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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: Jack Hannah
Release Date: July 1961
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
Rating:
Review:

Franken-stymied © Walter Lantz‘Franken-stymied’ starts with a classic stormy scene and Woody Woodpecker trying to hide from the storm in a castle.

Inside the castle a Frankenstein-like mad scientist has made a chicken-plucking robot called Frankie, and as soon Woody arrives, Frankie starts plucking him (luckily we see no effect – throughout these scenes Woody keeps all his tail feathers, no matter how many times they are plucked). It takes a while before Woody can take control, and in the end he manages to cover the scientist in feathers and make Frankie go after the unfortunate villain.

‘Franken-stymied’ was made by talented Disney veterans like Jack Hannah (direction), Don Lusk (animation), Homer Brightman (story) and Clarence Wheeler (music), but it doesn’t show. The cartoon suffers from bad timing, awful dialogue, canned music, ugly designs and poor animation, as if the budget was way too tight to deliver anything decent. Clearly, ‘Franken-stymied’ never comes near any Disney product, but even worse: it cannot even compete with Walter Lantz films from only one year earlier.

Watch ‘Franken-stymied’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Woody Woodpecker cartoon No. 109
To Woody Woodpecker’s debut film: Sufferin’ Cats
To the next Woody Woodpecker cartoon: Busman’s Holiday

‘Franken-stymied’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2″ as part of the ‘Woody Woodpecker Show’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: August 11, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Nut Factory © Van BeurenIn ‘The Nut Factory’ Cubby Bear is a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, with the little cat from ‘Fresh Ham‘ as his Watson.

Our hero soon gets a call to solve a mystery of stolen false teeth. After a completely unnecessary diversion in a ghost house, Cubby discovers the false teeth in a hollow tree, in which squirrels use them to crack nuts. The ghost house sequence feels almost obligatory, placing the cartoon in a long series of pre-code horror cartoons.

‘The Nut Factory’ is a terribly animated and erratic cartoon, and Cubby is as lifeless and bland as ever, but the cartoon shows two gags that foreshadow Tex Avery: when an old lady phones Cubby, she crosses the split screen, and later Cubby opens multiple doors in one door post, a gag that first appeared in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Mad Doctor‘ from earlier that year.

Watch ‘The Nut Factory’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Nut Factory’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date: February 7, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Magic Mummy © Van Beuren‘The Magic Mummy’ is one of those typical nightmarish cartoons of the early 1930s.

It opens happily enough, when Tom and Jerry, as policemen, listen to the police radio, which broadcasts two rather gay officers singing and playing the piano. The merry song is soon interrupted, however, when a mummy has been stolen from the museum. Tom and Jerry soon discover the thief and follow him into the graveyard and into a grave. There the thief, a magician, unwinds the mummy, revealing it to be a woman whom he orders to sing and to perform for a skeleton audience. She does so with a Betty Boop-like voice, which starts a jazzy score. In the end Jerry runs off with the mummy’s coffin, only to discover it contains Tom inside.

‘The Magic Mummy’ is one of the more enjoyable of the Tom and Jerry cartoons in its delightful lack of pretense, its rather surreal images, and joyful atmosphere.

Watch ‘The Magic Mummy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 20
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Tight Rope Tricks

To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Happy Hoboes

‘The Magic Mummy’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’ and the Blu-Ray/DVD-set ‘Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 11, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Cab Calloway
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Minnie the Moocher © Max FleischerThis talkartoon is completely built around the title song, Cab Calloway’s huge 1931 hit ‘Minnie the Moocher’, which is sung by the great jazz singer himself.

In fact, the cartoon opens with a live action shot of Calloway showing some of his extraordinary dance moves in front of his orchestra. We then cut to a home setting with Betty Boop and her parents, which are apparently of German Jewish descent. Her father scorns her, his jabbering head suddenly changing into a cylinder phonograph. Betty flees crying to her room, and decides to leave home, and she rings Bimbo to come along. This sequence is accompanied by the 1929 hit song ‘Mean to Me’.

