man becomes a puppet more and more himself, the puppets around him seem to behave more and more freely. First they are only seen operated by anonymous stage hands. But later we watch a devil, who’s summoned by the Jester, walking in and out of the street by himself. Later still, we can clearly see a puppet of a queen breathing, making its stagy death all the more poignant.

Like the man himself, the viewer has a hard time following the surreal course of events, but the film nevertheless progresses slowly but steadily to its logical and macabre conclusion. The film ends with the cycle starting all over again: as the man flees the devil’s place in horror, another one enters. But the man cannot escape the devil’s clutches: if the devil may not be able to take him in his puppet form, he’ll do it in real life, on the streets of Prague…

Despite the dark subject matter, there’s room for some comedy. For example, when the burning wagon rides off stage, it’s followed by a fireman in a cartoon fashion. More comic relief comes from a Jester puppet, who speaks in rhyme, and whose lines clearly come from the puppet theater tradition. In a way the Jester is smarter than his master, being able to tame a devil without losing his soul to it. Scarier, but still amusing are a bum carrying a severed leg, and the two men from the first scene, who return several times, showing their playfully mischievous characters repeatedly, e.g. making the man pay for all their beers, and stealing snacks during intermission.

Animation reoccurs throughout the film, which nevertheless remains essentially a live action movie. For animation lovers highlight is a rather unsettling scene in which the man creates life, which quickly ages and transforms into a gruesome skull. This is done in Švankmajer’s characteristic virtuoso clay animation. A highlight of puppet animation is a short scene in which little devils molest and abuse little angels in order to make Faust sign his soul away.

The Best scene of the whole film, however, features little animation. This is when the man summons Mephistopheles. This scene is full of compelling images, with brooms dusting as if they were alive, drums playing themselves, crossbows appearing from pillars, and a burning wagon circling the summoner. During this scene the scenery changes from indoor to outdoor repeatedly, with the man finding himself in the woods, on top of a mountain and on a snowy plain.

Švankmajer tests the general viewer with his typical way of filming, using extreme close-ups, virtually no dialogue, fair use of puppetry and stiff old fashioned language during the staged parts. But viewers who stay are rewarded with a deeply layered film that will cling into the back of the mind for quite a while after viewing. To me ‘Lekce Faust’ is the best of his feature films, and together with ‘Jabberwocky’ (1971) and ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ it forms the pinnacle of the Czech master’s art.

Watch the trailer for ‘Lekce Faust’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lekce Faust’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Michaela Pavlátová
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

After the critically acclaimed ‘Words Words Words’ (1991) Michaela Pavlátová returned with an even better film called ‘Repete’. This film explores daily routines, with a man walking a dog as a bridging elements.

The walking man repeatedly watches a beautiful woman passing by, a cyclist, and a hurried man looking at his watch. These street scenes are interspersed with scenes depicting three couples, all stuck in an unhealthy repetitive relationship. The first shows a woman feeding a man, who doesn’t even look at her, but keeps on reading the newspaper. The second depicts a man threatening to commit suicide the moment his love rejects him. And the third shows a couple about to have sex until a telephone calls the woman away, leaving the man waiting.

At one point the dog refuses to go on, and the repetition stops, allowing the couples to get mixed. It looks like the mingling of these people improves their relationships, but all too soon new repetitions set in…

Like ‘Words Words Words’ Repete is a great work of animated surrealism, making full use of the medium. Pavlátová uses a very crude and scribbly pastel technique, shifting perspectives and no dialogue. Her style is completely her own, and very engaging. No wonder Repete, too, swept many awards.

Watch ‘Repete’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Repete’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol.2’

Director: Michaela Pavlátová
Release Date: 1991
Rating: ★★★★★

‘Words Words Words’ is set in a cafe, and explores different types of dialogue, like gossip, seduction, quarrel, pep talk, and talk of love.

The different ways of talking are depicted by colorful balloons that, contrary to the familiar text balloons in comic strips, are devoid of text. This leads to humorous and inventive images in the best surrealist tradition. The best sequence involves a couple falling in love, but then falling into discord. Luckily, the humble waiter saves the day. Running gag of the film is a little yellow dog, who secretly drinks from the visitors’ cups and glasses.

