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Director: Hugh Harman
Release Date: October 17, 1931
The cartoon opens spectacularly with several war scenes, including an enemy soldier firing his automatic gun at the audience. The cartoon is completely plotless, and Bosko actually only does three things:
- trying to cook a meal and kissing the picture of his sweetheart, before both are bombed (echoing the Oswald cartoon ‘Great Guns‘ from 1927 on which Hugh Harman had worked as an animator);
- helping an officer to get rid of his flees;
- saving a hippo, who has swallowed a bomb, by zipping its body open.
The cartoon is remarkably violent, and there’s a lot of killing going on. For example, we watch literally a dog being shot to pieces. Because all the animals involved still have mechanical bodies (a legacy of Harman and Ising’s work on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), pain is never suggested, and the violence remains cartoony. For example, the dog, after being shot, just walks away much shorter, while a bird with a hole in his body only collapses because he’s supposed to, not because he’s in pain.
Nevertheless, there’s little to enjoy in Bosko’s World War I cartoon, and even when fought out by practically invulnerable animals, it remains a disturbing event.
Watch ‘Bosko the Doughboy’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Bosko the Doughboy’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 13, 1942
In this cartoon Popeye still is a lousy sailor, but when the battle cruiser is under attack, he once again shows what he’s able to do (see also ‘Blunder Below‘). This time the battle cruiser is attacked by a squad of Japanese dive bombers. It takes some time before Popeye is able to eat his spinach, but when he does, he turns into a plane himself, defeating the complete enemy fleet.
In this process we see only one pilot, the other planes are subtly dehumanized. In this way we’ll never think of the fate of the Japanese pilots, at all. This was a clever device used in many war propaganda films of the time.
Watch ‘Fleets of Stren’th’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 13, 1942
Popeye had joined the navy before the United States entered the war, in ‘The Mighty Navy’ (November 1941), so in ‘Blunder Below’ he’s ready to fight the enemy, the first major cartoon star to do so on the movie screen.
In the first part of this cartoon Popeye tries to be a normal sailor, among Superman-like sailors, trying to learn gunning. He is no talent, however, blundering away and almost shooting down the captain by accident.
But when a submarine approaches, Popeye shows his real worth: he beats the submarine single-handedly, saving the battle cruiser. It’s this great combination of clumsiness and superhuman powers which make Popeye such an appealing character.
The approaching submarine is accompanied by the music of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig, indicating a German origin. However, it soon turns out to be Japanese. The submarine is anthropomorphic itself and completely dehumanized, as if it were not manned by people at all. When in August 1942 Popeye changed hands from the Fleischers to Paramount, this would radically change…
Watch ‘Blunder Below’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Alex Lovy
Release Date: August 3, 1942
‘Pigeon Patrol’ is a typical war era cartoon. It tells about Homer Pigeon, a dopey little country pigeon, whose girl Daisy May is impressed by the USA carrier pigeons, who look like American army planes.
Rejected by Daisy May, Homer decides to volunteer, too, but he’s way too small. However when he encounters a crashed carrier, he rescues an important message from an ugly Japanese vulture, beating the enemy saying: “remember Pearl Harbor and Singapore!”. In the end we watch him being decorated and happily married to Daisy May.
‘Pigeon Patrol’ is not too funny, but very propagandistic. It seems to want to emphasize that every man can do his job for the country. The Japanese vulture belongs to the typical stereotyped caricatures of a Japanese in Hollywood cartoons, complete with a suggestion of general Tojo-like glasses.
Two years later, Warner Bros. would tell another tale about a pigeon called Homer in ‘Plane Daffy‘ (1944). Their Homer commits suicide in that film. Walter Lantz’s Homer Pigeon, however, would star one other cartoon, ‘Pigeon Holed’ from 1956.
Watch ‘Pigeon Patrol’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Yuri Norstein
Release Date: 1979
These images are altered with images of a river scene with a.o. a fisherman, his wife and his children, and a giant Picasso-like minotaur skipping rope. Two other recurring images are that of dancing wives losing their men to war, and that of a little boy eating apples in the snow.
