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Director: Brian Wood
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘Mr Jessop’ tells the simple story of a man who goes to town to buy some perfume for his wife, who stays home, frantically cleaning.

This plot may not sound too interesting, but Brian Wood’s way of telling this story certainly is. In his vision even this every day action is depicted so uniquely that it becomes something completely different. In his world everybody is obsessed with looking, continuously watching each other and the products on the shelves.

The film has a very nervous atmosphere, greatly helped by the soundtrack, and at points reaches an atmosphere of pure paranoia. The animation itself too is nervous, with expressionistic images, lots of deformations, tunnel-perspectives and animated backgrounds. Wood’s drawing style is crude and expressionistic, even if it retains a certain cartoony quality. And even though the ending feels like a punchline, it’s Wood’s unusual, frantic style that stays in your head after watching the short little film.

Watch ‘Mr Jessop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Mr Jessop’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

Director: John Eng
Airing Date: May 1, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

In this episode Ajax’s English teacher discover that Ajax is a poet. Soon Ajax recites his totally incomprehensible poems to a huge audience at a hip beatnik club called Kolchnik’s.

But then Duckman sells his son away to the ‘Watermark’ company (an obvious parody of Hallmark)… The introduction of the humongous Watermark company is a great little piece of cinema and involves some animated backgrounds, a rare feat since the early 1930s.

‘Research and Destroy’ is one of the most straightforward of all Duckman stories, with a clear story from start to end. Highlight is the screwball image that returns as a running gag throughout the picture, but most interesting is the supercomputer assembling metadata on all customers. In ten years time this would become more than true…

Watch ‘Research and Destroy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 21
To the previous Duckman episode: In the Nam of the Father
To the next Duckman episode: Clip Job

‘Research and Destroy’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Norton Virgien
Airing Date: April 24, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

When Cornfed gets a visit from one Ng claiming to be his son, he has to get back to Vietnam to find out the truth. He asks Duckman to come along. Duckman brings his family with him as Cornfed pays for the trip and the family demands a vacation.

While the Duckman family amuses themselves in the war-themed ‘Euro Asia Land’, Cornfed looks hopelessly for his wartime love interest Mai Ling. The Vietnam setting allows for some spoofs on Vietnam films, like ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. Unfortunately, the pace is rather slow and rambling, hampering the flow of the episode.

Fluffy and Uranus have a larger role than normally: when the two cute teddy bears ask for a vacation for themselves after eleven years of hard work, Duckman makes them explode inside a microwave. Yet, later we watch them entertaining Ng by showing him slides, much to Ng’s distress.

This is the first Duckman episode to use a shortened intro, leaving out the introduction of Duckman’s co-stars.

Watch ‘In the Nam of the Father’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 20
To the previous Duckman episode: The Germ Turns
To the next Duckman episode: Research and Destroy

‘In the Nam of the Father’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Paul Demeyer
Airing Date: April 10, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘America the Beautiful’ starts with a warning sign stating that “the following contains scene of heavy-handed and over-obvious allegories and is not recommended for small children and certain congressmen from the South”.

And indeed, this is an allegorical episode, with Duckman and Cornfed in search of America (who has taken form of a beautiful and noble woman) on behalf of some overtly cute little children. The quest takes them to a 1950s suburbia, a 1960s hippie university, a 1970s disco, and 1980s Wall Street. All the four have exploited America, giving nothing in return. Duckman finally finds America at a dump. The episode ends with a corny ‘We Are the World’-like song sung by all protagonists and the children called ‘We Are Here’.

The episode indeed suffers from heavy-handedness, and Duckman in particular, seems quite at loss here. The best part is when Duckman and Cornfed drive into the 1950s suburbia, which changes them from full color into black and white, prompting Cornfed to say “it appears they don’t allow people of color in this community“. Also remarkable, but much less functional is the beauty pageant-turning-into-a-big fight with which the episode opens.

