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Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date:
 March 2, 1933
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, King Kong
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

King Kong © Universal‘King Kong’ is, of course, a live action movie, but I follow Andrew Osmond in including the film in the animation canon, as it is the first live action movie to feature an animated star – indeed Kong gets star billing in the opening credits, after the live action actors. The feature is also arguably the first live action movie in which animation is used not incidentally, but extensively, to the point of dominating several scenes.

‘King Kong’ is the father of all monster movies, and much of animator Willis O’Brien’s animation can be regarded as spectacular special effects, but in his portrayal of Kong himself O’Brien has put a surprisingly amount of character. Especially Kong’s death scene is astonishing. There’s real tragedy and sadness in Kong’s eyes and in his last caresses of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, the first of all scream queens). This is no mere feat, as character animation was still unheard of at the time – even Walt Disney was not that far – and it would take stop motion artists several years to reach a similar sense of emotional depth.

Most of the film, however, is not as much about emotion as well as thrills. The film’s main focus is to thrill the audience, and as soon as Ann Darrow is kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island, it does so relentlessly. The complete island is one big threat to the hapless crew that tries to regain Ann from the giant ape. But also to Ann and Kong themselves, for Kong has to rescue his human love interest no less than three times: from a large Tyrannosaurus rex, from a Plesiosaurus, which moves remarkably comfortably on land like a snake, and from a Pteranodon. This results in three fights, in which O’Brien can show off his skills. Especially the first fight is magnificent. It’s surprisingly lengthy, and it has a real sense of effort, with both forceful animals fighting for their lives. O’Brien also animates a surprisingly lifelike Stegosaurus, and a sauropod that strangely enough has gone carnivorous. And, of course, the girl, some other people, and the planes, at times, when in interaction with Kong.

Obviously not all the 1933 special effects have stood the test of time, but the trick photography is surprisingly good, and at times live action and animation blend into each other seamlessly. Some scenes are no less than astounding in this respect, even after all these years: a good example is a scene depicting Kong handling a tree trunk on which several crew members are clung. One really does believe the animated figure handles the tree trunk, which is filmed in live action. O’Brien has managed to bring a great sense of weight into Kong’s actions.

Another wonderful example of great blending of animation and live action is Kong peeling off Ann Darrow’s dress. This scene is a little erotic, and deepens Kong’s simple and playful character. Of course, O’Brien was not solely responsible for Kong’s portrayal. At times we see close-ups of Kong’s face, which is a giant non-animated model, and some scenes feature a large, mechanical hand. Nevertheless, most of Kong’s appeal is due to O’Brien’s animation. And the big ape has appeal! Indeed, the film is so iconic that Kong is still pretty famous today.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the movie have aged well. For example, the natives, all portrayed by black people, are pretty backward, and even worse is Charlie, the Chinese cook, who is as cliche as possible, and who even cannot talk right. But the film succeeds in being a real thrill ride, and Fay Wray manages to squeeze more feelings in her one-dimensional role than one would expect. The other actors are less interesting, and pale when compared to O’Brien’s classic creation.

The film’s last 18 minutes take place in New York, and these scenes really make the film into the ancestor of all monster movies, with Kong wandering the streets, causing havoc, and crushing a subway car. However, Kong’s final scene on top of the Empire State Building changes the monster into an utterly tragic figure. Even Mark Steiner’s score, which follows the action closely, adds to the feeling, turning into sadder themes when Kong nears his end. The sole scene elevates the film above most of its successors. And it’s this particular scene, in which Kong battles the aeroplanes on top of the Empire State Building, that provides the movie’s most iconic picture.

Watch an excerpt from ‘King Kong’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 31, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★♕
Review:

Snow-White © Max FleischerOf all Fleischer cartoons ‘Snow-White’ is probably the most famous. And rightly so, because it brings the Fleischer’s unique brand of surrealism to the max, being simply stuffed with mesmerizing images, unexpected metamorphosis and stream-of-consciousness-like story flows.

The short is also the second of three cartoons featuring the unique voice of Cab Calloway, the others being ‘Minnie the Moocher‘ (1932) and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain‘ from five months later. According to Leslie Cabarga (‘The Fleischer Story’, p.64) the film was animated by one man, Doc Crandall. Indeed he’s the only animator credited on the title card. This may be the cause of the short’s remarkable inner consistency. For the images may make no sense, they do flow into each other in a seamless way, with Betty Boop’s ride into an ice coffin as a particular highlight of absurd logic.

The Fleischer’s ‘Snow-White’ has a winter setting. It starts classical enough with the queen consulting her magic mirror. But then Betty Boop enters the scene, making the knights fall apart and the queen’s head turn into a frying pan, symbolizing her angry jealousy. The queen orders ‘off with her head’, demonstrating the action with her own fingers, and soon Koko and Bimbo (as two knights) prepare for the execution. However, in a very strange string of events they disappear into the hole they’ve dug themselves, while the tree to which Betty is tied sets her free himself.

