Category Archives: animation

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe

Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.

The Lego Movie (2014)

Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

It’s… fast, isn’t it? Tears along at a speed that even the 21st century version of Doctor Who might consider indecent… Anyway, the challenge this month at the ICM forum is “animation”, so I decided to make this my first contribution to same in keeping with my plan to wipe some of the more recent titles in my backlog off it. It was a puzzling prospect when I first heard about it, much like The Social Network; if Facebook seemed an unlikely subject for a film, how much more bizarre did Lego sound? I know toy-driven cartoons are hardly new (I watched enough of them as a kid), but still… Anyway, much as The Social Network was unexpectedly hailed as a great work when it finally appeared, so was The Lego Movie; happily I reacted far better to the adventures of Emmet than I did Zuckerberg vs the Winklevii. Emmet is kind of the ultimate Everyman, or Everyfigure, a completely generic construction worker in the city of Bricksburg who inadvertently becomes mixed up in a battle to save the whole Lego universe from the machinations of benevolent (?) ruler President Business and his plan to unleash something called the “Kragle” upon it. As I said, this story is related at blinding speed—I remember being kind of shocked at one point to find only 12 minutes had passed and there were still about 85 minutes to go—which was a bit alarming at first (that was an awful lot more stuff that would be needed to fill 100 minutes) but is actually kind of referenced by the film itself and makes a certain sense, especially when it comes to the BIG TWIST (a sort of mix of Blazing Saddles and the end of St Elsewhere). Alas, the twist is kind of where the film falls down a bit and gives into the sort of sentiment it had hitherto managed to avoid or undercut. Actually, the overall message is a bit mixed, with the film’s libertarian leanings (that apparently gave that loon Glenn Beck a bit of a hard-on) and general attempt at being “subversive” being undermined somewhat by Emmet’s realisation that the Master Builders won’t get anywhere except by pulling together as a unit and following instructions, which is kind of, well. the opposite of what the film had been trying to say up to then. Still, it’s a fair deal of fun, and the consistent “Legofication” of everything results in some genuinely amazing visuals. Not surprised a sequel has been ordered, though I’m not sure I can envisage where they’ll take it…

Heavy Metal (1981)

Director: Gerald Potterton (and various others)

Well, FINALLY I know who voices so many of the 80s horror trailers in the Drive-In Delirium series, i.e. Percy Rodriguez, the voice of the Loc-Nar in this film… for some reason he’s uncredited in the film itself but he’s listed on Wikipedia; I thought the voice sounded kind of familiar, and lo, his Wiki page does indeed list a few of those very trailers… Another name missing from the credits is that of Jean Giraud, which is a bit rude, given that he only helped create the magazine (Métal Hurlant) that became Heavy Metal in the US and eventually birthed this film, and given also that one of his stories inspired one of the stories in it as well… Anyway, Heavy Metal the film is made up of various stories from Heavy Metal the magazine, all revolving in some way or other around a green orb called the Loc-Nar (voiced by Rodriguez), all glued together with a frame story in such a way that it all makes not a lot of sense; the various stories were handled by various sequence directors and various animation houses, so there’s a certain degree of diversity that kind of undermines the coherence a bit further (although a fair amount of the animation in the film was done by rotoscoping, so the whole thing does have a faintly Ralph Bakshi feel to it). Heavy Metal was unavailable for years thanks to music rights issues, and the soundtrack is probably the most interesting thing about it, not just Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral score (with ondes martenot!) but the many and varied rock/new wave numbers too. A somewhat vexing experience to watch, though; quite apart from having problems with the humdrum storytelling, Heavy Metal just struck me as rooted in its very particular time and place, when the idea of comics (and animation) being pitched at adults and able to encompass this sort of overt sex and violence and all that was still fairly new, and I’m not sure it’s worn too well over the years since then… impressive enough to look at but a bit tiresome to actually watch.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Astonishing. I mean, on some level I suppose I always thought it was; I do recall seeing it when it came out in Australia (one of my comparatively rare cinema trips at that time), and I loved it then, but I probably only dimly realised just what an achievement it actually was. I probably mainly thought it was funny above all other considerations. And it IS funny, screamingly so. But I look at it now with rather more years of film watching under my felt and with a lot better appreciation of how films are made, and my mind positively boggles; the technical advances required to pull this off without a single instance of computer assistance must have been almost unimaginable in the mid-80s, cos even now the effect is jaw-dropping. And now I realise just how outrageous the film’s basic conceit is, “toons”, cartoon characters and objects, having the same reality as “real” people and things… it’s actually a kind of extraordinary idea, and where the film is perhaps most amazing is the way in which it presents humans and toons interacting, and how well it shows the underlying logic of the behaviour involved; the fact that all the animated business is hand-drawn rather than CGI only enhances the sometimes uncanny effect of the “real” and the “unreal” coming together. I know the film is actually adapted from a novel, but I’ll be damned if I can imagine this working on the printed page; you’d need to put it on film to really be effective. (A cartoon cab driving a real car? Wouldn’t be half as funny reading it as it is seeing it.) And somehow it makes perfect sense to set all this in the context of what is basically a film noir plot, too, because what sort of fictional setting could be less appropriate for a story about cartoon characters? A rabbit accused of murder? Goddamn. So yeah, when I’d only just turned fourteen I would’ve thought this was kind of amazing; nearly 24 years later, I’ve got a much better understanding of just why it is, and it seems even more amazing as a result.