Watch ‘America the Beautiful’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 18
To the previous Duckman episode: Inherit the Judgement: The Dope’s Trial
To the next Duckman episode: The Germ Turns

‘America the Beautiful’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

Director: Kevin Lima
Release Date: April 7, 1995
Stars: Goofy, Max, Pete
Rating: ★★★
Review:

‘A Goofy Movie’ arguably is the least known of Disney’s theatrical movies from the studio’s Renaissance period. The film is not even in its official canon of animated features. Maybe because it was Disney’s first animated theatrical feature based on a television series, in this case ‘Goof Troop’, which run from September to December 1992.

Now I’ve never seen an episode of this television series myself, but I comprehend that it does resolve around Goofy being a single father of his son, Maximilian (in short Max), and being neighbor to Pete, who is a single father of a son, too, Pete Junior or P.J. in short. ‘A Goofy Movie’ uses exactly this premise, focusing on the relationship between Goofy and his son, with Max being the undisputed main character of the movie.

Now, Goofy’s family life has always been odd, being the classic Disney character that changed the most during his career. And indeed, he has been seen having a son in a few of his classical cartoons, starting with ‘Fathers are People’ from 1951, but by that time Goofy had transformed into everyman George J. Geef, and this son clearly isn’t Max, as he’s called George Geef jr. In both ‘Goof Troop’ and ‘A Goofy Movie’ Goofy once again is his clumsy self, so he has evolved once more. Pete, too, has had a son in earlier entries, most notably in ‘Bellboy Donald’ from 1942. In ‘A Goofy Movie’ he’s not really the villain of the old days of old, but still a disruptive voice, not taking Goofy for full, and giving him ill advice.

Voice artist Bill Farmer reprises his role as Goofy from ‘Goof Troop’ and is an excellent successor to Pinto Colvig. Max is voiced by Jason Marsden, a different voice than in ‘Goof Troop’, in which he was voiced by a woman (Dana Hill). But this is understandable as the events in ‘A Goofy Movie’ take place several years after the ones in ‘Goof Troop’. Max’s singing voice is provided by Aaron Lohr.

Added to the mix, and apparently not present in ‘Goof Troop’, is Max’s love interest Roxanne, and the film starts with Max’s last day at school, on which he tries to impress Roxanne, in which he succeeds, and he manages to ask her on a date to a party. Unfortunately, his father, realizing he might be losing grip on his son, has planned a trip for two to some fishing lake, and Max invents a totally unconvincing lie of why he has to cancel the date, involving both Max’s and Roxanne’s pop idol Powerline (who, voiced by Tevin Campbell, sounds a little like Michael Jackson).

As said, the father-son relationship between Goofy and Max is the focal point of the cartoon, and as such the film is surprisingly realistic and down to earth, with Max being ashamed of his old-fashioned, awkward and clumsy father, and Goofy uncomprehending of Max’s interests as an independent teenager. However, the two learn to know and to respect each other on a rather forced road trip through America. In this respect, one can see ‘A Goofy Movie’ as a forerunner of ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003), which explores a similar theme.

The road trip, which takes place on Route 66, and which takes the two Goofs all through America, forms the main part of the film, and it’s surprising to note that this piece of Americana was animated in studios in Paris, France and Sydney, Australia. Unfortunately, ‘A Goofy Movie’ defies all realism in several scenes, hampering the heartfelt story with outlandish scenes, like the two Goofs encountering Bigfoot, falling off a cliff with their car, and escaping a waterfall in an all too improbable and inconsistent series of events.

Moreover, for a film starring Goofy there’s surprisingly little humor – it’s all not that goofy. Yet, the team has managed to keep Goofy’s optimistic and naive character, while adding some depth to the former simpleton, mostly his struggle in being a father to Max. Indeed, the film is at its best when keeping focus on the relationship between Goofy and Max. This focal point remains interesting despite the deviations from reality.

As a film of the early nineties, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is an obligate musical, and the movie knows three nice if forgettable songs by Carter Burwell, sung by Max, with Goofy joining in in two of them. They at least succeed in not being obnoxious.

