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Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: August 17, 1908
Stars: Fantoche
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Fantasmagorie © Émile Cohl‘Fantasmagorie’ is without doubt the very first real drawn animation film.

Like Blackton’s films the short starts with a hand drawing a figure. But where Stuart J. Blackton’s ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces‘ and ‘Lightning Sketches‘ were pretty static tricks, ‘Fantasmagorie’ is a dazzling series of tableaux, moving into each other through metamorphosis. There’s no plot, but a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness, making this one of the very first surreal films ever.

Apart from the mind blowing images, the film also features the world’s first animated cartoon hero, Fantoche, a clown that starts the film and ends it by riding a horse and waving goodbye. In between, Fantoche keeps appearing, disappearing and changing into things and other characters. At one point he falls and loses his head, and Cohl’s hands have to put him together again. Even though by that time we did know the clown for only a few seconds, this still comes as a rather unsettling event.

Apart from the clown’s death and resurrection, so much is happening on the screen that after a mere two minutes the film leaves the viewer almost exhausted. There’s only one elongated gag, in which a man in a cinema is hindered by the giant head of the lady in front of him. It’s interesting to note that this early experiment of cinema uses its own still fresh medium as a setting.

Cohl’s drawing style is extremely simple, almost naive, and his stick-man-like figures have a child-like charm, which adds to the surrealism of the images. The film is totally devoid of timing, and the fast but steady flow of images give the film its unique character.

By all means ‘Fantasmagorie’ is not only a milestone of animated cinema, it still is a strong film in its own right, perfectly able to mesmerize even after more than a century since its completion.

‘Fantasmagorie’ was most probably Émile Cohl’s first film. He made the short inspired by Blackton’s influential stop-motion film ‘The Haunted Hotel’. Cohl was already 51 when he made this film, yet he would become one of the most prolific animators of all time, completing more than 250 films (not all of them animated) over a span of 13 years. Unfortunately, by the 1930s he was largely forgotten, and in 1938 he died as a poor man, never enjoying a rediscovery like the one that happened to his compatriot and fellow film pioneer Georges Méliès.

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

‘Fantasmagorie’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’ and ‘Before Walt’

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Director: Kunio Katō
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The House of Small Cubes © Robot CommunicationsIn ‘The House of Small Cubes’ (better known by its french title ‘La maison en petits cubes’) an old man lives in an almost abandoned town, flooded by an ever rising sea level.

Each time the level reaches his doorstep, he builds another level on top of the former one. One day his pipe falls down into a former home. The man dives to retrieve his pipe, but also into his own memories. By diving into ever deeper levels the old man remembers his deceased wife, his former family, and even the times before the flood began.

‘The House of Small Cubes’ is a gentle and sweet little movie on memory and loss. Despite being made in Japan, nothing in the film looks Japanese, and the short’s surreal but moving story is by all means universal. The film thus rightfully won the 2008 Academy Award for best animated short film.

Watch ‘The House of Small Cubes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The House of Small Cubes’ is available on the DVD Box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 9’ and on the French DVD box set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e anniversaire’

 

 

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: December 6, 1941
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

rhapsody in rivets © warner bros.‘Rhapsody in Rivets’ without doubt is one of Friz Freleng’s finest films. The very idea of turning a building site into a symphony orchestra with the foreman as a conductor is marvelous.

The execution, too, is superb. Using Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, Freleng presents a string of clever sight gags, perfectly timed to the music. When the foreman enters the stage, an audience applauds. The foreman uses his blueprint as sheet music. We watch a cement mixer mixing as if it were a cocktail shaker, and a brick layer frantically building a wall to the fast music. While performing, the workers really do build a skyscraper (with some twists and turns), until a Droopy-like dog destroys it all.

Liszt’s composition had been a staple since the advent of sound in cartoons. For example it had been used in the Mickey Mouse cartoons ‘The Opry House‘ (1929) and ‘The Mechanical Man‘ (1933) and the Betty Boop cartoon ‘Betty in Blunderland‘ (1934). But Freleng was the first to devote an entire cartoon to the composition. With this move Freleng made his own mini-Fantasia. The short uses no dialogue, whatsoever, and is a prime example of Freleng’s famous musical timing. In 1942 the film was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. Freleng would return to Liszt’s rhapsody several times, most notably in ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946) and ‘Back Alley Uproar‘ (1948).

