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Directors: Mark Burton & Richard Starzak
Release Date:
January 24, 2015
Stars: Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★★★

Thank God for the LAIKA and Aardman Studios, which, in a time of cliché-ridden computer animated films, devote their time to the ancient art of stop-motion, and who dare to tell stories that are less trope-rich than most contemporary mainstream animation films. Of this the ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is an excellent example.

Shaun the Sheep made his debut in the Wallace and Gromit film ‘A Close Shave’ from 1995. From 2007 on the little sheep stars his own television series. In this series Shaun gets his own world: he’s part of a flock, owned by a nameless farmer and guarded by a partly anthropomorphized sheepdog called Bitzer. The series is rather unique in the present television animation world for both being completely animated in stop-motion, and being completely devoid of dialogue.

The first feature length movie about Shaun the Sheep features all the main protagonists from the series, and retains the lack of dialogue, a tour de force in a feature length film, rarely done before (an obvious example is ‘Les triplettes de Belleville’ from 2002). When taking Shaun the Sheep from the small television screen to the big screen of movie theaters, the studio also took the little sheep and his co-stars out of their comfortable little barnyard world and into the big city (consequently called ‘Big City’). This not only meant completely new plot possibilities, but also a multitude of very elaborate sets, full of props, which never seize to amaze in their grand scale, and richness of detail.

The plot starts when Shaun decides to have a day off. He manages to lull the farmer into sleep inside a caravan, and takes over possession of the farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the caravan plunges downhill, out of the farmer’s terrain, and into the big city. Bitzer immediately recognizes the danger, but Shaun, free at last, is a slower learner. Only when he realizes the sheep will soon run out of food, he comes into action, and follows both the farmer and Bitzer into town.

Matters get extra complicated when his flock follows him, when they encounter an animal catcher called A. Trumper, and when the farmer gets hit by a traffic light bulb, making him losing his memory. Luckily, the gang meets an ugly, but very friendly orphan mongrel called Slip (although her name is never revealed during the film), which helps them throughout the movie.

The film is full of delightful scenes, and despite Shaun’s slightly moralistic story arc (which can be summarized as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘appreciate what you’ve got’), it’s clear that humor has a number one seat. Especially delightful are Bitzer’s scene at an operation room, the flock of sheep, poorly disguised as humans, dining in a fancy restaurant, and the animal prison scenes, complete with references to ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1953) and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991, especially cleared for the occasion by Warner Bros.).

The movie isn’t entirely devoid of tropes, however. There’s the typical ‘all hope is lost’ scene, but even in this scene the gang stays together. There’s no conflict between the main protagonist and his friends, unlike many contemporary films (e.g. ‘Up’ (2009), ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2’ (2013), and ‘The Secret Life of Pets’ from 2016), a welcome diversion to this almost obligatory scene.

Another trope is that of the almost invincible villain (see also e.g. ‘Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted’ from 2012), played out by Trumper, who even follows the gang home in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the story is original enough to surprise and to entertain throughout. It’s also admirable how the makers managed to even give the hapless farmer his own subplot.

The lack of dialogue means that all emotions have to be acted out solely with gestures and facial expressions. In this respect, the animators do an excellent job. There’s especially a lot of subtle emotion in the eyes, and there’s plenty of animation depicting the characters’ inner thinking. This is animation art at its peak. This, in combination with the stunning handicraft depicted in every scene, makes ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ a stand-out in the present animation film era. The film may be targeted to children, it’s absolutely a delight for the whole family, with something entertaining for everyone. Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Nick Park
Release Date:
December 24, 1995
Stars: Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep
Rating:
★★★½

Like the ground-breaking ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, ‘A Close Shave’ has a mystery plot featuring an evil genius framing Gromit. This time the premise is a wool shortage.

Wallace and Gromit are window cleaners, accidentally harboring an escaped sheep, and later meeting the villain, a bulldog called Preston, themselves. Things get complicated when Wallace gets romantically involved with Preston’s owner, wool shop owner Wendolene Ramsbottom, and Preston turns Wallace’s knit-o-matic into a killer machine, turning sheep into dog food.

