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Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Stille Nacht II Are We Still Married © Brothers Quay‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ is the second of four ‘Stille Nacht’ films the Brothers Quay  made: all four are very short and shot in black and white.

The second, like the fourth, is set to a song by the band His Name Is Alive, in this case their song’Are We Still Married’, and thus essentially is a video clip. The film features a small rabbit trying to catch a ping-pong ball which flutters across the room like a moth. Also featured is a breathing girl doll.

Like the other Stille Nacht films the Brothers Quay manage to evoke a wonderful atmosphere, while using various camera techniques from the silent movie era, sometimes zooming in on a very small detail of the scene. The Jan Švankmajer influence, too, is very present. The film may be very incomprehensible, it makes a very intriguing watch.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married?’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Directors: Stephen & Timothy Quay
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Stille Nacht I Dramolet © Brothers Quay‘Dramolet’ is the first of four films the Brothers Quay made between 1988 and 1993 bearing the title ‘Stille Nacht’ (silent night).

This first film is by far the shortest of the four, but establishes the overall style of the series: black and white images featuring dolls and lifeless objects interacting, camera techniques from the silent era, moving in on very small details within the scene, a high level of surrealism, Jan Švankmajer-like animation, and no hint of a story.

In ‘Dramolet’ a rather rugged doll looks through a window into another room, where iron screw grows a plenty. Then he returns to his own table, where the same stuff appears in his bowl. When he tries to grab his spoon, the wall behind him sprouts several others.

This  very short film was made for MTV and is a beautiful product of the highly creative atmosphere of the time, when MTV invited artists from the whole world to create short films for them.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht I: Dramolet’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Stille Nacht I: Dramolet’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1993
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Cloudland © Faith HubleyIn ‘Tall Time Tales’ Hubley had illustrated ‘dream time’, a concept from aboriginal mythology.

In ‘Cloudland’ she returns to the aboriginal mythology, illustrating three more concepts: 1. a creation myth, in which the sun woman wakes up the earth, 2. the story of hunger at the land of plenty, and 3. Gifts from the ancestors. Like in ‘Upside down‘ and ‘Tall Time Tales‘ the episodes are announced by a voice over (this time her daughter Emily’s) telling their titles.

Hubley’s style is particularly fit for mythology, and this film doesn’t disappoint. Especially, the creation myth is wonderfully done, yet the best part is the story of hunger, with its remarkably straightforward story. This part also features the most elaborate animation, on a bird, a kangaroo and a turtle. Most of the film, however, is filled with Faith Hubley’s characteristic primitive-looking things and beings, which vibrate, move, morph and dance in short and simple animation cycles.

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

 

‘Cloudland’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

Director: Faith Hubley
Release Date: 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tall Time Tales © Faith Hubley‘Tall Time Tales’ is a meditation on time.

Like ‘Upside Down‘ the film consists of several parts, divided by a voice over. ‘Tall Time Tales’ consists of five parts: 1. Time waits for no one, 2. Tick Tock Clock, in which Hubley illustrates the grind of daily work routines, 3. The twin paradox (a concept from the relativity theory), 4. Dreamtime (a concept from aboriginal mythology) and the vague ‘Arrows or circles’, probably musing whether time is linear or circular. The film ends with a great finale of beautiful, if utterly incomprehensible images moving to Don Christensen’s percussive dance music.

‘Tall Time Tales’ is one of Faith Hubley’s more successful films, blending inspired music with ditto images. Its philosophy me be light, this is still one of those films that make you stop and wonder.

Watch ‘Tall Time Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tall Time Tales’ is available on the DVD ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 1’

Director: Michel Ocelot
Broadcast Date:  1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Les Contes de la nuit’ (Tales of the Night) are three fairy tale films French animation master Michel Ocelot made for television, not to be confused with his feature film of the same name from 2011.

The three fairy tales are entirely original and are done in very elegant Lotte Reiniger-like cut-out animation, using black silhouettes only against handsomely colored backgrounds. Both the design and the animation are top notch throughout, making this mini-series a delight to watch.

La belle fille et le sorcier © Michel Ocelot‘La belle fille et le sorcier’ (Beauty and the Sorcerer) is first and shortest fairy tale of ‘ Les Contes de la nuit’ and features a fat ugly girl rescuing a wizard. Soon she’s turned into a handsome young lady… The film is more comical than the other two, and hard to take seriously.