‘Tale of Tale’s is regarded as Yuri Norstein’s masterpiece and as one of the best animation films of all time. This does not mean it is the most accessible of all films, on the contrary. ‘Tale of Tales’ is a poetic film, but a confusing one. The nostalgic images seem unrelated, and are shown in a non-linear fashion. In fact, it is very difficult to render a ‘tale’ out of the images, which are intrinsically very strong, especially those of the melancholy wolf cub and of the iconic river scene.
Most of the film is made of muddy images in sepia-tones, rendering a dreamy atmosphere. Many images return, bridged by the wolf cub character, who, alone, seems to live in the present, outside of the images of a childhood long past. There’s some vague sense of a happy childhood being shattered by war and being lost in time.
The film uses no dialogue, and even the music is timid in its evocation of mood. Some of the cut-out animation is superb, however, and the overall imagery one of great virtuosity. The end result is as beautiful as it is overlong and frustratingly incomprehensible.
Watch ‘Tale of Tales’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Albert Barillé
Airing date: March 26?, 1983
In the opening scene of this next to final episode, Cassiopeian general Teigneux (Pest) convinces his senate to give an ultimatum for unconditional surrender to Omega. But then he himself gets the same ultimatum from his former ally, Yama…
The general’s reaction is to arrest his senate, taking the final step to become a full dictator at last, and to declare war on Yama. Meanwhile on Omega Pierrot conceives a plan to harm the robot enemy from the inside, which he performs not only with the faithful Psi and Metro, but also Le Petit Gros and his girlfriend, Pierrot’s sister. By trickery, the five manage to be brought inside a Yama cruiser, where Pierrot places a bomb.
Some excitement is added, when after having placed the bomb the five are having difficulties leaving the ship, especially when Metro forgets an important code. Nevertheless, it’s the politics and the depressing battle scenes of Cassopeia’s ill-fated war that impress the most, not the antics of our heroes.
Yama’s might is shown by images literally flooded by space ships, and by battle scenes in which Cassiopeian cruisers are shot to pieces with a frightening ease. Nevertheless Le Teigneux persists almost to the very end, with his subordinates obeying with the motto of ‘Befehl ist Befehl‘. Thus Cassopeia heads to its own mass destruction, similar to Germany and Japan in World War II. Only when Yama threatens to blow up the entire planet of Cassiopeia itself, Le Teigneux gives in, and surrenders unconditionally. Now it will be Omega’s turn…
This episode’s images of war and mass destruction are very disturbing, and in no sense Barillé glorifies war, on the contrary. Although they had been the stock enemy in the past, the viewer is invited to sympathize with the Cassiopeians. Teigneux’s admiral is seen repeatedly in utter distress, torn between the general’s bullheadedness and the sheer hopelessness of his own duty, with his subordinates mourning the loss of human lives. Barillé raises the very question what cause would justify such loss, leaving the answer to the viewer. This is a very different take on war than the heroism of Star Wars, and a much more mature one, despite being aimed at children.
Watch ‘Combat de titans’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is the 25th episode of ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ (Once Upon a Time… Space)
To the 24th episode: Le grand ordinateur (The Great Computer)
To the 26th episode: L’infini de l’espace (The Infinity of Space)
Director: Paul Grimault
Release Date: 1947
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In this version, written by poet Jacques Prévert and undoubtedly inspired by the recent experiences of World War II, the soldier is actually an acrobat doll who gets drafted by a humming-top into an unexplained war.
In his absence, Jack-in-the-box tries to seduce his love, a ballerina doll. And when our little soldier finally returns from the battlefield, injured, Jack tries to kill him by taking his heart-shaped winding key away and by trying to drown him into an icy river. Fortunately, in a dramatic climax, the ballerina saves her love from drowning, while the villain gets stuck in a gin-trap.
‘Le petit soldat’ is entirely told in pantomime and a great improvement upon ‘La flûte magique‘, Grimault’s film from the previous year: its storytelling is better, its settings more dramatic, its characterization more convincing, and its animation more sophisticated. Indeed, this beautiful short about triumphant love arguably is Grimault’s masterpiece, even topping his beautiful, but uneven feature film ‘Le roi et l’oiseau’ (1952/1980), which is also based on a Jacques Prévert story.