Watch ‘Rhapsody in Rivets’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rhapsody in Rivets’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Award-Nominated Animation: Cinema Favorites’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: April 26, 1941
Rating:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Trial of Mr. Wolf © Warner Bros.‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ stands in a great tradition of fairy tale spoofs, which go all the way back to 1931, with cartoons like Van Beuren’s ‘Red Riding Hood‘ and Max Fleischer’s ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood‘.

More recent inspirations must have been Disney’s ‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ (1934), and especially Tex Avery’s ‘Cinderella Meets Fella‘ (1938) and ‘The Bear’s Tale‘ (1940).

‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ tops all these cartoons, however, and can be regarded as Warner Bros.’ first mature film: the short fuses Tex Avery’s silliness with Michael Maltese’s inspired story writing, and above all, Friz Freleng’s excellent timing, which at this stage was much better than Avery’s. The result is an outrageously funny cartoon, unlike everything seen before (yes, I’m including ‘A Wild Hare‘ in this!).

The short opens with a court scene, in which the wolf tells his side of the story about Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf portrays himself as an innocent boy from Sunday school, being a hapless victim of a double-crossing Red Riding Hood, and her extremely homicidal grandma, who is only after the wolf’s fur.

Red Riding Hood is a fantastic caricature of Katherine Hepburn, and never has the fairy tale character been so portrayed so vile on the animated screen. But all the characters have an assured, modern, and rubbery design – there’s no trace of the primitivism left that haunted much of Warner Bros.’ earlier output. But moreover, the gags come in fast and plenty, like they never did before. Highlight is the scene in which the wolf opens several doors, only to find grandma behind it, heavier armed every time (by the last door she has mounted a tank). This type of scene would recur in several other cartoons.

The door scene is done very fast, as are all other gags in the cartoon, with the ending being a particular standout: the wolf exclaims that if what he has told weren’t the truth, then he hopes to get run over by a streetcar. And immediately, the vehicle kicks in, taking just a few frames. Such quick timing tops everything Avery had done before, and would be hugely influential, arguably even to Avery himself.

Nevertheless, ‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ owes a lot to Avery, with its numerous throwaway gags, like the skunk jury member, and puns, like Red Riding Hood literally having guilt written all over her face. No doubt this cartoon was a great inspiration to the other directors at Warner Bros., who all sped their cartoons up during 1941 and 1942, even Chuck Jones, who had made the slowest cartoons of the lot thus far. The Schlesinger studio could now enter its classic era.

Watch ‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’

Directors: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: February 7, 1940
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Pinocchio © Walt Disney‘Pinocchio’ was Walt Disney’s long awaited successor to his hugely successfully first animated feature ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Its release was beaten by Max Fleischer’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, making ‘Pinocchio’ the third animated feature made in the United States.

In many ways ‘Pinocchio’ is a much darker affair than both earlier films. In fact, in many ways the feature is Disney’s darkest film, not only due to its deep oil canvases, but also because none of its villains are punished.

The film starts merrily enough, though, and the first 26 minutes take place in the cozy home of gentle woodcarver Geppetto, where his countless original cuckoo clocks, based on drawings by Albert Hurter, provide a lovely background. But as soon as Pinocchio leaves his house troubles start, and his predicaments go from bad to worse. And perhaps Geppetto might have known. I’ve always thought it strange to let the boy go to school on his own on his very first day of existence…

The dark atmosphere the film of course shares with the original book by Carlo Collodi from 1882, with which it also shares its episodic character. But Disney made the character entirely his own. Pinocchio’s design is cute and childlike, not the gaunt wooden puppet of many earlier illustrations of the book. This child-like design was developed by Milt Kahl, and surpassed an earlier, less appealing design by Fred Moore. This incidentally marked the start of the latter animator’s demise. Where Collodi’s Pinocchio was an obnoxious rascal, made out of some stubborn wood, Disney’s Pinocchio is a tabula rasa, an innocent child not yet corrupted by society. Indeed, the fairy’s task, to let his conscience be his guide, is seriously tested once Pinocchio enters the real world.