In another weird string of events Betty Boop ends in an ice coffin at the dwarfs’ door. They drag her into the ‘mystery cave’, followed by the queen, who, using her magic mirror, has turned herself into a witch. Koko and Bimbo also enter the cave. Koko starts singing the St. James Infirmary Blues, one of Calloway’s classic hits, with Cab Calloway’s voice and movements. But when the queen turns him into a ghost, Koko suddenly becomes able to morph into a gold chain and into a bottle, illustrating the lyrics of the song. Later the mirror turns the witch into a dragon, which chases the trio, until Bimbo turns it inside out.

There’s a lot going on in this mind-blowing cartoon, which is over before you know it. Being very, very unlike Disney’s later feature film, ‘Snow-White’ is an undisputed highlight of cartoon surrealism, matched by very few other cartoons (the other one which comes to mind is ‘Porky in Wackyland’ from 1938). With this short the Fleischers reached the pinnacle of their pre-code cartoon style, before a combination of the Hays code and a tendency to imitate Walt Disney more toned down their unique vision.

Watch ‘Snow-White’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 13
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Penthouse
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Birthday Party

‘Snow-White’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 November 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Klondike Kid © Walt DisneyKlondike. In a beautiful opening scene we cut to “Klondike Bar’, a rowdy bar, where Mickey is a bar pianist, playing the popular ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’.

The bar scene is pretty complex, with a lot going on. Goofy is there, too, seemingly just to show he’s a star to stay, for he has no involvement in the plot, at all. Outside, Minnie is freezing, and Mickey takes her inside, but then Pierre (a.k.a. Pete) arrives, peg leg and all. Soon he runs off with Minnie after a short gun fighting scene. Mickey, of course, rushes out to follow him, and jumps on a sled pulled by Pluto. In a remote log cabin, a fight ensues…

In essence ‘The Klondike Kid’ is ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ in Alaska. But what an execution of such an old idea! The gags are plenty and funny and build up to a fast paced finale. This short is unique for its time in its clever integration of story and gags: the gags are not bonuses, but really add to the story. Highlight must be the ridiculous fight between Mickey and Peg Leg Pete hindered by spiral springs. Mickey Mouse arguably reached the apex of his solo career with this cartoon.

Because of the strong similarities in setting and storyline ‘The Klondike Kid’ feels like a direct ancestor to Tex Avery’s two settings of the poem ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’: ‘Dangerous Dan McFoo’ (Warner Brothers, 1939) and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGoo‘ (MGM, 1946).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 49
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Good Deed

‘The Klondike Kid’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 October 15, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Touchdown Mickey © Walt DisneyLike the earlier ‘Barnyard Olympics‘, ‘Touchdown Mickey’ is as fast-paced sports cartoon. It plunges right into action, when we watch Mickey getting a touchdown for his team Mickey’s Manglers, in an attempt to defeat their opponents, the Alley Cats. The Alley Cats all look like Pete sans peg leg, and they prove tough opponents to Mickey’s much more diverse team.

The sheer speed with which the countless gags are delivered is astonishing, especially when compared to contemporary cartoons from other studios, or earlier Mickeys. By 1932 the studio made better use of Mickey the little hero than ever before, and ‘Touchdown Mickey’ excellently plays on Mickey as the underdog beating the odds. This means we can immediately sympathize with him and his feeble team, drawing us into the match ourselves – as we really want him to win.

The short marks Goofy’s third screen appearance and already he is a more recognizable and more defined character than Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow would ever be. In ‘Touchdown Mickey’ he’s a radio reporter, if a rather uninformative one, and in one of the numerous gags he accidentally mistakes the head of a colleague for his microphone. Twelve years later Goofy would be playing football himself, in ‘How to Play Football’ (1944), but by then is character had gone through quite some transformations.

Interestingly, there’s another character with a characteristic laugh in this cartoon, a fat pig in the audience, who wears glasses and holds a cigar. As his design is more complex than that of all other characters, I suspect him to be a caricature, but of whom?

‘Touchdown Mickey’ was released only twelve days after the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘The Goal Rush‘, which covers exactly the same subject to less satisfying results.’Touchdown Mickey’ is great, it’s fun and absolutely among Mickey’s all time best cartoons.

Watch ‘Touchdown Mickey’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 47
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Whoopee Party
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary

‘Touchdown Mickey’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: unknown
Release Date:
 August 13, 1932
Stars: Flip the Frog
Rating: ★★★★★♕
Review:

Room Runners © Ub Iwerks‘Room Runners’ starts with Flip trying to sneak out of his apartment block to escape six months of arrears. Unfortunately, he’s discovered by the landlady, and a long chase starts, which also involves a policeman and a running gag of a man with a tooth ache.