Watch ‘Le petit soldat’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Le petit soldat’ is available on the DVD ‘Le roi et l’oiseau’
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: June 26, 1943
Stars: Tom & Jerry
War references include a periscope, a “jeep”, (paper) planes, a bomber (throwing light bulbs), a parachute (a bra), and lots of fireworks. Tom is the clear villain now, with Jerry acting the role of the brave American soldier. At the end of the cartoon Tom explodes in the sky revealing the American flag to which Jerry salutes.
Although not a real war cartoon (Tom and Jerry do not fight Nazis or anything like that), it is drenched in war spirit. Moreover, the short is extremely fast and furious, with gags coming without any break. No wonder it won an Academy Award.
Watch ‘Yankee Doodle Mouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Release Date: October 17, 1927
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Oswald volunteers too, after a long goodbye to his girlfriend. In the trenches, he’s still kissing her portrait, until it is bombed by a mouse. This leads to an air battle between Oswald and the little rodent, which ends with Oswald beating up the mice, until he’s confronted by an angry officer. Oswald and the officer get into a bombing duel, in which Oswald uses an elephant, which explodes. In the end even Oswald himself is literally blown to pieces, but he’s revived by his girlfriend who’s a red cross nurse.
The depiction of war in this cartoon is surprisingly positive, and there are a lot of gags. Real danger is never felt, but the cartoon does feature some startling images of huge cannons swooping into the camera. Four years later Hugh Harman, who did some of the animation, would reuse elements of ‘Great Guns’ in his own World War I film ‘Bosko the Doughboy‘ (1931).
Watch ‘Great Guns’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Isao Takahata
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a strong, emotional and immensely sad film. It kicks in right away, when we hear Seita say “September 12, 1945. That was the night I died”.
What follows is Seita’s story: this boy, about fourteen, first loses his mother in the fire raid of Kobe, which destroys the wooden town completely. Then he and his little sister Setsuko try to live at their aunt’s place, but the initially kind woman grows increasingly hostile to them. So Seita decides to find his own living space for him and his sister in an abandoned shelter, first trying to get food by buying it, then by stealing. Unfortunately, Setsuko sickens from malnutrition, and while he finally has a real meal for her, she dies. Seita manages to build her funeral, but although not shown, the film suggests Setsuko’s death has broken his will, leading to his own death as depicted in the first scene.
The rather straightforward story is told with several flashbacks and flash-forwards and with a unique focus on details of everyday life, which really makes the two children come to life. The realism of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is unprecedented, the animation of Setsuko in particular being very lifelike, despite a less fluent animation technique. Never before has such a realistic and endearing child entered the animated screen.
The film’s subject matter, which confronts the Japanese viewer with the lowest point in their recent history, is daring and so is its execution, with its concise focus on human suffering, instead of heroism or action. The film makes the viewer really feel the impact of war on innocent civilians: the agony of shortages, hunger and despair, while the rest of the war remains at the background. Takahata focuses on Seita’s love for his little sister, and his struggle to shield her from the effects of war. Seita is a sympathetic character, but not without flaws. His struggle to survive and to nurture his sister is heroic, but his decision to leave his aunt is also iinduced by pride, and it’s partly his own stubbornness that prevents him from reconciling with his aunt, which may have prevented Setsuko’s death. It’s hard to blame him, though, for he’s a child himself, after all.
‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the most serious animation features ever made, dealing with war and death. It’s also very sad, bringing tears to the eyes of almost every viewer. Like ‘Animal Farm‘ (1954), ‘Le planète sauvage‘ (1973) or ‘Watership Down’ (1978), ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is one of the few truly serious animation features, expanding the medium’s subject matter, and it’s a cinematic masterpiece by any standard.
‘Grave of the Fireflies’ was released as a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro‘, which is equally classic, but very different in tone, indeed.
Watch the trailer for ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Ivan Ivanov-Vano
Release Date: 1972
It combines paintings of the Virgin Mary with images of war. Its darkest moment is when a soldier in a gas mask kills a Vietnamese child. The film ends with live action footage of people protesting against the Vietnam war. Clever montage suggests that the protesters are being repressed.
Despite its disturbing character the film is too blatantly propagandastic and too directionless to be a classic. It also uses little animation.