The couple flees to the countryside, which quickly becomes very scary, so they hide inside a cave, where the theme song starts. Inside the cave they encounter a walrus-shaped ghost (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) giving an almost complete rendering of ‘Minnie the Moocher’. During the song we watch images of e.g. skeletons drinking and some prisoner ghosts getting the electric chair. In the end, the ghosts chase the couple back home to the tune of ‘Tiger Rag’.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ makes little sense, and is not as good as the later ‘Snow White’, which also stars Calloway. However, Calloway’s performance is so intoxicating, and the Fleischers’ sense of humor so mesmerizing, it remains a joy to watch the cartoon throughout.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ was the first of handful Fleischer cartoons featuring popular jazz stars, the others being ‘Snow-White‘ and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain‘ from 1933, also featuring Calloway, ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead you Rascal You‘ (1932) featuring Louis Armstrong, and ‘I Heard‘ (1933) featuring Don Redman and his Orchestra.

Watch ‘Minnie the Moocher’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 33
To the previous Talkartoon: The Robot
To the next Talkartoon: S.O.S.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: February 15, 1932
Stars: Oswald the Rabbit
Rating: ★★
Review:

Mechanical Man © Walter LantzIn 1932 Oswald was redesigned to give him a more boy-like appearance. ‘Mechanical Man’ features this new design and opens with Oswald an his girlfriend playing the piano together.

Meanwhile Peg Leg Pete has built a robot, which needs a human heart. Pete kidnaps Oswald’s girlfriend and takes it to his hideout, followed by Oswald. After a long pursuit Oswald manages to get rid of Pete, and rescuing his sweetheart. But it’s a goat who rescues the two from the robot.

When you read this, the cartoon seems to make some sense, but the real thing is rather different: there’s a lot happening on the screen, and nonsensical gags fill every scene. For example, during the chase scene, various skeletons appear at random, giving the cartoon its typical horror atmosphere, but adding nothing otherwise. This gives the cartoon a rather stream-of-consciousness-like character, and at every point one expects Oswald to wake up from this random nightmare.

Watch ‘Mechanical Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Mechanical Man’ is available on the DVD ‘Lantz Studio Treasures Starring Oswald’

Director: unknown
Release Date:
 December 21, 1931
Stars: Flip the Frog
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Spooks © Ub Iwerks‘Spooks’ opens with Flip seeking shelter from a rain storm in an old mansion.

There he encounters a skeleton who invites him to dinner of a skeleton of a roasted chicken. Later Flip dances with a female skeleton, while the deceased owner of the house plans to add flip to his skeleton collection.

‘Spooks’ is one of the best of the Flip the Frog cartoons. Featuring a much more consistent story than the earlier ‘The Cuckoo Murder Case’, the cartoon manages to provide a genuine feeling of horror, only matched by Disney’s ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1932). When confronted with the homicidal skeleton, Flip is in real peril. Moreover, outside the mansion the nightmare continues, when even Flip’s own horse has turned into some living bones.

The scenes inside the haunted house feature distorted angles, which add to the claustrophobic feel. Strangely enough the curved backgrounds can also be seen in subsequent Flip the Frog cartoons, like ‘The Milkman‘ and ‘What A Life‘, where they don’t contribute to the atmosphere, at all. In fact, they would become a unique style element in the Ub Iwerks cartoons.

The complete cartoon is well-animated, with the opening scene, in which Flip and his horse battle the elements, being particularly outstanding.

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

This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 16
To the previous Flip the Frog cartoon: Africa Squeaks
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: The Milkman

‘Spooks’ is available on the DVD ‘Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 2’

Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date:
 August 1, 1931
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Wot A Night © Van BeurenIn 1931 the Van Beuren studio was strengthened by two new staff members, both veterans of the New York animation scene: George Stallings (1891-1963) and George Rufle (1901-1974).

The two transformed Waffles and Don into two new characters that became Van Beuren’s first real stars: Tom & Jerry (not to be confused with the later, much more famous cat and mouse duo). Unfortunately, Tom & Jerry are as bland as their models, sharing with the cat and dog their only character traits: in ‘Wot a Night’ Tom clearly has inherited Waffles’s fear, while Jerry remains calm. However, already after ‘Wot a Night’ even these basic character traits evaporated. Yet, with their cheerful looks, the duo was more sympathetic than Waffles and Don ever had been.