 

 

La bergère qui danse © Michel Ocelot‘La bergère qui danse’ (The Dancing Shepherdess) is the second story of ‘Les Contes de la nuit’. This fairy tale features a powerful fairy queen in love with a young handsome shepherd. He, however, prefers his shepherdess. But then the fairy queen takes the shepherd to ‘the tower of sleep’, to sleep for a hundred years, and it’s up to the shepherdess to rescue him… This is a particularly attractive fairy tale, showing the power of hope and love.

 

Le prince des joyaux © Michel Ocelot‘Le prince des joyaux’ (The Jewel Prince) is the third and last tale of ‘Les Contes de la nuit’. This fairy tale again is entirely original, but looks like a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights. The plot is rather Aladdin-like, and features a boy in love with a princess, whom he wins by defeating an evil old man, who cheats on him. Like the other two this is a delightful little film, even if it is a little heavy on dialogue.

 

‘Les Contes de la nuit’ are available on the French DVD ‘Les trésors cachés de Michel Ocelot’

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date:  July 1, 1992
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Porco Rosso © Studio Ghibli‘Porco Rosso’ is the strangest movie in Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography. The film eschews most laws of animated film story telling, seemingly just starting and ending in the middle of a bigger story.

Like ‘Laputa: island in the sky’ (1986) and the later ‘The Wind Rises’ (2013) the film is clearly born out of Miyazaki’s love for planes. Like ‘Laputa’ ‘Porco Rosso’ is set in an alternative history Europe (this time the Adriatic sea ca. 1930), and features flying pirates.

The title character is an ex-war pilot with the face of a pig (why this is so is never really revealed). Porco Rosso now is a bounty hunter, battling a federation of air pirates, and their leader, the American Curtis in particular, and secretly loving Gina, the owner of a hotel on an island.

Halfway the movie Porco has to take his injured plane to Milano to get it fixed. There he meets Fio, the young granddaughter of his old mecanic. There’s a vague sense of a Nazi threat, but this is hardly played out. The story evolves around Porco’s return to the Adriatic and final battle with Curtis.

The overal atmosphere is light and comical, but there are a few touching moments, especially between Porco and Fio. Typically for Miyazaki, the film features strong women, and women and children working (Porco’s plane is set together by a crew of women, only).

The animation is outstanding throughout, although it seems the animators didn’t do their best to lip-synch. Most interesting are the scenes of Porco’s take off and flight back to the Adriatic, which feature some spectacular animated backgrounds.

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

‘Porco Rosso’ is available on DVD

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1910
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Le mobilier fidèle © Émile Cohl‘Le mobilier fidèle’ can be translated as ‘The Faithful Furniture’.

This short is a comic live action film in which a man is in love with his furniture, giving it much attention. Unfortunately, the man is too poor to pay the rent, and his furniture is sold on the street. But his pieces of furniture get bored at their new homes, and all return to their former owner, in rather funny scenes using stop motion.

‘Le mobilier fidèle’ is an enormous improvement on J. Stuart Blackton’s moving furniture in ‘The Haunted Hotel’ (1907), and an early example of European comic film art. Two years later, however, the film would be topped by Romeo Bossetti’s ‘The Automatic Moving Company’.

Watch ‘Le mobilier fidèle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le mobilier fidèle’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: August 11, 1909
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Les couronnes © Émile Cohl‘Les couronnes’ is a tableau vivant film like ‘L’éventail animé‘, now showing wreaths and crowns through the ages.

And, as may be expected, the tableaux are now shown inside a wreath-shaped frame. Like in ‘L’eventail animé’ this is a live action film, featuring no animation. Like in the former film the tableaux themselves are very stylized and beautiful, helped by the elegant score for harp and guitar.

Even if the film may be slightly less beautiful than ‘L’eventail animé’, it’s certainly more moving, with a scene of Christ receiving his crown of thorns, and a contemporary, but surprisingly sentimental scene of a rich couple giving a poor man a wreath-shaped bread.

Watch ‘Les couronnes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les couronnes’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: June 12, 1909
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

L'éventail animé © Émile CohlDespite its title ‘L’éventail animé’ is not an animated film, but the first of several films by Émile Cohl consisting of tableaux vivants. I’m including the film in this blog because it’s interesting to watch Émile Cohl’s very diverse oeuvre as a whole.

