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Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date:
 July 5, 1931
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Making 'Em Move © Van Beuren‘Making ‘Em Move’ is a surprisingly original cartoon, being about animation itself. It’s astonishing that this early cartoon about its own industry comes from the Van Beuren studio, the least developed American animation studio in business those days.

The film is a strange mix of accuracy and nonsense. We watch a fat lady visiting an animated cartoon studio, where several animals are animating ridiculously fast and as if in an assembly line. Among the less accurate scenes are an animator animating a dancing cat who’s dancing right in front of him, and a humanized camera filming the flip-books animators are running in front of it. Meanwhile a jazz band is playing, whose sound is recorded directly on film.

In the second half of the film we watch a public cartoon screening: “Fable Animals present Little Nell’, a crude animation of  a classic melodrama with stick figures, predating Tex Avery’s similar ‘Porky’s Preview’ by eleven years(!).

‘Making ’em Move’ is a remarkable cartoon, being about the cartoon industry itself, which remained a rare feat. Unfortunately, the film is neither very educational nor funny. It’s in fact rather directionless, making it to fall short as a classic.

Watch ‘Making ‘Em Move’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Making ‘Em Move’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

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Director: Unknown
Release Date: June 11, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Sky Scrappers © Walt DisneyWhere ‘Oh, What a Knight‘ was a forerunner of ‘Ye Olden Days‘, ‘Sky Scrappers’ is the blueprint for the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Building a Building‘ (1933).

Like the later cartoon, ‘Sky Scrappers’ opens spectacularly with a fantastic opening shot zooming out of Oswald’s excavator. Both feature Honey/Minnie bringing Oswald/Mickey lunchboxes and Pete kidnapping Honey/Minnie. Like in ‘Oh What A Knight’ Honey is shown without her pants.

The opening shot shows a lot of animation cycles, effectively suggesting a lot of working on the building. There’s also a great perspective gag with Pete punching right into the camera. However, the most remarkably animation achievement is that of Oswald pulling up a heavy barrel. The idea of weight and muscle stretch is very convincing, and stands out amidst the more formulaic animation of the rest of the cartoon.

Watch ‘Sky Scrappers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 21
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Oh, What A Knight
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: The Fox Chase

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date:
 February 28, 1953
Stars:
 Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny (cameo)
Rating:
 ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Duck Amuck © Warner BrothersOne of the most self-aware animated cartoons ever made, ‘Duck Amuck’, more than any other cartoon, plays with the conventions of animation and with the frustrations of Daffy Duck.

This cartoon shows how good the character is, because even when drawn awkwardly, even without sound, and even when animated as a small speck in the distance, we know it’s Daffy. His struggles with the off-screen animator (who in the end turns out to be Bugs Bunny) form the zenith of his new frustrated personality, which had replaced his zany personality of the thirties and forties three years earlier. Furthermore he’s the sole character in the entire cartoon, but so strong is his unwilling performance that we become hardly aware of this fact.

The poor Daffy has to deal with disappearing and constantly changing backgrounds, with absent and inappropriate sounds, with deformations of his own body etc. In this cartoon he’s the victim of an omnipotent ‘cartoon god’ whom he cannot escape. In this sense ‘Duck Amuck’ questions the relationship between creator and creation and the responsibility of the creator to the things he created. This makes ‘Duck Amuck’ also one of the most philosophical cartoons ever made. And amazingly, it’s funny, too.

Watch ‘Duck Amuck’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Duck Amuck’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’

Directors: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney
Release Date: October 5, 1949
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow © Walt DisneyThe Legend of Sleepy Hollow, told and sung by Bing Crosby, quite faithfully retells the story by Washington Irving.

The story tells us about the skinny schoolmaster Ichabod Crane who tries to court Katrina van Tassel, the most beautiful girl in town, while ignoring his rival Brom Bones. At Halloween Bones tells a spooky story about a headless horseman, scaring the schoolmaster to death. And when on the way home he really encounters a headless horseman, he’s never seen again…

The animation of Ichabod Crane and Katrina van Tassel both show how familiar the animators had become with the human figure. Ichabod Crane is an awkward, slender figure, but human, nonetheless. Katrina both has a sexy, graceful charm, as well as stylized moves, which make her a little abstract, like an all too beautiful woman can be in the hearts of men. Certainly, in the next feature, ‘Cinderella‘ (1950) the animators were confident enough to let human characters star a feature for the first time since ‘Pinocchio’ (1940).