‘Words Words Words’ is a highly entertaining film, and was rightly nominated for an Academy Award.

Watch ‘Words Words Words’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Words Words Words’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol.2’

Director: Michael Dudok de Wit
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★½

Dutch master animator Michael Dudok de Wit came into presence with this short, made as an artist at residence at the renowned Folimage animation studio in France.

In this film Dudok de Wit already establishes his trademark command of light and shadow. The setting is a monastery bathing in Summer sunlight. In fact, all background artwork, done by Dudok de Wit himself, is gorgeous. The film has a very simple premise (a monk wants to catch a fish), uses no dialogue, and knows a simple character design and excellent comic timing. Yet, the film is not a gag film, but a rather poetic meditation on fanaticism.

The monk’s movements are echoed by Serge Besset’s excellent score, which uses variations on the tune of la folía, based on those by baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli. Music and movement are in perfect tune and form another layer of delight. Unfortunately, the film ends rather puzzling, and it’s a little as if Dudok de Wit couldn’t dream of a more proper ending to his otherwise delightful short.

Watch ‘The Monk and the Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Monk and the Fish’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 3

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★

‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is the second of only three films in Phil Mulloy’s ‘The History of the World’-series, which apparently should have existed of 140 different shorts.

Like ‘The Discovery of Language‘ this is a film about sex. The short uses the same white characters as ‘The Discovery of Language’, and takes place in 2,000 years B.C. The short tells about a man who doesn’t manage to get sex, because he’s beaten again and again by other men.

Then the man uses his own penis as a pen, writing ‘The penis (pen is) mightier than the sword’. The invention of writing earns him a multitude of women to have sex with, but it won’t last.

Like ‘The Discovery of Language’ ‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is essentially a silent film, with intertitles. Mulloy’s animation is simple and crude, and makes effective use of cut-out techniques. The result is a strange mix of sex, violence and absurd humor.

Watch ‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Invention of Writing (and Its Destruction)’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★

‘The Discovery of Language’ is ‘episode 10’ of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The History of the World’, which in real life only consists of three films, of which this one is the first.

The film series uses Mulloy’s typical crude black and white style, enhanced by reds to depict blood. But unlike his other films, his characters are not black blots of inks, but white.

The short tells about a primitive tribe of women, 1,000,000 b.c. who discover letters in the soil, which together form the word ‘vagina’. As soon as they realize the meaning of the word they create their own Fall of Man, covering their crotches with skirts, and forbidding masturbation. Meanwhile, the men are on a similar quest to form the word ‘Penis’, but they are too stupid to fulfill the task.

The crude humor of this short is enhanced greatly by the effective soundtrack, featuring excellent music by Alex Balanescu.

Watch ‘The Discovery of Language’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Discovery of Language’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★

‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ is the most critical of Mulloy’s ‘Ten Commandment’ films.

This short tells about Hank, an honest worker in ‘Joesville, at the wrong side of the Mississippi’. Hank works at a building site, and all his colleagues are stealing stuff (in a rather absurd sequence of images), but he won’t.

When crisis hits Joesville, Hank ends on the street, while all his colleagues mysteriously have built homes for themselves…

The town of Joesville would return in the episodes ‘Remember to Keep the Holy Sabbath Day‘ and ‘Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness

‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1994
Rating:

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ is the fourth of Phil Mulloy’s ‘The Ten Commandments films’. This short tells about two astronauts, Tex an Mary Lou, who have feelings for each other, which they don’t express, because of their questionable marriages on earth.

This seems like a more critical episode than ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill‘, but Mulloy spoils it by an absurd postlude involving flies.

The black and white ink drawings are enriched by bright yellows and reds to depict flames of desire

‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★★

‘The Sound of Music’ is easily one of the more serious and more depressing films British animator Phil Mulloy created. The film is one misanthropic view on mankind.

The film stars Wolff, a saxophone player, who works as a window cleaner during daytime. The window cleaning part allows Mulloy to indulge in his misanthropic world view, as every room Wolff and his colleague watch from the outside is filled with scenes of violence, loneliness, despair and death.