The animation is of a very high quality, with considerable attention detail. There are some nice touches, like Max’s reflection in a window, or colors turning blue when Goofy gets sad.

In all, ‘A Goofy Movie’ is a nice little movie with a surprisingly mature theme. The film may not be a masterpiece, it’s of enough quality to be worth a watch.

Watch the trailer for ‘A Goofy Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Goofy Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Norton Virgien
Airing Date: March 11, 1995
Stars: Duckman
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The second season of ‘Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man’ starts with a rather rambling episode in which Duckman tries to get famous by exploiting the sleazy reputation he got by pinching the butts of two sexy ladies on camera.

The set up of this episode is rather incomprehensible and involves the president visiting town, and three sexy but dumb ladies visiting Duckman’s office for no apparent reason. Also involved is a commercial fellow with shades, a ponytail and an annoying voice, making Duckman sign a contract to get him famous. Nothing is done with this devilish scheme, however.

Highlight of this otherwise disappointing episode is Duckman’s feature film on his life called “Pinch Me, Kiss Me Kill Me: The Duckman Story”. This part is acted out in live action, and includes over the top sexy women falling for the cool Duckman character as well as ridiculous dialogue full of sexual references, and even blatant advertising.

Watch ‘Papa Oom M.O.W. M.O.W.’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 14
To the previous Duckman episode: Joking the Chicken
To the next Duckman episode: Married Alive

‘Papa Oom M.O.W. M.O.W.’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: July 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

To start this film is not about raccoons, but about raccoon dogs, which, despite their similarity, are only distantly related to raccoon, being more akin to foxes. The story tells about a population of raccoon dogs living on the Tama hills in Southwest Tokyo. The raccoon dogs see their own environment giving way rapidly to the ever growing metropolis, and decide to fight back in order to save their homes, by reviving their old shape-shifting skills…

Apparently, the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus) or Tanuki, as the Japanese call him, has been a subject of a long folkloristic tradition. In this folklore the Tanuki has magical powers, being able to shape-shift, but he’s often too lazy, and too distracted to use them. Another peculiarity of this folklore is the focus on the raccoon dog’s testicles, which have magical powers themselves.


These character traits are clearly visible in ‘Pom Poko’: the raccoon dogs are depicted as carefree, fun-loving characters, their testicles are clearly visible, and used in some shape-shift transformations. For example, in one scene an elderly raccoon dog transforms his testicles into a giant carpet, in another a group of raccoon dogs use their inflated testicles as parachutes.


The shape-shifting scenes lead to some remarkable sequences, some of which are very close to pure horror, like a scene in which a cop meets all kinds of people without faces. This would have been a very frightening scene, indeed, if it were not depicted rather playfully, focusing on the police officer’s rather silly-looking panic, instead of the horror of the visions.

Most impressive of the shape-shifting sequences, and the undisputed highlight of the film, is the goblin parade. Here, too, some of the images are genuinely scary, but again, the depiction remains on the light side. For example, there’s a long scene with two men discussing the supernatural at a bar, completely oblivious of the mayhem occurring behind them.


It’s interesting to compare ‘Pom Poko’ to other environmentalist film of the era, like ‘FernGully: The Last Rain Forest’ (1992). Compared to the earlier film, ‘Pom Poko’ is remarkably mature. There’s nothing of FernGully’s magical ‘healing power’, nor does the film need a supervillain. In ‘Pom Poko’ ordinary men, none of them intrinsically mean, form a threat enough to the little forest creatures.


Soon it becomes clear that the raccoon dogs cannot win, and we have to witness several tragic deaths of these critters. Some die in one desperate last fight, others disappear on a mythical ship to the netherworld, some blend in into human society, and still others keep on living in an urban environment, scavenging the suburbs. In the end, the raccoon dogs must admit that man’s ability to transform the environment is much greater than their own shape-shifting abilities. Yet, this conclusion comes with a feeling of sadness of what’s been lost. Like many other Studio Ghibli films, there’s a longing to earlier times in this film, and especially the raccoon dogs’ last trick, reviving the landscape of old, is one of pure nostalgia.


