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Director: Gene Deitch
Release Date: September 1960
Rating: ★★★★

Munro © Gene Deitch‘Munro’ is a charming little film which understandably won an academy award.

Jules Feiffer wrote the story based on a short story of his own. Howard Morris narrates the story and does all the voices of the cartoon except Munro’s, which is done by Deitch’s son Seth. The story tells about Munro, a little boy of four, who is drafted and who has a hard time convincing all the officials he’s only four.

Despite its fully American setting, director Gene Deitch made this film in Czechoslovakia. When one of his clients of his commercial work, Rembrandt films, promised to fund the film Deitch moved his production company to Prague, home of Rembrandt films. Deitch planned only to stay there for a few days, but on meeting his future second wife, he stayed there for the rest of his life.

Deitch uses very pleasant cartoon modern designs and monochrome painted backgrounds which fit the story very well. The Czech animators do an excellent job at the simple and limited, yet effective animation. There’s an undercurrent of anti-militarism in the cartoon that’s never played out in the open. The most critical scene is when the general explains why they’re fighting: “our side is on the fave of God, and the other side isn’t”.

But more importantly, the film is about how so-called authorities abuse and bully people, making them even believe themselves they are something they’re not. In this respect, the story of Munro is very akin to Frank Tashlin’s children’s book ‘The Bear That Wasn’t (1946), which was turned into an animated short itself in 1967.

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

As far as I know ‘Munro’ has not yet been released on DVD or Blu-Ray
‘Munro’ is available on the DVD ‘Rembrandt Films’ Greatest Hits’ (thank you, Jonathan Wilson!)

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske & Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

One Hundred and One Dalmatians © Walt Disney

Among the classic Disney films ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a rather underrated little gem. Pretty modest in its story and ambitions, the film nevertheless is a milestone in Disney animation, introducing a completely new style to Disney feature animation.

After the costly debacle of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (1959) it was clearly time for a change, and in many respects, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. The new feature is no fairy tale, but set in contemporary times, it has an unprecedented crime plot, and it has a modern design which was a complete departure from earlier efforts, and which was fit for a more modern age.

Modern design had invaded Disney feature animation as far back as ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1945), but ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to have a modern outlook from start to end. The film is also the first Disney feature to be set in contemporary times, even if this is a little confusing: the English setting gives most of the film a vintage look, Roger Radcliffe is a jazz composer in the style of the 1930s, and Cruella drives a Mercedes Benz 500 K from the mid-1930’s. Moreover, Roger and his wife Anita may be depicted as being rather poor, at least in the eyes of Cruella de Vil, they nonetheless manage to have a maid, an anachronistic anomaly in the post-war age of television.

No, the modernity of the film is more present in it looks: ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is the first Disney feature to make use of Xeroxed cells, preserving the black outlines, which give the film a more graphic look. Initiated by art director Ken Anderson, and developed by Walt Disney old partner Ub Iwerks, the process was first tried out in the short special ‘Goliath II’ (1960), and deemed successful enough for further use. No doubt the xerox process was conceived to save money, and the process is particularly helpful in this particular film, which its 101 duplicate puppies, which are essentially black and white characters, anyway. Yet, the method preserved the rough animation outlines, which were more vivid than the cleaned up cells, and the xeroxed cells give the animation an extra swinging touch. Indeed, the new process was a hit with the animators themselves, who, for the first time, saw their own drawings directly on the animated screen.

Iwerks even managed to xerox a cardboard model of Cruella’s car with marked black outlines. Thus, in the film Cruella’s car is essentially rotoscoped. This experimental method also accounts for the only unconvincing special effect in the film: during the finale Cruella’s car gets stuck in the snow. This scene was filmed using the cardboard model and real sand, and unfortunately the photographed sand is clearly visible, as its roughness deviates from the otherwise very clean artwork. Moreover, one can see this piece of xeroxed live action move on top of the background art.

Never mind the cost reduction of the xerox process, the depiction of 101 dalmatians could only be done at Disney’s at the time: as all the dogs’ spots had to be animated independently. The studio set up a sole unit for this task alone. No wonder, as Pongo alone has no less than 76 spots!

In ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’, the xerox cells are matched by xeroxed background art lines by e.g. Ernie Nordli, which make an ideal match with the background paintings by Walt Peregoy, with its bold coloring: the results are very intricate, very graphical, yet stylized, decorative and very appealing backgrounds, which belong to the most artful ever produced, and which give the film its unique look. The new style, with its original mix of depth and flatness, works best in the urban setting, with all its straight lines. The scenes in the countryside have a more traditional feel, and are more akin to earlier artwork by e.g. Mary Blair.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney himself disliked this background art, most probably because they are devoid of any romanticism. The xeroxed animation works particularly well with these graphic backgrounds. Yet the latter were not repeated, while xeroxed animation lasted until the mid-1980’s. By that time the style had become jaded, and gotten a cheap feel and outdated feel. No wonder, Don Bluth chose to go back to painted cells in his nostalgic feature ‘The Secret of NIMH’ (1982). Nonetheless, in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ the xeroxed cells look fresh and modern, and they certainly contribute to the film’s timeless appeal.

That ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is a new, less pretentious and more fun film than ‘Sleeping Beauty’ had been, becomes immediately clear in the startlingly modern opening credits, with its visual puns on spots. This sole sequence itself is a sheer delight, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

The introduction uses a voice over by Pongo (Rod Taylor), Roger’s Dalmatian dog, and tells how he managed to get Roger and Anita meet each other, acting like a canine matchmaker. As Anita has a female Dalmatian dog, Perdita, this event also marks the welcome end to Pongo’s bachelor life.

Soon, Perdita is pregnant, and gives birth to no less than fifteen puppies. This event introduces the arch villain of the movie: Cruella de Vil, apparently an old schoolmate of Anita. Cruella must be the all time best of Disney villains: she’s both ridiculously outlandish and genuinely menacing. Her voice by Betty Lou Gerson is spot on, giving her the perfect mix of class, disdain, selfishness and temper. The voice is matched by Marc Davis’s design and animation, which give the character an unprecedented screen presence: Cruella has the energy of a Stromboli, the deftness of a captain Hook, and the icy coldness of a Malificent all rolled in one, and then some. She’s the undisputed star of the film: a villain one loves to hate, from her first entry until her last lunatic car ride.

This was the last animation Marc Davis did before he moved over to designing for Disney parks. Cruella de Vil can be seen as his masterpiece, and is his impressive farewell to animation. She undoubtedly inspired several subsequent Disney villains, like Medusa in ‘The Recuers’ (1978), Jafar in ‘Aladdin’ (1992) and Yzma in ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’ (2000).

Cruella de Vil may be an animation highlight, all of the animation in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is excellent. Led by six of Disney’s nine old men, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ shows that these veteran animators were on top of their game. Roger and Anita (animated by Milt Kahl) have the perfect mix of caricature and realism, and make a believable real couple, if not a too memorable one. Likewise, Horace and Jasper, the pair of crooks that function as Cruella’s henchmen, have that great combination of silliness and threat, which make them so lovely to watch. The dogs are all good, and it’s clear that the animators could rely on years of experience on this particular mix of naturalism and anthropomorphism, dating back to ‘Bambi’ (1942), but of course most notably to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1956), which also features numerous dogs. Indeed, Jock, Peg, Bull and Lady herself can all be seen during the ‘twilight bark’ scene, one of the highlights of the film.

As if to illustrate how for the animators had come, Disney shows a short excerpt from the Silly Symphony ‘Springtime’ (1929) on television in a scene in the old De Vil mansion. The old short provides the score for a large part of this scene.

Highly unusually, the film’s story was storyboarded by one man only: Bill Peet, and his story is a prime example of lean storytelling: there’s absolutely no unnecessary fat on this film, which moves to the grand finale on an excellent speed, with an increasing sense of danger. Thus, the film is over before you know it. Even better, Peet manages to tell the story without relying on too obvious story tropes – for example, in a modern version Pongo doubtless would estrange his friends, or break down in doubt just before the start of the finale. None of that in this movie! Even Dodie Smith, who had written the original book in 1956, thought Peet had improved on her story.