Pinocchio’s conscience is personified by Jiminy Cricket, a Disney invention based on a minor character from the book, which in the original all too soon is smacked against the wall. Jiminy Cricket is spared that fate, however, and in many ways is even made the main protagonist of the film. This little insect, developed and predominantly animated by Ward Kimball, is far less recognizable as an insect than the grasshopper had been in ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ (1934). Jiminy looks more like a tiny man, with his antenna looking more like two hairs. This design would resurface in that of Bootle Beetle, introduced in 1947.

It’s Jiminy Cricket who sings the famous opening tune, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, which leads us to the little cricket himself, who introduces us to the story, as he opens the book for us, and we literally hop with him to Geppetto’s toy shop. He’s voiced by Cliff Edwards, who in the 1920s enjoyed a famous career as ‘Ukelele Ike’, but whose career since then had been in a steady decline. ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ alone ensured him eternal fame, and the lovely tune would become Walt Disney’s signature tune from then on. Edwards gave the little insect cheerful lines, and rather modern remarks that makes us connect to the otherwise otherworldly story. Jiminy Cricket also shows a rather mundane interest in dames. He’s not only clearly impressed by the blue fairy, who indeed looks like a glamorous Hollywood girl, but also in the French can can dancing puppets who share the stage with Pinocchio in Stromboli’s theater. Jiminy Cricket surely is a lovable character, and it’s hardly surprising that he was reused again in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ to bridge that film’s two stories, even though he seems quite out of place there.

Apart from Jiminy, the film is stuffed with great characters, most notably the cute kitten Figaro and his female goldfish companion, Cleo, also two Disney originals. Cleo is the direct ancestor of the sexy fish in the Arabian Dance of the Nutcracker Suite-sequence in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). They, too, would return to the screen in a short called ‘Figaro and Cleo’ (1943), after which Figaro was coupled to Pluto to star three more cartoons. ‘Pinocchio’ remained unique in this spawning of shorts, with ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) being the first Disney feature to do the same.

The villains, too, are delightful. The first rogues Pinocchio encounters are the petty criminals Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat. Norm Ferguson and John Lounsberry animate the duo with gusto, and the interplay between fox and cat is full of delightful classic vaudeville routines. More evil than those is the explosive puppeteer Stromboli, whose temper matches his name, taken after the Italian volcano. Stromboli is animated by Bill Tytla, and in a way he’s a variation on Grumpy in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Like Art Babbit’s Geppetto, he’s halfway cartoon and realism, showing the animator’s grown confidence with the human form, and like Ferguson’s Fox and Cat, his moves are broad and theatrical, and they have a charming quality despite the menace.

Not so with the fourth criminal, the sinister coachman. His menace is downplayed, except from one frightening outburst, making him all the scarier. The coachman takes Pinocchio to pleasure island, where things turn very dark indeed. In many ways the pleasure island episode forms the abyss of an already pretty dark film. On the ride to the isle Pinocchio immediately befriends Lampwick, delightfully animated by Fred Moore, who may be naughty, but who remains sympathetic throughout. His metamorphosis into a donkey is therefore a moment of genuine horror, and like the one metamorphosis scene in Snow White absolutely the scariest moment in the entire movie.

Pinocchio manages to escape Pleasure Island, and even manages to return home, only to find it empty, and even covered by cobwebs, as if he had been gone for months. This is very incongruous, as he had only been away for two days… Anyway, in a rather deus ex machina-like scene a dove delivers our heroes a letter stating that while looking for Pinocchio Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale. This weak story device is luckily easily forgotten, for this leads to the first moment in which Pinocchio takes matters in his own hand, bravely jumping into the sea without any reluctance. The subsequent sea scenes form the second incongruity in the film: we watch Pinocchio wander with ease on the sea floor, but his sea adventures end with his drowning…

At sea, Pinocchio meets his final adversary, that tour-the-force of villainy, Monstro. In the original book the puppet got swallowed by a shark, but the Disney studio made it into a very large whale. Like the whale in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Whalers’ (1938), which by all means looks like a study for this film, Monstro is a strange combination of a sperm whale and a finback, blown up to really gargantuan proportions. This leviathan is able to devour complete ships and shoals of tuna. It’s admirable that the film manages to feature both such a tiny character as Jiminy and this giant whale. Monstro absolutely dominates every scene in which he’s in, and his moves, by Woollie Reitherman, are a stunning effort of animation of force and weight, greatly helped by a multitude of effects animation. In any case Monstro’s chase of our heroes accounts for a stunning finale, crowning the already breathtaking film.