‘Room Runners’ takes the eroticism introduced in ‘The Office Boy‘ to heights that even surpass the sexual references in Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons. Already in the first scene we watch a young lady (the secretary from the previous cartoon) wandering in her night gown. Flip then runs into a bathroom, where a naked woman takes a shower, and he spies on naked ladies twice. Finally, the landlady falls into a painting of a naked woman, with bare breasts.

The cartoon is gag packed, but the animation is erratic, and the visual language sometimes straight from the silent era – something typical of the mid-1932 Flip the Frog cartoons. Both this strange mix of styles and its strong erotic content make ‘Room Runners’ a unique short. If one should watch just one Flip the Frog cartoon, this one should be it.

Watch ‘Room Runners’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 24
To the previous Flip the Frog cartoon: The Office Boy
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: Stormy Seas

‘The Office Boy’ is available on the DVD Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks

 

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930-1931
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Studie Nr. 7 © Oskar FischingerIn Fischinger’s study No. 7 , made in 1930-1931, the shapes of study no. 6 move to the 5th Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms.

Like Study No. 6 Fischinger made this film with charcoal on paper. In this short the synchronization of music and movement is even better than in Study No. 6. Fischinger uses less diverse shapes than in No. 6, making the film more consistent. Some of them look like fluttering and folding pieces of paper.

According to William Moritz this particular film prompted four film makers into animation: Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye. These four all became major players in avant-garde animation. This fact makes Study No. 7 one of the most important animation films in history.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 7’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Studie nr. 7′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date:
 July 24, 1931
Stars: Bimbo, Betty Boop
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Bimbo's Initiation © Max Fleischer‘Bimbo’s Initiation’ is probably the most famous Betty Boop cartoon, apart from ‘Snow-White‘ (1933).

Nevertheless, Betty only plays a small part in the cartoon, which is really about Bimbo. In his previous cartoon, ‘The Herring Murder Case’, Bimbo had been redesigned. He’s now more clearly a dog character, with a predominant black coloring instead of the earlier white. This redesigned Bimbo has some character in his rather original looks, but he’s still far from a character, remaining only a foil for the things happening around him.

In no cartoon this is so clear as in ‘Bimbo’s Initiation’. In the first scene we watch him walking on the street, when he suddenly falls into a well and is being caught in a scary underworld beneath the street. There bearded guys repeatedly ask him whether he wants to be a member of their secret order. Bimbo keeps saying no, and he tries to flee, but he cannot escape the nightmarish world, in which every deadly room leads to another one. These scenes are accompanied by a hot jazz version of ‘Tiger Rag’. Luckily, the last room features Betty, and when she asks him whether he wants to be a member, Bimbo gives in. Then all the bearded figures appear to be duplicates of her!

Betty Boop is completely blank in this cartoon and she still has dog ears here. But the nightmarish world is absolutely inspired. It’s both claustrophobic and funny, and we feel with Bimbo, who’s now victim of a world, in which no law, whether human or natural, applies. No other cartoon was so far removed from the happy world of Walt Disney, and arguably no other cartoon before Tex Avery’s ‘Northwest Hounded Police‘ (1946) and Chuck Jones’s ‘Duck Amuck‘ (1953) would be so compelling in portraying the anguish of a trapped cartoon character. Despite its primitive looks, the cartoon hasn’t aged at all, and it’s an undisputed classic within the complete cartoon canon.

‘Bimbo’s initiation’ undoubtedly has been the inspiration of the scary cartoon sequence in which a girl is caught in Joe Dante’s episode in the theatrical version of ‘The Twilight zone’ (1983).

Watch ‘Bimbo’s initiation’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 23
To the previous Talkartoon: The Herring Murder Case
To the next Talkartoon: Bimbo’s Express

‘Bimbo’s initiation’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’ and on Betty Boop: Essential Collection 2′

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date:
 September 24, 1930
Stars: Bimbo?
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Swing You Sinners © Max Fleischer‘Swing You Sinners!’ is an early Talkartoon, and a wildly imaginative one, too.

We watch a thief (probably Bimbo, but his appearance in the early Talkartoons is so inconsistent, one can’t be sure). The thief tries to steal a chicken, but runs into a cop. The thief then flees into a graveyard, where he has a particularly nightmarish experience. First the gate locks itself, then turns into a stone wall, and then the graves start to sing…

Soon all kinds of inanimate objects start to haunt him. And although the soundtrack is very jazzy, ‘Swing You Sinners!’ remains a bad trip throughout. At one time the walls close into him, at another a ghost promises him to give him a ‘permanent shave’.

The animation is extremely rubbery, and even insane. For example, when we watch a chicken do some scatting, both the chicken and the background are very wobbly, to a hallucinating effect. In the end we watch countless ghosts marching, followed by even more ghostly images when the thief starts to descend into hell. The cartoon ends with a giant skull swallowing the thief, a surprisingly grim ending for a cartoon with such swinging music*.

In any case ‘Swing You Sinners!’ is a testimony of the sheer creativity, which was the Max Fleischer Studio in the early 1930s, and should be placed among the greatest cartoons of all time.