As with ‘The Wrong Trousers’ the film knows a spectacular finale, first with an exciting car chase (also involving a little plane), and then in Preston’s dog food factory. As with the earlier film the suggestion of speed is flawless, and one forgets immediately that the original clay puppets didn’t move at all. The animation and the elaborate sets are even more spectacular than in the earlier film.

And yet, ‘A Close Shave’ is less gripping than ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was. The plot is more predictable, the car chase more conventional, and Preston less creepy than the penguin was in the earlier film, despite being indestructible in a rather Terminator-like manner. It’s a pity Nick Park and his team didn’t come with a more different plot, because now ‘A Close Shave’ demands too much comparison to the earlier film.

Nevertheless, the film is very important in Aardman history, for it introduces Shaun the Sheep, since 2007 hero of his own series, and star of no less than two feature length films. Already in his first short the little sheep shows to be a brave and inventive little fellow, and he literally has the last laugh.

Watch the opening of ‘A Close Shave’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Close Shave’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Jonathan Hodgson
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

This hilarious little film features the most outlandish bedtime story ever put to screen.

A father starts to tell this story when his disobedient son starts hitting him with a mallet. Unusually for an animation film, the spoken tale is by far the main attraction of the film, as it winds in unpredictable directions, far from the realms of the ordinary fairy tale. But Jonathan Hodgson keeps the images interesting, as they illustrate the story, sometimes vaguely, sometimes very directly. Thus we watch the father and his son wandering on Mars, driving, in a forest and on a stage.

The film’s atmosphere is wonderfully surreal, greatly enhanced by dreamlike lighting and great timing on the otherwise rather simple, but definitely effective puppet animation. ‘Hilary’ may not have gained the fame of a ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ or ‘The Wrong Trousers‘, it still is one of the most enjoyable stop-motion films of the nineties.

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

‘Hilary’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’ and on The Animation Show of Shows Box Set I

Director: Philip Hunt
Release Date: 1994
Rating: ★★
Review:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is a short but rather pretentious film using texts by avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs on the atomic bomb.

Read by William S. Burroughs himself from the book of the same name, the film mixes computer animation and stop motion to vaguely illustrate Burrough’s texts. The film is set on a small black planet, enircled by Gods, who look like satellites and bombs. Ah Pook is the destroyer, a.k.a. the atomic bomb. On the planet lives a red-headed alien who asks another flying alien about the nature of man, the nature of death and of democracy.

Unfortunately, the images are pretty irrelevant to the text: they neither illustrate nor counter it. Moreover, Burroughs’s text is pretty disjointed itself, making this short animation film remarkably aimless. For this reason ‘Ah Pook is Here’ must be regarded a cinematic failure, despite the virtuoso mix of computer animation and stop motion.

Watch ‘Ah Pook is Here’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ah Pook is Here’ is available on the DVD ‘The Best of British Animation Awards 1’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Willis O’Brien
Release Date: 1917
Rating: ★★★★

R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. © Willis O'Brien‘R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.’ is a short cartoon by stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien (1886-1962) of later ‘King Kong‘ fame.

The cartoon tells about two rivaling cavemen, one of them a mailman, craving for the same cave woman, Winnie Warclub. At St. Valentine’s Day the mailmen exchanges Johnny Bearskin’s valentine for an insulting one, but Johnny soon finds out the truth, and knocks the mailman literally in two, winning both Winnie and the mailman’s job.

‘R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.’ precedes The Flintstones by 45 years, and shows that from the start Willis O’Brien was a capable stop motion animator. The film also shows he was interested in the prehistory right from the outset. The mailman’s cart is pulled by a sauropod, which we can clearly see breathing heavily in the end.

The puppets of the cavemen are elaborate and capable of rolling their eyes. O’Brien’s animation of the mailman is most impressive: we can clearly watch him carrying heavy mail (the sense of weight is well brought across in the animation), and his moves are genuinely sneaky. Johnny and Winnie aren’t half as good.

The film is entertaining, and shows O’Brien on par with Władysław Starewicz as the major pioneer in stop motion animation.