But Wolff’s night job is even worse. He plays the saxophone at one charity diner, which turns out to be an orgy of indulgence for the rich and famous. When the cooks run out of meat, they empty the streets and hospitals to feed the do-gooders. These visions of cannibalism are as depressing as it can get in animation film. And yet, the end of this film holds some hope…

Mulloy’s crude drawing and animation style suits the black humor and extremely bleak world view fine. The film is devoid of dialogue, with Mulloy employing title cards as if it were a silent film. But the images are enhanced by screeching avant-garde music by Alex Balanescu, whose string quartet is enhanced with voice, saxophone and drums.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Sound of Music’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://www.philmulloy.tv/the-sound-of-music

‘The Sound of Music’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Phil Mulloy
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★

After his absurd series ‘Cowboys’ (1991), which dealt with Western cliches, and the two-part ‘history of the world’, mostly devoted to sex, British indie animator Phil Mulloy embarked on a series on the ten commandments.

All stories are typically silent comedies, using a voice over by Joel Cutrara to tell the story. Unfortunately, Mulloy stays far from Krzysztof Kieślowski’s critical view on the ancient biblical laws. It seems he only uses the commandments as templates to build rather absurd stories on. Most attractive is Mulloy’s rough style, using broad black ink strokes on a white Canvas, with the occasional blood reds. His animation is very limited, but effective.

‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is a typical example of the series. The short tells about one Uncle Josh from Arkansas, who loses his family rapidly, in Job-like fashion. A a reaction he commits suicide, flies to heaven, where he’s kicked into hell by God himself.

It’s as if Mulloy tells a joke, helped by visuals. In no way the series approaches the misanthropic criticisms of his contemporary film ‘The Sound of Music‘ (1993).

‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is available on the BFI DVD ‘Phil Mulloy – Extreme Animation’

Director: Andreas Hykade
Release Date: 1995
Rating: ★★★½

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ is the first of three films in which German animator Andreas Hykade explores the loss of innocence, the other two being ‘Ring of Fire’ (2000) and ‘Der Kloane’ (The Runt, 2006).

The film is also the most cryptic of the three, full of images that are very difficult to decipher. The film is set in a rather mythical place, ‘two streets away from the end of the world’ and has a timeless and universal feel.

The story is told by a boy voice over, who reminisces about his father, who told him that “All women is whore and all men is soldier”. Outside the voice over there is no dialogue. The little boy tries to see the world through his father’s eyes, but this conflicts with his softer side, and he’d rather fall in love with the enigmatic ‘dandelion girl’.

The film is less straightforward than this synopsis suggests, however, and the film is more surreal and suggestive than narrative. For example, the boy’s adventures are interjected by nightmarish dream sequences, the meaning of which is never really explained. These dream sequences are rendered in an expressionistic pastel style, reminiscent of Lorenzo Mattotti’s art work. This style contrasts highly with the simple cel animation.

Hykade’s drawing style is highly original. His human designs are simple, almost stickman-like, but genitals are very prominent, and the father is drawn as a more robust, earthly character.

The animation is very virtuoso, with a great feel for timing. Moreover, Hykade uses a lot of changing perspective, and has an admirable command of movement.

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ was Hykade’s last student film, but it certainly is his first major work. With this film Hykade proved to be a strong new voice in the animation world, a fact he consoled with his masterpiece ‘Ring of Fire’ from 2000.

Watch ‘Wir lebten im Gras’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wir lebten im Gras’ is available on the DVD ‘Desire & Sexuality – Animating the Unconscious Vol. 2’

Director: Mike Booth
Release Date: October 1996
Rating: ★★★½

The Saint Inspector © BolexbrothersThis Bolexbrothers short tells about a rather fat, naked hermit. He lives in complete meditation on a platform high above the mountains and clouds.

One day he gets a visit from the ‘saint inspector’, a robot. The robot inspects the meditative state of the hermit, who only once reacts to the robot’s tests. This prompts the robot to look inside the hermit’s brain, which leads to a mesmerizing string of rapidly changing and rather disturbing images.

‘The Saint Inspector’ is quite an absurd film, and more than anything else demonstrates the limitless potential of animation.

Watch ‘The Saint Inspector’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Saint Inspector’ is available on the DVD ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’

Director: Nick Park
Release Date: December 26, 1993
Stars: Wallace and Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

The Wrong Trousers © Aardman‘The Wrong Trousers’ was the second short featuring the cheese-loving duo Wallace & Gromit.