Tom & Jerry lasted until 1933, starring 27 cartoons, but ‘Wot a Night’ remains their finest film. The cartoon borrows a good dose of surrealism from the neighboring Max Fleischer studio, and it’s much better animated than any Van Beuren cartoon before the coming of Burt Gillett. Already in the opening scene there’s a lot of flexible animation when we watch a train coming in at a station. Moreover, there’s a great deal of rain and water effect animation not seen before at Van Beuren.

Tom & Jerry are taxi drivers at the station, picking up a couple of strange bearded men, whom they drop at a castle. When the bearded men don’t pay the ride, Tom & Jerry follow them inside the castle. Inside the two have a typical horror cartoon experience, similar to ‘The Haunted House‘ (Mickey Mouse, 1929) and ‘The Haunted Ship‘ (Waffles and Don, 1930). The story is not any more consistent than that of other Van Beuren cartoons, but there’s much to marvel at, like a cloud playing organ on the battlements of the castle, a skeleton taking a bath while whistling, and another skeleton painting piano keys, on which it starts to play. There’s also a shot of four black skeletons singing a gospel song. Most extraordinary is the ending in which Tom and Jerry discover they’re nothing but skeletons under their clothes, themselves…

‘Wot a Night’ is a marvelous cartoon, one of the best of the surreal movement of the early 1930s. Unfortunately, only a few of Tom & Jerry’s lived up to the premise of their debut cartoon (‘Pencil Mania‘ from 1932 arguably is the best contender). Their future cartoons were quaint at best, to downright poorly animated. It is as if ‘Wot a Night’ was given some extra effort that was not put into the subsequent cartoons.

Stallings stayed at Van Beuren until 1935, when he joined Walt Disney to work on the stories of the studio’s animated features. Rufle’s career is more unclear: he seemed to have left Van Beuren in 1933, but only pops up at Famous Studios in 1948. He animated until his death, working on several television series in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But what did he do between 1933 and 1948? I haven’t got a clue…

Watch ‘Wot A Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is the 1st Tom & Jerry cartoon
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Polar Pals

‘Wot A Night’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date:
 July 24, 1931
Stars: Bimbo, Betty Boop
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Bimbo's Initiation © Max Fleischer‘Bimbo’s Initiation’ is probably the most famous Betty Boop cartoon, apart from ‘Snow-White‘ (1933).

Nevertheless, Betty only plays a small part in the cartoon, which is really about Bimbo. In his previous cartoon, ‘The Herring Murder Case’, Bimbo had been redesigned. He’s now more clearly a dog character, with a predominant black coloring instead of the earlier white. This redesigned Bimbo has some character in his rather original looks, but he’s still far from a character, remaining only a foil for the things happening around him.

In no cartoon this is so clear as in ‘Bimbo’s Initiation’. In the first scene we watch him walking on the street, when he suddenly falls into a well and is being caught in a scary underworld beneath the street. There bearded guys repeatedly ask him whether he wants to be a member of their secret order. Bimbo keeps saying no, and he tries to flee, but he cannot escape the nightmarish world, in which every deadly room leads to another one. These scenes are accompanied by a hot jazz version of ‘Tiger Rag’. Luckily, the last room features Betty, and when she asks him whether he wants to be a member, Bimbo gives in. Then all the bearded figures appear to be duplicates of her!

Betty Boop is completely blank in this cartoon and she still has dog ears here. But the nightmarish world is absolutely inspired. It’s both claustrophobic and funny, and we feel with Bimbo, who’s now victim of a world, in which no law, whether human or natural, applies. No other cartoon was so far removed from the happy world of Walt Disney, and arguably no other cartoon before Tex Avery’s ‘Northwest Hounded Police‘ (1946) and Chuck Jones’s ‘Duck Amuck‘ (1953) would be so compelling in portraying the anguish of a trapped cartoon character. Despite its primitive looks, the cartoon hasn’t aged at all, and it’s an undisputed classic within the complete cartoon canon.

‘Bimbo’s initiation’ undoubtedly has been the inspiration of the scary cartoon sequence in which a girl is caught in Joe Dante’s episode in the theatrical version of ‘The Twilight zone’ (1983).