Watch ‘R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘R.F.D. 10,000 B.C.’ is available on the Blu-Ray of ‘The Lost World’

Director: Břetislav Pojar
Release Date: 1959
Rating: ★★½

Lev a písnicka (The Lion and the Music) © Břetislav Pojar‘Lev a písnicka’ is a Czech puppet film in the tradition of Jiří Trnka.

The short tells about a bandoneon-playing actor who travels through the desert, but who finds a resting place at an abandoned ruin. There he performs before a small crowd of animals (two lizards, a fennec, and an antelope). But then a ferocious lion enters the scene…

In ‘Lev a písnicka’ Pojar tells a surprising story. Moreover, he uses a small but effective decor, and some spectacular cinematography. He shows he’s a clear master of animation, making the inner feelings of expressionless puppets come to life by movement only. Especially the animation of the lizards is well done. But the film’s animation highlight goes to the scene that shows the lion’s despair after he has swallowed the bandoneon, which keeps on playing in his stomach, robbing him from his stealth, and thus of a welcome meal.

Nevertheless, the film is hampered by a slow speed, and quite some scenes are unessential to the story. In the end Pojar’s film is too long and too unfocused to become a real classic.

Watch ‘Lev a písnicka’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Lev a písnicka’ is available on the DVD-box ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’

Director: Bill Justice
Release Date: November 10, 1959
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Noah's Ark © Walt DisneyThis is the second of no less than three Disney interpretations from the classic story from Genesis, the other ones being the Silly Symphony ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933) and a sequence from ‘Fantasia 2000’ (1999), starring Donald Duck.

This second version is the most extraordinary of the three as it exchanges the ordinary cel animation for stop motion, an animation technique not practiced at the Disney studio. Yet animators Bill Justice and X Atencio gave it a go. For novices in this particular technique, the stop motion is of a remarkably high quality, on par with other stop motion films of the time.

In classic animation tradition, the film start with human hands handling the material, and even the film’s title is animated in stop motion, using a string of wool. Justice’s and Atencio’s designs, too, are refreshing: all characters are mostly made of ordinary material, like corks, pencils and clothespins, often still very visible. The cinematography, too, is superb. For example, there’s a clever montage scene of Noah and his sons building the ark.

The story (by T. Hee) is told by Jerome Courtland in rhyme and features a jazzy score by George Bruns and several songs by Mel Leven. The makers don’t take their story too seriously, and at one point there’s even room for a blues song sung by an abandoned female hippo who grieves, while her husband Harry dances with all other female creatures.

In all, ‘Noah’s Ark’ is a nice departure for Disney, and the film’s looks remain unique within the Disney canon. At 20 minutes the short may be a little too long, but the sheer fun with which this film has been made is contagious.

Watch ‘Noah’s Ark’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Noah’s Ark’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Lucjan Dembiński
Release Date: 1959
Rating: ★★
Review:

Pyza © Studio Filmów Lmów Lalkowych‘Pyza’ is based on children’s books by Polish author Hanna Januszewska (1905-1980).

‘Pyza’ starts with a mother making dumplings for her numerous children. One of the dumplings changes into a girl, who soon goes for a walk. Outside she meets a rabbit, and the two become friends and have some little adventures together.

‘Pyza’ features no dialogue and uses the simplest puppet designs. This children’s film looks attractive, but emotion is more suggested than felt, and the animation is rather lifeless and stiff. Moreover, Dembiński’s timing is pretty relaxed, and the film balances on the verge of boring. In the end, the directionless story and the uninspired animation render a film too poor to enjoy.

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

 

‘Pyza’ is available on the DVD set ‘Anthology of Polish Children’s Animation’

Director: Władysław Starewicz
Release Date: 1958
Stars: Patapouf
Rating: ★★
Review:

Winter Carousel © Ladislaw StarewiczWładysław Starewicz was a stop motion pioneer, who had made some very important films in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. ‘Winter Carousel’ was the last film he completed, and the short’s style is practically the same as that of his films of forty years earlier: the film is essentially silent, and populated by various animals, whose rather gritty look is typical for the Polish-Russian filmmaker.