The abundance of effect animation give ‘Pinocchio’ a stunning look anyhow. For example, all characters are airbrushed with lovely shadings, the blue fairy is strangely translucent, and there are great water effects during Pinocchio’s walk on the sea floor. All these extras give the film an extra luxuriant look, only matched by the Silly Symphony ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ (1939) and by ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

The staging, too, is often no less than stunning. Especially Pinocchio’s village are given two extraordinary bird eye’s view pan shots, based on designs by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren: the first starts with doves flying from a bell tower, which leads us to an elaborate shot through the village, showing it to be full of life. The second follows Honest John and Gideon leading Pinocchio to a career in the theater, on the delightful tune of Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee. Jiminy Cricket’s small size also accounts for some very original settings, like the detailed billiard table. All these settings were painted in rich oil canvases, which replaced the lighter water color backgrounds of ‘Snow White’.

Apart from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’, the film features two other delightful songs, all composed by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington: ‘Give A Little Whistle’, and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’. However, when events turn dark, the songs disappear from the screen.

When compared to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Pinocchio’ is easily the better film. Unfortunately, like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ ‘Pinocchio’ suffered from an unfavorable comparison to ‘Snow White’ and from the cut of the European market due to World War II. Thus the film was far less successful at the box office than hoped. ‘Pinocchio’ had cost the studio 2,6 million dollars, and by the spring of 1940 the studio was no less than $4,5 million in debt. This prompted the Disney brothers to go to the stock market. This was a successful move, and allowed the Disney studio to complete and distribute ‘Fantasia’. However, it also marked the end of an era, and when ‘Fantasia’ too, proved to be a financial disappointment, it was clear that Disney’s golden days were over. In that respect, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ form the crowning achievements of a stunning career that had begun so humbly with ‘Plane Crazy’ twelve years before.

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

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: October 21, 1938
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Goonland © Max Fleischer‘Goonland’ is a pivotal Popeye cartoon, which introduces two characters from E.C. Segar’s famous comic strip to the movie screen: the goons and Poopdeck Pappy.

The short opens with Popeye sailing an unknown sea in search for his father. He lands on a volcanic island, which is clearly doomed, as witnessed by the number of shipwrecks around it. The island turns out to be Goonland, inhabited by ‘Goons’, large, hairy humanoid creatures with superhuman strength. Indeed, even though Popeye doesn’t show any fear, he remains as long in hiding as possible, and only dares to confront the goons when disguised as one.

Goonland indeed turns out to be the home of  Popeye’s dad, Poopdeck Pappy, locked in a prison and playing checkers with himself. But Poopdeck Pappy doesn’t want to be rescued, and only comes into action, when Popeye is captured by the goons. In this short Popeye fails to reach his spinach, but his dad succeeds, rescuing his son before a bunch of goons jump at the duo. At this point the film breaks, making all the goons falling off into oblivion. Two hands stitch the film back together, and in the end we watch Poopdeck Pappy carrying his son from the island, the two singing Popeye’s signature song together.

‘Goonland’ is easily one of the all time best Popeye cartoons. Its settings, its characters, its story, Jack Mercer’s improvisation – everything is really great in this cartoon. Goonland is conceived wonderfully, and this part excels in beautiful background images. Jack Mercer is in top form. For example when Popeye disguises himself as a goon, he says ‘here today, goon tomorrow’. Later, when tiny rocks fall on him he mumbles ‘Guess somebody’s trying to rock me to sleep’.

Poopdeck Pappy, who’s also voiced by Mercer, is a strong character and an easy match to Popeye himself. Moreover, the story is truly exciting, as the goons are clearly no small fry for our hero. Indeed, the inventive film break gag, probably the first of its kind, is actually a deus ex machina , appearing when father and son are in undeniable dire straits.

