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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 released 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 released 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: John Hubley
Release Date: March 27, 1952
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Rooty Toot Toot © UPAIn a time when most Hollywood animation studios produced chase cartoons featuring anthropomorphized animals, UPA and director John Hubley come with a court drama about a murder…

That we have something different in our hands is underlined when during the opening titles we watch a choreographer being billed. Indeed, ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is something different, and widely praized as one of the most beautiful cartoons ever produced.

Based on the traditional murder ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’, it’s set in a court room. We come to know how the jealous girl Frankie shot her lover Johnny down, when she caught him with singer Nellie Bly. Then Frankie’s lawyer, Honest John, comes in with a rather different story…

‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not a flawless cartoon. Phil Moore’s music is a rather unsuccessful marriage between musical and jump blues, lacking strong melodies. His score even threatens to wear the action down. One can only guess what the cartoon would have sound like in the hands of a more capable composer.

Moreover, Honest John’s account of the murder is a missed opportunity. It’s too silly and too cartoonish (the following bullets come right out of the chase cartoon) to be believed. Indeed, the lawyer himself declares it to be fiction, making all claims of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ being a sort of cartoon ‘Rashomon’ out of place and unfounded. In substance ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is much more akin to that other great musical court cartoon, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?‘ from 1935, which is also based on a traditional text.

No, the real attraction of ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ lies in it looks: practically every frame is a beautiful illustration in itself. The colors and designs, by Paul Julian, are elegant and stylish; simple, yet sophisticated. There’s a perfect harmony between characters and backgrounds, and the stark colors enhance both character and mood.

The animation, too, is superb. John Hubley didn’t think much of his colleague’s Bobe Cannon’s ideal of “drawings that moved”. Instead we watch moving characters, and it’s clear where the choreography comes in, for many characters move with a ballet-like elegance, especially Frankie and Honest John. The movement of the characters is often unreal (as in Nellie’s curling arms), but always delicate. It’s no surprise that the animation was done by the able hands of veteran animators like Art Babbitt and Grim Natwick. When the Jury declares Frankie not guilty, the cartoon bursts in a frenzy of bold design that has to be seen to be believed.

Even if ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ is not perfect, it’s a masterpiece nonetheless, and one of the best cartoons UPA ever produced.

Watch ‘Rooty Toot Toot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Directors: John & Faith Hubley
Release Date: September 21, 1964
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Hat © John & Faith HubleyOne of directors John & Faith Hubley’s quintessential shorts,’The Hat’ is one of the most beautiful anti-war films ever made.

It’s an extraordinary blend of beautiful design, modern animation, improvisation and politics.

When a border guard accidentally drops his hat across the border, he and his enemy colleague argue about it and about war in general. Surprisingly, this is an improvised dialogue between jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore, who also provide the film’s great jazz score.

The film’s leisurely speed is refreshing, its painted backgrounds of a snowy landscape are beautiful, the painted looks of the characters highly original, and its vivid animation by veteran Shamus Culhane stunning. All these aspects mount to a great and essential animation film. A classic.

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

‘The Hat’ is available on the DVD ‘Art and Jazz in Animation’

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