Their first outing, ‘A Grand Day Out’ had been a virtuoso piece of clay animation, but even so, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was a giant leap forward, taking Aardman’s claymation out of the independent animation atmosphere into the mainstream of slick studio productions, without losing an inch of character.

Despite being only 29 minutes long and featuring only three characters, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ feels like classic cinema. The fifties horror typography of the opening titles immediately makes it clear that we’re in for a mystery plot, and indeed this is a crime thriller with a small penguin as a most unlikely, but very convincing villain.

The film opens on Gromit’s birthday, a day which turns out quite sour. First, Wallace seems to have forgotten all about it, then he gives him the most useless gift imaginable: automatic trousers to walk him out without his faithful master. Then it turns out that Wallace has to cut expenses and … a room for rent.

That very evening the penguin comes in as the new boarder, but instead of taking the vacant room, he heads immediately for Gromit’s room. The mysterious penguin first takes care of Gromit, chasing the poor dog out of the house, then he uses the trousers in a diamond heist scheme.

The whole film is very well shot, featuring expressionistic angles and clever zooming in and out between the  front and back of the set. The suspense is greatly added by dramatic orchestral music by Julian Nott. And throughout the animation, by Nick Park himself and by Steve Box, is top notch.

Especially the two silent characters, the penguin and Gromit, are very well animated: the penguin creepy and enigmatic, hardly revealing its emotions, except in the heist scene, Gromit with a multitude of expressions, making great use of Nick Park’s trademark brow technique. In fact, Gromit is such a rounded character, he easily carries the whole film easily using the expressions of his eyes alone. Especially Gromit’s agony, having to watch how the penguin silently takes over his home, is tantalizing.

Nevertheless, the most impressive part of this short is the finale. This is a remarkable chase scene, ridiculously set indoors on miniature trains, but it consists of five frantic minutes with a sense of speed never seen before in a stop-motion film. This finale alone takes the possibilities of stop-motion forward to new heights, and together with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ from the same year, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ must be regarded as a milestone in animation. Thus, the next year the film rightfully won the Academy Award for animated short.

The film also started a sort of Wallace and Gromit tradition of combining silly inventions with mystery thriller plots, as this would be the promise of all three subsequent Wallace and Gromit films.

Watch ‘The Wrong Trousers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wrong Trousers’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Dave Borthwick
Release Date: December 10, 1993
Rating: ★★★

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb © Bolexbrothers1993 was a great year for stop-motion animation: it saw the screening of the groundbreaking feature film ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘, as well as the Wallace & Gromit short ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, which also covered new grounds.

Much less well known is the stop-motion feature film ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’, also released that year. Made by Dave Borthwick at the British Bolexbrothers studio the film is a much rougher affair than the smooth stop-motion efforts of Disney and Aardman. In fact, it stands firmly in a tradition of gritty and disturbing stop-motion films that via Jan Švankmajer harks all the way back to Władysław Starewicz.

To begin with the film takes place in a dark and disturbing world, where large insects crawl and violence roams. In this gloomy world a poor couple gives birth to a child the size of a small fetus, whom they call Tom Thumb (in one of ca. three lines of dialogue in the entire film).

But Tom soon is kidnapped and taken to a sinister laboratory populated by several chimeral creatures tortured by insane experiments. A two-legged lizard-like creature helps Tom escape. Outside Tom meets a human tribe his own size, who unfortunately kill his chimeral companion. Jack, the leader of the tribe and a master of weapons, takes Tom back to the laboratory, where they eventually apparently destroy the laboratory’s power…

Much of what’s happening in this film is rather incomprehensible, and the plot could do with some cleaning. For example, it remains utterly unclear why Tom is kidnapped, and what the origin of the little people is. Throughout Tom remains a silent and innocent character, not unlike Pinocchio or Dumbo, and he hardly acts.

In the end the film is more interesting because of its disturbing images and for its unique artwork than for its story. The creators made especially well use of pixillation (the animation of people), giving all actors a grotesque appearance and ditto movement.