The short also features some beautiful animation, most notably that of Poopdeck Popeye breaking his prison walls. In this scene we can really feel the sheer power of his action. Despite being such a wonderful character, the studio would wait two years before bringing Poopdeck Pappy back to the screen in ‘My Pop, My Pop‘ (1940). Poopdeck Pappy would star some of Popeye’s best cartoons, like ‘With Poopdeck Pappy‘ (1940) and ‘Problem Pappy‘ (1941).

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

This Popeye film No. 65
To the previous Popeye film: Mutiny Ain’t Nice
To the next Popeye film: A Date to Skate

‘Goonland’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: September 24, 1938
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Porky in Wackyland © Warner BrosIn ‘darkest Africa’ lies Wackyland, a wacky land indeed, defying all logic and laws of nature.

The importance of ‘Porky in Wackyland’ can hardly be overstated. This classic cartoon reintroduced complete nonsense back into the cartoon world, after a virtual absence of about five years – and with a vengeance. Interestingly, in ‘Porky in Wackyland’ seems to build on some promising ideas of some Van Beuren cartoons that never really matured in that studio, most notably ‘Jungle Jazz‘ (1930), with its surreal African creatures, and ‘Pencil Mania‘ (1932), with its characters drawing things in mid air, like the Do-Do does in Clampett’s cartoon.

However, ‘Porky in Wackyland’ mostly is the product of an evolution at the Warner Bros. studio itself, which started in 1935, when Tex Avery arrived. Since then Avery, Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett had already experienced with natural law-defying and dimension-breaking cartoon scenes, but in ‘Porky in Wackyland’ these are unleashed full throttle. Anti-realism starts immediately, when the newspaper boy enters the title card, but it goes totally bezerk in Wackyland.  Indeed, a sign says (with voice over): “It CAN happen here!”. What follows is a string of totally surreal and loony scenes, like a rabbit swinging on his own ears, which somehow hang in empty air, or a dog-cat-hybrid attacking itself.

The scenes with the Do-Do are even more outlandish. The Do-Do is a.o. able to pull a giant brick wall out of nothing, to sit behind a window, which floats in empty space, and he even appears on the WB logo, which suddenly appears from the horizon with the sole reason to make the Do-Do knock out Porky. The list is endless, and most of the action has to be seen to be believed.

All this weirdness is greatly enhanced by Stalling’s intoxicating score, a multitude of strange sounds and voices, and outlandish background paintings, which are sometimes reminiscent of the work of George Herriman and Cliff Sterrett (there are three simultaneous moons in one scene), and sometimes completely abstract, like the one in the scene in which Porky meets the Do-Do. All this makes ‘Porky in Wackyland’ the most surreal cartoon since Max Fleischer’s ‘Snow-White‘ (1933). In fact, Porky in Wackyland is more surreal even than most cartoons following it, and stands in a league of its own. Even if Bob Clampett would not have made any other cartoon, he would have been glorified just for this masterpiece of genuine silliness and imagination.

‘Porky in Wackyland’ was remade in 1949 in color as ‘Dough for the Do-Do‘, but now with totally different backgrounds, connecting its surreal aspects to fine art surrealism, most obviously Salvador Dalí.

Watch ‘Porky in Wackyland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 46
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Wholly Smoke
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Naughty Nephew

‘Porky’s Double Trouble’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’, and on the DVD-sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume One’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 May 27, 1933
Rating:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Three Little Pigs © Walt Disney‘Three Little Pigs’ is one of the most successful, most famous and most perfect cartoons ever made. It was hugely popular when it was released, with people associating its catchy theme song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ with an optimism with which one could fight the haunting effects of the Great Depression.

Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore were the principle animators on the film. Norm Ferguson animated the wolf in his typical broad vaudeville acting style, which comes to full bloom in this film. The wolf is a great character, with his glances at the public. He’s a real villain, but somehow too sympathetic as an actor to be really threatening. Unfortunately, his design is not very consistent. Especially his eyes are unsteady and a bit wobbly. One can clearly watch the wolf’s design improving during the film, as if it was animated chronologically. And this may very well possible.