This film’s highlight, however, are the wonderful backgrounds, which were lacking in the first story, ‘The Wind in the Willows‘. In ‘The legend of Sleepy Hollow’ the backgrounds are stylized, with striking colors, and most of the times clearly inspired by Mary Blair. The background artists’ art reaches its peak in the stunning scary forest scene, an elaboration on the scary forest in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). This climatic scene, in which Ichabod Crane is confronted with the headless horseman, makes effective use of expressionistic coloring, like the best parts in ‘Fantasia’ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942).

These positive aspects, however, cannot rescue this film, which is rather slow, and totally devoid of sympathetic characters. In the end one has to conclude that this second part of the feature, like the first, is not particularly interesting or memorable.

Watch ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: September 19, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Dover Boys © Warner Brothers‘The Dover Boys’ or, as it is actually called, ‘The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall’, is director Chuck Jones’s first masterpiece.

It introduces his trademark of extreme poses, which in this cartoon are combined with ‘smear animation’, devised by Bob Clampett, to unique results.

The extreme posing leads to highly stylized animation, which in itself is hilarious in its unnatural depiction of movement. In ‘The Dover Boys’ we watch both movement through poses, especially in the animation on Dan Backslide, as well as non-movement, with Dora descending the stairs as a prime example. Both techniques are important steps away from the classic squash-and-stretch animation, and from ‘believability through full animation’. Indeed, the animation style of ‘The Dover Boys’ looks forward all the way to the fifties, the era in which stylization of design and animation would flourish and dominate the animation industry. Indeed, the short’s prime animator, Bobe Cannon, would play an important role at UPA, the most influential animation film studio of the fifties.

The subject of ‘The Dover Boys’ is a sophisticated parody on melodrama, consisting of an archetypical story of a villain (called Dan Backslide) kidnapping a damsel in distress (dear Dora), taking her to his cottage in the mountains, where she is rescued by the heroes, in this case, the three Dover Boys, Tom, Dick and Larry.

Or is she? In the final scene they knock each other out, and Dora runs off into a distance with an odd bearded character in a bathing suit, who, as a running gag, hops along rather randomly throughout the picture to the music of ‘The Good Old Summertime’. This character is a relative of the equally mysterious Minah Bird from Chuck Jones’ earlier cartoon ‘Inki and the Lion’ (1941).

‘The Dover Boys’ is both innovative and funny. Its humor is as sophisticated as it is silly. In any case, the gags come fast and plenty, with hilarious nonsense as a result. An all time classic.

Watch ‘The Dover Boys’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: May 23, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Frolicking Fish' featuring three fish dancingFrolicking fish indeed. Even oysters, starfish and a lobster join in the dance routines, oh so typical of early Silly Symphonies. Nevertheless, this cartoon ends with some kind of story, when an evil octopus follows a small fish, who gets rid of the villain by dropping an anchor on him.

There’s not much to enjoy in ‘Frolicking Fish’ despite its merry premise. However, like ‘Autumn‘ this cartoon contains early and to many rivaling studios undoubtedly ‘unnecessary’ effect animation, this time loads and loads of bubbles.

It has entered animation history, however, by featuring the first example of  ‘overlapping action’ in animation. Overlapping action acknowledges that different (body) parts move with different speeds. So one part can already start moving, before another comes to an end, and animation cycles can overlap each other in imperfect ways. This opposed to the then normal type of animation, which was based on poses, which led to straightforward animation cycles. This new type of animation was developed by animator Norm Ferguson, who had been hired by Disney in August 1929. It was a milestone at that time, a piece of animation marveled at by Ferguson’s colleagues, including Walt Disney himself. It led to the development of full animation, which would slowly replace the ‘rubber hose animation’ of the early thirties.

Overlapping Action can be seen in the three fish dancing at 2:07. Compare it to the stiff stop-and-go movements of the fish musicians following this scene, and the difference may become clear.

