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Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date:
 February 24, 1933
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Panicky Pup © Van Beuren‘Panicky Pup’ is one of those very Silly Symphony-like Aesop’s Fables.

It starts unremarkable enough, with several farm animals making music and dancing to it. At one point the cartoon starts to focus on a pup, but the short really gains momentum when the pup chases a cat into a well. Almost immediately, he’s struck by guilt and the complete surroundings turn into a nightmare haunting him. During this sequence the scenery changes frequently around him, as if the pup is transported through time and space, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

‘Panicky Pup’ mixes Disney and Fleischer influences (comparable cartoons are Disney’s ‘The Cat’s Out‘ (1931) and Fleischer’s ‘Swing You Sinners!‘ (1930)), like no other studio did, with surprising, if uneven results. The cartoon is the direct ancestor of other guilt cartoons like ‘Pluto’s Judgement Day‘ (1936), ‘Pudgy Picks a Fight‘ (1937) and ‘Donald’s Crime’ (1945), showing that Van Beuren had a much more interesting and forward-looking outlook than most reviewers grant the ill-fated studio.

Watch ‘Panicky Pup’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Panicky Pup’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 31, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★♕
Review:

Snow-White © Max FleischerOf all Fleischer cartoons ‘Snow-White’ is probably the most famous. And rightly so, because it brings the Fleischer’s unique brand of surrealism to the max, being simply stuffed with mesmerizing images, unexpected metamorphosis and stream-of-consciousness-like story flows.

The short is also the second of three cartoons featuring the unique voice of Cab Calloway, the others being ‘Minnie the Moocher‘ (1932) and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain‘ from five months later. According to Leslie Cabarga (‘The Fleischer Story’, p.64) the film was animated by one man, Doc Crandall. Indeed he’s the only animator credited on the title card. This may be the cause of the short’s remarkable inner consistency. For the images may make no sense, they do flow into each other in a seamless way, with Betty Boop’s ride into an ice coffin as a particular highlight of absurd logic.

The Fleischer’s ‘Snow-White’ has a winter setting. It starts classical enough with the queen consulting her magic mirror. But then Betty Boop enters the scene, making the knights fall apart and the queen’s head turn into a frying pan, symbolizing her angry jealousy. The queen orders ‘off with her head’, demonstrating the action with her own fingers, and soon Koko and Bimbo (as two knights) prepare for the execution. However, in a very strange string of events they disappear into the hole they’ve dug themselves, while the tree to which Betty is tied sets her free himself.

In another weird string of events Betty Boop ends in an ice coffin at the dwarfs’ door. They drag her into the ‘mystery cave’, followed by the queen, who, using her magic mirror, has turned herself into a witch. Koko and Bimbo also enter the cave. Koko starts singing the St. James Infirmary Blues, one of Calloway’s classic hits, with Cab Calloway’s voice and movements. But when the queen turns him into a ghost, Koko suddenly becomes able to morph into a gold chain and into a bottle, illustrating the lyrics of the song. Later the mirror turns the witch into a dragon, which chases the trio, until Bimbo turns it inside out.

There’s a lot going on in this mind-blowing cartoon, which is over before you know it. Being very, very unlike Disney’s later feature film, ‘Snow-White’ is an undisputed highlight of cartoon surrealism, matched by very few other cartoons (the other one which comes to mind is ‘Porky in Wackyland’ from 1938). With this short the Fleischers reached the pinnacle of their pre-code cartoon style, before a combination of the Hays code and a tendency to imitate Walt Disney more toned down their unique vision.

Watch ‘Snow-White’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 13
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Penthouse
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Birthday Party

‘Snow-White’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date:
 December 9, 1932
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★★½
Review

Pencil Mania © Van Beuren‘Pencil Mania’ arguably is Tom and Jerry’s most inventive short of all.

In this short Jerry has a magic pencil with which he can draw things in mid-air, which immediately come to life. This leads to some surreal gags with a lot of metamorphosis being involved. It’s for example fascinating to watch a saxophone change into a duck.