Watch ‘Swing You Sinners!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 10
To the previous Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill
To the next Talkartoon: Grand Uproar

‘Swing You Sinners’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

*It may be interesting to note that this is one of the earliest mentions of swing, predating for example Duke Ellington’s song ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ by two years, and being miles ahead of the swing craze of the second half of the 1930s.

Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Hotel E © Priit PärnIf ‘Breakfast on the Grass‘ was a dark and disturbing portrait of life in the Soviet Union, Priit Pärn’s next film, ‘Hotel E’, took off the mask from the former Soviet state like no other film.

Released shortly after Estonia’s declaration of independence on 20 August 1991, it’s the film on the fall of the iron curtain, seen from an Eastern European perspective. Pärn paints Eastern and Western Europe in the most extreme contrasts, and with different animation styles.

Western Europe (named ‘The American Dream’) is a lethargic dream room, filled with rich, lazy, and spoiled people, filling their empty lives with petty problems, and hardly capable of communicating with each other. This world is filmed in slow, rotoscoped movements in the most colorful pop-art style.

Meanwhile, next door, in the Eastern European room, things are very different indeed. This world is depicted in Pärn’s crude scratchy animation style, it’s dark, it’s filthy, and life there is extremely stressful. The inhabitants all sit around a round table, and their presence is constantly checked by a moving clock hand. The room is frequently illuminated by search lights, and if one fails to stay in place for whatever reason, he’s executed immediately. Paranoia and secrecy reign. Moreover, chances can change randomly, and someone who was in favor first, can be out of luck next time.

One of the inhabitants of this cruel world manages to break free and he’s capable to visit the other world next door. He repeats his visits, despite the fact that he has to leave his concerned wife behind, and despite the fact he’s increasingly seen as a traitor by his fellow citizens. Even worse, he seemingly has little to add to the luxurious world of the West, and his longings there are hardly answered, let alone his problems understood. Only in the end he manages to find his place in this society, when only he turns out to be able to restore the inhabitants’ happiness. At that point we watch the wall between the two rooms collapsing, exposing the rotten world of the East and its eager inhabitants, and we hear one Western woman exclaim ‘o, shit…’.

‘Hotel E’ is Pärn’s most openly political film. It must be regarded as one of his masterpieces, and because of its historical significance, the most important film by the Estonian master. Pärn’s visual language is at its most extreme here, and the film is very difficult to decipher. In fact, much of what is happening is hard to comprehend. But anyone who takes the plunge, is rewarded by a most moving, and impressive film, indeed, the message of which still rings today.

Watch ‘Hotel E’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.totalshortfilms.com/ver/pelicula/138

Directors: Robert Zemeckis (live action) & Richard Williams (animation)
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Stars: Roger Rabbit, Baby Herman, Bob Hoskins, Jessica Rabbit, Christopher Lloyd, Yosemite Sam, Dumbo, Hyacinth Hippo, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Betty Boop, Goofy, Droopy, Tweety, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Koko the Clown, Pinocchio, Woody Woodpecker, Pete, Porky Pig a.o.
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Who-Framed-Roger-Rabbit © Touchstone PicturesVery rarely a film comes out that raises great expectations, but also lives up to it. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is such a picture.

Brought to us by golden team of film entertainment professionals, producing company Walt Disney, executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ stands among the great fantasy films of the 1980s.

More importantly, however, it heralded a renaissance in the animation world after ca. 20-25 dark years, in which animation got cheaper, lousier, more commercial and more and more directed at kids. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ showed that once there was a golden age of animation, in which animation was impressive, massively funny and directed at adults. The film clearly pays homage that period. For example, the Baby Herman cartoon with which the film starts, combines Disney-like elongated prop-gags with Tex Averyan takes and Tom & Jerry-like cartoon violence. Indeed, Tom & Jerry seem to be the cartoon’s biggest influence with its household setting, fast pacing and violent takes on Roger.

The film renewed the attention for the golden age (roughly 1930-1955) and spawned a new era, in which Disney found inspiration again. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is one of the least typical Disney-features Disney ever made, and the introduction of Warner Bros./MGM-like cartoon humor was a great injection for the company, resulting in genuinely fast and funny animation in its own features, most notably in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and ‘Hercules’ (1997).

Moreover, in the age following the movie, TV-animation suddenly got interesting (Nickelodeon with series like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life, Cartoon Network with series like Cow & Chicken and Dexter’s Laboratory), and animation returned to evening television, aimed at adults (The Simpsons, Duckman, South Park). For people like me, who had grown up in the deserts of 1970s and 1980s this change in perception of what animation was and could be was very welcome, and in my perception it all began with this film.

‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is not only a milestone, however, it’s a hugely entertaining movie itself, with a strong plot and great scenes. The animation, led by Richard Williams, is pre-computer, but an enormous improvement on similar earlier films combining animation with live action (e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros‘, ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Elliott and the dragon’). Not only are the character animated very well, they’re staged stunningly fluently, following the camera, and they’re shaded like they are actually in the set, giving them a 3D quality like no cartoon character in a live-action setting ever had before.