Apart from the Twilight Bark scenes, other highlights are the soot scenes in the mythical village of Dinsford, and the preceding scenes at Suffolk, featuring ‘The Colonel’, a very British and rather deaf sheepdog (voiced by Pat O’Malley), and his brave tabby cat Sergeant Tibbs. These scenes made me laugh out loud.

Apart from its modern looks and setting ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is remarkable for its surprisingly lack of songs. With ‘Bambi’ this feature is the only classic Disney feature not to be a musical. In fact, there are only two (not counting a silly song accompanying a commercial for dog food on television), which is the more remarkable, as Roger Radcliffe is supposed to be a songwriter. Indeed, Roger sings both songs: first one about Cruella de Vil, just before she enters herself, and the second one at the film’s Christmas finale. This second song, ‘Dalmatian plantation’ lasts only 25 seconds, before dissolving back into the background score. This score, by George Bruns, is another departure from earlier Disney features: Bruns’s score is less lush, more brassy and more jazzy than previous scores, and matches the scenes very well.

In all, ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is an undisputed highlight within the Disney canon: the film is forward looking and unpretentious, modern and timeless, exciting and funny, all at the same time. Indeed, the feature did well at the box office, evaporating the studio’s deficit of 1960. With ‘Jungle Book’ the film certainly is the best of Disney’s feature output from the 1960s and 1970s, and even if the feature heralded a less classy era, the film itself is one of sheer delight that can withstand the wear of ages.

Watch the trailer for ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: John Hubley
Release Date: 1959
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Moonbird © John HubleyWith ‘Moonbird’ John and Faith Hubley entered the field of animated documentary.

The film is an illustration of a nightly fantasy adventure by their own two little boys Mark and Humpy (ca. five and three). The main narrative of their fantasy is that they try to catch a large bird, using candy for a bait. But being two little boys, their story meanders a lot, and is interrupted by random singing, and even crying.

John and Faith Hubley illustrated this unedited piece of recorded dialogue as if the boys’ adventure were real. What’s more, they added subtle action that is not in the soundtrack. For example, the Moonbird itself is seen much earlier than heard.

The background art is pretty avant-garde, rendered in bold black, blue and pink brush strokes. These images verge on the abstract, but manage to evoke a nightly garden, nonetheless. Animators Bobe Cannon and Ed Smith, however, animated the two boys in classic Disney style, even though they are rendered in monochromes and with the pencil lines still visible.

‘Moonbird’ is a charming little film, and an ode to children’s fantasy. It was immediately recognized as something new, and it won the Academy Award for best animated short.

Later, the Hubley’s made more films based on unedited dialogue, e.g. ‘The Hole’ (1962), ‘The Hat’ (1964) and ‘Windy Day’ (1968), the last film starring their two daughters. In the late 1970s the fledgling Aardman studio followed suit with their Animated conversations series (e.g. ‘Down & Out‘ and ‘Confessions of a Foyer Girl‘).

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

‘Moonbird’ is available on the DVD’s ‘Selected Films of John and Faith Hubley 1956-1973’ within The Believer Magazine March/April 2014 and ‘The Hubley Collection Volume 2’

Director: John Hubley
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Tender Game © John HubleyBy the end of the 1950s John Hubley had survived the McCarthy era that had hit him hard*, and with his Storyboard studio he could finally make the films he really wanted to.

‘The Tender Game’ is a wonderful example of Hubley’s great and gentle art. The short is a delightful little wordless film about love set to the song ‘Tenderly’, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanied by the Oscar Peterson trio. The cartoon’s setting is a city, vaguely reminiscent of Paris. Here a flower girl falls in love with a street cleaner.

The designs of this cartoon are very bold: for example, the two main protagonists don’t have solid bodies, but consist of loose parts, and sometimes it seems as if they’ve walked straight from a Pablo Picasso painting. Both their designs and that of the backgrounds have a strong painting quality, being rendered in broad brush strokes, and verging on the abstract.

