Monday, March 2, 2015

Beyond the Oscars: The Many Faces of Animated Films

The Oscars were more than a week ago, and rather than actually WATCHING all of the nominees and making an informed voting decision the awards for both Best Animated Feature and Short both went to Disney for Big Hero 6 and Feast respectively. This type of uninformed decision is par for the course unfortunately.

But I'm not here to dwell on the ignorant apathy of the Hollywood elite. While there isn't much I can do to change the lazy voting habits of the Academy, I can at least inform the movie-viewing audience what animation has to offer besides the run-of-the-mill family friendly film that has pigeonholed animation as safe kiddie fare. All of these movies are available on Netflix, so take some time to check them out if you haven't already.

The Secret of Kells (Tom Moore/Erin Twomey; 2009)

The first word that comes to my mind when I think of this film is gorgeous. The sweeping, elegant artwork perfectly matches the story about a young Irish monk tasked with completing and preserving the historic Book of Kells, a Christian tome known the world over for its beautifully detailed illustrations and ornamentation. The film itself is a French, Belgian, and Irish production and it sheds some light onto the more mature approach that many European studios have toward animation. The Old World fairy-tale atmosphere is the perfect complement to the movie's themes of preservation of self and culture in the face of destruction. If you really enjoy Book of Kells, Cartoon Saloon's second movie, Song of the Sea, was also nominated for an Oscar this year.

The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet; 2003)

Where Book of Kells is fantastic and elegant, French animator Sylvain Comet's work is quirky and intimate. His (arguably) best film is The Triplets of Belleville. An elderly woman, Madame Souza, embarks on a journey to rescue her grandson Champion who has been kidnapped in a plot to exploit his professional cycling skills. In the city of Belleville, her and her dog Bruno meet the eponymous triplets who were a formerly famous music hall act from the 1930s. There is virtually no dialogue, and while this may at first seem tedious, the physical acting is so strong and funny that eventually you don't even miss it. Each character brings their personality, warts and all, to life brilliantly. You may spend parts of the movie wondering whether or not you should laugh. Go ahead by all means, this is one of the subtlest animated comedies out there.

Fantasia (Disney; 1940)

This one is included on the list because it shows that the big studios were not always factories for cranking out predictable family films. Earlier in his studio's history, Walt Disney was a trailblazer for showing the potential of what animated films could be. Fantasia is the third movie produced by the studio, but it remains the most ambitious feature the studio has ever attempted. The film itself is a series of vignettes based on various pieces of classical music that range from solid and literal to wildly abstract; from saccharine to haunting. It is a tour-de-force of what top-tier Hollywood animation is capable of when not restrained by decades of tropes and cliches. The fact that this movie was unsuccessful (largely because of WWII raging in Europe at the time) remains one of the greatest disappointments in the history of the studio. Plus, the version on Netflix has restored interstitial segments by master of ceremonies Deems Taylor (well I think it's exciting)!

Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi; 1972)

Ralph Bakshi is one of the most influential animation directors following the end of the Golden Age of Animation. His work combines the long tradition of wacky surrealism with the poignant counterculture of the '70s underground. Perhaps his most well known feature is Fritz the Cat, based off of the Robert Crumb comic of the same name. It has offbeat characters in Bakshi's trademark design that are acutely tapped into to the social issues of urban America during the '70s. Drugs, sex, and racial tension all take center stage as the tuned-out Fritz goes about his life wandering from one existential antic to the next. Bakshi's work can be a little intense and off putting to those not used to it, but as the first animated film to receive an X rating, it is definitely worth a watch.

The Adventures of Mark Twain (Will Vinton; 1985)

Before there was Laika (Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls), there was Will Vinton and his stop-motion Claymation. One of his few features, The Adventures of Mark Twain is about three youngsters (Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher) who travel with the famous author on his fantastic flying machine as he strives to keep an, "appointment," with Halley's Comet. As the kids explore the ship and talk with Mr. Twain they experience adaptations of some of his best known works. The segment based on "The Mysterious Stranger" stands out in particular as one of the most chilling animated sequences I've ever seen. It is equal parts unnerving and introspective, utilizing simple clay figures to explore the nature of good and evil and the sobering effect of man's mortality. Heady stuff from the same guy who brought us The California Raisins.

