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Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: November 22, 1995
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

‘Toy Story’ is one of the milestones of cinema, a triumph of technique, born out of a vision that originated when computer animation itself was in its infancy, and made by a studio that had taken the lead in advancement of character driven computer animation throughout the 1980s.

Being the first completely computer animated feature film, ‘Toy Story’ heralds a new era, even if the age of computer animation would only start in earnest after the turn of the century. Ironically, it’s the technique itself that has become the most dated. The whole film has a rather plastic look, and it’s no wonder the film makers chose plastic toys as their story subject. Some of the rendering is downright poor; for example the shot of the lawn between the grass (on which Andy’s guests walk towards the house) looks terribly unreal.

On the other hand, some of the rare outdoor shots, like the bird shot of the Dinoco gas station, Sid’s sandbox, or the shot of the street during the final chase scene still look like convincing background scenery. The lighting in general is very convincing. For example, in the opening shot, the light reflects in the polished wooden floor, but not on the cardboard boxes. And some of the textures are excellent. For example, we believe that Bo is made from porcelain, Slinky’s ears really appear to be leathery, and the wooden door of Andy’s room shows visible dents and scratches. I remember in 1995 I found the structure of Sid’s workbench and the crate in which Woody is imprisoned most impressive in that respect. These still hold very well, despite all the advancements in computer animation.

Of course, in terms of design the non-toy protagonists fare worst of all: the humans are all ugly, and slightly uncanny. Both Andy’s and Sid’s little sisters, Molly and Hannah, even look a little frightening. Also very unconvincing is Scud, Sid’s dog. He has an all too plastic body, with only the vaguest suggestion of hair, and his eyes are placed badly into his face, never really gaining any sense of reality.

Nevertheless, because the Pixar studio has taken heed of all rules of character animation that Disney had laid out ages ago, even more poorly designed characters like Andy, Sid or Scud absolutely feel as real characters. And this is part of Toy Story’s real triumph: the film is not only a technical tour-de-force, it’s also a very well told film, featuring great characters and a highly entertaining story, which make one quickly forget any defect in rendering, as one is engrossed in the events on the screen.

It’s important to note that ‘Toy Story’ was a game changer in animated feature film storytelling as well. ‘Toy Story’ is a buddy film, the first of its kind in the animated world, and essentially stars two adults, no children or teens. Of course, the film is still interesting to children, but the story is much more clearly directed at adults, as well. Moreover, ‘Toy Story’ marks a very welcome break with the number one rule of the animated feature film world of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s: that an animated feature film should be a musical. In contrast, ‘Toy Story’ features only two songs, which are sung by an off screen Randy Newman, and not by any of the characters. Moreover, these two songs are mood pieces, not stopping the action to break out into song. Both the more adult approach and the discarding of the obligate musical formula were as refreshing in 1995 as the computer animation itself. When the computer animation revolution really took off around 2000, other studios took heed. The best examples are arguably Dreamworks’s first two computer-animated features, ‘Antz’ (1998) and ‘Shrek’ (2001).

The idea of ‘Toy Story’ is actually an expansion of Pixar’s earlier short ‘Tin Toy’ (1988): toys are alive, and their sole purpose in life is to serve the little kids that own them and play with them. Throughout the film we watch the events from the toys’ perspective: we share their fears, their needs, and their wishes. The film starts with Andy’s birthday: an important day for the toys, because it heralds the possible arrival of newcomers. Another story idea that sets things in motion is the upcoming move of Andy’s family. And finally, there’s a neighbor kid called Sid who tortures toys. These three ideas mark the unfolding of the events.

To make the toy world more believable, the studio included some recognizable trademark toys, like a Troll Doll, Etch A Sketch, and of course, Mr. Potato Head. The film also starts a long tradition of self-reference, starting with the ball from ‘Luxo, Jr.’ (1986) returning in Andy’s house. Later in the movie a television ad shows ‘Al’s toy barn’, which would make an important location for ‘Toy Story 2’.

But it’s of course, the leading characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear who steal the show. Voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, respectively, the dialogues between the two forced pals is delightful throughout the picture. Both characters have their own interesting story arcs: Woody has to deal with an intruder who replaces him as Andy’s favorite toy, making him jealous of the intruder, and Buzz Lightyear has to face the fact he is not the space ranger he imagines to be, but ‘just’ an action figure. Buzz Lightyear not only provides the film’s timeless quote ‘to infinity and beyond’, his delusional acting is a great source of comedy in the first half of the film. The best line may be Buzz’s reaction to Sid’s surgery scene: “I don’t believe this man has ever been to medical school”. Woody, meanwhile, verges on the brink of being a jerk, and it takes quite some time before he redeems himself. All this leads to an excellent finale, a speedy chase, with all the excitement of an action film (the only unconvincing part of this finale is when Buzz Lightyear is suddenly able to free himself from the rocket tied to him).

