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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 25, No. 1. 1962.

Some Recent Trends in Animated Films

page 4

Some Recent Trends in Animated Films

Animated films have to overcome a prejudice in the minds of most audiences — the tendency to regard the cartoon as a product aimed solely at children, with animals acting like humans and drawings that copy real life as closely as possible.

But this conception, which links cartoons with Hollywood, violence, slapstick and caricature is very much onesided and recently there have been some interesting new cartoons released which show that the medium is not as dead or as restricted as we feared. Sometimes humour itself has been jettisoned; there is no logical reason why animated films should be so, just because of that fact, funny.


About ten years ago, United Productions of America or Upa as the company is better known as, started releasing cartoons in which the artist, instead of disguising the characteristics of the medium in which he was working, actually admitted and exploited its conventions In Gerald McBoing Boing, Rooty Toot Toot and Willie The Kid, amongst others, we saw a move away from the idea of cartoons as children's fare to a more sophisticated and wry adult approach. Sometimes there was also the breakdown of the long association of animation with the belly laugh; more ambitious attempts at serious story-telling were made. The Tell Tale Heart was a fine and suitably horrific adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's story, while The Unicorn In The Garden was quite successfully based on the Thurber parable.

Unfortunately, Upa became more and more conventional and Disneyesque in their techniques and churned out one Mister Magoo vehicle after another, culminating in a feature length cartoon a couple of years ago called Magoo's 1001 Arabian Nights in which the wit, satire and charm of the earlier works had reverted to the old fashioned saccharinestyle of the earlier cartoonists.

A scene from Zagreb Film's All the Drawings on the Town

A scene from Zagreb Film's All the Drawings on the Town

North of the Border

An entirely different kind of approach from anything preceding it was pioneered by Norman McLaren, working in the National Film Board of Canada. This was to draw directly onto the film, applying the coloured image frame by frame, often creating a synthetic soundtrack the same way. In Begone, Dull Care, Fiddle De Dee and Boogie Doodle, he set purely abstract designs to music and made odd nightmare figures and linger paintings dance to jazz—the first man to make a musical out of the Rorschach test.

McLaren experiments with other methods also, for instance with cut out figures as in Rhythmetic, in which numerals jump around anthropomorphically, or with his "pixillation" technique in which live actors are photographed with stop-action photography and treated frame by frame as drawings, as in Love Thy Neighbour and Chairy Tale.

But McLaren too is settling into a groove and repeating himself, as in new creations like Short And Suite, with old material treated in old ways.

In England, the same thing has happened to Halas and Batchelor, who have neglected such early works as Animal Farm and become more or less a source of thinly disguised advertising blurbs for oil companies and other big manufacturers.

New Sources

There are two new main sources of inspiration in the field of animated film. There are the European animators on the one hand, and a few American individualists on the other. It is to these groups that we must turn today to find the new and exciting developments. All working independently, it is not possible to lump them together into schools or trace much connection between them.

The Europeans

Jri Trnka in Czechoslovakia we already know well from his full length puppet film The Emperor's Nightingale and such similar shorts as The Song of the Prairie and The Lost Sentry. Most recently he has made A Midsummer Night's Dream the same way, a treatment which successfully creates a fantasy world to match the atmosphere of Shakespeare's play and Mendelssohn's music.

But just as the major festivals of the last few years have revealed important new features emerging from countries once neglected as nonentities in film production, the same thing is happening in the field of cartoons. There has been a surprising growth of new work in Poland and Yugoslavia, for example, where simplicity, biting satire and, above all, contemporary awareness have returned to animated film. This last quality is something that is usually neglected in cartoons; they seem to exist in a never-never land and distant time which insulates them effectively from any chance of involving the viewer. There has never been a cartoon, that is until recently, that raised any issues or put forward any controversial viewpoint.

A Polish study, Vladislav Nehrebecki's Mouse and Cat, is at present on release in New Zealand. It is the cat vs. mouse theme retold, but without the vulgarisation attendant on the Hollywood films. Halina Bielinska's The Changing of the Guard brilliantly parodies military display with its marching and manoeuvering animated matchboxes.

It is in Yugoslavia, however, that most innovation has taken place. After 1956 a united group of designers emerged as a school whose style, sometimes mannered or affected, always stemmed from originality and invention. Dusan Vukotic and Vatroslav Mimica are the leading artists in Zagreb Films, as the production company is called. Along with others in the group, their common platform is an intellectual and somewhat cynical attitude toward the world and characters they are projecting and towards the public to whom they address themselves. The best known of the Yugoslav cartoons in undoubtedly Concerto for Sub Machine Gun, with its satire directed especially at Rififi. Superbly angular music is allied with a daringly imaginative colour sense. In the same way. Cowboy Jimmy is directed at westerns, The Inspector Returns Home at thrillers and Piccolo is a pointed lesson in good neighbour policy.

All these are emphatically cartoons directed at an informed, intelligent, adult audience. They are the cartoon equivalent of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or The Sweet Smell of Success, the world they inhabit is similar, their treatment hardboiled, bold and simple. The music is sometimes raucous, often jazzy and always vital—the direct opposite of the syrupy accompaniment to the routine cartoon.

Syrupy is a good word to use when describing the usual Soviet product. There, fairy tales and anthropomorphic sermons arc the staple fare. Wicked wolves, fairies, wise owls, pretty little girls, talking dolls and puppets are just as familiar in the most recent Russian cartoon as they were in the Hollywood ones of the Thirties and Forties. No doubt the first stylised, sophisticated one from Russia to be screened at a European festival in the next year or so will be greeted with shouts of joy as another breakthrough on the part of the Soviet New Wave.

The American Scene

Despite the usual programme fillers which are destined always to be with us, in America also, new work is being produced by relatively unknown individual artists. Terrytoons, surprisingly, have released Gene Deitch's Sidney's Family Tree—a dig at "Momism" and his Another Day,—Another Doormat (inspired by the work of "sick" cartoonist Jules Feiffer). For the same company, Ernst Pintoff has made Flebus, a beautifully economically styled film with a psychoanalytic background, and The Violinist—an examination of the artist's status. Al Kousel made The Juggler of Our Lady, based on the familiar story and with commentary by Boris Karloff, in a pleasantly relaxed and sympathetic style.

These are all individual attempts though, and with the decline of Upa no company has risen to eminence in the field as a consistent backer of experimental or out of the routine attempts. Whether Terrytoons may do this is doubtful, for their past record, like that of Mgm and Warner Bros, has been one of playing it safe.

Made with British Labour

Actually, experiment is not entirely dead in Britain either. While Dick Williams' The Little Island drew almost unanimous critical acclaim, others have been active in a quiet way. Not many admittedly—the British cartoons reflect the general moribund state of British filmmaking as a whole.

Those who saw Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will remember The Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit from Biographic, a successor to their equally successful Polygamous Polonious. The way these hilarious cartoons are quietly slipped into programmes unsung and unhonoured is indicative of the status of cartoons in the cinema—the feeling amongst distributors seems to be that they are simply useful as supporting material or for the kids' matinees.