The best scenes remain the ones inside the laboratory, where Tom sees some pathetic creatures. Especially the one in which one of the creatures asks Tom to shut down the power that sustains them, is a moving piece of animation.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ may never get the classic status of a ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ or a ‘The Wrong Trousers’, it still is a film that shows the limitless power of animation in the hands of creators with a lot of imagination.

Watch ‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb’ is available on DVD

Director: Mark Baker
Release Date: May 1993
Rating: ★★★★★

The Village © Mark BakerAfter ‘The Hill Farm‘ (1989) Mark Baker returns with another strong parable on the human condition. If ‘The Hill Farm’ explored man’s relation to nature, ‘The Village’ is concerned with man’s internal relationships.

The village of the title is a circular isolated village with all houses facing the same square. The neighbors seem godly souls, but they are all hypocrites spying on each other. Everything has to be done in secret: a cleaning lady secretly steals apples, the vicar secretly sips wine, and a stingy, bearded guy secretly plays with his money.

In this narrow-minded and stifling community a married woman falls in love with a bachelor with glasses, but they have to flee into the surrounding woods to escape the eternal gaze of their neighbors. Meanwhile the woman’s husband kills the miser, and steals his money, but it’s the bespectacled lover who gets the blame.

The village gladly builds a gallows out of the unjustly accused’s very own trees, but the lover manages to escape, accidentally killing the vile husband in the process. In the morning the omnipresent ants, which form a rather morbid running gag during the whole film, have eaten the corpse dry, and the villagers think it’s the body of the escaped convict. They break down the gallows in deep disappointment, while the two lovers flee from the village into the world.

‘The Village’ is told without words, only using unintelligible dialogue. Baker’s simple and quasi-naive style is used to a great effect, and adds to the story’s timeless value. Moreover, Baker’s timing is excellent, mixing the painful with comedy, especially when using the ants, injecting some black humor into the disturbing tale.

Watch ‘The Village’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Village’ is available on the The Animation Show of Shows DVD Box Set 7

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1918
Rating: ★★★

Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés © Éclair‘Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés’ is a short series of animated cartoons that Émile Cohl made for Éclair.

The first episode hasn’t survived, and only parts of the fifth, but from the surviving episodes one can distill that this series is about three criminals: Ribouldingue, who has a beard, Croquignol, and Filochard, who wears an eyepatch. The three flee from an inspector and have all kinds of adventures in Paris.

Cohl’s sketchy drawing style looks like something of the 19th century, and his animation, mostly done in cut-out, is rather stiff and badly timed, with none of the movement being remotely natural. Yet, Cohl’s gags are impressive as they seem to be embryonic versions of common cartoon gags of the 1940s and 1950s. For example, in the second episode there’s a scene in which numerous policemen pop-up from everywhere.

The third episode is the most impressive in this respect: the short contains a scene in which the trio enters a subterranean and rather nightmarish chamber in which everything can happen, making this scene a direct forerunner of ‘Bimbo’s Initiation‘ from 1931. Later, when a part of a fence falls on the inspector, he breaks into several pieces, just like a Tex Avery character. The fourth episode features a policeman who, when hitting a wall, contracts into a flat disc, and later Filochard rolls up like a piece of paper.

The fifth episode is the most incomprehensible of the four surviving films, partly because of only parts of it have survived. The best gag of this episode is when Croquignol almost drowns, and when rescued spits out hundreds of liters of water, including some fishes, only to ask for a drink.

All these gags are way ahead of the humor of contemporary American cartoons, but combined with the archaic drawing style the end result is a strange mix, indeed.

Watch ‘Les adventures des Pieds-Nickelés’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1916
Rating: ★★★

Les exploits de Farfadet © Émile Cohl‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ is a very short cut-out animation film, not even clocking two minutes.

In this short a man dreams he loses his hat at sea, drowns and gets swallowed by a huge fish.

The atmosphere of this film is very surreal and, indeed, dream-like, with a clear feel of unreality, and an illogical flow of events. The man speaks in text balloons , and in the end he blames his bad dream on rum, very much like Winsor McCay’s rarebit fiends.

Watch ‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les exploits de Farfadet’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: 1914
Rating: ★★★★

L'avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied © Émile Cohl‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ is a short comedy in which a fortune teller, Mrs. Sarafine, decides she should marry.

