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Director: UrumaDelvi
Release Date: 2005
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

(A Long Day for) Mr. Calpaccio © UrumaDelvi‘(A Long Day for) Mr. Calpaccio’ does not have much of a story: Mr. Calpaccio goes to work, even flies to another place to work there, and returns home to do some shopping and outdoor eating with his family. That’s about it.

But boy, the looks of this cartoon! ‘(A Long Day for) Mr. Calpaccio’ boasts a completely unique style, with circus-like designs with stark black and white contrasts, and no shading whatsoever. There’s a very strange mix of expressionism and genuine silliness. The cartoon simply bubbles with weird images and original animation cycles, to a psychedelic effect. The bubbly images are accompanied by a fitting circus-like musical score by Yoshiyuki Usui.

The world of Mr. Calpaccio, its dull subject notwithstanding, is a magical place, a place of wonder. And this little gem by UrumaDelvi (a rather mysterious Japanese couple) by all means deserves to be seen. It’s a pity the film cannot be found online.

‘(A Long Day for) Mr. Calpaccio’ is available on the Belgian DVD ‘Kleine helden & rare kwasten – 14 animatiefilms voor kinderen’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date:
 1930-1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

L'idée © Berthold BartoschWhile the cartoon industry flourished in the United States, animation film was developed as an art form in Europe.

In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).

‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.

Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.

The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong socialist character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.

Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.

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

‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’

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