Watch ‘Bimbo’s initiation’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 23
To the previous Talkartoon: The Herring Murder Case
To the next Talkartoon: Bimbo’s Express

‘Bimbo’s initiation’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’ and on Betty Boop: Essential Collection 2′

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date:
 September 24, 1930
Stars: Bimbo?
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Swing You Sinners © Max Fleischer‘Swing You Sinners!’ is an early Talkartoon, and a wildly imaginative one, too.

We watch a thief (probably Bimbo, but his appearance in the early Talkartoons is so inconsistent, one can’t be sure). The thief tries to steal a chicken, but runs into a cop. The thief then flees into a graveyard, where he has a particularly nightmarish experience. First the gate locks itself, then turns into a stone wall, and then the graves start to sing…

Soon all kinds of inanimate objects start to haunt him. And although the soundtrack is very jazzy, ‘Swing You Sinners!’ remains a bad trip throughout. At one time the walls close into him, at another a ghost promises him to give him a ‘permanent shave’.

The animation is extremely rubbery, and even insane. For example, when we watch a chicken do some scatting, both the chicken and the background are very wobbly, to a hallucinating effect. In the end we watch countless ghosts marching, followed by even more ghostly images when the thief starts to descend into hell. The cartoon ends with a giant skull swallowing the thief, a surprisingly grim ending for a cartoon with such swinging music*.

In any case ‘Swing You Sinners!’ is a testimony of the sheer creativity, which was the Max Fleischer Studio in the early 1930s, and should be placed among the greatest cartoons of all time.

Watch ‘Swing You Sinners!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 10
To the previous Talkartoon: Barnacle Bill
To the next Talkartoon: Grand Uproar

‘Swing You Sinners’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

*It may be interesting to note that this is one of the earliest mentions of swing, predating for example Duke Ellington’s song ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ by two years, and being miles ahead of the swing craze of the second half of the 1930s.

Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date: November 9, 1930
Stars: Waffles and Don
Rating: ★★
Review:

Gypped in Egypt © Van Beuren‘Gypped in Egypt’ is a cartoon set in Egypt. It predates Disney’s ‘Egyptian Melodies‘, which covers similar grounds, by nine months.

This cartoon was the last of four to feature Waffles and Don. The duo had finally reached distinct personalities in this short: Waffles, the tall cat, is constantly afraid, while Don, the small dog, keeps calm and unimpressed.

In the opening shot we watch the duo traveling through the desert on a camel. When the camel dies, a nightmarish scene starts, featuring a sphinx, pyramids and more camels. This brings our heroes inside an Egyptian tomb, where they encounter dancing skeletons and hieroglyphs. Suddenly, there are skeletons everywhere, and Don plays the piano with one of them. The cartoon ends abruptly with Waffles and Don running from a giant hypnotizing sphinx face.

‘Gypped in Egypt’ features several elements that were reused in Disney’s ‘Egyptian Melodies’: dancing hieroglyphs, nightmarish scenes, and even a corridor scene. However, Van Beuren’s cartoon is much cruder and more disjointed than Disney’s latter cartoon. Its greatest feature is it hallucinating character. Unfortunately, it is not retained throughout the picture, and the whole cartoon suffers from all too sloppy storytelling and ditto timing.

Watch ‘Gypped in Egypt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Gypped in Egypt’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date:
 April 27, 1930
Stars: Waffles and Don
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Haunted Ship © Van Beuren StudioWhen the Van Beuren studio lost their main character, Farmer Al Falfa to Paul Terry, they had to come up with new stars. Their first attempt was the animal duo Waffles and Don, a tall cat and a small dog who are the precursors of Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry.

In their first film we watch them flying a plane before lightning strikes them down deep into the ocean. Here they meet an opera-singing walrus (probably inspired by Walt Disney’s ‘Wild Waves‘ (1929), which also features one). Then they enter the shipwreck ‘Davy Jones’, which is full of monsters swooping into the camera, and a skeleton. The skeleton orders Waffles and Don to play the piano and xylophone, which starts the song-and-dance-routine-part of this cartoon.

Most interesting are four drunken tortoises singing ‘Sweet Adeline’ (probably inspired by ‘The Karnival Kid‘ (1929) in which two cats sing exactly the same song). The dance routine ends when Davy Jones himself appears and chases Waffles and Don away. However, the last shot is for the singing turtles.