This sense of the cartoon characters being in the same space as the actors is greatly helped by an endless string of very convincing special effects, using real props. For example the weasel gang leader handles a real gun, and when he splashes water, the water is real, too. Meanwhile, of course, the characters remain drawn on cells. To contemporary eyes there’s a great lesson here, in that cartoon characters needn’t be animated in 3D to get a real sense of existential body…

Part of the fun of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ of course, is the presence of several classic cartoon stars, coming from different animation studios and appearing for the first (and only) time together in one film. It’s a great pleasure to watch Disney characters (a.o. Donald and Mickey) appearing together with Warner Bros. characters (a.o. Daffy, Bugs, Tweety, Yosemite Sam), MGM (Droopy) and even from former Disney-rival Fleischer (Betty Boop, and for a brief moment Koko). Only Walter Lantz’s star Woody Woodpecker doesn’t get the screen time he deserves, and Popeye and Hanna & Barbera’s Tom & Jerry are notably absent. The fun is raised by the presence of two of the original voice talents, Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety & Porky Pig) and Mae Questel (Betty Boop).

However, the film’s own stars are hardly less entertaining. Roger Rabbit, voiced by Charles Fleischer, easily carries the film, and Jessica Rabbit is not only a female attraction, but a wonderfully subtle character, with great lines like ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way‘. The live action stars are equally strong, most notably Bob Hoskins, who brings a very subtle tragic edge to his cynical character Eddie Valiant, the film’s starring role.

The story has surprisingly critical overtones, with its plot circling around the loss of Los Angeles public transport in favor of freeways, something that really happened in the late 1940s (the showing of ‘Goofy Gymnastics‘ places the film’s time setting firmly in 1949). Judge Doom’s vision of what the freeway looks like is the film’s most cynical moment. Especially when his lifeless vision of commerce, cheapness and efficiency is placed against the loss of Toontown – symbol of fun, creativity and the extras of life.

In all, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ is a great film, a classic which doesn’t fail to entertain. It was not the first film to blend cartoon stars in the real world (the idea is almost as old as animation itself, going all the way back to ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (who interacted with her creator Winsor McCay in a theater), or Fleischer’s Out of the inkwell films from the 1910s) – nor was it the last (less successful successors include ‘Cool World’ from 1992 and ‘Space Jam’ from 1996), but it is arguably the best in its kind. It’s questionable whether we’ll see a film like this again, as nowadays there’s a tendency of recreating cartoon characters in 3D, with ‘The Smurfs’ (2011) as the most appalling example.

Watch the trailer for ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 3, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Alice © Jan SvankmajerOf all classic literature, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is certainly the most dreamlike, and it’s no wonder that it came to the attention of Czech master surrealist Jan Švankmajer.

Already in 1971 he had made a film on Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, but arguably, this film has little to do with the poem. ‘Alice’ continues the surreal atmosphere of his earlier film and remains faithful to the book.

‘Alice’ was Jan Švankmajer’s first feature length film, and it really shows his craft and strikingly original vision. It is one of the best, probably the most original, and certainly the most disturbing film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world famous book. In any case, it’s among the best animated features of all time.

Where the Walt Disney version focused on the loony, fantastic parts of the story, Švankmajer emphasizes its irrational, surreal character. Švankmajer puts the story in a setting completely his own. Although the film opens with the classic opening near the brook, after the titles, the action takes place mostly indoors, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere typical for this film, only matched by Švankmajer’s second feature film, ‘Faust’ (1994). In Švankmajer’s film ‘wonderland’ consists of an endless string of dirty old rooms, connected by many doors and desks with drawers, all of which the knob comes off. Even the lovely garden is no more than a stage with props.

The drawer knobs form the running gag in a movie which is low on humor, but high on unsettling and impressive images, starting with the stuffed rabbit suddenly coming to life and smashing the glass of its glass display with its scissors. Other highly memorable scenes are the stuffed rabbit eating sawdust, which falls out again its open belly; the mouse cooking on Alice’s head, the room of hole-digging socks; and the mindless and mechanical repetition of the mad tea-party scene, timed to perfection.

Švankmajer’s wonderland is a morbid world. Its inhabitants are stuffed animals, dolls, playing cards, and even a bunch of macabre fantasy creatures, oddly joined together from body parts from different animals and lifeless objects, and which form a real threat to the little girl. In this world, anything can become alive, as demonstrated by e.g. Alice’s own socks. At the same time, Alice remains the only really living thing, and even she turns into a doll three times. Death, too, is near: at one point in the film we see the mouse, still in his clothes, caught by a mousetrap, dead. And in Švankmajer’s wonderland, the queen of heart’s orders are executed, and several characters are decapitated, including the mad hatter and the march hare…

‘Alice’ uses a perfect blend of stop motion and live action, and has an excellent protagonist in young actor Kristýna Kohoutová. If the film has one flaw, it must be girl’s voice, which provides all the dialogue and narration. It’s often unwelcome and out of place, and it doesn’t really work well in dialogue-rich scenes, like the mad tea scene or the trial scene.