Unfortunately, as soon as Jerry has drawn three melodrama figures, the short turns to their antics. Nevertheless, the finale is mesmerizing: a complete train disappears into nothing, and Jerry breaks through the paper to make the heroin return to his pencil before Tom can kiss her. Gags like these, breaking the 4th wall, were extremely rare in 1932, making ‘Pencil Mania’ pretty unique. At any rate it’s very enjoyable to watch, even though the train is the only well-drawn thing in the entire short. One can only guess what more able hands could have made out of a story idea like this.

Eight years later Terrytoons would use the same idea in the Gandy Goose cartoon ‘The Magic Pencil’ (1940). No doubt the Terry animators had seen ‘Pencil Mania’, because not only do the two cartoon share a melodrama sequence, the magic also starts with the same gag: that of the Jerry/Gandy Goose drawing an egg, which falls on Tom’s/Sourpuss’s head. Moreover, both Jerry and Gandy Goose turn a door into a car, and like Jerry, Gandy makes the heroin flow back into his pencil.

‘Pencil Mania’ features three songs: Rudy Wiedoeft’s Saxophobia (1919), the 1923 hit ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, and ‘You’ve Got Me in the Palm of Your Hand’.

Watch ‘Pencil Mania’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pencil Mania’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 2, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop, M.D. © Max Fleischer‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ opens with Betty driving a tilt car into a town to sell  a potion called Jippo, which is advertised as”flattens feet, makes young men old, removes teeth – grows tonsils, and stops breathing”.

Betty gets assistance from Koko and Bimbo to sell the product. First Koko performs some surreal acrobatic stunts, to no avail. Then Betty herself appears to sing a song, and the selling starts. The potion as some wondrous effects on the audience, e.g. a very thin man grows fat in an instant, and an old man turns into a large baby, while a baby turns into a tiny old man.

When Bimbo drinks Jippo himself, he starts the song ‘Nobody’s Sweetheart’, which contains a lot of scatting by members of the audience. To this jazzy sequence the imagery simply explodes with mind-blowing, surreal scenes. This fantastic string of events ends when a baby drinks Jippo, turning into a faithful caricature of Fredric March as Mr. Hyde from the 1931 horror film ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’.

As is often the case with the Fleischer films from the early 1930s, ‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ has a very weak and rather improvised story line, but this drawback is luckily compensated by original imagery, peppy music, and simply a lot of fun.

Watch ‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 3
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop Bizzy Bee
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle

‘Betty Boop, M.D.’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date:
 August 12, 1932
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Wild Goose Chase © Van Beuren‘The Wild Goose Chase’ is a disjointed cartoon, which starts with some loose scenes of frogs, flowers, and water lily fairies dancing in the rain.

Then we cut to a couple of cats, and when the rain stops a tree magically transfers them on a goose to bring them to a rainbow into the clouds to seek a pot of gold. Once they arrive at the clouds, the castle in the sky from ‘The Family Shoe‘ invites them inside, where they’re treated on several surreal scenes, strange creatures, spooks, skeletons and devils.

These scenes are alternately influenced by Disney and Fleischer, clearly the most distinct studios of the time. This hodgepodge of influences make ‘The Wild Goose Chase’ an uneven and directionless short, as if the studio didn’t know which way to go, let alone being able to find its own voice, which the Van Beuren studio actually never really did.

The cat couple was reused in the similar, but much more successful cartoon ‘Silvery Moon‘ (1933).

Watch ‘The Wild Goose Chase’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wild Goose Chase’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 13, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Chess Nuts © Max Fleischer‘Chess Nuts’ is by all means one of the Fleischers’ most original Talkartoons.

The cartoon’s setting is a chess game, and it opens with two live action players playing the game. The ashes of the cigar of one of the players falls down on the black queen, revealing it to be Betty Boop, while Bimbo appears to be the white king. Then there’s a cut to a short stop motion sequence of the pieces moving across the board. Only then we really enter the chess world.

In this chess world the black king or ‘Old King Cole’ (the dirty old man of ‘Mask-a-Raid‘ from 1931) tries to force queen Betty to love him, but king Bimbo saves her from his clutches. Most of the action takes place in a castle next to the chessboard game.