From ‘Frolicking Fish’ on Norm Ferguson would become one of Disney’s greatest and most influential animators of the 1930s, and he was responsible for another breakthrough piece of animation: ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934), the first convincing piece of animation of a character thinking. He was a great influence on future Nine Old Man John Lounsberry, whom he trained as an assistant animator. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s star diminished in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his style had become old-fashioned…

Watch ‘Frolicking Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 10
To the previous Silly Symphony: Night
To the next Silly Symphony: Arctic Antics

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
July 25, 1927
Stars:
Lois Hardwick (Alice)
Rating:
★★★
Review:

Still from 'Alice the Whaler' featuring Alice and some animals dancing on a ship‘Alice the Whaler’ was one of the last of the Alice Comedies. It was only followed by two other titles, before Alice was replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It features Lois Hardwick as Alice, who had replaced Margie Gay at the end of 1926.

‘Alice the Whaler’ is a cartoon that consists of rather unrelated gags. This time Alice and the gang are on a ship, looking for whales. In this cartoon both Disney’s character designs as the flexible animation have matured. Gone are the goggly eyes, and even one character (a cat cook) is wearing Mickey Mouse-type gloves. Also starring is a small mouse that peels potatoes just the way Mickey would do a year later in ‘Steamboat Willie‘.

Alice has almost disappeared from the screen, by now: she’s visible in four shots only, two total shots of the ships and two close ups that contain no animation whatsoever. Indeed, in his next series, Walt Disney would abandon live action altogether, relying on animation only, which by now already was the best in the business.

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

‘Alice the Whaler’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: April 8, 1911
Stars: Little Nemo, Flip, The Imp
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Little Nemo © Winsor McCay‘Little Nemo’ was master comic artist Winsor McCay’s first animation film. It’s also one of the first drawn animation films ever made.

Indeed, one of the title cards boldly states that Winsor McCay is “the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move.” This is obviously untrue: Stuart J. Blackton had made the first drawn animated film five years earlier, with ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ (1906) and since then Frenchman Émile Cohl had produced more than a hundred animated films, of which a substantial part was (at least partially) drawn. Nevertheless, McCay seems to be the first artist to pick up the glove from Blackton and Cohl.

Star of McCay’s film is his world-famous comic hero Little Nemo, the little boy who always dreamed to be in Slumberland, only to awake abruptly at the end of each comic. He’s joined by Flip, the Imp, the princess and the doctor from the same comic. Nevertheless, they’re not the stars of the narrative, because that is their creator, Winsor McCay himself.

‘Little Nemo’ is a film with two clear sections:

the first half is filmed in live action and tells in three scenes about Winsor McCay’s plan to make moving drawings. In the first scene he proposes his idea to make 4,000 drawings in only one month. This only makes his friends laugh at him. In the second scene he orders three barrels of ink and two enormous packages of drawing paper, and in the third scene he can be seen in his drawing room, between huge piles of drawings and a primitive flipbook-like apparatus to preview his film. A young man, who has come to dust the place makes the piles of drawings fall.

In all, these scenes are rather slow and only mildly funny. Above all, they look as from an era long passed. But when the result is shown, one’s opinion changes completely…

The actual animation itself, completely hand-colored, is as startling and fresh as it was almost a hundred years ago. After an infectious “watch me move!” we watch Little Nemo, Flip and the imp move in 3D, Flip and the imp stretching like distorting mirror images (a gag that has his origin in the February 2, 1908 episode of the comic), Nemo drawing the princess himself, Nemo and the princess riding a dragon that disappears into the distance (inspired by three Sunday Pages from July/August 1906), and Flip and the imp crashing with a car, landing on the doctor.

The animated part may not make any sense, it certainly makes a great watch. McCay likely had seen some of Cohl’s films, because  ‘Little Nemo’ displays some of Cohl’s trademark metamorphosis techniques, especially when introducing characters: the imp is made out of falling building blocks, while several small lines finally come together to form Little Nemo. But McCay goes beyond Cohl in command of drawing: his mastery of form, perspective and movement is astonishing.

Although some of the movement is awkwardly slow (a feature the film shares with the comic strip), McCay displays a displays a tremendous control of form and material. For example, he’s the first animator to make his drawings move in perfect perspective, which he shows when Little Nemo and the princess ride off in the dragon’s mouth. After McCay no one would surpass this high quality of animation, until Walt Disney’s innovative strive to realism during the second half of the 1930s.

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

This is Winsor McCay’s first film
To Winsor McCay’s second film: How a Mosquito Operates

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