‘Pom Poko’ is a mature film, but it’s not without its flaws. The film is told by using the weak voice over device, and it has a rather episodic nature, covering several years. Thus the story moves on a leisurely speed, not really building up to a grand finale. Moreover, there are a lot of characters in this film, and we don’t follow one in particular, which scatters the viewer’s focus.

Another peculiarity is that the film uses three styles to depict the raccoon dogs: first, a very realistic one, which accounts for some very impressive naturalistic animation. Second, the most dominant one, in which the raccoon dogs are depicted as clothed anthropomorphic characters. And third, a highly simplified one, in which the raccoon dogs suddenly become flat comic book characters, especially when celebrating. To me, it’s completely unclear why this third style is even present, and during these scenes the animation is often crude and repetitive, relying on reused animation cycles.


What doesn’t help is that the film is very, very Japanese: the behavior and rites of the raccoon dogs are sometimes enigmatic, and there are a lot of Buddhist and Shintoist references that are completely lost on the Western viewer. In that respect it’s a surprise that foxes have the same character traits in Japanese folklore as in Western tradition: in ‘Pom Poko’ the foxes are sly tricksters, too.


‘Pom Poko’ may not be perfect, it still is a very interesting film on human-animal relationships, it provides a small window into Japanese folklore, and it certainly is a very humane and mature film, showing us that one doesn’t need villains for destruction, and that some very valuable things are getting lost in the march of progress.

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

‘Pom Poko’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Henry Selick
Release Date: October 29, 1993
Rating: ★★★

Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is an impressive film. Combining replacement techniques with puppets with complex armatures, computer-controlled camera movements, and a bit of drawn animation, Burton’s team takes the art of stop-motion to new heights.

Moreover, the film is surprisingly elaborate, and uses nineteen stages, 230 sets, sixty characters, and hundreds of puppets to tell its story. The opening scene alone is a tour-de-force of mind-blowing images, with too much happening to register it all.

The result is a stop motion film with the highest production values thus far, and simply bursting with stunning visuals. Together with Aardman’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’ from the same year the feature easily sets new standards for stop-motion.

So why don’t I give this film a five-star rating? The main reason is the songs. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was made at a time when American animation film practically equaled musical, but even so in this film soundtrack composer Elfman takes the musical idea to the max. There are no less than eleven songs within the 68 minutes the feature lasts, taking a staggering 43% of the screen time.

But Elfman is no Alan Menken, and all his songs are terribly meandering and forgettable, slowing down the action, with characters halting to express their emotions, like in a Baroque opera.

Low point arguably is Sally’s song, which could have been a moving expression of feelings, but turns out to be an all too short and completely aimless bit of music, lasting only 96 seconds. If one compares Elfman’s absent song-craft to the strong melodies of Menken’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992), it becomes clear that Elfman’s efforts don’t add to the story, but drag it down, to a point that one screams to be freed from the omnipresent singing.

The film is typical Burton with its friendly take on horror, and Burton’s head animator Henry Selick rightly calls the film’s overall style a mix of “German expressionism and Dr. Seuss”. Selick and his team manage to make Burton’s pen and ink drawings come to life in believable puppets, despite the often very long limbs and unsteady balance of some of the characters.

With this animation effort Selick turned out to be a strong new voice in the animation field, and after ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ he continued to impress, first with ‘James and the Giant Peach’ (1996), then with ‘Coraline’ (2009), although his feature ‘Monkeybone’ (2001) was much less of a success.

Burton’s story is based on an original idea, but is not worked out too well. The idea of Holiday lands is a good one, but how does one return from Christmas land to Halloween land? And there is a focus problem: ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ follows two main characters, Jack Skellington and Sally, without choosing one as its principal character.