‘The Haunted Ship’ clearly shows Walt Disney’s influence on other studios. It’s obvious that The Van Beuren studio tried its best to copy Walt Disney’s formulas and standards. Indeed, the cartoon is a great improvement on ‘The Iron Man‘ from three months earlier. There’s song and there’s dance, and music and animation now are closely intertwined. The Van Beuren studio would never reach Walt Disney’s sophistication, but in these early years they were at least able to come somewhere near.

Waffles and Don’s career, however, proved to be short-lived. They only starred in three other 1930 cartoons: ‘Jungle Jazz‘, ‘Frozen Frolics‘ and ‘Gypped in Egypt‘.

Watch ‘The Haunted Ship’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘The Haunted Ship’ is available on the DVDs ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’ and ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date:
 November 11, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Hell's Bells © Walt DisneyWith its fourth Silly Symphony, ‘Hells Bells’, the Disney studio returned to the macabre that inspired the series’ very first entry.

Set in hell itself, it starts with a fire, bats and a spider swooping into the camera, and images of the three-headed dog Cerberus and some dragons. The main part however is devoted to a large devil, surrounded by numerous smaller ones playing music and dancing to it.

This section involves endless animation cycles. Luckily, there’s one great shot with a devil casting a huge shadow (looking forward to a similar, if much more elaborate scene in ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934). There’s also a great gag involving a crooked devil, and a weird one in which we watch devils milking a dragon-cow(?!). Despite its evil scenery, the whole atmosphere is remarkably merry.

‘Hells Bells’ is most noteworthy for its last part, in which the dance routine makes place for a tiny story, in which the large devil demands a smaller one to offer itself as dog food to Cerberus. The little devil refuses and flees, and finally manages to kick the large one into the fires of hell. Over the coming years, stories like these would overtake the song and dance routines of the Silly Symphonies, finally replacing them altogether.

Watch ‘Hell’s Bells’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 4
To the previous Silly Symphony: Springtime
To the next Silly Symphony: The Merry Dwarfs

Director: Tim Burton
Release Date: October 1, 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Vincent © Walt Disney‘Vincent’ a is short film, which director Tim Burton made while still working at Disney.

The short is as typical for Tim Burton as it is atypical for Disney. First, it’s a stop-motion film, something the studio was not famous for, at all. The only other stop-motion film ever released by the studio was ‘Noah’s Ark‘ from 1959. Second, the film is in black and white, and third, it has a genuine horror theme, miles away from the child friendly worlds of contemporary Disney films, like ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981) or ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol‘ (1983).

The film uses the deep voice of classic horror star Vincent Price to tell the story of Vincent in rather Dr. Seuss-like rhyme. Vincent is a little seven year old boy, who wants to be like, well… Vincent Price. Because his mind has become twisted by reading stories by Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent imagines himself a madman haunted by his deceased wife, and locked in by a cursed house. In the end his imagination runs haywire, taking hold of him.

Burton does an excellent job mixing horror with silliness. The result is a rather twisted version of ‘Gerald McBoingBoing’ – equally weird, equally expressionistic, but much darker. In ‘Vincent’ you find much of the Tim Burton to come. It’s not hard to see the link between this wonderful short and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ (1993),  ‘Corpse Bride‘ (2005) or with his live action films like ‘Beetlejuice’ (1988) or ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999).

Interestingly, in the same year, Vincent Price would also lend his voice to the Michael Jackson song ‘Thriller’.

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

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope © Krátky FilmAfter his not all too successful adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘ (1980), Czech film maker Jan Švankmajer returns to Edgar Allen Poe with ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’, with much better results.

In ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ Švankmajer tries to visualize Edgar Allen Poe’s most sensory and scariest story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. He succeeds masterfully, merging the viewer with the protagonist, and retaining the horror of the discoveries of the torture chamber.

The story is told very straightforward, in black and white, without dialogue, voice over or music, giving it a raw and uncanny sense of realism. Švankmajer rejects Poe’s deus ex machina, however, but takes the story to a better, if more depressing conclusion.

‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is essentially a live action movie, and contains little animation. However, in its disturbing take on Poe it is one of Švankmajer’s masterpieces, and definitely deserves to be better known.