There’s a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness in this short, which simply bursts with random and weird throwaway gags, up to the very last shot, in which we suddenly return to the chess players. The result is a wildly surreal film, and one of the most interesting films the Fleischers ever made. Betty Boop is the very sexy star of this cartoon. Koko, on the other hand, only plays a rather insignificant part.

Watch ‘Chess Nuts’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 37
To the previous Talkartoon: The Dancing Fool
To the next Talkartoon: A Hunting We Will Go

‘Chess Nuts’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 5, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Jack and the Beanstalk © Max FleischerOnly three months after Van Beuren’s ‘The Family Shoe’, the Fleischer studio released their retelling of the fairy tale in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.

Despite being released after six cartoons featuring Bimbo in his final design, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ features Bimbo with his old, less memorable look. Bimbo plays the part of Jack. He is prompted to plant some magic beans, after a giant in the sky has dropped a cigar on him. The beans soon sprout into a giant beanstalk, which takes Bimbo to the clouds. There he discovers Betty Boop, who’s the giant’s prisoner, making pea soup for him. Bimbo ties the giant and flees with Betty on the magic hen, which changes into a car when hitting the road. But an obnoxious mouse releases the giant who follows them using cars as roller-skates.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is a very enjoyable, but weird and highly surreal version of the classic tale. It was the last Talkartoon to feature Betty Boop with dog ears. In all her subsequent films she would be fully human.

The short features ‘Sweepin’ The Clouds Away’ as its theme song, which had been a huge hit for Maurice Chevalier in 1930. Two years later Disney would visit similar grounds in ‘Giantland‘, which is, as you may expect, way less surreal, but much better animated.

Watch ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 29
To the previous Talkartoon: Mask-a-Raid
To the next Talkartoon: Dizzy Red Riding Hood

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 25, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Crazy Town © Max FleischerIn ‘Crazy Town’ Betty Boop and Bimbo take a streetcar to Crazy Town, where everything is the other way round.

Unfortunately, this great idea doesn’t really lead to a funny cartoon. We’re watching e.g. fish in the sky and birds in the water, an elephant with a real trunk and a fish fishing for a person. In a lengthy sequence Bimbo is a barber adding hair to his customers. None of these scenes even raise a chuckle. In fact, the cartoon’s only interesting part is it’s opening, because the story unfolds like a real book.

It’s weird to realize that as soon as the Fleischers deliberately tried to show a surreal world, they failed, while their ‘normal’ shorts were full of mesmerizing surrealism (e.g. the earlier ‘Mask-a-raid‘ and ‘Chess Nuts‘ or ‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle‘ from later that year). The theme song of this cartoon is the 1931 hit ‘Foolish Facts’.

Watch ‘Crazy Town’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 35
To the previous Talkartoon: S.O.S.
To the next Talkartoon: The Dancing Fool

‘Crazy Town’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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’ these basic character traits evaporated. Yet, with their cheerful looks, the duo was more sympathetic than Waffles and Don ever were.

Tom & Jerry lasted until 1933, starring 27 cartoons, but ‘Wot a Night’ remains their finest film. It 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.

At the station Tom & Jerry are taxi drivers, picking up a couple of strange bearded men, whom they drop at a castle. Because the bearded men didn’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 other Van Beuren cartoon, 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. The ending is extraordinary, when 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:

‘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:
 November 14, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mask-A-Raid © Max FleischerIn ‘Mask-A-Raid’ a very sexy Betty is queen of a masked ball.

The king, a dirty old man, fancies her, but she prefers Bimbo. Nevertheless, she makes Bimbo and the old guy fighting each other. Suddenly knights pop up from nowhere and everybody is fighting.

In ‘Mask-a-raid’ some of the random surrealism of ‘Barnacle Bill‘ and ‘Mysterious Mose‘ (both 1930) returns to the screen. The cartoon is full of weird images and odd gags, and at times should be seen to be believed. It ends with some great scatting by Bimbo himself.

This is Betty’s first cartoon as a human being (apart from the Screen Song ‘Kitty from Kansas City‘ from only one week before), with her dog ears having changed into large earrings. It’s also the first to give her starring credits. It introduces the new story idea of old men fancying Betty, and harassing her against her will. This story element would also be featured in e.g. ‘Boop-oop-a-Doop‘ (1932) and ‘Betty Boop’s Big Boss‘ (1933).