The poetic artwork contrasts a little with the animation, done e.g. by fellow-UPA alumnus Bobe Cannon, which is still clearly rooted in the comic tradition. Highlight is the interior scene, in which the two lovers reluctantly try to court each other. This is a marvelous little piece of character animation, full of telling expressions and poses.

Watch ‘The Tender Game’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Tender Game’ is available on the DVD’s ‘Selected Films of John and Faith Hubley 1956-1973’ within The Believer Magazine March/April 2014 and ‘Art and Jazz in Animation’

* for a full account on how McCarthyism affected the animation world see Adam Abraham’s excellent book ‘When Magoo Flew – The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA’.

Director: Władysław Nehrebecki
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Myszka i kotek © Studio Filmów Rysunkowych‘Myszka i kotek’ is a very beautiful example of the cartoon modern style of the 1950s.

The film is a very playful tale of a real mouse chased by a line drawing kitten, which has jumped from a postcard. During the chase the cat repeatedly dissolves into a line only, and the animators play with the fact that the animal is outline only.

Both cat and mouse are pleasantly designed and very well animated, but it’s the gorgeous background art that draws the main attention. Every single panel is a beauty, depicting a nightly room in bold designs, verging on the abstract. The main background color is black, and the light blue outline of the kitten reads very well against the background art.

In short, ‘Myszka i kotek’ is a Polish little gem that deserves to be better known.

Watch ‘Myszka i kotek’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Myszka i kotek’ is available on the DVD set ‘Anthology of Polish Children’s Animation’

Director: Ward Kimball
Release Date: June 18, 1959
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Eyes in Outer Space © Walt DisneyWhile eight of the nine old men were busy with feature film animation, like ‘Sleeping Beauty‘, number 9, Ward Kimball spend his energy to quite different films, blending science with science fiction.

‘Eyes in Outer Space’ is an excellent example of Kimball’s trade. Made when satellite technology was still brand new (by the time of this short’s release ca. 13-14 satellites had been successfully launched into space, the majority by the U.S.), ‘Eyes in outer space’ tells how satellites can help mankind not only to predict, but even to control the weather. The film first shows us the new technology: rockets and satellites, then it shows the destructive and beneficial powers of the weather.

After this we cut to the animated sequence. This lasts not even five minutes, but is an absolute joy to watch: first we watch a funny sequence about how weather affects our emotions, and how we used to try to predict the weather in the past. This is a delightful little piece of cartoon modernism, but the designs get bolder and more abstract when narrator Paul Frees tells about the life-cycle of a droplet. This is a very beautiful piece of avant-garde animation, featuring bold colors and designs and greatly helped by the rhyming narration and George Bruns’s jazzy score.

Unfortunately, it’s not to last, and soon we’re back to live action footage telling how meteorologists predict the weather today and how satellites come in handy. The last eleven minutes are devoted to a particularly noteworthy piece of infotainment. Here we cut to a future in which we cannot only predict the weather (months in advance!), but control it, too. The film shows us how a global weather station alters the course of an Atlantic hurricane, with the help of e.g. robot planes and a space station. This is a nice piece of 1950s science fiction. Needless to say nothing of this has materialized, yet, and it’s highly questionable if it will ever.

Watch ‘Eyes in Outer Space’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Eyes in Outer Space’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrow Land -Disney in Space and Beyond’

Director: Han van Gelder
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Van Inca tijd tot Blooker tijd © Toonder StudiosIn this film director-animator Han van Gelder uses his unique technique of mixing cut-out with stop-motion for a short advertising film for Blooker cocoa.

The film tells about the Incas who invented cocoa, and how the Spanish conquistadors brought cocoa with them to Europe, where Jan Blooker’s factory uses only the best cocoa for its chocolate. The jump from the conquistadors to Blooker is a rather abrupt and not all too convincing one.

For this film Van Gelder uses UPA-inspired cartoon modern style characters and backgrounds. The film’s story isn’t too interesting, but these designs certainly make it a fun watch. The Blooker factory only lasted until 1962, but the brand is still available today.