Watch ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ yourself and tell me what you think:

https://vk.com/video101655_142703210?list=141142ca159bb76093

‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1980
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Fall of the House of Usher © Krátky FilmJan Švankmajer retells this famous story by Edgar Allen Poe using a narrating voice over and black and white images of several different objects.

The images, some of which are animated, are sometimes quite disturbing, and are at points even able to evoke the horror of the story. However, most of the time they seem totally unrelated to the narration, and their visual power in fact often distracts from the voice over, making the story very hard to follow, indeed.

‘The House of Usher’ is a daring experiment in cinematographic storytelling, but not really a successful one, and Švankmajer would not repeat it. Nevertheless, three years later, the Czech film maker would return to Edgar Allen Poe, in ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope‘, with much better results.

Watch ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date: April 12, 1947
Stars: Daffy Duck
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

Birth of a Notion © Warner BrothersDaffy Duck tricks a dog called Leopold with a ‘poisoned bone’ to let him stay at his house during the winter.

Unfortunately, the dog’s owner is an evil scientist (a caricature of Peter Lorre) who happens to be looking for a duck’s wishbone. This leads to a wild chase full of pretty weird gags and off-beat dialogue penned by Warren Foster.

‘Birth of a Nation’ is the second of two Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Peter Lorre as a mad scientist, the other being ‘Hair-Raising Hare’ from 1946. New voice artist Stan Freberg does an excellent job in mimicking and parodying Lorre’s typical voice.

Watch ‘Birth of a Notion’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Daffy Duck cartoon No. 36
To the previous Daffy Duck cartoon: The Great Piggy Bank Robbery
To the next Daffy Duck cartoon: Along Came Daffy

‘Birth of a Notion’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Tim Burton & Mike Johnson
Release Date: September 23, 2005
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride © Warner BrothersThe shy Victor and Victoria are forced by their unsympathetic parents to marry each other.

Luckily, they actually like each other, but then Victor accidentally marries the deceased Emily who takes him to a world underground, while Victoria is forced to marry the evil lord Barkis…

‘Corpse Bride’ is a typical Tim Burton film, especially in its art direction, in its 19th century, gothic setting, in its dark humor, and in its jolly portrait of death. Because the film is also a Danny Elfman-penned musical, it feels like a successor to ‘The Nightmare before Christmas‘ (1993). Nevertheless, it is far more enjoyable than that sometimes tiresome film: ‘Corpse Bride’ features only three songs, two of which help to tell the story. So, even though one could do without the musical element, it doesn’t dominate the complete film.

Also, the art of ‘Corpse Bride’ is a great improvement on ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. The dull greys and blues of the living world contrast greatly with the vivid colors of the underworld, which is clearly more fun to ‘live’ in. The designs of the puppets are extreme, and their almost flawless animation is jawdroppingly rich and expressive. The story is lean, and focuses on the three protagonists, Victor, Victoria and Emily, who all three are very likable characters. The voice cast is impressive, and includes Johnny Depp (Victor), Emily Watson (Victoria), Helena Bonham Carter (Emily) and Christopher Lee (Pastor Gallswells).

All this make ‘Corpse Bride’, together with that other stop-motion film ‘Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit‘, the best animated feature of 2005/2006, surpassing all computer animated films of those years. It proves that traditional animation is still viable and relevant in the computer age.

Watch the tailer for ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Nick Park & Steve Box
Release Date: September 4, 2005
Stars: Wallace & Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Wallace & Gromit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit © AardmanAfter three excellent two-reelers British animation heroes Wallace and Gromit were ready for their first feature film.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ elaborates primarily on the themes of ‘A Close Shave’: love and horror. This time Wallace and Gromit are after a giant rabbit threatening the crops breeds for a vegetable contest in the village.

The stop motion animation in this film is practically flawless, elevating the century old technique to the highest standards possible. Indeed, both this film and ‘Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride‘, another stop motion film, were far superior to any computer animated feature film released in 2005 or 2006.

‘The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ is not only a great animation film, it is great cinema, with excellent camera work, a flawless story, wonderful characterization and lean storytelling that builds to a spectacular climax. Especially the animation of Gromit is stunning, because his acting is completely silent throughout the picture and uses only the eyes to suggest emotion.

Watch ‘Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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