‘L’éventail animé’ shows ladies and their fans throughout the ages, e.g. Eve, Sappho, Cleopatra, empress Messalina, Aude (a character in ‘Chanson de Roland’), and a modern woman. The action is set in a fan-shaped frame, and the tableaux are remarkably beautiful and stylized. On the DVD the film is greatly enhanced by a lovely score using guitar and harp.

Watch ‘L’éventail animé’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’éventail animé’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: December 14, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Les frères Boutdebois © Émile Cohl‘Les frères Boutdebois’ are two wooden puppets who perform some acrobatic tricks against a theatrical backdrop.

The film contains no story and ends abruptly, but the stop-motion is quite good, and an enormous improvement on ‘Japon de faintasie‘. The two puppets seem to have some character, and the trick photography is pretty convincing.

Somehow this short little film seems the direct ancestor of Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion films, both in animation style and in atmosphere, even though this film lacks Švankmajer’s surrealism (or that of Cohl’s own ‘Fantasmagorie’ for that matter).

Watch ‘Les frères Boutdebois’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Les frères Boutdebois’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Maarten Koopman
Release Date: 2008
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Theatre Patouffe © Musch & Tinbergen‘Theatre Patouffe’ features a performance of lifeless objects, mostly of things on wheels, but also of some furniture performing acrobatics, and of three flying machines.

The objects and theater settings are beautifully made, and evoke a very surreal atmosphere, reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer’s films. Moreover, the film is full of clever ideas, and at one point one of the contraption even shows films of other contraptions performing, creating quite a Droste effect.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from the lack of a story arc. This renders the short unsatisfying, despite the intriguing images, and unique atmosphere

‘Theatre Patouffe’ is available on the DVD ‘Animazing! – Mindblowing Animation Films Supportes by the Netherlands Film Fund 1998-2008’

Director: Luis Cook
Release Date: June 11, 2007
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Pearce Sisters © Aardman Studio‘The Pearce Sisters’ is an atypical product from the Aardman studio, as it does not use claymation, but 2D computer animation.

Cook tells a tale by Mick Jackson about two ugly sisters who live on a windy beach, far from the rest of the world. Their life is harsh, but they have each other. Then, one day, they save a man out of the sea…

The short is a rather morbid tale, but Cook manages to focus on the relationship between the two sisters, making the film gentler than one would expect. Cook’s style is completely his own – and owes nothing to Aardman’s general ‘Nick Park’ style. Cook tells his tale in great silent scenes, enhanced by a superb audio design – there’s only one line of dialogue in the entire film.

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

‘The Pearce Sisters’ is available on the DVD Box ‘The Animation Show of Shows Box Set 6’ and on the French DVD box set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e anniversaire’

Director: Makoto Shinkai
Release Date: March 3, 2007
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

5 Centimeters per Second © Co‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a rather original love story in three parts. Central character is high school student Takaki, whose love interest Akari, moves from Tokyo to Iwafune, a distance three hours by train.

The first part consists of Akari’s voice over reading her letters to Takaki, accompanied by a lightning rapid montage of images of Takaki and his memories to his girl. When, after a year of exchanging letters, Takaki is about to move to the South himself, he decides to make a one time visit to Akari. This train journey through a snow storm, which delays him for no less than four hours forms the emotional highlight of the film. Nevertheless, Takaki and Akari are reunited in Iwafune, only to have to part again.

The second part is set in Tanegashima, a small island in the far South of Japan, and although set in October, its sunny images form a welcome contrast to the snowy images of the first part. This part is told by Kanae, who’s secretly in love with Takaki, but never able to tell him that. Like the first part, the second part ends with an opportunity lost.

The third part is set in Tokyo again. This part is the shortest, the most fragmentary, and the least satisfactory of the three. Sadly this episode shows that Takaki hasn’t really learned to love and to allow others near him, still longing for something else. Akari is seen, too, but her ‘story’ is touched on so little it could well be missed. Added to Takaki’s admirers is yet another girl, who is hardly seen, but as he declines her calls, her pain and loneliness are certainly felt. The episode ends with images set to the rock ballad ‘One More Time, One More Chance’ (1997) by Masayoshi Yamazaki, unknown to us Western viewers, but apparently instantly recognizable to the Japanese audience, and adding to the film’s nostalgic feel. The film ends undefined, and with its mere sixty minutes the feature feels a little incomplete.