Watch ‘Van Inca tijd tot Blooker tijd’ yourself and tell me what you think:

From Inca time to Blooker time 1958

‘Van Inca tijd tot Blooker tijd’ is available on the DVD inside the Dutch book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’

Director: Børge Ring
Release Date: 1958
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Lokkend goud of gouden lokken © Toonder StudiosThis is the story of a man full of debts who marries a rich woman for her money, but he gets remorse when he discovers the rich lady is bald.

The story is a humorous old Irish ballad called ‘Very Unfortunate Man’, translated by Annie M.G. Schmidt into Dutch and sung by Dutch actor Otto Sterman. Danish animator Børge Ring provides the story with strong cartoon modern images in the best UPA tradition, matched by equally stylized background art and color schemes by Alan G. Standen. The two give the otherwise rather Dutch film a very international feel, both in design and quality. The complete cartoon may be quite on the light side, it is nevertheless a delight to watch.

‘Lokkend goud of gouden lokken’ is available on the DVD inside the Dutch book ‘De Toonder Animatiefilms’

Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: May 18, 1951
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Milton
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Plutopia © Walt DisneyIn ‘Plutopia’ Mickey and Pluto reach a cabin in the mountains called Utopia.

The place turns out to be dog-unfriendly however: Pluto has to stay outside and even worse, has to be muzzled. Frustrated, Pluto falls asleep. He dreams he’s in Plutopia where Milton (one of the cats from ‘Puss-Cafe‘, and here the cabin’s cat) is his willing servant, serving him food every time Pluto bites him in his tail.

The dream sequence is a delight to watch: its backgrounds consists of no more than changing monochromes featuring ‘scribbled’ outlines of doors, stairs e.g. With this sequence Pluto enters the ‘cartoon modern’ era. Unfortunately, it would be his only cartoon featuring such modern designs.

‘Plutopia’ is the last of only three Pluto cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse (the other two being ‘Pluto’s Purchase’ from 1948 and ‘Pueblo Pluto‘ from 1949). Normally cartoons featuring Mickey would appear under his own name. Indeed, after ‘Plutopia’ the Pluto series had only one entry left, but Pluto would return in Mickey’s last four cartoons.

Remarkably, ‘Plutopia’ features animation by two of the greatest animators of Mickey and Pluto in the 1930s: Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson. Both animators had been eclipsed by Disney’s Nine Old Men, and ‘Plutopia’ is one of the last films they worked on before their premature deaths in 1952 and 1957, respectively.

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

This is Pluto cartoon No. 42
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Cold Storage
To the next Pluto cartoon: Cold Turkey

Director: Bill Justice
Release date: July 18, 1956
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Jack and Old Mac © Walt DisneyDirector Bill Justice had co-directed two educational shorts in 1943: ‘The Grain That Built a Hemisphere‘ and ‘The Winged Scourge‘, but ‘Jack and Old Mac’ marks his solo direction debut.

Taking the cartoon modern-style to the max, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ brings jazzy versions of two familiar addition songs: ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’.

This simple and unpretentious idea leads to one of Disney’s most daring cartoons. The first song only uses characters made out of words and throughout the picture startlingly modern backgrounds are used, which constantly change and which are totally abstract, giving no sense of space whatsoever. The animation, too, is mostly very limited, although some animation is reused from the ‘All the Cats Join In’-sequence from ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).

George Bruns’s score is strikingly modern for a Disney cartoon, using genuine bebop jazz. In comparison, Louis Prima’s dixieland jazz in ‘Jungle Book’ from eleven years later is much more old-fashioned.

In all, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ is a neglected little masterpiece, and Disney’s modest, but most daring contribution to the cartoon avant-garde.

Justice would direct four more specials: ‘A Cowboy Needs a Horse’ (1956), ‘The Truth about Mother Goose‘ (1957), ‘Noah’s Ark‘ (1959) and ‘A Symposium on Popular Songs’ (1962), all strikingly modern in design.

Watch ‘Jack and Old Mac’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Jack and Old Mac’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

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