Jack is a bit of a problematical character anyhow: he’s king of his land, but remarkably bored, and he’s willing to take a huge risk to fill his own feelings of emptiness. Moreover, his selfish plans means a year without Halloween, not to mention the disastrous Christmas he makes. Jack does develop during the film, but his remorse and recovery come too quickly to be entirely convincing.

In the end, it’s Sally who turns out to be the most interesting character of the two: when we first watch her, she literally falls apart. She’s controlled and hold back by her maker, the possessive Dr. Finkelstein, and naturally very shy, but during the movie she becomes bolder and more venturous.

The film’s villain, The Bogeyman, is scary, but his role in Burton’s universe is obscure: why is he the only nightmarish character that is genuinely scary and unfriendly? I have no idea. A nice touch are the Cab Calloway influences on this character. He even literally quotes Calloway when saying “I’m doing the best I can” like Calloway did in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘The Old Man from the Mountain’ (1933).

The film’s story flaws would certainly be forgivable, given the film’s stunning visuals, if it were not for the songs. The biggest problem of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ remains its unappealing soundtrack, reducing an otherwise fantastic film into a hardly tolerable one. An immense pity, for one remains wondering what the film could have been if it had not been the obligate and ugly musical it turned out to be.

Watch an excerpt from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Raymie Muzquiz
Stars: Duckman
Airing Date: April 16, 1994
Rating: ★★★

In this episode Duckman’s backward son Ajax is invited to attend a boarding school. After Duckman has visited Ajax’s present school, he sends his son off quickly.

Duckman’s visit to Ajax’s most atrocious school is a highlight. He e.g. gets beaten by caricatures of ‘Our Gang’. Better still is the montage sequence of Duckman and Ajax having some quality time during their last weekend together. Yet, the best line is for aunt Bernice, who tells Duckman when he drools over an attractive boarding school student: “You’re despicable! You’ve got kidney stones older than her!”.

‘Ride the High School’ introduces King Chicken as Duckman’s arch nemesis. King Chicken would never become a frequently recurring star, but he would return in eleven more episodes, including the very last one.

Watch ‘Ride the High School’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Duckman episode no. 6
To the previous Duckman episode: Gland of Opportunity
To the next Duckman episode: A Civil War

‘Ride the High School’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Duckman – The Complete Series’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directors: Herbert M. Dawley & Willis O’Brien
Release Date: November 17, 1918
Rating: ★★★

The Ghost of Slumber Mountain © Willis O'BrienThis film was produced, acted and animated by Herbert M. Dawley and Willis O’Brien.

Dawley plays ‘Uncle Jack Holmes’, who tells two boys a story about how he camped out on slumber mountain and meets the ghost of Mad Dick there (played by O’Brien). The ghost tells Holmes to watch through a magic instrument, and the uncle suddenly sees prehistoric animals in the distance.

At this point the film is nine minutes away, and by O’Brien’s skillful animation we watch a Brontosaurus wandering, a Diatryma (a giant flightless bird, now Gastornis) catching a snake, two Triceratopses fighting, and a Tyrannosaurus killing one of the Triceratopses.

Especially the animation on the first Triceratops is well done, O’Brien even shows the creature breathing. Another nice detail is that of the Tyrannosaurus licking its lips. Most importantly, O’Brien doesn’t show the prehistoric creatures not as monsters but as convincingly living creatures. No wonder this master animation was asked to do the dinosaur animation for ‘The Lost World’ (1925), and for all kinds of creatures in ‘King Kong‘ (1933).

It’s a pity the film is rather lackluster (in the end it all appears to be a dream, and even the boys don’t really buy that trite ending), for the animation is certainly worth watching once.

Watch ‘The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Ghost of Slumber Mountain’ is available on the Blu-Ray of ‘The Lost World’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Wallace Carlson
Release Date: January 9, 1919
Stars: Us Fellers
Rating: ★★★

Dud Leaves Home © Wallace CarlsonWallace Carlson (1894-1967) was a comic strip artist, who had a brief career as an animator from 1914 to 1921. Carlson joined the Bray studio in 1917, for which he created the ‘Us Fellers’ series. The series stars a boy character called Dreamy Dud, whom Carlson had conceived earlier.