Like many other Japanese anime, ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ needn’t necessarily be made with animation, as its characters and settings are highly realistic, and drawn from everyday life. But as it is animated, one can only marvel at Shinkai’s beautiful and engaging images. ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ is a story about distance and love, but despite being a story of emotions, the character designs and human animation, both by Takayo Nishimura, are not very impressive: the character designs are very generic, while the facial expressions never reach enough subtlety to draw one into the character.

No, the real emotional story is told almost exclusively by the background art. This film uses a multitude of shots, often lasting only a fraction of seconds, and in its in these extraordinarily beautiful images that Shankai tells his tale. Indeed, many of these images he drew himself. The images are highly realistic, but as Shankai tells in the interview included in the DVD, they’re drenched in emotional memory, and they’re never neutral. And neither is his staging or cutting, which are both highly original. All these background images, with their glorious colors and superb lighting (made in Photoshop) give the film its unique and poetic character.

With ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ Shankai proved to be a new important voice in the Japanese animation field, a reputation he steadied with his next films, ‘Children Who Chase Lost Voices’ (2011) and most notably, ‘Your Name’ (2016), which also deals with distance and love.

Watch ‘5 Centimeters per Second’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Dave Fleischer
Premiere Date: December 4, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mr. Bug Goes to Town © Max Fleischer‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ was the second and last feature by the Max Fleischer studio.

In almost every aspect, the film is a great improvement on the studio’s first, ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘. Its story is more engaging, its characters are more likable, the animation is of a higher quality, the stylized New York backgrounds are more impressive, the score (by Disney veteran Leigh Harline, of Pinocchio fame) is much more inspired, and the cinematography more interesting.

In a way ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ is the inverse of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Where Gulliver was a human giant in a land of tiny people, Hoppity and his friends are tiny (four-legged) insects in a land of human giants. These humans, all heavily rotoscoped, are faceless giants who seem to have walked straight from a Superman cartoon. Nevertheless, two of the ‘human ones’ (as the insects call us), a songwriter and his wife, become important to plot, as owners of the land the little insects live in. The plot resolves on the insects’ struggle to survive after the fence has been broken, and their houses are being trampled by crossing pedestrians, or set on fire by discarded cigarettes and cigars.

Hoppity, the James Stewart-like hero of the picture, tries to help, but his actions are thwarted by the evil Mr. Beetle (voiced by storyman Ted Pierce) and his helpers Smack the Mosquito and Swat the Fly. The creepy Mr. Beetle has an eye on Honey, the lovely daughter of Mr. Bumble and Hoppity’s love interest. It’s this setting which propels the film forward, and the film only ends when Hoppity and his friends are safe, and he and Honey united in marriage.

The trio of villains is a great improvement on the trio of spies Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: their interaction is delightful to watch and provides the necessary comic relief. The love story between Hoppity and Honey, of course, is more interesting, too, than that of the bland prince and princess of the earlier film. Unfortunately, Honey remains a terribly bland stock figurine, and has no personality whatsoever of her own. Hoppity is better as the typical optimistic underdog who will fight to the very end, no matter how dire the straits.

The character designs are a little old-fashioned and remain rooted in the cute designs of the second half of the 1930s. Some of the dialogue even is in rhyme, harking back to these more childish days. There’s none of the experimentalism that can be found in the Disney features of the time, including ‘Dumbo‘. The most advanced scene is when Hoppity gets electrified in the nightclub. This accounts for some pretty surreal images.

The cinematography, however, is great overall, and at several times the tiny insects are juxtaposed to the huge world of human hands and feet (a film like ‘Mouse in Manhattan‘ (1945) is by all means tributary to this feature). Because rotoscope is restricted to the faceless humans, who remain in the background, the technique is less irritating than in Gulliver. On the contrary, this feature makes the humans blend within the background of the story that is about insects, after all.