The most impressive shot is that of Buzz Lightyear listening to Woody’s monologue, on Sid’s workbench. The inner thinking suggested by the animation is of the highest level possible, and should be an example to all students of character animation. Tim Allen ranked it as his finest acting for the film before realizing that his character wasn’t speaking, so he had no involvement in this scene, at all.

Despite having much less screen time, other characters come off as rounded as well: insecure Rex, loving Bo, loyal dog Slinky, more cynical Ham, and assertive Mr. Potato Head. Their characters are quickly established during the opening scenes, so they can be played out during the rest of the film. Sid is an interesting villain: despite being cruel, he’s also a kid with a remarkably fantasy, and like Andy, places his toys in stories of his own creation. Even Sid’s toys gain some character, despite being unable to speak (why this is so is never revealed).

The excellent story, the great characters, and superb animation are also helped by Pixar’s pleasant color design, a quality the studio has retained throughout their existence. The colors are rooted in realism, but clearly reflect the mood of the story, with the bright browns, yellows and blues of Andy’s room contrasting highly with the sickly greens, purples and blacks of Sid’s room.

In all, ‘Toy Story’ is not only a technical milestone, with its lean storytelling and great characters, it’s an excellent film by any standard, and it’s the story and the characters that secure the film’s place in cinema canon. Even if all subsequent progress in computer animation will eventually make the film look primitive and dated, the story and its characters will remain a delight to watch. The film heralded the Pixar studio as a major force in the animation world, comparable to that of Disney in the 1930s. Indeed, during the coming years, the studio was to be on the very front of animation film development, creating feature films of a surprising quality and diversity, a position that only started to waver at the dawn of the 2010s.

Watch the trailer for ‘Toy Story’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Toy Story’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Director: Nick Park
Release Date: December 26, 1993
Stars: Wallace and Gromit
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

The Wrong Trousers © Aardman‘The Wrong Trousers’ was the second short featuring the cheese-loving duo Wallace & Gromit.

Their first outing, ‘A Grand Day Out’ had been a virtuoso piece of clay animation, but even so, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ was a giant leap forward, taking Aardman’s claymation out of the independent animation atmosphere into the mainstream of slick studio productions, without losing an inch of character.

Despite being only 29 minutes long and featuring only three characters, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ feels like classic cinema. The fifties horror typography of the opening titles immediately makes it clear that we’re in for a mystery plot, and indeed this is a crime thriller with a small penguin as a most unlikely, but very convincing villain.

The film opens on Gromit’s birthday, a day which turns out quite sour. First, Wallace seems to have forgotten all about it, then he gives him the most useless gift imaginable: automatic trousers to walk him out without his faithful master. Then it turns out that Wallace has to cut expenses and … a room for rent.

That very evening the penguin comes in as the new boarder, but instead of taking the vacant room, he heads immediately for Gromit’s room. The mysterious penguin first takes care of Gromit, chasing the poor dog out of the house, then he uses the trousers in a diamond heist scheme.

The whole film is very well shot, featuring expressionistic angles and clever zooming in and out between the  front and back of the set. The suspense is greatly added by dramatic orchestral music by Julian Nott. And throughout the animation, by Nick Park himself and by Steve Box, is top notch.

Especially the two silent characters, the penguin and Gromit, are very well animated: the penguin creepy and enigmatic, hardly revealing its emotions, except in the heist scene, Gromit with a multitude of expressions, making great use of Nick Park’s trademark brow technique. In fact, Gromit is such a rounded character, he easily carries the whole film easily using the expressions of his eyes alone. Especially Gromit’s agony, having to watch how the penguin silently takes over his home, is tantalizing.

Nevertheless, the most impressive part of this short is the finale. This is a remarkable chase scene, ridiculously set indoors on miniature trains, but it consists of five frantic minutes with a sense of speed never seen before in a stop-motion film. This finale alone takes the possibilities of stop-motion forward to new heights, and together with ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ from the same year, ‘The Wrong Trousers’ must be regarded as a milestone in animation. Thus, the next year the film rightfully won the Academy Award for animated short.

The film also started a sort of Wallace and Gromit tradition of combining silly inventions with mystery thriller plots, as this would be the promise of all three subsequent Wallace and Gromit films.

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

‘The Wrong Trousers’ is available on the DVD ‘Wallace & Gromit – The Complete Collection’

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date: January 21, 1960
Rating: ★★
Review:

Goliath II © Walt Disney‘Goliath II’ is a slow and gentle children’s film, penned by storyman Bill Peet, about a tiny elephant, who is the shame of the herd, until he bravely defeats a cocky mouse, which scares all the others away.