‘Winter Carousel’ stars brown bear Patapouf and his rather mischievous friend Rabbit, who had been introduced in Starewicz previous film, ‘Nez au Vent’ (Nose in the Wind, 1956). In ‘Winter Carousel’ the duo encounters a jolly snowman, who apparently is father Winter, and a female polar bear. Both Patapouf and Rabbit are clearly interested in the female creature, and the three go skating together, playing blind man’s buff, and riding a Christmas tree carousel. This part of the film is a delightful sequence: Starewicz’s arctic backgrounds are pretty evoking, there’s a unique sense of poetry in the images, and his suggestion of speed during the skating and carousel scenes is impressive.

But then suddenly Father Winter starts to melt and reveals a female wooden creature (clearly a goddess of spring) underneath. Thus, strangely, the last five minutes of the film take place in spring. Unfortunately, from that moment all suggestions of narrative are thrown out of the window, and things just happen on the screen. We watch Patapouf en Rabbit gamble with some dice, watching a performance by a grasshopper and drinking in a long, plotless and completely superfluous kind of epilogue. None of theses spring images matches the winter scenes, and in the end the film is too uneven and too rambling to be a lasting work.

The animation is at times quite good, especially in Rabbit’s and Patapouf’s little gestures, but the complete result is unfortunately rather boring. In fact, this product, already old-fashioned and hopelessly dated by its release, is a rather sad ending to Starewicz’s great career. With this film he only managed to proof that he was a relic from another era.

Watch ‘Winter Carousel’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Winter Carousel’ is available on the DVD ‘The Cameraman’s Revenge & other Fantastic Tales’

Directors: Włodzimierz Haupe & Halina Bielińska
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Zmiana warty (The Changing of the Guard) © Włodzimierz Haupe & Halina Bielińska

‘The Changing of the Guard’ is a stop motion film that tells a story with the simplest of means.

The background consists of highly graphical wiry outlines of buildings set in an empty stage. The ‘actors’ are matchboxes. We watch them marching, while one of them, a night guard, falls in love with a female matchbox in a window (the matchbox is recognizable as a woman, because of the three lips painted on its front). When the two meet at night, they catch flame, which devours the complete regiment. So, the next day the civilians put up a ‘no smoking’ sign.

Haupe’s and Bielińska’s stop motion is very primitive, yet effective, and their minimalist approach shows how little one needs to tell a communicating and resonating story. Admittedly, their story is not too interesting, verging on the brink of a farce, but the elegant designs and effective animation make it a short fun to watch.

Watch ‘Zmiana warty’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Zmiana warty’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Anthology of Polish Animated Film’

Directors: Walerian Borowczyk & Jan Lenica
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Dom (The House) © Walerian Borowcyk & Jan Lenica‘Dom’ is an avant-garde film with strong surrealistic images. The film consists of six unrelated ‘scenes’ connected by the image of a woman looking into the camera.

It’s as if Borowczyk and Lenica explored the possibilities of experimental cinema, trying out several techniques in a row. Thus we watch cut-out images of a strange contraption, a pixillated scene of two men fighting, an octopus-like wig destroying a still life setting, a man repeatedly hanging his hat on a coat rack, a sequence of old family pictures and postcards, and a live action scene in which a woman caresses a plaster male head.The film’s weird atmosphere is greatly enhanced by Włodzimierz Kotoński’s modern music, which uses electronics and percussion only.

It’s hard to make sense of it all, but it’s clear that with this film Borowczyk and Lenica proved to be strong new voices in avant-garde cinema.

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

 

‘Dom’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Anthology of Polish Animated Film’

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

Stille Nacht III Tales from Vienna Woods © Brothers Quay‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ is the third of the Quay Brothers’ ‘Stille Nacht’ films, and somehow the most incomprehensible of them all.

Star of this film is a loose flying hand, which is saved from a bullet by a hanging table, which produces a long spoon to catch the bullet. The gun shot is the only sound besides the odd Czech soundtrack, featuring some orchestra and a voice reciting over it. The film is very beautifully made, and some forest feeling is created using numerous pine cones, but it’s hard to make head or tale of this highly surreal film.

Watch ‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Stille Nacht III: Tales from Vienna Woods’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Brothers Quay – The Short Films 1979-2003’

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’

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