At that point Mister le vicomte Kelly d’Yeaut enters (his name’s pronounced as ‘quelle idiot’ meaning ‘what an idiot’). The viscount wants to know if he should marry, and if yes, to whom. Mrs. Sarafine makes a print of his hand using photographic paper, puts it in a box, and asks Mr. d’Yeaut to take a look inside.

What follows is some pen animation in Cohl’s idiosyncratic stream-of-consciousness-like style. We watch the hand poking in a nose and in one’s eye, and morphing into a man that melts and burns away. Mrs. Sarafine concludes the lines of the hand inconclusive, and makes a print of Mr. d’Yeaut’s foot. The second piece of animation shows images of loving couples, interchanged by decorative forms, although one of the last images shows a beautiful woman changing into an old hag.

Mrs. Sarafine explains those images to Mr. d’Yeaut that he’ll be happy with the first woman he’ll speak to, which is, of course, herself. In the end the two embrace.

Cohl’s animation is rather poor in this short, but his style of morphing and association remains mesmerizing. The live action scenes are entertaining, too, with subtle comedy revealing the two distinct characters by rather small gestures.

Watch ‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’avenir dévoilé par les lignes de pied’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Gene Deitch
Release Date: September 1960
Rating: ★★★★

Munro © Gene Deitch‘Munro’ is a charming little film which understandably won an academy award.

Jules Feiffer wrote the story based on a short story of his own. Howard Morris narrates the story and does all the voices of the cartoon except Munro’s, which is done by Deitch’s son Seth. The story tells about Munro, a little boy of four, who is drafted and who has a hard time convincing all the officials he’s only four.

Despite its fully American setting, director Gene Deitch made this film in Czechoslovakia. When one of his clients of his commercial work, Rembrandt films, promised to fund the film Deitch moved his production company to Prague, home of Rembrandt films. Deitch planned only to stay there for a few days, but on meeting his future second wife, he stayed there for the rest of his life.

Deitch uses very pleasant cartoon modern designs and monochrome painted backgrounds which fit the story very well. The Czech animators do an excellent job at the simple and limited, yet effective animation. There’s an undercurrent of anti-militarism in the cartoon that’s never played out in the open. The most critical scene is when the general explains why they’re fighting: “our side is on the fave of God, and the other side isn’t”.

But more importantly, the film is about how so-called authorities abuse and bully people, making them even believe themselves they are something they’re not. In this respect, the story of Munro is very akin to Frank Tashlin’s children’s book ‘The Bear That Wasn’t (1946), which was turned into an animated short itself in 1967.

Watch ‘Munro’ yourself and tell me what you think:

As far as I know ‘Munro’ has not yet been released on DVD or Blu-Ray
‘Munro’ is available on the DVD ‘Rembrandt Films’ Greatest Hits’ (thank you, Jonathan Wilson!)

Director: Jiří Brdečka
Release Date: 1963
Rating: ★★★½

Spatne namalovana slepice (Gallina vogelbirdae) © Jiří BrdečkaIn ‘Spatne namalovana slepice (which translates as ‘Badly Drawn Hens’)’ we watch three kids in a school class: a dreamy boy, a little girl who sits next to him, and a nerdy boy with glasses.

When the teacher orders the class to reproduce an intricate drawing of a chicken, the bespectacled boy reproduces the poster with photographic accuracy. The dreamy boy, however, makes a semi-abstract interpretation of the subject and the teacher reprimands the little boy. But then, at night, his colorful drawing comes to life…

This film is a clear ode to fantasy and celebrates the breaking of rules. This is a subject that’s often encountered in European animation films from the 1950s and 1960s, and which would have special appeal in the Eastern Bloc, with its repressive communist regimes.

Brdečka uses an idiosyncratic angular style, clearly influenced by the cartoon modern movement of the 1950s, but especially akin to contemporary developments at Zagreb film in Yugoslavia. His film uses vocal sounds, but no dialogue, and relies mostly on visual gags. However, there’s one great scene in which a famed ornithologist called Dr. Vogelbird repeatedly listens to a tape recorder saying his own name.

In the end, the film is a little too inconsistent and too wandering to become a classic, but its sympathetic story and charming drawing style make the short a nice watch.

Watch ‘Spatne namalovana slepice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Spatne namalovana slepice’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

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