Watch ‘Mask-A-Raid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 27
To the previous Talkartoon: In the Shade of the Old Apple Sauce
To the next Talkartoon: Jack and the Beanstalk

‘Mask-A-Raid’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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.

Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Time Out © Priit Pärn‘Time Out’ is Priit Pärn’s fifth film, but the first to gain a widespread attention, and to win a number of international prizes.

It shows the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic style and unique surrealism, without the dark side, often present in his other films. The film is filled with child-like wonder, and a happy atmosphere, enhanced by the joyful reggae music by composer Olav Ehala.

The film opens with a room in which a very stressed out cat lives. The cat is in a constant need to check his alarm clock, which is on a shelf too high for him. When he finally reaches the clock, he discovers he can’t read it without his glasses, so he has to find them first, etc. Pärn shows this pointless ritual in several variations over and over again, following the cat running around in his room.

At one point, however, the alarm clock breaks, and time stands still. At this point of the film the cat finds himself in a fantastic world where everything can happen. This part is extremely rich in visual tricks, which go all the way back to Émile Cohl’s ‘Fantasmagorie’ (1908). Nothing is what it seems, and metamorphosis runs freely. Unfortunately, in the end, time is restored, and the cat has to face his former stressful life once again.

‘Time Out’ certainly shows Priit Pärn’s mastery, and excellent timing. His fantasy is extraordinary, and the film shows the power of animation like few other films do. It’s also a reminder that we should snap out of the daily routine, and let our mind wander, and be really creative. When one takes time, everything may be possible!

Watch ‘Time Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: August 3, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Alice © Jan SvankmajerOf all classic literature, Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is certainly the most dreamlike, and it’s no wonder that it came to the attention of Czech master surrealist Jan Švankmajer.

Already in 1971 he had made a film on Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, but arguably, this film has little to do with the poem. ‘Alice’ continues the surreal atmosphere of his earlier film and remains faithful to the book.

‘Alice’ was Jan Švankmajer’s first feature length film, and it really shows his craft and strikingly original vision. It is one of the best, probably the most original, and certainly the most disturbing film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s world famous book. In any case, it’s among the best animated features of all time.

Where the Walt Disney version focused on the loony, fantastic parts of the story, Švankmajer emphasizes its irrational, surreal character. Švankmajer puts the story in a setting completely his own. Although the film opens with the classic opening near the brook, after the titles, the action takes place mostly indoors, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere typical for this film, only matched by Švankmajer’s second feature film, ‘Faust’ (1994). In Švankmajer’s film ‘wonderland’ consists of an endless string of dirty old rooms, connected by many doors and desks with drawers, all of which the knob comes off. Even the lovely garden is no more than a stage with props.

The drawer knobs form the running gag in a movie which is low on humor, but high on unsettling and impressive images, starting with the stuffed rabbit suddenly coming to life and smashing the glass of its glass display with its scissors. Other highly memorable scenes are the stuffed rabbit eating sawdust, which falls out again its open belly; the mouse cooking on Alice’s head, the room of hole-digging socks; and the mindless and mechanical repetition of the mad tea-party scene, timed to perfection.

Švankmajer’s wonderland is a morbid world. Its inhabitants are stuffed animals, dolls, playing cards, and even a bunch of macabre fantasy creatures, oddly joined together from body parts from different animals and lifeless objects, and which form a real threat to the little girl. In this world, anything can become alive, as demonstrated by e.g. Alice’s own socks. At the same time, Alice remains the only really living thing, and even she turns into a doll three times. Death, too, is near: at one point in the film we see the mouse, still in his clothes, caught by a mousetrap, dead. And in Švankmajer’s wonderland, the queen of heart’s orders are executed, and several characters are decapitated, including the mad hatter and the march hare…

‘Alice’ uses a perfect blend of stop motion and live action, and has an excellent protagonist in young actor Kristýna Kohoutová. If the film has one flaw, it must be girl’s voice, which provides all the dialogue and narration. It’s often unwelcome and out of place, and it doesn’t really work well in dialogue-rich scenes, like the mad tea scene or the trial scene.