With its fifteen minutes of length, Reitherman’s all too relaxed timing, George Bruns’s uninspired score, and studio favorite Sterling Holloway’s dull narration, ‘Goliath II’ is one of the most boring of the Disney specials. Moreover, there are several instances of reused animation (e.g. the tiger from ‘Tiger Trouble’ (1945), the crocodile from ‘Peter Pan’, and an owl from ‘Bambi‘), giving the film a rather cheap look.

Nevertheless, ‘Goliath II’ is a milestone, as it is the first animated film to exploit the xerox technique on cel animation, an innovation developed by Ub Iwerks in the 1950s. The xerox process meant the characters needn’t be retraced by the ink department, and could keep their vibrant animated lines, giving them a more graphic look. For better or worse, the xerox technique dominated Disney animation up to the late 1980s. By then it had long lost its charm, and was finally discarded (‘The Little Mermaid’ is the first film in the new style).

The xerox technique, combined with Reitherman’s direction, the film’s setting and elephant characters, make ‘Goliath II’ a forerunner of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967). The short even introduces the gag in which the elephants are forced to stop their march, and fall on top of each other.

Despite the new techniques, and fine animation, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Goliath II’, but I would like to single out the extraordinary background paintings by Richard H. Thomas, Gordon Legg and Thelma Witmer, which schematically indicate a jungle without going into too much detail.

Watch ‘Goliath II’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Goliath II’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date:  1912
Rating:
Review:

Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille © Éclair New YorkAfter his move to the United States in 1912 Émile Cohl starting experimenting with putting the idiom of comic strips to the animated screen, being the first person to do so.

Cohl used ‘The Newlyweds’ my comic artist George McManus as the source for his new series, and the resulting films form not only the first animated series, but also the first pictures that could be titled animated cartoons.

This could have been a milestone in animated cinema, but unfortunately, the result is appalling: apart from the metamorphosis with which Cohl bridges scenes, there’s no animation at all, resulting in extremely static images. The text balloons fill the whole screen, more often than not obscuring complete personages.

Without the text balloons, there’s no story to follow. The result is that this is probably the first film suffering from too much dialogue, despite being silent!

Despite all its flaws, the Newlyweds films were a success, and Cohl made several of these pictures, of which only two survive: this one, ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’, and ‘He Poses for his Portrait‘ (also known as ‘Le Portrait de Zozor’).

Watch ‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: November 12, 1908
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Un drame chez les fantoches © Émile CohlAfter two drawn animation films of mind-blowing surrealism, Émile Cohl turned down his wild fantasy to tell a much more consistent tale.

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ tells of a man, who, after being rejected by a woman, enters her house, chases her away and rips off her dress. The woman is rescued by a policeman, who gets awarded for this deed. The evil man gets arrested, but he escapes from jail to beat up another man. In the end the woman declares her love for the policeman, and all four protagonists take a bow to the audience.

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ is told in the same simple stick man style as ‘Fantasmagorie‘ and ‘Le cauchemar de Fantoche‘, but metamorphosis now is used as a story device to go from one scene to another. At that point the scene devolves into abstract shapes, which then rearrange into another setting. This is a novel and totally unique way of cutting, and it’s a pity it has not been used more often. The cartoon’s clear plot makes ‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ the first drawn film ever to tell a story.

Watch ‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Un drame chez les fantoches’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’

Director: Émile Cohl
Release Date: August 17, 1908
Stars: Fantoche
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Fantasmagorie © Émile Cohl‘Fantasmagorie’ is without doubt the very first real drawn animation film.

Like Blackton’s films the short starts with a hand drawing a figure. But where Stuart J. Blackton’s ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces‘ and ‘Lightning Sketches‘ were pretty static tricks, ‘Fantasmagorie’ is a dazzling series of tableaux, moving into each other through metamorphosis. There’s no plot, but a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness, making this one of the very first surreal films ever.

Apart from the mind blowing images, the film also features the world’s first animated cartoon hero, Fantoche, a clown that starts the film and ends it by riding a horse and waving goodbye. In between, Fantoche keeps appearing, disappearing and changing into things and other characters. At one point he falls and loses his head, and Cohl’s hands have to put him together again. Even though by that time we did know the clown for only a few seconds, this still comes as a rather unsettling event.

Apart from the clown’s death and resurrection, so much is happening on the screen that after a mere two minutes the film leaves the viewer almost exhausted. There’s only one elongated gag, in which a man in a cinema is hindered by the giant head of the lady in front of him. It’s interesting to note that this early experiment of cinema uses its own still fresh medium as a setting.

