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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: May 17, 1940
Stars: Hunky & Spunky
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

A Kick in Time © Max FleischerThe last stage of the Fleischers’ Color Classics series was solely devoted to Hunky & Spunky, the donkey duo introduced in the eponymous cartoon from 1938.

When Betty Boop retired in 1939, the Fleischers were left without a star of their own (their biggest star Popeye was owned by King Features). Thus Hunky & Spunky, were promoted to be their top stars, together with Gabby from ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1939) and the Stone Age characters, both introduced in 1940. None of these stars had any appeal, and they hardly stood a chance against contemporaries like Disney’s Donald Duck and Goofy, or Warner Bros.’ Porky Pig and Daffy. Nevertheless, Hunky and Spunky survived until 1941, starring seven cartoons in total.

In their fourth cartoon, ‘A Kick in Time’, Spunky is kidnapped and sold to an Italian rag collector, who irons the little burro. Spunky’s antics with the bit and irons are very reminiscent of Donald Duck’s problems with inanimate objects. However, as the bit and irons are clearly introduced as tools of torture, Spunky’s antics are painful to watch, not funny. Meanwhile Hunky seeks his/her son in the large city, and she saves his/her child in the nick of time from being crushed by an approaching streetcar.

There’s little to enjoy in ‘A Kick in Time’, but the cartoon is well animated by top animators Shamus Culhane and Al Eugster, and features quite elaborate human designs and realistic close ups of human hands. Moreover, the urban setting gives the cartoon a distinct character, absent in the other Hunky & Spunky cartoons.

Watch ‘A Kick in Time’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Kick in Time’ is available on the DVD set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 22, 1939
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Gulliver's Travels © Max Fleischer

Following the huge success of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ other Hollywood animation studios considered the making of an animated feature themselves. In the end, only the Fleischer studio really attempted it, persuaded by their distributor, Paramount.

In fact, the Fleischers’ plans for a feature film dated back to as early as 1934, and the three Popeye two-reelers (‘Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor’, ‘Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp‘) can be regarded as exercises in the longer format. Nevertheless, it was the enormous success of Disney’s first feature that prompted Paramount to demand a Christmas feature from the Fleischer animation studio.

To achieve this, the Fleischers moved to a completely new studio in Miami, Florida, and hired a lot of new personnel, including Snow White veterans like animators Grim Natwick, Al Eugster and Shamus Culhane. This huge undertaking resulted in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, becoming America’s second animated feature, beating Disney’s second feature, ‘Pinocchio‘, by more than a month.

As often, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ only depicts the first part from Swift’s famous book: Gulliver’s visit to the island of Lilliput. Indeed, the film seems to take considerable inspiration from the Soviet adaptation ‘The New Gulliver’ (1934), which looks surprisingly similar. Nevertheless, the story deviates mostly from Swift’s book, focusing on two kings who quarrel over a song to be played at their children’s wedding, instead. This quarrel and the discovery of Gulliver by a night watchman called Gabby completely take up the first part of the film. In fact, Gulliver only awakes halfway the feature!

Only after Gulliver’s rise the film gains some momentum, being otherwise surprisingly slow. For example, the scene in which the civilians find Gulliver and tie him up lasts no less than a quarter of an hour, one-fifth of the complete film. Luckily, in the second half there’s some suspense, when three spies conspire to kill Gulliver with his own gun, and Gulliver tries to reconcile the two estranged kingdoms.

Unfortunately, Gulliver and the wedding couple, Princess Glory and Prince David, never become real characters. Glory and David are clearly based on Snow White and Prince Charming, and they are even blander than the originals. Their semi-realistic designs are devoid of character, and only after 70 minutes they utter a little dialogue. One just doesn’t care about them. Gulliver, on the other hand, looks good – especially the coloring and shading on him is very well done, with the night banquet scene as a particular highlight. Yet, his realistic design and hi slow, rotoscoped movements don’t blend well with the cartoony inhabitants of Lilliput. And he, too, is surprisingly devoid of character.

In fact, only three protagonists have clear characters: king Little, king Bombo, and the omnipresent Gabby, who must be regarded as the film’s star, even though he fails as a comic relief, and lacks a story of his own. Indeed, the film’s best comical scene doesn’t feature Gabby, but goes to the three spies trying to think of a plan to kill Gulliver. This is great silent comedy, unmatched by the rest of the film.

Together with ‘Pinocchio’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ can be regarded as the epitome of 1930s aesthetics. The feature is very well made, with beautiful background art, very much influenced by that of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, beautiful coloring and shading, and spectacular effect animation, especially in the storm scene with which the film opens. The animation belongs to the best ever produced at the Fleischer studio, and certainly is the most Disney-like. Yet, at the same time the animation fails to reach the heights of the Walt Disney studio, and at times is over-excessive, for example in the scene in which King Bombo remembers his friendship with King Little. The songs, too, are pleasant, but nothing more than that. Most catchy is ‘It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day’, a clear attempt to give the film its own ‘Whistle While You Work’. More impressive than the songs, however, is the lush score by Victor Young.

In all, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is a beautiful film, but a slow one, and with a story that fails to catch the audience. Indeed, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ doesn’t stand the comparison to its model, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and it was only a small success upon release. What certainly didn’t help was that World War II had broken out in Europe, depleting the film of a huge foreign market. These problems of course also troubled Disney’s own ‘Pinocchio’, released in February 1940.

Despite the film’s modest profits, the Fleischers decided to make another feature to keep their enormous organisation at work (resulting in the 1941 release ‘Mr. Bug goes to Town’). This economically unhealthy path would eventually lead to their downfall.

Watch ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is available on the Thunderbean Blu-Ray/DVD set ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’. All other copies are considerably inferior to this one and should be avoided.

Director: Shamus Culhane
Release Date: October 4, 1944
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Barber of Seville © Walter LantzWoody Woodpecker enters a barbershop to get a ‘victory’ haircut.

When the barber appears to be gone away, Woody himself steps in, maltreating a large chief and giving an Italian construction worker ‘the works’, singing the complete aria ‘Largo el factotum’ from Gioachino Rossini’s opera ‘The Barber of Seville’.

‘Barber of Seville’ is probably inspired by the barber scene from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940), which is set to a Hungarian dance by Brahms. The cartoon in its turn probably inspired Chuck Jones, who would use the opera’s overture in ‘Rabbit of Seville‘ (1950), with even better results.

‘Barber of Seville’ was the first Woody Woodpecker directed by Shamus Culhane. Culhane was an animation veteran, who had worked at Max Fleischer, Ub Iwerks, Van Beuren, Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Culhane obviously understood the character better than his predecessor Alex Lovy did: the gags in ‘Barber of Seville’ are faster and funnier, and the story is more consistent than in most of the earlier Woody Woodpecker cartoons.

Moreover, Woody Woodpecker looks better than ever before. Layout man and color stylist Art Heinemann redesigned the character to make him less grotesque, and more appealing. Unfortunately, Culhane would direct only ten Woody Woodpecker shorts, before he left the studio to set up one of his own to make animation films for television.

Watch ‘Barber of Seville’ 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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