Švankmajer is at his best when the action is silent and the images speak for themselves. These scenes are greatly added by superb sound design, provided by Ivo Špalj and Robert Jansa, which add to the creepy, wretched atmosphere of the film. ‘Alice’ is certainly not your average family film, but the viewer who dares to enter this film’s unique world, will not be disappointed.

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

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: Keith Griffiths, Quay Brothers
Airing Date: 1984
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer © Quay Brothers‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is a documentary about the Czech master of surrealism.

It was made by the Quay Brothers with the sole purpose of being able to watch Švankmajer’s films themselves. Advertised to the BBC as a documentary on French and Czech surrealism, the film is rather highbrow, featuring artists and art historians, whose remarks are sometimes very difficult to grasp, indeed.

Unfortunately, the master himself refused to be interviewed and he is not shown at all. Luckily, Švankmajer’s strong images speak for themselves, and the documentary undoubtedly helped to raise interest in Švankmajer’s films in the West.

The documentary shows excerpts from Švankmajer’s films ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue‘ (which de facto is shown in its entirety), ‘The Last Trick‘, ‘The Flat’, ‘Et Cetera‘, ‘Jabberwocky‘, ‘Historia Naturae, Suita‘, ‘The Ossuary‘, ‘Games with Stones‘, ‘Punch and Judy’, ‘Don Juan‘ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘.

However, ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is also interesting for animation buffs, even for the one who have seen all Jan Švankmajer’s films, for its original interludes, which are animated by the Quay brothers. These interludes have a truly Švankmajer-like atmosphere, highlighted by the reuse of music from Švankmajer’s films. They feature a Švankmajer-like teacher, made of household objects, and his apprentice, a doll, whose head is emptied in order to let him experience the world anew.

These interludes are no less than wonderful and form an animation short in itself, which is both a great homage to the Czech master and a showcase of the Quay brothers’ own art. In fact, the Quay Brothers compiled the interludes and these are available and widely known under the same name as the complete documentary, which is, in fact, eclipsed by the animated short version.

Watch the animated interludes from ‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

s.Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: June 20 1947
Stars: Donald Duck, The Aracuan Bird
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Clown of the Jungle © Walt Disney‘Clown of the Jungle’ reintroduces the Aracuan bird from ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944), now hindering Donald’s attempts to photograph birds.

The Aracuan bird is a surreal character, defying all laws of nature. For example, it can cycle in mid-air, duplicate itself and draw a door on a rock, and enter it. These abilities are very rare for a Disney character, and there’s no doubt that the Aracuan bird was inspired by the more absurd humor from the Warner Bros. and Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons.

Director Jack Hannah handles this type of humor remarkably well, delivering the gags in a fast pace and with an excellent timing, making ‘Clown of the Jungle’ not only the most surreal, but also one of the wildest and funniest Disney cartoons from the postwar era.

Being such a wonderful character, The Aracuan bird would return once more the following year, in the sequence ‘Blame it on the Samba‘ from ‘Melody Time‘ (1948). Unfortunately, the character remained alone in its zaniness within the Disney canon, and other Disney postwar cartoons remained much more conventional.

Watch ‘Clown of the Jungle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 62
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Sleepy Time Donald
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Dilemma

Directors: Kaspar Jancis, Ülo Pikkov & Priit Tender
Release Date: March 25, 2005
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Frank & Wendy © Eesti JoonisfilmProbably one of the weirdest animated features ever made, Frank & Wendy belongs to the most commercial films ever produced by the Eesti Joonis film studios.

It features plenty of action, loud rock music, and a weird sense of humor, while it lacks the disturbing qualities of earlier films produced in this studio. Despite clearly being pure entertainment, it nonetheless retains the strong absurdism and surrealism typical for the Eesti Joonis studio, thanks to the screenplays and storyboards by Estonian animation master Priit Pärn. Frank & Wendy was originally conceived as a television series, and the feature has retained its episodic character, being divided into seven rather unrelated episodes.

Frank and Wendy are American FBI agents living in Estonia, saving the world from the most bizarre evil schemes, like a fast food chain selling hamburgers, which transmit a hunger message, and an amusement park designed to let live polar bears eat American elderly tourists. Also featured are politicians Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair, while several characters from other Eesti Joonisfilms have a cameo. The plots are very hard to re-tell and make even less sense on paper than on the screen.

Frank & Wendy is an entertaining movie, but due to its lack of plot and its episodic nature, watching it becomes a bit tiresome. In the end it fails to be a masterpiece.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Frank & Wendy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: René Laloux
Release Date: 1988
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

La prisonnière © René Laloux‘La Prisonnière’ is a short, rather surrealistic science fiction film about two children.

They visit an extraterrestrial monastery and witness a rescue of a prisoner by naked women who step out of a stranded whale.

The film looks like an animated version of designer Caza’s source comic, Équinoxe (which can be found here), and contains only a limited amount of animation. In his designs Caza’s style is very reminiscent of that of his fellow french comic artist Moebius.

‘La prisonnière’ seems like an etude for Laloux’s and Caza’s much bigger project, the feature film ‘Gandahar‘ (1988). The atmosphere of the short is poetic, if completely incomprehensible.

Watch ‘La Prisonnière’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘La Prisonnière’ is available on the DVD ‘Gandahar’

Director: Georges Schwizgebel
Release Date: 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein © Georges Schwizgebel‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ starts with very abstract images, which resolve into Frankenstein’s laboratory as depicted in the film from 1931.

After 1’40 we become the monster itself, walking through endless chambers and corridors and staircases in an almost computer animation-like long sequence of perspective animation. The rooms, initially filled with abstract shapes, become more and more complex. They contain more and more windows and human forms, and finally moving human forms, ending with multiple copies of the monster’s bride. In the end we watch the monster itself, in his depiction by Boris Karloff. he smiles at his bride, but she only screams…

This film, which is set to very nervous electronic music, is a very impressive study of perspective: we really feel we are walking. The film has a repetitive and dreamlike quality, which is enhanced by its surreal settings, reminiscent of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico.

Watch ‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le ravissement de Frank N. Stein’ is available on the DVD ‘Les Peintures animées de Georges Schwizgebel’

Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1971
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Jabberwocky © Jan Svankmajer‘Jabberwocky’ has little to do with the poem from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through The Looking Glass’, although we hear it being recited by a little girl during the opening sequence.

The film it is Švankmajer’s surrealistic masterpiece on the loss of childhood, depicted by several episodes, which are separated by a box of bricks, a labyrinth and a black cat crushing the box of bricks.

During the episodes we are treated on extremely surrealistic images of very active inanimate objects in a child’s room. First we watch a boy’s suit growing a forest in his room, defying both time and authority (symbolized by the portrait in the room). Then we watch large cannibalistic dolls grinding, ironing and eating little dolls, a china baby in a cradle destroying two tin armies, a pocket knife performing acrobatic tricks until it makes an ill-fated fall and stabs itself, and finally, schoolbooks producing paper boats and planes, which fly out of the window, while the father’s portrait produces pictures of beautiful women.

This last episode shows the child’s changing interests. In the end the labyrinth is solved, the cat – the only living thing in the entire film – is caged, and the boy’s suit is replaced by an adult one. The boy is free from his parent, but the days of imagination are over, the fantasy is gone.

For this film Švankmajer makes excellent use of 19th century imagery (sailor suit, vintage dolls and toys) to create a completely unique world. It’s the film maker’s most typical film, partly expanding on ideas explored in ‘Historia Naturae, Suita‘ (1967), and showing his fascination with fantasy, cruelty and decay, which roam freely in the child’s self-contained room. The rather morbid behavior of the everyday objects is quite unsettling and it shows how a child’s fantasy can be both imaginative and cruel.

‘Jabberwocky’ is without doubt one of Švankmajer’s most powerful films. He would only top it eleven years later, with ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue‘ (1982). Švankmajer would explore the imagination of children further in the moving ‘Down to the Cellar‘ (1983), and in his unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work ‘Alice‘ (1987).

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

‘Jabberwocky’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’

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