Švankmajer is at his best when the action is silent and the images speak for themselves. These scenes are greatly added by superb sound design, provided by Ivo Špalj and Robert Jansa, which add to the creepy, wretched atmosphere of the film. ‘Alice’ is certainly not your average family film, but the viewer who dares to enter this film’s unique world, will not be disappointed.

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

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 17, 1986
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Luxo jr. © PixarOf all classics of animation, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is certainly the shortest. This little gem only lasts ninety seconds, and can feel more like a study than as a mature cartoon. That said, the short is brilliant in its concept and execution.

Being the fledgling company Pixar’s very first film, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is the first of a series of shorts, in which the ambitious team explored the boundaries of computer animation, ever pushing them further away. ‘Luxo Jr.’ is a first example. It was made in a time in which computer animation was mainly used for special effects. Of course in ‘Luxo Jr.’ there’s special attention to lighting and texture, too, but most importantly: it shows that computer animation can also be used to tell an engaging story with characters.

Even in their simplicity, the two table lamps are recognizable characters, one old and parental, the other young and enthusiastic. The effect is the more extraordinary, as animator John Lasseter didn’t use eyes or squash-and-stretch techniques: the lamps remain lamps.

Thus, the cute Luxo jr. showed the world that in principle computer animation was as much able to tell a moving story with emotional characters as any other medium. Unlike the earlier ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B‘ (1984), which remains too primitive and too uneven to be of lasting charm, ‘Luxo jr.’ is as engaging today as it was at its first screening.

After ‘Luxo, jr.’ Pixar would keep on demonstrating the story powers of computer animation with three other brilliant cartoons: ‘Red’s Dream‘ (1987), ‘Tin Toy‘ (1988) and ‘Knick Knack‘ (1989), culminating nine years later in the first computer animated feature film ‘Toy Story’ (1995).

However, it’s Luxo jr. that showed the way way back in 1986. No wonder the studio keeps the feisty little lamp still in their logo.

Watch ‘Luxo jr’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Osamu Tezuka
Release Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Jumping © Osamu TezukaOsamu Tezuka is known as the founder of commercial animation in Japan, but he never lost sight of the artistic possibilities of animation.

No film of his shows this more clearly than ‘Jumping’, arguably the best film he ever made. In ‘Jumping’ we watch the world from the eyes of rope jumping girl. As the short progresses she jumps higher and higher, and further and further, even jumping to Africa, to a war-ridden country and into a mushroom cloud, straight into hell.

‘Jumping’ is not only strikingly original, it is very well-made with its constantly moving backgrounds, and as funny as it is disturbing in its finale. The mushroom cloud, the nightmare of man, but especially of the Japanese, the only nation to have experienced it, is a frightful sight, even in this animated short. Together with the girl, we sigh with relief when in the end of the film we return to the familiar and peaceful territory of our home street.

‘Jumping’ maybe a clear product of the cold war era, its impact is still at work today, and its message still as significant.

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

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1982
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Dimensions of Dialogue © Krátky filmTogether with ‘Jabberwocky‘ (1971), ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ can be considered Švankmajer’s masterpiece. It mixes excellent design with virtuoso animation and astonishingly original story material.

With ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ Švankmajer defined a style he would maintain into the early 1990s, resulting in most of his best films, including the feature lengths ‘Alice‘ (1987) and ‘Faust’ (1994). ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ contains three different ‘dialogues’, without using any real dialogue in the soundtrack. These three dialogues are pure visual encounters, making this film very universal.

Like in all his films, Švankmajer’s visual language is highly surreal. Yet, the three dialogues follow their own inescapable inner logic, with disturbing results. The film does not as much feature dialogue as well as rather violent clashes. It seems to show the inability of humans to communicate.

The first, ‘Factual dialogue’, is the most violent of the three episodes. It shows three heads moving in a 2-dimensional space. The three heads are clearly inspired by renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo and consist of food, household tools and office equipment, respectively. The heads devour eachother, destroying their parts more and more before spitting them out. Like ‘Et Cetera‘ (1966) there is a sense of pointlessness in this endless string of violence, which tells something about humanity.

The second part, ‘A passionate dialogue’, is the most virtuoso episode of the three. ‘In this part Švankmajer and his animating collaborator Vlasta Pospíšilová introduce a new level in claymation. The film features a stunningly realistic human couple made out of clay. The man and woman are animated beautifully when they embrace passionately, until they become one moving lump of clay of pure desire. When they part again, however, there’s some leftover: a little lump of formless clay yearning for affection. Unfortunately, neither of the two lovers accepts this petty piece of clay, and the innocent leftover brings the couple to rage. In their conflict they once again become a clay lump, but now one of utter destruction…

The third part, ‘An exhausting dialogue’, is the most comical one, and seems to portray a discussion going haywire. It features two realistic heads on a table, producing a toothbrush and toothpaste, bread and butter, a shoe and a shoelace and a pencil and a sharper in more and more absurd combinations to the exhaustion of both. The soundtrack is perfect throughout the picture, but exceptionally so in this third part in its combination of Jan Klusák’s music and train sounds.