Dud is a boy who breaks his bank (and unfortunately the one coin therein) to buy his girlfriend Mamie some ice cream. But instead he’s punished and sent to bed without supper. At night Dud sneaks out and first imagines how his mother gets filled with remorse, while he finds a treasure. But then the figments of his imagination turn into scary monsters, and he runs home, only to get spanked.

‘Dud Leaves Home’ is a well-told film, with great attention to the child’s world and imagination. The night scenes show some pretty background art. The animation, on the other hand, is rather stiff and robotic, especially when compared to Earl Hurd’s or Raoul Barré’s animation from the same era.

Carlson left animation in 1921 to concentrate on comic strips again, creating the highly successful comic strip series ‘The Nebbs’ in 1923.

Watch ‘Dud Leaves Home’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Dud Leaves Home’ is available on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

Directors: Charles Bowers & Raoul Barré
Release Date: March 2, 1919
Stars: Mutt and Jeff
Rating: ★★★

Fireman Save My Child © Raoul BarréIn this short Mutt and Jeff are firemen. First they extinguish the ‘fire’ of a smoking policeman, then they rush to a real fire. Mutt has to rescue a girl (which turns out to be a vicious dog), while Jeff relaxes, eats some fried eggs and drinks some coffee. In order to escape from the dog Mutt jumps down, but his colleagues are too busy looking at a beautiful dame descending a ladder…

‘Fireman Save My Child’ is a pure gag cartoon, with the gags coming in fast an plenty. The film is pretty fast and funny for its age, but animator Dick Huemer uses some surprising tricks to cut short on animation, making Mutt and Jeff move across the room without movement, or firemen sprouting from beds using the vaguest inbetween drawings. Nevertheless, it’s nice to watch some animation by this later Disney legend.

‘Fireman Save My Child’ is available on the Blu-Ray-DVD-combo ‘Cartoon Roots’

Director: Leon Searl
Release Date: February 29, 1916
Stars: Krazy Kat
Rating: ★★★

Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing © J.R. Bray Productions‘Krazy Kat’ was the very first animal cartoon star featured in a cartoon series of her own.

‘Krazy Kat’, of course, was taken from George Herriman’s celebrated comic strip, which had started in 1913. The film series started three years later, and lasted until 1940. By then the character had become a far cry from Herriman’s creation.

But the earliest Krazy Kat cartoons still had a lot in common with George Herriman’s comic strip, on which they were based. ‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’, the fourth Krazy Kat cartoon, is a good example. This short animation film lasts only three minutes and seemingly re-tells one Sunday Page, using a lot of text balloons. Both the designs, backgrounds and characters are still in tune with Herriman’s creations.

Krazy Kat goes serenading her love Ignatz Mouse, but he rushes off to fetch some bricks to throw at her. Leon Searl’s drawings are appealing, but his animation is very stiff. For example, when we watch Krazy serenading, only two drawings are used.

Watch ‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Krazy Kat Goes a-Wooing’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’

Director: George Vernon Stallings
Release Date: September 4, 1915
Stars: Colonel Heeza Liar
Rating: ★★★

Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat © J.R. Bray‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ is a Colonel Heeza Liar cartoon directed by George Vernon Stallings, who would later join Van Beuren and Disney.

Stallings’s approach to animation is very comic strip-like in this short: the scenes are very flat, and although the drawing and posing are very good, the animation is extremely limited and stiff, relying heavily on repeated drawings and on poses instead of movement.

In this short the colonel joins a ball game, winning it with ease, e.g. by pitching curve balls that defy all laws of nature, and by running a home-run three times in a row. The film uses titles in rhyme, but text balloons are reserved for the umpire only.

Watch ‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938’ and on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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