In any way the film is certainly worthy to watch, even though it’s no masterpiece. The songs, for example, by star writers Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, are unmemorable. Worse, the film retains an awfully relaxed pace without ever reaching real excitement. There are also some plot twists that are hard to swallow: the film’s greatest drama, when Hoppity’s dream garden appears to be less perfect than expected, is very weak and unconvincing. Then we are asked to believe that a sprinkler floods all the insects back to their original lot. Later, when Mr. Beetle and his helpers imprison Hoppity, they do that in the very letter Hoppity desperately had been waiting for. Moreover, when he has thus disappeared, nobody seems to go looking for him. And the finale, in which the insects climb a new skyscraper, while its being built to reach a rooftop garden in full bloom, stretches the concept of time beyond believe. Nevertheless, this finale is pretty exciting, and makes a fantastic watch. I’ve no doubt that it’s this spectacular trip that will stick into the viewer’s mind.

‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ absolutely shows that the Fleischers were very able to make feature films. Unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to make another one. ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ premiere date preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor by just two days, and after the attack its general release was postponed. By the time the film got a wide screening (as ‘Hoppity Goes to Town’) in mid-1942, the Fleischers were already out of business. Paramount hardly promoted the picture, and the feature unfortunately flopped. Since Fleischer’s successor, Famous Studios, never made a feature film either, Walt Disney remained the virtual monopolist of feature length animated entertainment in America for more than forty years…

Watch ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: George Pal
Release Date: December 26, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Rhythm in the Ranks © George PalIn ‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ the action already starts during the opening titles, when we watch a package unwrap itself. The package reveals to contain a battalion of toy soldiers, who quickly come to life.

Our hero is ‘Little Jim’, a toy soldier who has to carry a large cannon. When he meets a skating girl in Dutch costume, he forgets the cannon. He gets punished, having to paint the barracks, which he does with invisibility paint, anticipating the Donald Duck short ‘The Vanishing Private‘ (1942), which uses the same story idea.

Both the vanishing paint and the cannon come in handy, when an evil army invades the countryside, although it remains pretty unclear how our hero conquers the foreign troops. Nevertheless, in the end he’s decorated and earns a kiss from the Dutch girl.

‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ is a charming, but uneven cartoon that suffers from an erratic story. The models, colors and staging, on the other hand, are top notch, as always in Pal’s works. The trickery used to make things becoming invisible is very well done.

The evil army of mindless robots, which invade the toy countryside reflect the war era. Yet, Pal’s film never becomes really topical, sticking to the fairy tale world of wonder. ‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ makes great use of two Raymond Scott compositions: ‘Toy Trumpet’ for the marching soldiers, and ‘Powerhouse’ to accompany the evil army.

‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Puppetoon Movie’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 17, 1942
Stars: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

kickin' the conga 'round © max fleischerIn the early 1940s America was taken by a conga craze, as is exemplified by cartoons like ‘Woody Woodpecker‘ (1941), ‘Mickey’s Birthday Party’ (1942) and ‘Juke Box Jamboree‘ (1942).Popeye’s contribution to this dance craze is ‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’.

In this wartime cartoon both Popeye and Bluto are sailors ready to go the shore in some Latin American country. There Popeye has a sweetheart called ‘Olivra Oyla’ (Olive Oyl, of course, but tanned, and speaking with a fake Spanish accent). Bluto fancies her, too, and at the shore a feud ensures, with Bluto and Popeye performing magic tricks, outsmarting each other.

Popeye’s tricks are strikingly violent, but Bluto has his revenge: at the conga club it appears that Popeye can’t dance, while Bluto can, so he dances the conga with Olivra, leaving Popeye sulking at the table. Fortunately, spinach gives him the conga spirit, and soon Popeye takes over, and even clobbers Bluto to a conga beat. The animation on this short is strikingly zany, and perfectly matched to the typical conga beat.

‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ marks Bluto’s return after an eighteen months absence since ‘Fightin’ Pals‘ (1940). This short also marks his first portrayal as a navy sailor. Like Popeye, who first appeared in this uniform in ‘The Mighty Navy‘, navy white would remain his new uniform for the rest of his theatrical career. With Bluto’s return, the Popeye cartoons would more and more follow the triangular relationship between Popeye, Olive and Bluto, diverting less and less to other story ideas.