Silent Sunday: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

These days, of course, we’d probably have to frown upon the orientalism of the whole thing if we considered ourselves politically correct, but since I don’t I’ll just have to settle for enjoying the film. I was delighted to find the BFI edition of the film recently, and delighted to watch it again tonight; first saw it eight or nine years ago courtesy of the estimable Jan Willis, who used to supply me with masses of stuff taped off Turner Classic Movies, including this… The prize for creator of the animated feature film seems to be that Cristiani fellow from Argentina (the DVD’s liner notes ludicrously assign credit to Winsor McCay’s Lusitania film, which is not a feature), but since his films vanished decades ago Lotte Reiniger certainly has the earliest surviving example, and a singular one at that thanks to the silhouette technique involved. Achmed is an extraordinary achievement in many ways, not least because Reiniger made it with such a small crew (husband Carl Koch and a handful of assistants like Walter Ruttmann—interesting to see this again having seen Ruttmann’s own animations, now I can spot the things he must’ve done in this), and constructed all the silhouette models herself. Little wonder it took three years to make. It was sufficiently out there stylistically that its first German audiences didn’t get it, but it was well received by the French; Jean Renoir was such a fan he became friends with Reiniger and Koch, working with the latter on various films during the 30s (Reiniger also did a shadow theatre scene for La marseillaise), while they took over his unfinished Tosca when he fled to the US. It’s literal Arabian nights stuff that packs a remarkable amount of narrative into a running time of just over an hour, but the animation itself, the artwork, is what really matters. Pioneering but not primitive at all, and still quite splendid 85 years later; now I want the other BFI disc of her short films…

Jan Svankmajer: the Complete Short Films (1964-1992)

So a couple of nights ago I spent an evening with Jan Svankmajer’s oeuvre… which I first discovered probably around 1995 or so (did I first read of him in Sight & Sound? Can’t remember) when SBS showed the Channel 4 documentary on him, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (helpfully included on the BFI collection as an extra), and then I think they showed Alice afterwards or something. I’ve since seen Faust as well, but the short films have been unfamiliar territory, apart from Meat Love (saw at Mu-Meson Archives one night) and such excerpts of the shorts as appeared in the documentary (i.e. more or less all of Dimensions of Dialogue and bits of others; I always wanted to see his House of Usher after seeing the fragment of it in the doco). Beyond that I haven’t really made any actual effort to explore Svankmajer’s work; I only thought of him dimly as a sort of Czech surrealist and never exactly tried to hunt him down (I only even saw Faust cos I got sent a DVD of it by the local distributor). But I knew my library had the BFI collection of his short films, so when I found it in stock a couple of weeks ago I took it, and after watching the Paradjanov film the other night I decided that was the right time to finally watch the thing.

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The Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales (1912-1958)

I was in another of those moods where I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to watch (I’ve been trying to keep to some sort of viewing schedule, but I think that’s broken down a bit), and then I recalled I still had this lying around… picked it up cheap a while ago as a library title (cos I wanted at least a bit of Starewicz on DVD) but hadn’t got around to actually watching it yet cos I kind of kept forgetting it was there. So I decided it was time to check in once again with the man who gave this blog its name…

As pioneers of cinema go, few are as arguably obscure, not to mention inadvertent, as Wladyslaw Starewicz. Born in Lithuania to Polish parents, the young fellow’s passion for entomology led him to become director of a natural history museum, and his other abiding interest in photography led him to try his hand at film making around 1909. However, trying to get his insect subjects to co-operate (the either fell asleep or died under the lights, depending on which story you read) was a vexing problem for him. Then he apparently saw one of the early animated films of Emile Cohl, the French cartoonist, involving stop-motion matchsticks, and decided he could pull a similar trick with his insects. After the 1917 revolution, Starewicz settled in France and continued his work there until his death in 1965. For the life of me I can’t recall how or when I first heard of him, but I do recall that back in 1995 I first read Sight & Sound magazine and I think I must’ve seen a review in that of the Connoisseur Video release of some of his films and that led me to actually order the damn thing (via the Dendy shop, back in the days when the Martin Place cinema had a shop out back), probably the first time I actually did that.

This particular DVD is, alas, not an upgrade of that (if only it were); instead it’s actually an earlyish (released in 2000) presentation of a mid-90s video release by Milestone of six Starewicz films, only two of which I’d seen before… starting, obviously, with the title film and ending with Winter Carousel from 1958, apparently his last actually finished film. In between there’s The Insect’s Christmas, a combination of insect-work and more traditional puppets from 1913, two 1920s silents (Frogland and Voice of the Nightingale, the latter presented in a hand-coloured print that is truly something to behold) and the 1934 sound film The Mascot. The latter was clearly shot silent and later subjected to some of the worst post-synchronisation on Earth (fortunately there’s only a handful of actual lines of dialogue, though each one makes me want to kill the person talking); it’s also home to a genuinely strange mix of sentimentality and the macabre. Given that Starewicz was essentially making children’s films, I can only assume with this one he was trying to traumatise some of his younger viewers for life. Revenge itself remains a thing of complete wonder, of course, a tale of infidelity and marital mistrust filmed by a vengeful camera operator as part of that evening’s entertainment and all enacted by a cast of dead insects. 100 years later it’s still stunning.

Glad I’ve got this DVD, but at the same time it makes me wish someone would do a much more definitive Starewicz DVD set; I know quite a lot of his films are lost but I also know much more than just this batch of films exists (I’ve got a few of them on tape after all), and it’d be nice not to have to jump through flaming hoops to get them in digital form.

Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

Is it just me or do the Fleischer cartoons not get the same attention as the Disney and Warner ones? Until now all I can remember seeing are the Superman series, and though I know I’ve seen Popeye cartoons (and even then I probably haven’t seen them in a quarter century or more) I’m fairly sure I’ve only ever seen them in colour, which means I’ve never seen any of the Fleischer productions. Anyway, my limited knowledge of the Fleischer oeuvre expanded a bit this morning courtesy of TVS (who I do seem to be watching a fair bit of late, probably cos it’s virtually the last free-to-air station still showing old films)… interested to learn Max & Dave wanted to try their hand at an animated feature as early as 1934 but Paramount (their distributor) refused to countenance such a bizarre idea, at least until Disney made Snow White. After what was apparently not an entirely happy production (thanks in part to Paramount wanting a much faster turnaround than Disney), Gulliver was ready for Xmas ’39 and duly proved a hit. And at this distance it’s still pretty fair viewing, though not without a few issues; perhaps the biggest one is the way in which Gulliver doesn’t really get to do a lot, he doesn’t even wake up after his shipwreck until about halfway through. Plus the romantic subplot between the prince and princess of the two kingdoms is beyond feeble, and the use of rotoscope to draw them (and Gulliver) sticks out sorely against the more conventionally “cartoonish” drawing of all the other characters. Otherwise, though, it’s well-drawn stuff, the humour is reminiscent of the early WB shorts, and though it’s no masterpiece it was still a nice way to start the day.