However, it’s Fred Moore’s animation that made the deepest impression on the animation field. Because of his animation on the three pigs, ‘Three Little Pigs’ is regarded as the first animated cartoon to feature so-called character animation. The three pigs form the key to character animation: although the three are drawn the same, the sensible pig behaves differently from the other two: he’s clearly a different character, not by design, but by animation. This was a great step forward in the evolution in animation, and admired by the whole animation industry.

Apart from that the pigs’ designs, by the highly influential concept artist Albert Hurter, are highly appealing. Hurter had joined Disney in June 1931, first as an animator, but soon he switched to concept art, and he had a tremendous influence on the looks of Disney’s films in the 1930s. It must have been around this time that Disney started to think of an animated feature – a daring project which would dominate the studio during 1934-1937. For this ambitious project Moore would design no less than seven similar, yet different characters, while Hurter would indulge in elaborate sets, full of little details.

The film was a success not only within the animation industry, but with the American public, as well. The audiences took the film and its catchy song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (sung by Mary Moder, Dorothy Compton and Pinto Colvig) as a sign of comfort and hope in the dark days of the Great Depression era. And even after more than eighty years, Frank Churchill’s song is still extremely catchy, even though it’s never heard in its entirety during the short. After a while the cartoon became no less than a sensation, lasting weeks in some theaters, and spawning a great deal of merchandise, like alarm clocks and jigsaw puzzles. In 1934 it won the Academy Award for best animated short film. In 1941 it was still famous enough to be changed into Disney’s first war propaganda film: ‘The Thrifty Pig‘.

The film undoubtedly was Walt Disney’s most famous and most successful short, and the first Silly Symphony to spawn sequels – due to the pressure by distributor United Artists. These sequels (‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ from 1934, ‘Three Little Wolves‘ from 1936, and ‘The Practical Pig‘ from 1939) were, of course, much less successful than the original, and are all but forgotten today. As Disney himself said “You can’t top pigs with pigs’.

The film also raised director Burt Gillett’s fame, and soon he was lured away by the ailing Van Beuren studios to repeat this immense success. However, at Van Beuren it soon became clear that ‘Three Little Pigs’ was not a success because of Burt Gillett’s genius, but because of the ambitious group effort of the Disney studio, and Gillett never managed to come near his most successful films at Disney again.

For ‘Three Little Pigs’ was a true collective effort, with Hurter, Churchill, Ferguson and Moore showing their best work thus far, but also through contributions by e.g. Art Babbitt, Dick Lundy and Jack King, who also animated some sequences, voice artist Pinto Colvig, the voice of the practical pig, and story man Ted Sears, who both contributed to the cartoon’s theme song, and Carl Stalling, who provided the practical pig’s piano-playing.

The film has easily stood the test of time: not only are the characters still appealing, its backgrounds are gorgeous, its music catchy, and its storytelling extraordinarily economical and effective, probably because may have been the first animated cartoon with a complete storyboard. The short’s joy is still infectious today. And although one will always remember the short’s cheerfulness, it contains some black humor, too: look for the portraits of dad and Uncle Tom in the wise pig’s house.

By the way, present-day viewers see an altered version of the film. The original featured a sequence in which the wolf dressed as a stereotyped Jewish door-to-door salesman. For its video release in the early 1980s this sequence was completely redrawn, to remove all Jewish references.

Watch ‘Three Little Pigs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 36
To the previous Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark
To the next Silly Symphony: Old King Cole

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 Bros., 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 you can watch only 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.

The film starts with two short legends: the legend of the traitor. Told in cut out animation, it tells the story of a young man who looks, when a door opens to a more colorful world…

The second legend is called ‘The legend of the redeemer’. This is set in a rather renaissance sunny landscape, and tells of an outcast who can bridge the missing parts in an otherwise perfect society. This part features virtuoso painted rotoscope animation in the style of Paul Rubens and Frans Hals. Both legends are worked out in detail in the rest of the film, which forms ‘Hotel E’ proper.

‘Hotel E’ (Hotel Europe) starts with a depiction of Western Europe (named ‘The American Dream’) as a lethargic dream room, filled with rich, lazy, and spoiled people, filling their empty, purposeless 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, and accompanied by nervous, dissonant music. Here it’s dark, it’s filthy, it’s fill of flies, 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:

Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is available on DVD.

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 the 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:

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