Watch ‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 102
To the previous Popeye film: Nix on Hypnotricks
To the next Popeye film: Blunder Below

‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

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

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: June 7, 1941
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

hiawatha's rabbit hunt © warner bros.This cartoon opens with the voice of Bugs Bunny reciting the first lines of Longfellow’s famous poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, while we watch the Indian paddling through a beautiful scenery.

Bugs soon discovers that Hiawatha is hunting rabbits. Luckily, in Freleng’s cartoon the Indian is one of those nit-witted characters based on Lon Chaney jr.’s portrayal of Lennie Small in ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939), so popular at Warner Bros. (see also ‘Of Fox and Hounds’). In the end the mighty warrior leaves the scene empty-handed, while Bugs recites some last lines from the poem. Nevertheless, it’s the hunter who has the last laugh…

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ marks Friz Freleng’s first try at Warner Bros.’ new star. He understands the character very well: his Bugs Bunny is both self-assured and capable of making mistakes. In one scene Bugs wants to take one of his graceful dives into a hole, only to land hard on the ground besides it. There’s a priceless scene in which Bugs enters Hiawatha’s cooking pot as if he were taking a hot bath. This is by all means already classic Bugs Bunny material. The looks of the rabbit, on the other hand, are highly unstable, and at times Bugs looks more like his predecessor from ‘Elmer’s Candid Camera‘ (1940) than himself.

In his book ‘Chuck Amuck’ Chuck Jones writes that he feels that “[Freleng], too, went wide of the mark in understanding Bugs’s persona. Not as wide as I did and Tex did, but ’twas enough, ‘twould serve“. I don’t quite agree. Tex Avery indeed is way more off in ‘Tortoise Beats Hare‘. Freleng’s Bugs is not really defined, yet, but he’s well underway.

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’, being Bugs Bunny’s only fourth cartoon, proved once again that this was a character to stay. Nevertheless, in this cartoon Freleng’s unit is at his best in the animation of Bugs’s adversary, Hiawatha. The moves of this dumb and clumsy character are very well-timed and matched with equally funny music by Carl Stalling. The cartoon also boasts some gorgeous background art, which add to the poetic atmosphere, despite all the delightful nonsense.

Watch ‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 4
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Tortoise Beats Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: The Heckling Hare

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Award-Nominated Animation: Cinema Favorites’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: January 18, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Fighting 69 1-2th © Warner Bros.‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ opens with peaceful scenes of a picnic in a forest. Soon a red ant and a black ant argue about an olive. When the red ant smothers the black ant with it, he exclaims, Groucho Marx style: ‘Of course you know this means war!’.

Soon the picnic cloth is encircled by trenches, with several ants trying to obtain the food on it, until a lady comes to clear it all away. When only a cake is left behind, the generals try to make peace, which is thwarted by a discussion on how to cut the cake.

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is a rather somber war film, in the tradition of e.g. ‘Bosko the Doughboy’ (1931), ‘There’s Something about a Soldier’ (1934), ‘What Price Porky’ (1938), and ‘Ants in the Plants‘ (1940) and arguably the last to show war as it looked like in World War I. Eleven months later war would come to the US itself, changing the looks of war cartoons forever.

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is not really funny, but it boasts beautiful oil backgrounds, Silly Symphony-like production values like careful shading, and Freleng’s trademark musical timing. There’s even a ‘hold the onions’ gag, when several ants build a hamburger.

Watch ‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: March 31, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Hysterical High Spots in American History © Walter Lantz‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is one of the first cartoons reflecting the peace time conscription that had been initiated on September 26, 1940, when Europe and Asia already were at war, but the United States were not: the short is supposedly brought to you by draftee number 1-58. But then he’s swept away from the screen by his sergeant, who, in his turn, is looking for draftee number 1-9-2.

However, these soldiers don’t return to the screen, and the rest of the cartoon is filled with spot gags on American history, dwelling on e.g. Columbus, Thanksgiving, the war of independence, Lincoln’s Gettyburg address and the opening of the Panama canal.

The “story” of ‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is by Ben Hardaway, and he clearly had brought the humor of Tex Avery’s spot gag cartoons to the Walter Lantz studio (see also ‘Fair Today‘ from one month earlier). Spot gag cartoons like this were rarely very funny, but the gags are surprisingly inspired in this cartoon, with the Capistrano mission gag giving the lowdown of a complete cartoon: Robert McKimson’s ‘Swallow the Leader‘ from 1949.

‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

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