Watch ‘Ave Maria’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Ave Maria’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1970
The young bird is fed by a capitalist and a general (who both are clearly American) with money and weapons. It grows into a huge black war-bird, which flies over the whole world, threatening loving couples in London, Paris, Moscow and Japan, and an old man, two mothers and several children in an unclear place. When the war-bird starts to attack, one mother turns Asian, Muslim and black, in order to illustrate that war can affect everybody everywhere. Eventually, however, the war-bird is overthrown by a multitude of peace doves, created by workers, writers, children, artists, musicians and pacifists.
‘We Can Do It’ is a beautiful and strikingly pacifistic film and undoubtedly one of the best propaganda films ever created in the Soviet Union. Despite its anti-American sentiment, its pacifistic theme is timeless and universal. The film tells its clear message without any dialogue or voice over. Moreover, its designs are stunning and very effective, especially that of the war-bird.
Watch ‘We Can Do It’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘We Can Do It’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Raoul Servais
Release Date: 1971
It tells about a poisonous gas, which turns people into spiritual beings. The gas is advertised as a ‘clean weapon’, because it doesn’t kill people. When the gas is accidentally bombed on the Benelux (Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg), it turns people into angels.
The film impresses with its weird idea, its dark and gloomy atmosphere, and its anti-war message. However, like Raoul Servais’s earlier film ‘Goldframe’ (1968), the film suffers from an all too present dialogue. In the end the short’s images are more lasting than the film itself is.
Watch ‘Operation X-70’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack King
Release Date: May 1, 1942
Stars: Donald Duck, Pete
Donald Duck was the fourth of these to support the war effort on the big screen, following Porky Pig, Barney Bear and Popeye, who had joined the army and navy, respectively, in July (‘Meet John Doughboy’) and November 1941 (‘The Rookie Bear, ‘The Mighty Navy’). Moreover, Popeye had already engaged the enemy in February in ‘Blunder Below‘. Donald was soon followed by Pluto (May 22), and Woody Woodpecker (June).
In ‘Donald Gets Drafted’, Donald enthusiastically signs up for the army, because he wants to fly, especially after seeing posters of very attractive air hostesses in uniform. His rather naive enthusiasm soon is lowered, when he first has to go through a rather rude medical examination only to end up in the infantry, where he’s bullied by sergeant Pete. Donald doesn’t make a very good soldier, much to Pete’s frustration, and ends up peeling potatoes.
‘Donald Gets Drafted’ is the first of six Donald Duck cartoons devoted to Donald’s career in the army. It introduces Pete as Donald’s sergeant, a role he would fulfill in three other of these war cartoons. The Donald Duck army cartoons are noteworthy for their ambiguous propaganda. Donald is far from a model soldier, and the cartoons makes quite some fun of the army superiors, in the form of Pete. It’s difficult to see them as army advertisements. Moreover, five of the six cartoons are devoted to Donald’s timid life at the training camp. Only in his last war cartoon, ‘Commando Duck’ (1944) would Donald leave American soil to kill some enemies.
With its humor being still quite mild, ‘Donald Gets Drafted’ is not the funniest of Donald’s army cartoons. It is noteworthy, however, for revealing that Donald Duck’s second name is Fauntleroy.
Watch ‘Donald Gets Drafted’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin
Release Date: 1967
Its chapters are all conceived in the same order: first we see animated capitalist predict something, then we see a giant Soviet blacksmith strike his mighty hammer and finally we see live action footage of the Soviet Union’s successes.
The separate chapters are the Soviet revolution, the civil war, the five year plans, the Second World War, the reconstruction after the war and the Soviet space program. The action is silent, and the imagery rather outdated (more like that of the 1920s than of the 1960s).
‘Prophets and Lessons’ is one of the most obviously propagandistic animation films ever made in the Soviet Union. Its overtly propagandistic message, its repetitive character, and its outdated symbolism make it rather tiresome to watch.
Surprisingly, two years later, the director of this humorless film, Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin, would launch a successful series of comic cartoons, called ‘Ну, Погоди!’ (‘Just Wait!’), featuring a very cartoony wolf.
Watch ‘Prophets and Lessons’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Prophets and Lessons’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’
Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
McCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer The Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915.
The actions are explained by title cards, and the action is rather slow, but the highly realistic animation scenes contain very believable images of water, smoke, a torpedo moving through water, and people trying to get off the ship. This startling realism is hampered by the clear propagandistic message against Germany, ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“.
Despite its slow action, ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite its propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.