Cohl’s drawing style is extremely simple, almost naive, and his stick-man-like figures have a child-like charm, which adds to the surrealism of the images. The film is totally devoid of timing, and the fast but steady flow of images give the film its unique character.

By all means ‘Fantasmagorie’ is not only a milestone of animated cinema, it still is a strong film in its own right, perfectly able to mesmerize even after more than a century since its completion.

‘Fantasmagorie’ was most probably Émile Cohl’s first film. He made the short inspired by Blackton’s influential stop-motion film ‘The Haunted Hotel’. Cohl was already 51 when he made this film, yet he would become one of the most prolific animators of all time, completing more than 250 films (not all of them animated) over a span of 13 years. Unfortunately, by the 1930s he was largely forgotten, and in 1938 he died as a poor man, never enjoying a rediscovery like the one that happened to his compatriot and fellow film pioneer Georges Méliès.

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

‘Fantasmagorie’ is available on the DVDs ‘Émile Cohl – L’agitateur aux mille images’ and ‘Before Walt’

Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Release Date: April 6, 1906
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces © Vitagraph‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ is arguably the first drawn animation film. Like Blackton’s first film, ‘The Enchanted Drawing’ from 1900, the short combines the tradition of live sketching with that of trick filming to a novelty effect. Made for Thomas A. Edison, the film is an important step forward, however, because, unlike ‘The Enchanted Drawing’ there now is animated movement.

The film starts with a live action hand drawing the face of a man on a chalkboard. Next to the man a woman is drawn, now without the hand. The two faces alter, and at one point the man grows a cigar and a top hat. This ‘scene’ ends when the man’s smoke covers the whole woman, and the hand erases the drawing.

Next come two other faces. Little is happening here, so soon we cut to an old man with an umbrella. This part shows a little arm movement, done with cut-out. Blackton used the cut-out technique more extensively in the last shot, that of a clown, toying with his hat, a hoop and a poodle. The film ends with the hand erasing again. The whole experience lasts less than three minutes.

Overall, the image is pretty static, and it’s clear that the whole film is made pure for the novelty of its tricks. Of course, ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ is historically important, yet, it’s difficult to call this first hand-drawn animation film (and probably the first one to use cut-out) an instant classic, as apart from the movement hardly anything is happening, and only the smoke gag comes somewhere near being funny. Moreover, Blackton’s arm can be seen a few times, which hampers the trick.

Watch ‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ is available on the DVD ‘Before Walt’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: November 5, 1938
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Porky in Egypt © Warner Bros.This cartoon starts with the call for morning prayer in a dream Egypt, which has more in common with 1001 Arabian nights than with the real state during the 1930’s.

We watch three Arabs rolling dice, a sexy veiled woman, who turns out to be hideously ugly, and the antics a fakir. Then we cut to some tourists taking a tour on a multi-bumped camel into a desert.

Porky Pig is a little too late to join them, and follows the group on his own camel, called Humpty Dumpty. Unfortunately, once they’re in the desert, the burning sun hits the camel with desert madness. In a wonderful scene, the camel loses grip and starts to hallucinate. The hallucinating effect is greatly added by twirling background images. In this scene the acting of the camel is no less than superb. The sheer manic power of this acting is unprecedented in any animated cartoon, and a subtle milestone of animation.

Unfortunately, the complete cartoon is more strange than funny. Notice the multi-door gag, which is halfway between the ones in ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1932) and ‘The Northwest Hounded Police‘ (1946).

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

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 48
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Naughty Nephew
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: The Daffy Doc

‘Porky in Egypt’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’, and on the DVD-sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date:
 1930-1931
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Studie Nr. 7 © Oskar FischingerIn Fischinger’s study No. 7 , made in 1930-1931, the shapes of Study No. 6 move to the 5th Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms.

Like Study No. 6 Fischinger made this film with charcoal on paper. In this short the synchronization of music and movement is even better than in Study No. 6. Fischinger uses less diverse shapes than in No. 6, making the film more consistent. Some of them look like fluttering and folding pieces of paper.

According to William Moritz this particular film prompted four film makers into animation: Norman McLaren, Alexandre Alexeieff, Claire Parker and Len Lye. These four all became major players in avant-garde animation. This fact makes Study No. 7 one of the most important animation films in history.

Watch ‘Studie nr. 7’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Studie nr. 7′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Directors: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Production Date:
May 1929
Stars: Bosko, Rudolf Ising
Rating:
★★★
Review:

Bosko the Talk-ink Kid © Warner Bros.In 1928 Charles Mintz had hired away virtually Walt Disney’s complete staff and main cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These animators now came to work for a studio, set up by George and Margaret Winkler to produce more Oswald cartoons. However, ca. one year later Universal, who owned Oswald, broke with the Winklers, gave Oswald to Walter Lantz, and left the former Disney animators out of work. 

Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising now tried to set up a studio of their own, and following the overnight success of ‘Steamboat Willie‘, they knew they had to come up with a character fit for sound. This new star was Bosko, a little negro, who, in his first appearance, had a remarkably low voice, provided by animator Max Maxwell. Bosko is introduced in ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’, Harman and Ising’s pilot film, made to sell their new studio.

The film starts with Rudolf Ising drawing Bosko and talking with him. Then Bosko performs a little dance, imitates a stereotypical Jew, and plays the piano. He then starts to sing ‘Sonny Boy’, but unfortunately with an awful voice, which prompts Ising to put the cartoon character back into the pen and the ink pot. But Bosko returns from the inkwell to say the very first version of that famous Warner Bros. line: “So long folks!“.

Bosko is not really an endearing character and the film is a little bit slow, yet it’s easy to see why this pilot film sold: the interplay between the animator and the cartoon character, although by 1929 far from new, still looks fresh, and the dialogue adds a new dimension to the trick. This dialogue is way more sophisticated than anything made at Disney at the time. Bosko jabbers along, with a lot of lip-synchronization, which is not always perfect, but mesmerizing, nonetheless. Mickey would go lip-synch only two months later, in ‘The Karnival Kid‘, but even then his facial expressions were to be less natural than Bosko’s in this little short. Thus ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is an absolute milestone in animation history, and a rare film in which Harman and Ising were in fact ahead of their former employer.

The animation on Bosko, on the other hand, looks very, very Disney-like and is almost an exact copy of Ub Iwerks’s animation style. This would become a Harman-Ising trademark: combining sophistication with copycatting. This unfortunately would often prevent their films from being entirely new or original.

Anyhow, ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ raised the interest of Leon Schlesinger, a newcomer in the animation field, who sold the idea of a new cartoon series to Warner Bros., with the argument that the animated shorts could be used to promote Warner Bros. songs. Thus, the famous Warner Bros. animation studio was born!

Watch ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’ and the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 17, 1986
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Luxo jr. © PixarOf all classics of animation, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is certainly the shortest. This little gem only lasts ninety seconds, and can feel more like a study than as a mature cartoon. That said, the short is brilliant in its concept and execution.

Being the fledgling company Pixar’s very first film, ‘Luxo Jr.’ is the first of a series of shorts, in which the ambitious team explored the boundaries of computer animation, ever pushing them further away. ‘Luxo Jr.’ is a first example. It was made in a time in which computer animation was mainly used for special effects. Of course in ‘Luxo Jr.’ there’s special attention to lighting and texture, too, but most importantly: it shows that computer animation can also be used to tell an engaging story with characters.

Even in their simplicity, the two table lamps are recognizable characters, one old and parental, the other young and enthusiastic. The effect is the more extraordinary, as animator John Lasseter didn’t use eyes or squash-and-stretch techniques: the lamps remain lamps.

Thus, the cute Luxo jr. showed the world that in principle computer animation was as much able to tell a moving story with emotional characters as any other medium. Unlike the earlier ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B‘ (1984), which remains too primitive and too uneven to be of lasting charm, ‘Luxo jr.’ is as engaging today as it was at its first screening.

After ‘Luxo, jr.’ Pixar would keep on demonstrating the story powers of computer animation with three other brilliant cartoons: ‘Red’s Dream‘ (1987), ‘Tin Toy‘ (1988) and ‘Knick Knack‘ (1989), culminating nine years later in the first computer animated feature film ‘Toy Story‘ (1995).

However, it’s Luxo jr. that showed the way way back in 1986. No wonder the studio keeps the feisty little lamp still in their logo.

Watch ‘Luxo jr’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: July 25, 1984
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Adventures of André and Wally B © Pixar‘The Adventures of André and Wally B.’ is a rather pompous title for this very short film, which only lasts eighty seconds, and features ca. one gag.

Made for ‘The Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Project’, two years before the birth of Pixar, it is clearly made to showcase two computer animation techniques above anything else. Most impressive is the quasi-realistic, almost pointillist forest background. Much more primitive, but ultimately much more important is the animation of the two characters, for which young animator John Lasseter was brought in from the Walt Disney studios. Lasseter animates André and the bee Wally B self-consciously cartoony, as if they had walked in straight from the 1930s. They don’t blend at all with the quasi-realistic backgrounds, and they look appallingly primitive to modern eyes, but they’re the very first computer graphics to show character animation, even at its most rudimentary.

‘The Adventures of André and Wally B.’ will never become a classic, for it’s too uneven and too shallow for that, but it is one of animation’s milestone films.

Watch ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: James Algar
Release Date: 1942
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Four Methods of Flush Riveting © Walt DisneyOf all milestones of Disney animation, ‘Four Methods of Flush Riveting’ is the most unassuming and certainly the most boring.

It was made in early 1941, thus before The United States had entered the war, for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, which was located nearby the Disney studio at Burbank. The film was “produced under the technical direction of the Lockheed Aircraft Cop.”, and without doubt very useful, but it was in fact a pilot film. As the title card states:

The following film uses a simplified technique developed by the Walt Disney studio to demonstrate the quickest and cheapest method whereby the animation medium can be applied to National Defense Training”.

Both 1940 features ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, and Disney was looking for new opportunities to earn some. In World War I J.R. Bray had demonstrated that animation film could be used perfectly for training the troops, thus pioneering the educational animation film. Nevertheless, between World War I and World War II only few educational films were made.

Disney’s new technique is in fact limited animation. As such it is the mother of all animated instruction films up to the present day, but even more of limited animation as an art, which would be explored more and more during the 1950s and 1960s.

The immediate effect on the Disney studio was that it sprouted commissions for several instruction films, mostly for the army and the navy, starting with ‘Stop That Tank!‘ for the National Film Board of Canada.

During World War II the Disney studio produced no less than 200 different training films for the armed forces. Moreover, limited animation immediately entered propaganda shorts, like ‘The Thrifty Pig‘ (1941) and such, as well as features, like ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944).

The film itself is very dry, and as educational as it is dull. Its most interesting feature is the use of a structured blue monochrome background against which the clean, airbrushed objects read very well. The idea of using monochromes and structures in backgrounds was going to be of as much importance as limited animation to the more forward looking forces in the animation field, and the UPA studio, which sprouted from the 1941 Disney strike, in particular.

Watch ‘Four Methods of Flush Riveting’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: May 18, 1940
Stars: Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Leon Schlesinger
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

You Oughta Be in Pictures © Warner Bros.‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ is the very first cartoon to bridge two ideas of animation film figures being ‘real’.

First, the idea that cartoon figures can come alive from the drawing board into the real world, an idea that hauls all the way back to Max Fleischer’s first ‘Out of the Inkwell’ cartoons (1915). The second idea is that of cartoon figures being real Hollywood stars, explored in cartoons such as ‘Felix in Hollywood’ (1923), ‘Movie Mad‘ (1931), ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933) and especially ‘The Autograph Hound‘ (1939), with which ‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ has most in common. ‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ synthesizes these two ideas, making it a direct ancestor of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ (1988).

‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ was one of the first films director Friz Freleng made after his return from an ill-fortuned move to MGM, and as Jerry Beck points out in the audio commentary track, one can see this film somehow as autobiographical.

In any case, this short marks is Freleng’s first take on Daffy Duck, and he places him firmly as Porky’s rival. In this cartoon Daffy is not necessarily zany, like in Tex Avery’s and Bob Clampett’s cartoons, but overconfident and sneaky, with a tendency to show off; character treats that would be explored more from 1950 on, especially by Chuck Jones. However, by then the relation between Porky and Daffy would be changed completely.

In ‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ Porky is still an innocent, cute and Boyish character. In the opening scene we watch him being drawn by animator Fred Jones on the drawing board. When all animators have rushed off to lunch (reused footage from a Leon Schlesinger Christmas Party film), Daffy, framed on the wall, addresses the Porky drawing. He convinces Porky to leave Leon Schlesinger’s studio to get a real job in the business of feature films. Leon Schlesinger lets Porky go, saying into the camera “he’ll be back!”. While Porky has a hard time in the neighboring live action studio, Daffy tries to get his plays at Warner Bros. But Porky returns and beats the hell out of the double-crosser.

‘You Ougt to Be in Pictures’ is a lovely cartoon. It mixes animation and live action, partly from other Warner Bros. features, to great effects. The scene in which Porky talks to Leon Schlesinger is very convincing, and Porky’s drive back no less than breathtaking. Besides Leon Schlesinger, the film stars writer Michael Maltese as a guard, animator Gerry Chiniquy as a director, and executive producer Henry Binder as a sound man. However, as the live action footage was shot silently, all are voiced by Mel Blanc, except for Leon Schlesinger who does his own voice.

Watch ‘You Ought to Be in Pictures’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon No. 73
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Poor Fish
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: The Chewin’ Bruin

This is Daffy Duck cartoon No. 9
To the previous Daffy Duck cartoon: Wise Quacks
To the next Daffy Duck cartoon: A Coy Decoy

‘You Ought To Be In Pictures’ is available on the DVD-sets ‘The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Two’, ‘Porky Pig 101’, and the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’

Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Release Date: July 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Akira © Katsuhiro OtomoIn 2019, 31 years after World War III, which destroyed the old town completely, Neo-Tokyo is even bigger and more urbanized than the old one. And more violent, too. The city is constantly on the brink of anarchy.

We follow Kaneda and Tetsuo, two members of a rough motorbike gang. When Tetsuo is hospitalized and taken away from his friend, Kaneda tries to retrieve him, while getting involved with a girl, who’s a revolutionary and whose troupe is after Tetsuo, too. Tetsuo, meanwhile, discovers he’s getting immense powers. Tetsuo suffers from an inferiority complex, and he realizes it’s payback time. He sets out to seek the mystical Akira, destroying most of Neo-Tokyo along the way. But in the end his powers take control of him, and while he and Akira merge to form a new universe in a very 2001 A Space Odyssey-like ending, Kaneda and his girlfriend Kei can look to a new future in a partly destroyed Neo-Tokyo.

If this plot line may sound a little hard to follow – it is, and I left quite some subplots out of it, too. ‘Akira’ is a violent and action-loaded science fiction film. Its plot may be vague and all too complex, the violent images never cease to impress. The film’s depiction of apocalyptic destruction, its speed, its wide range of characters, and its use of extreme camera angles are unprecedented in any animation film, and sometimes the grandness of the film’s scale is staggering. Some of the scenes are very complicated, with many people animated within one frame. And the story, too, seems to aim to encompass everything within the feature’s 124 minutes. Not surprising, considering that the film is based on a manga story six fat volumes thick.

Although Anime had known earlier masterpieces, it’s ‘Akira’, which set new standards in its home country. Moreover, it’s this film, which put the Japanese animation feature film industry firmly on the map in Western countries, which thus far practically had known the country’s television series, only. Thus, for most Westerners Japanese animation was synonymous to cheap animation, and the use of ridiculously large eyes. However, ‘Akira’ showed the Western world that Japan was perfectly capable of producing films of a high quality and stunning originality. Japanese animation has only grown in popularity since Akira’s release, and has become a major inspiration for many Western films and television series, animated or not.

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

‘Akira’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Director: Te Wei
Release Date: 1960
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Where is Mama © Te Wei‘Where is Mama’* is a charming little film in which we watch a school tadpoles seeking their mother.

They mistake two shrimps, a goldfish, a crab, a turtle and a catfish for their mother, before their real mother finds them.

Told by a voice-over, ‘Where is Mama’ is a genuinely Chinese film: it is based on an ancient Chinese fable, it is typically preoccupied with nature and water, its watercolor and ink style is based on classic Chinese painters (most obviously Qi Baishi), and it is set to a serene and leisurely speed.

The result is a film that is a bit slow, but poetic in feel and strikingly beautiful. The short looks timelessly Chinese, but at the time of its release the film’s style was completely new and daring within the Chinese animation film world. However, it would take ca. twenty years before its influence became clear, because five years after the making of this cartoon the Shanghai Animation Studio was shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution, and many of its employees were sent to re-education camps in the countryside. Only in the late seventies it would be up and running again. In the following decade ‘Where is Mama’ would be an inspiration to many Chinese animators, who would reuse several of this film’s key elements. In that decade, too, Te Wei made his own masterpiece, ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water‘ (1988).

Watch ‘Where is Mama’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Where is Mama’ is available on the French DVD ‘Impression de montagne et d’eau’

* this film probably is best known by its French title: ‘Les têtards à la recherche de leur maman’

 

Directors: John Halas & Joy Batchelor
Release Date: January 31, 1954
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Animal Farm © Halas & BatchelorBased on George Orwell’s famous fable (published only nine years before), Animal Farm is the first animated feature made in England, it’s one of Europe’s first feature films, and it’s undoubtedly among the masterpieces of feature animation.

The film falls into the tradition of Disney-style semi-realistic cel animation. However, it sets itself apart from the Disney tradition in its grim and political story, its lack of sentimentality and its open depiction of cruelty and violence. Moreover, the backgrounds are bold oil paintings, with visible brush strokes and darker colors than any Disney film had ever shown.

Nevertheless, the realistic and wonderful animation of the animals pays some depths to the Disney tradition (watch the Silly Symphony ‘Farmyard Symphony‘ for example), greatly helped by the presence of ex-Disney animator John Reed. The film even contains one sweet character for comical relief in a little duckling who tries to keep up with the other animals, echoing the turtle in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). However, when the story turns particularly grim, with the killing of the Trotsky-like pig Snowball by Napoleon’s dog henchmen, we do not see this cute character again.

The assassination of Snowball is the first of several alarming events in which the animals’ revolution is betrayed. The most disturbing of these is Boxer’s ride to a certain death. This scene is the emotional highlight of the film, and it creates strong feelings of outrage and alarm, still. The horror on the face of his friend Benjamin is very well captured, and moves to this day.

Using a voice over and evocative music by Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber, the film retells Orwell’s story effectively, using only Orwell’s own words. Its only strong deviation from the book is its ending. Where Orwell’s novel ends with the Stalin-like pig Napoleon’s regime installed, the film ends with yet another revolution – some wishful thinking that in the real world never quite came true until the late 1980s, when encouraged by Gorbachev’s perestroika, the people all over Eastern Europe revolted against their communist oppressors.

‘Animal Farm’, which was released within a year after Stalin’s death, is still a moving portrait of the corrupting force of power. Even though its subject, the Soviet Union, has long been a state of the past, the forces depicted in this movie are still active. The world is not free of its Napoleons, yet…

Watch ‘Animal Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Peter Lord & David Sproxton
Release Date: 1978
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Down & Out © Aardman‘Down & out’ is the first film in Aardman’s ‘animated conversations’ series and the British studio’s first masterpiece.

The very idea of using dialogue from real life is revolutionary enough, but to use it for clay animation with lip-synch is a masterstroke. Moreover, the animation of the plasticine figures is startling: it lacks the exaggerations of normal animation, but uses small gestures and real movements, like scratching one’s nose or belly, instead. The animation continues realistically even when not supported by the soundtrack. The result is uncannily realistic, making the drama of an old, confused man asking for food and shelter, but being turned down at an Salvation army office, extra tragic.

With this film Aardman single-handedly invented the ‘animated documentary’, a genre which would lead to fantastic films like ‘Ryan’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ in the 2000s.

‘Down & Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Aardman Classics’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: February 2, 1952
Stars: Marc Anthony
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Feed the Kitty © Warner BrothersAmong all the masterpieces of animation, this must be the most inconspicuous one: it’s a seemingly classical dog and cat story, involving quite some dull dialogue (provided by the dog’s mistress, of whom we only see her legs), and its looks are quite traditional, with unremarkable layouts and backgrounds.

Nevertheless, ‘Feed The Kitty’ is a real masterpiece, and its reputation is entirely due to the acting of its main character, the gentle bulldog Marc Anthony. His facial expressions are so wide ranging, so extreme and so heartfelt that ‘Feed the Kitty’ can almost be regarded as a study in depiction of emotion. Silent acting really reaches its peak here, and director Chuck Jones is without doubt at his all time best in this sweet little cartoon.

In ‘Feed the Kitty’ Marc Anthony adopts a sweet little kitten, but he’s not allowed to bring anything into the house. This leads to various gags with the dog trying to hide the little kitten from his mistress. However, the highlight of the cartoon is the sequence in which Marc Anthony thinks his darling pet is dead. His emotions are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Never before has the anxiety of having lost a dearly beloved been so convincingly put to the animated screen. At this point I often can’t keep my tears from running.

Indeed, this sequence is so popular among animators that it was almost exactly copied in ‘Monsters, Inc.‘ (2001) as a homage to the original. I’d say, if cartoons were shown at funerals (and why not?), ‘Feed the Kitty’ would be a perfect candidate.

Watch ‘Feed the Kitty’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 26, 1941
Stars: Superman
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

Superman © Paramount‘Superman’ is the first Superman cartoon, the very first cartoon series to feature realistic characters, and the Fleischer Studio’s most ambitious cartoon series.

Superman, of course, was based on the comic strip hero who made his debut in 1938. For his screen debut, the studio made a long introduction of the character, which lasts almost two minutes.

After this intro a very simple story develops, which contains many elements to be reused in later Superman cartoons, becoming a routine all too soon:

1) an evil scientist
2) something big to beat (in this cartoon a deadly ray, which Superman ridiculously punches away)
3) Lois getting intro trouble due to her curiosity, and
4) an ending with Lois and Clarke reading a newspaper article written by Lois Lane.

Despite elaborate shadows and special effects, this first realistic theatrical cartoon (not counting the works by Winsor McCay) hasn’t aged very well. The scientist is still half cartoony, and he has an animal sidekick, which mimics his moves.

The rest of the characters are drawn realistically, but also stiff and expressionless. They look forward to the wooden realistic cartoons of the TV era. The character was very popular, however, and inspired a couple of parodies, most notably the Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Super Rabbit’ (1943). It’s ironic that after Popeye the Fleischer again had to rely on a character created elsewhere to achieve success. Unfortunately, this meant they couldn’t exploit Superman’s popularity as much as they could have with a character of their own.

Superman would star in seventeen cartoons, all from 1941-1943, nine by the Fleischer Studios, and eight by its successor, Famous studios. In 1943 the series was dropped because it was too costly to produce.

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

This is Superman film No. 1
To the next Superman film: The Mechanical Monsters

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