‘Dimensions of a Dialogue’ is inexplicable, but communicates on a subconscious level, like all great surreal art. It perfectly shows the power of animation in showing the human condition using the very outskirts of imagination. The result is no less than one of best animation films ever.

Watch ‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Dimensions of Dialogue’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’ and on the DVD ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: April 11, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Horton Hatches the Egg © Warner Bros.

‘Horton Hatches The Egg’ is a unique film within Bob Clampett’s oeuvre, and indeed the complete Warner Bros. canon: it’s the studio’s only book adaptation, it lacks sex and violence, and there is nothing of the zany and extreme animation so typical of Clampett’s unit.

Instead, we’re treated on a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s children’s book to the screen. The cartoon uses most of Dr. Seuss’s rhymes, with adding only a little dialogue of its own, which is easily identifiable because of the lack of rhyme. Dr. Seuss’s designs, too, are wonderfully transferred to the animated screen. Especially Horton and the other forest animals have a distinctive Dr. Seuss character.

The Warner Bros. team departs from Dr. Seuss’s drawings, however, in the human designs. The three hunters are rather bland in Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, but Clampett made them a very funny trio in the cartoon. Moreover, some of the wild Warner Brothers humor has crept into the cartoon, most typically two movie star references, which, unfortunately, date the film a little: Lazy Mayzie imitates Katharine Hepburn, and there’s a fish with Peter Lorre’s features, who, after seeing Horton on a ship, shoots itself, exclaiming “Now I’ve seen everything!”.

Today, a gag like this is regarded inappropriate for children, and it might be this gag that is responsible for the little screen time the cartoon gets today. This is very unfortunate, because this animated adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book is not only the first of all, it is also one of the best, being second only to Chuck Jones’s ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas‘ from 1966.

Watch ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://www.metatube.com/en/videos/195775/Horton-Hatches-the-Egg-Cartoon-1942/

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: September 25, 1943
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck?
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

A Corny Concerto © Warner Bros.‘A Corny Concerto’ is a two part spoof on Disney’s most ambitious feature, ‘Fantasia’ (1940), using two waltzes by Johann Strauss jr.

The cartoon features a very Fantasia-like opening, with Elmer Fudd as a clear caricature of Deems Taylor. He announces ‘Tales from the Woods’, which tells about Porky Pig and a dog hunting Bugs Bunny. Porky fills the role of Elmer Fudd in this sequence, and it’s the only cartoon in we can watch him hunting Bugs Bunny. This first part is a classic Bugs Bunny routine, complete with death scene, but now timed to music and acted in pantomime. With its overt mix of high culture and silliness this part is a direct ancestor to Chuck Jones’s later ‘What’s Opera, Doc?‘ (1957).

The second part is a story on ‘The Blue Danube’. It opens with flowers dropping on water, just like in the Nutcracker Suite sequence in Fantasia. This part tells about a little black duck, an infant version of Daffy Duck, trying to join a family of swans, and finally saving them from a vulture by destroying him with TNT. As this story is some kind of inverse of ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ (another acclaimed Disney masterpiece), this could be considered to be a parody within a parody.

Apart from Elmer Fudd’s speeches, the cartoon is completely pantomimed, and full of the wild and zany animation so typical of Bob Clampett’s unit. The backgrounds are lush and colorful, and reminiscent of the the Pastoral Symphony sequence in the original Fantasia. Their designs become overtly ridiculous in ‘The Blue Danube’, with Greek columns placed randomly in the water.

The result is a highly original mix of style and nonsense, and a great testimony of what Leon Schlesinger’s studio could do on a limited budget. In all, the cartoon is an undisputed classic, and very enjoyable, even if you don’t know its topic of parody.

Watch ‘A Corny Concerto’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 19
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Wackiki Wabbit
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Falling Hare

This is Porky Pig cartoon No. 101
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Pig’s Feat
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Tom Turk and Daffy

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: April 27, 1940
Stars: Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Leon Schlesinger
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

You Oughta Be in Pictures © Warner Bros.‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ is the very first cartoon to bridge two ideas of animation film figures being ‘real’.

First, the idea that cartoon figures can come alive from the drawing board into the real world, an idea that hauls all the way back to Max Fleischer’s first ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoons (1915). The second idea is that of cartoon figures being real Hollywood stars, explored in cartoons such as ‘Felix in Hollywood’ (1923), ‘Movie Mad‘ (1931), ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933) and especially ‘The Autograph Hound’ (1939), with which ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ has most in common. ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ synthesizes these two ideas, making it a direct ancestor of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ (1987).

‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ was one of the first films director Friz Freleng made after his return from an ill-fortuned move to MGM, and as Jerry Beck points out in the audio commentary track, one can see this film somehow as autobiographical.

In any case, this short marks is Freleng’s first take on Daffy Duck, and he places him firmly as Porky’s rival. In this cartoon Daffy is not necessarily zany, like in Tex Avery’s and Bob Clampett’s cartoons, but overconfident and sneaky, with a tendency to show off; character treats that would be explored more from 1950 on, especially by Chuck Jones. However, by then the relation between Porky and Daffy would be changed completely.

In ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ Porky is still an innocent, cute and Boyish character. In the opening scene we watch him being drawn by animator Fred Jones on the drawing board. When all animators have rushed off to lunch (reused footage from a Leon Schlesinger Christmas Party film), Daffy, framed on the wall, addresses the Porky drawing. He convinces Porky to leave Leon Schlesinger’s studio to get a real job in the business of feature films. Leon Schlesinger lets Porky go, saying into the camera “he’ll be back!”. While Porky has a hard time in the neighboring live action studio, Daffy tries to get his plays at Warner Bros. But Porky returns and beats the hell out of the double-crosser.

‘You Ougt to Be In Pictures’ is a lovely cartoon. It mixes animation and live action, partly from other Warner Bros. features, to great effects. The scene in which Porky talks to Leon Schlesinger is very convincing, and Porky’s drive back no less than breathtaking. Besides Leon Schlesinger, the film stars writer Michael Maltese as a guard, animator Gerry Chiniquy as a director, and executive producer Henry Binder as a sound man. However, as the live action footage was shot silently, all are voiced by Mel Blanc, except for Leon Schlesinger who does his own voice.

Watch ‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon No. 71
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Slap Happy Pappy
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Poor Fish

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:

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: December 16, 1950
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Rabbit of Seville © Warner Bros.‘Rabbit of Seville’ is the second of three superb Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny cartoons on opera, bridging ‘Long-Haired Hare‘ (1949) and ‘What’s Opera, Doc?‘ (1957).

The cartoon starts with an open air opera theater setting with the Elmer-Bugs chase quickly entering the scene. When Elmer hits the stage, Bugs quickly opens the curtains, prompting the orchestra to play ‘The Barber from Seville’ by Gioacchino Rossini. This leads to a wonderful aria by Bugs, and even Elmer joins in.

But the best part of the film is the silent comedy that follows on the music of the opera’s overture. During this sequence Bugs Bunny’s expressions are priceless, and the action is beautifully staged to the music, leading to a great finale in which Elmer and Bugs get married.

Throughout the picture Jones’s timing and staging are perfect. It improves on both Charlie Chaplin’s barber scene in ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940) and on the vaguely similar Woody Woodpecker cartoon ‘Barber of Seville‘ (1944). The result is no less than a masterpiece.

Surprisingly, this cartoon about  ‘The Barber of Seville’ does not feature the famous ‘Largo el factotum’ aria from that opera. This is remarkable, for this aria was a staple in cartoons, and used extensively in e.g. ‘Barber of Seville’, the Tex Avery cartoon ‘Magical Maestro’ and Chuck Jones own Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘The Cat Above, The Mouse Below‘ (1964).

Watch ‘Rabbit of Seville’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rabbit of Seville’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 77
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Bushy Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Hare We Go

Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date: June 17, 1950
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

What's Up, Doc © Warner Bros.‘What’s Up, Doc?’ starts very much like Friz Freleng’s ‘A Hare Grows in Manhattan‘ from 1947: Bugs Bunny is a Hollywood star, interviewed by the press.

However, Writer Warren Foster and director McKimson’s take is much funnier than Freleng’s: instead of turning to an ordinary chase sequence, the duo retains the idea of Bugs being a real actor throughout the picture. The cartoon shows his erratic career in the vaudeville scene.

The most absurd take is when Bugs Bunny is down in the dumps. We seem him hanging out in the park with actors, who, by 1950, belonged pretty much to the has-beens: Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and Bing Crosby. At this point, it is Elmer, “the famous vaudeville star”, who turns Bugs into a star. We watch the duo performing in what must be the most terrible vaudeville act ever put on screen. But when Bugs utters “what’s up, doc” the duo hits the jackpot.

This loony, self-satirizing from-rags-to-riches story is entertaining throughout, and leads to a great finale. It may well have inspired the equally tongue-in-cheek opening sequence of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952), which shows some similarities to McKimson’s short.

‘What’s Up, Doc?’ is without doubt one of McKimson’s best cartoons. Sadly, the film more or less marks the end of McKimson’s most inspired era, for during the 1950s the quality of his cartoons steadily declined, becoming more and more routine, and less and less funny.

Watch ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘What’s Up, Doc?’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 72
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Big House Bunny
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: 8 Ball Bunny

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