It's Such A Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt; 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt is advanced animation appreciation. He is a virtual rock star of the independent film/animation community, and his work is utterly unique and deserving of its reputation. This movie is actually a collection of three short films (Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You, and It's A Wonderful Day) that follow the daily life of a young man named Bill who struggles with daily life and finding inspiration. It will make you laugh one minute with its acute observation of everyday foibles, and will shock you into silence with its stark realism the next. All of this is accomplished using Hertzfeldt's trademark use of simple pen and paper drawings and split-screen windows that, while they appear crude, possess a level of beauty and appropriateness for the subject matter. If all of that sounds like high-brow indie film talk, that's because it is. Much like how the work of Alan Moore can only be presented as a comic book, so too can Hertzfeldt's vision only being accomplished using old fashioned paper and ink. If you're only used to animated films that are super polished and like to brag about their ability to render water and hair, then this is definitely worth a watch.

This is of course but a sampling of what the animation medium has to offer. Have any other must-see films? Let me know in the comments, or better yet let your friends know so we can all spread the good word!

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Duck for the Ages: A Tribute to Daffy Duck

Note: This post is a response to the guys over at Trope & Dagger who are debating over the best Looney Tunes character  You should head over and check out some of their stuff if you like some differing points of view on all things pop culture.

No other cartoon series has brought us as diverse a cast of characters as Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but who amongst this group can be crowned the best? It is certainly a subjective matter, but some characters do stand out more than others. My vote for Best Looney Tunes Character: Daffy Duck.

Of the dozens of characters that were created by the animators at Termite Terrace, Daffy has had the longest, most diverse career, and best represents the spirit of that ragtag collective.

Let's go back to his origins. Daffy was not the first major star at WB (that distinction belongs to Porky Pig), but unlike his stuttering costar, this duck was something new and gave birth to what would be known as the screwball character in cartoons. Bob Clampett, who along with Tex Avery created Daffy in 1937's Porky's Duck Hunt, described the phenomenon thusly:

"At that time, audiences weren't accustomed to seeing a cartoon character do these things. And so, when it hit the theaters it was an explosion. People would leave the theaters talking about this daffy duck."

Over the next thirty years Daffy would be utilized by every directorial unit at the studio, with each one lending its own flavour to the character.

Tex Avery played the duck as a ball of unrestrained manic energy, bewildering Porky, his long suffering straight man for decades.

Under Bob Clampett's unit he achieved his acme (see what I did there) as a complete lunatic who defied every law imaginable, especially the laws of physics. Animator Rod Scribner's artwork still stands as some of the wildest and funniest ever put to paper. Baby Bottleneck and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery are two outstanding examples of the looniest Looney Tune in action.

By the mid '40s, the studio had lost Avery and Clampett and cartoons were drawn by three different units. Each had their own set of characters. Friz Freling had Sylvester and Tweety and Yosemite Sam, Bob McKimson had Foghorn Leghorn and the Tazmanian Devil, and Chuck Jones had Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote and Pepe LePew. Big stars like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were shared by all three.

Of these three units, Chuck Jones emerged as the dominant creative voice and the other two directors largely followed suit in terms of types of gags and general story structure. It must be said however that McKimson held out for a few years and as a result his cartoons have a much more slapstick feel than Jones's more cerebral approach to animating.

In Jones's cartoons, Daffy's character is given a complete overhaul. Instead of a screwball, he is greedy, self-centered and conniving. He was often paired with Bugs Bunny where he served as a foil for Bugs's cool and collected demeanor. The bunny's popularity had by this time eclipsed Daffy's, and cartoons often played up this jealousy with Bugs always getting the better of his feathered costar. The Hunters Trilogy of "Rabbit Fire", "Rabbit Seasoning", and "Duck! Rabbit! Duck!" are the best examples of this.

Daffy was also successful as a headliner during the '50s and early '60s. He played Robin Hood, Duck Dodgers of the 24th 1/2 Century, and the swashbuckling Scarlet Pumpernickel. It was also during this time that he starred in "Duck Amok", regarded as one one of the greatest animated shorts ever made for it's existential breaking of the fourth wall. By the time the studio shut down in the '60s, Daffy was even playing the villain opposite Speedy Gonzalez, although these cartoons are a far cry from the duck's heyday.

Daffy Duck's career at WB spanned three decades, and Mel Blanc voiced him for 52 years, longer than any other character in the history of the medium. He's played heroes, villains, and sidekicks in settings from all times and places. He's hit Adolph Hitler on the head with a mallet! He may lack the coolness of Bugs Bunny or the tenacity of Wile E. Coyote, but he makes up for it with sheer chutzpah. Early on in his career, Tex Avery was quoted as saying, "In a cartoon, you can do anything." No character before or since has embodied that spirit as much as Daffy Duck.

Again, Daffy smacking Hitler with a mallet.

As a final note, enjoy this 13 1/2 minute supercut of all of a Daffy's loony laughter. I can't think of a better way to celebrate not just the greatest Looney Tunes character, but one of the best cartoon characters ever.