Watch ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 5, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In ‘Music Land’ a young violin falls in love with a young saxophone, much to the disapproval of their parents, the queen of ‘The Land of Symphony’ and the king of ‘The Isle of Jazz, respectively, whose realms are separated by the ‘Sea of Discord’.
When the young saxophone is imprisoned, the feud between the two very different nations leads to a war, in which the two young lovers are almost killed… The whole story is told through music, even the characters ‘speak’ with the sounds of the instruments they are. The complete score, by Leigh Harline, is a delight to listen to.
This reading of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ is one of the most inspired of all Silly Symphonies. The very idea of musical instruments ‘speaking’ in their own sound is brilliant. But there is much more. For example, when the saxophone prince is locked up, he’s imprisoned in a metronome and when he writes a letter to his father (a caricature of bandleader Paul Whiteman, ‘the king of jazz’) he does this in staff-notation!
The complete design of the cartoon is delightful. The backgrounds are particularly beautiful, rendering a totally convincing fantasy world, in which the cartoon develops as if it were an age-old story. The concept of a battle between classical music and jazz was a topical one in the 1930s, when jazz was still regarded by many as devilish music and a threat to ‘high culture’. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 1930s jazz gradually became a respected genre, as exemplified by Benny Goodman’s concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938.
Watch ‘Music Land’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: April 25, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
We see him naked while he’s treated rather badly by a very rude officer. Mickey’s body is extraordinarily mechanical in this scene: the officer is able to stretch his neck and tongue endlessly, and can even take out Mickey’s heart.
In the next scene another officer shouts “company, forward march!”, making him the first character in a Disney cartoon that actually speaks. Up to this moment characters would only utter single syllable sounds and laughs. Only Minnie could express two syllables with her yoo-hoo, but that was it.
In spite of this step forward, ‘The Barnyard Battle’ remains, in effect, a silent cartoon. The way the inspecting officer asks Mickey to stick out his tongue is a perfect example. The highlight of silent acting, however, is given to Mickey, who, when confronted with a large and mean cat, gives a performance that matches Charlie Chaplin.
Mickey’s size is rather inconsistent in this cartoon. His never as small as in ‘When the Cat’s Away‘, but in some scenes he’s clearly much smaller than usual. The battle has more allusions to the American civil war than to World War I, making it a little more comfortable. Mickey finally defeats the cats by clobbering them with a hammer to Verdi’s anvil chorus from ‘Il Trovatore’. This is probably the first animated scene in which something totally unmusical is done musically. A great cartoon idea, which would be greatly expanded in many cartoons to come.
Watch ‘The Barnyard Battle’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: January 1, 1943
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Donald is awoken by a silly march band singing the sarcastic title song (penned by Disney composer Oliver Wallace and sung with gusto by Spike Jones). Then he has breakfast that consists of only one coffee bean, ‘aroma de bacon & eggs’ and a slice of wooden bread. All too soon he has to work at the assembly line, making shells and saluting to images of Adolf Hitler.
In the end, it appears that it was all just a dream, and Donald, in his Stars and Striped-colored room, sighs, embracing a golden copy of the statue of liberty: “Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America”. This closing scene is rather corny and the satire of the film misses some points: most of the (German) citizens of Nazi Germany were not poor and did not have to work like slaves, as is suggested here. Instead, the Nazis used forced labor forces from their occupied territories.
Nevertheless, ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face’ was both artistically and commercially the most successful of the Disney war time propaganda films. It even won an academy award for being the best animated short of 1943. It’s so successful, because, unlike most other propaganda shorts, it’s outrageously funny: its satire is so zany, its depiction of ‘Nutzi land’ so wacky, and the scene at the assembly line so out-to-lunch, that one cannot stop laughing. When Donald goes mad, these segments are even topped by a brightly colored, rather avantgardistic and very surrealistic stream-of-consciousness-like scene, which resembles similar dream sequences in ‘Dumbo’ (1941) and ‘The three Caballeros‘ (1944).
This short was not directed by any of the two regular Donald Duck directors of the time, Dick Lundy and Jack King, who both preferred a more unassuming type of humor, but by Jack Kinney, who is most famous for directing Goofy, and who was undoubtedly the wackiest of the Disney directors, of which this film certainly is proof.
Watch ‘Der Fuehrer’s Face’ yourself and tell me what you think: