Saturday Morning Cartoon

animation_duets

Covering animated short film in 2014 has been an exciting, often bizarre and always fulfilling experience. Doing it almost entirely from home, aside from an occasional festival, has been as fascinating as it is sometimes frustrating. Many of the best new animated shorts I caught this year were technically from 2012 or 2013, only recently making it off of the festival circuit and onto YouTube or Vimeo. This means that no definitive Top Ten Animated Shorts of 2014 is possible, at least not one that involves embedded video of entire films. However, the next-best thing is a sampling of some of the absolute best stuff that is available to watch, right here and now. Here are three of my favorites, standing in for some of the best ways to find brilliant, creative work as the year goes by.

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Honayn

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is out this weekend. Yet the buzz remains about the casting controversy rather than the (apparently low) quality of the film itself. Rupert Murdoch tweeted that as far as he’s concerned, Egyptians have always been white. I wouldn’t begin to try to exhaustively explain the Australian media mogul’s unfortunate perspective. There is, however, something fascinating and troubling about the whitewashing of Egypt because of 1) its role in the Bible and 2) its place in ancient history. Not only does it belie a misconception of Ancient Egypt, it also tends to eclipse any acknowledgment of Egypt as an existing nation of 87 million people who possess a rich culture and who write in Arabic, not hieroglyphics. So, here’s a proposal. Don’t go see Exodus: Gods and Kings. Instead, take a few minutes and dive into the tradition of modern Egyptian animation. There isn’t much of it, to be sure, but what little there is can be quite fascinating and charming.

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Monsters Vs Aliens

Wild opens this weekend, heralding the triumphant return (and likely second Oscar nomination) of Reese Witherspoon. It’s actually only the highest profile of three performances by the actress this fall. She’s also in The Good Lie, which opened in October, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming Inherent Vice. As if that weren’t enough, she also produced Gone Girl. It’s a fortuitous few months, especially given what many consider a years-long fallow period. We’re only now emerging from the unfortunate wake of How Do You Know, This Means War, and smaller failures like Devil’s Knot. It’s about time. And, as every American knows, a good year for Witherspoon is a good year for us all. So, to celebrate, let’s watch a cartoon! Monsters vs. Aliens opened just over two years after the star won her Oscar for Walk the Line. It was her only feature film in 2009, stuck between 2008’s Four Christmases and 2010’s How Do You Know. She’s the lead, the only technically human major character in a film about blobs and space cockroaches. Yet given the way animation isn’t taken too seriously, particularly the stuff directed toward children, no one seems to talk about the film’s massive success in the context of Witherspoon’s career. Monsters vs. Aliens wasn’t only her biggest hit during the post-Oscar slump, it made more money worldwide than anything else she’s done.

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Storytime Terry Gilliam

Happy birthday, Terry Gilliam! Today the director, writer, animator and erstwhile-American turns 74 years old. It’s certainly cause for celebration. Even as a septuagenarian he’s still working. The Zero Theorem only recently opened in the United States, his twelfth feature film as director. There are plenty of ways to pay tribute to the artist and his work with your Saturday, though I’d imagine it’s hard to make the time to watch each of his dozen movies in a row. Instead, if you can carve out just under ten minutes, here’s a more practical option. It’s got more laughs per minute than most of his feature work as well. Storytime is cobbled together from two separate cartoons that Gilliam made for two different TV shows. The first, the diptych of “Don the Cockroach” and “The Albert Einstein Story,” aired on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine in 1971. Gilliam also did the opening titles for the series, which you can watch on YouTube. The second, “The Christmas Card,” was created for a Christmas special of an earlier show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. The variety format of both programs was a perfect fit for Gilliam’s knack for self-contained cartoons that break all of their own rules and bust through the fourth wall. This talent would become even more prominent in his years working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 through 1974.

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Dumb and Dumber Cartoon

There is a Dumb and Dumber cartoon. It is insane and it demands your attention. This may come as a shock if you weren’t watching animation on ABC in the mid-1990s. It was never exactly well-regarded, or even regarded at all. It was canceled after its first season, which ran from October of 1995 through February of 1996. Harry and Lloyd only managed to gallivant through 13 episodes before they were evicted from the screen until 2003’s ill-begotten prequel and, of course, Dumb and Dumber To. The characters, created by the Farrelly Brothers, have had quite a bizarre franchise history. That said, the Farrelly Brothers were not directly involved with Dumb and Dumber the TV series. It was their co-writer on the original film, Bennett Yellin, who stepped in to write the television series. It was produced by Hanna-Barbera, their last project for ABC. This was an important moment for the storied animation studio, which would be entirely absorbed into Cartoon Network Studios in 2001. Later series like Johnny Bravo, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls would become Cartoon Network productions by the end of their runs. Dumb and Dumber, for whatever it’s worth, is one of the last few projects that started and finished with a Hanna-Barbera stamp.

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Warner Bros.

There is no better art form for space travel than cinema. Sure, there are plenty of excellent high flying science fiction novels, and television has had plenty of great interplanetary adventures over the years, but nothing really holds a candle to the movies. One can even compare a cinema to a spaceship, the theater going experience a less hokey version of a ride at Disneyland. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the intergalactic elephant of the genre, of course, but audiences have been captivated by space travel at least since Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon. That’s over a century of grand, bombastic and enormously ambitious films that explore the breadth and depth of the universe. And now we have Interstellar, equally convinced of the magic of cinema and the essential task of maintaining its majesty on 70mm, while extending its reach into IMAX. It follows in the large, distant footsteps of 2001 and Solaris, as well as the more recent space boot prints of Gravity. These films all use special effects to blend live actors into a mostly fantastical background, a strategy that has increasingly intruded into the realm of animation over the years. What, then, about animation itself, its practitioners approaching space travel from the other direction, creating new galaxies from scratch?

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Alma, by Rodrigo Blaas

Happy Halloween! Or, rather, Happy Morning-After-Halloween! There’s nothing better to cure a candy hangover than cartoons. In honor of this indulgent holiday, here’s something of an indulgent (if brisk) extravaganza of horror cartoon history. Animation brings a unique skill set to horror and suspense. On the one hand, the difference in the representation of physical space dramatically changes the ability to produce jump scares. It’s not that it’s impossible to put instant shrieks into cartoons, but the impact is different. The fear in animation is often less visceral, more slow-burning. Animators can create self-contained stylistic universes with very specific moods, and terrifying ones at that. A great scary cartoon can sink into your soul, keeping you up at night with memories of something that will never quite fit into the waking world. They’re masterpieces of suggestion and imagination, showing that an image need not be possible in the live action world to scare us to the core. Here are the ten creepiest animated shorts of all time (that you can watch online right now).

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Carmelo

Jorge R. Gutierrez, as it turns out, has something of an artistic fascination with death. His first feature film, The Book of Life, opened last weekend. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a love story that crosses into the afterlife and builds upon the aesthetic and spiritual traditions of Dia de los Muertos. Death comes early on in the film, when Manolo (Diego Luna) is bitten by a venomous snake and sent into the next world. To regain the love of his life, Maria (Zoe Saldana), he has to find a way to come back from the beyond. It may not be the only recent animated feature for kids to address death, after Paranorman and others, but its embrace of such a morbid narrative is an exciting risk. For Gutierrez, however, this is nothing new. His final film as a student at CalArts in 2000 was a 3D short called Carmelo. It won an Emmy for student animation and played at a number of festivals. He has since mostly worked in television, for Nickelodeon, Disney, and Warner Bros. He created the 2007 Nickelodeon series El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, which was that network’s first ever flash animation series. The project won a number of Emmys, as well as two Annie Awards. These three most significant projects, Carmelo, El Tigre and now The Book of Life all draw from Gutierrez’s childhood and his heritage in Mexico.

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Count Duckula

Dracula Untold was out last weekend, starring burgeoning (maybe?) Hollywood talent Luke Evans as the title vampire. Or, rather, as the title historical figure with a particular fondness for bats. This is one of those Vlad the Impaler-focused stories, moving to the source material of this age-old Balkan legend. As usual, I won’t dive into the details of whether this particular new release is terrible. Instead, let’s look at some much more successfully entertaining Transylvanian fare. It may not involve Dominic Cooper but it does involve ducks. I am talking, of course, about the evergreen ridiculousness of Count Duckula, scion of the line of Duckula. As the opening credits explain, he was resurrected by his scheming butler Igor and gregarious Nanny when the moon was in the eighth house of Aquarius. They accidentally used ketchup instead of blood in the ritual, so he’s the world’s first vegetarian vampire. He has a nemesis named Dr. Von Goosewing, who is of course ripped right from Dr. Van Helsing, except that he is a goose. It’s actually fairly straightforward.

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grand_ourse

The King and the Mockingbird is one of those legendary animated features with a tortured production history, along the lines of Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler and Yuri Norshtein’s still-unfinished The Overcoat. French artist Paul Grimault began the project in the late 1940s under the title The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep, taken from a Hans Christian Andersen story. The script was by Jacques Prévert, by that point one of the most important poets and screenwriters working in France. In spite of all these talents, however, production stalled and a great deal of money was lost. Grimault’s studio, Les Gemeaux, was forced to close and his former partner released an unfinished version without his permission in 1952. Eventually Grimault regained the rights to the project, secured funding and was able to finally complete his own version of the project in the late 1970s. It was renamed Le Roi et l’oiseau, literally “The King and the Bird” in French. In 1980 it was released, with a new voice cast and an entirely new score by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. This triumph, long-awaited by animation fans, was essentially confined to its home country. For many years it was unavailable to an English-language audience.

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Laika Studios

Laika is an animation studio in the ascendant. Both Coraline and ParaNorman, their first two features, were financially successful Oscar nominees. It would be shocking if The Boxtrolls didn’t follow suit, on both counts. The intricate detail of their animation is often witty, warm and breathtaking all in the same moment. No frame is left empty or drab, no opportunity for creativity left behind. That all of this is done using 3D stop-motion makes it seem all the more artful. This is not to say that what Pixar does on computers is any less creative than what Laika does with physical sets and models, but there is certainly a difference in the way the audience relates to the work. Pixar mimics the real world in many cases, focusing on the exact rendering of Princess Merida’s hair in Brave rather than venturing into abstraction. Laika creates universes that enchant through their artifice, rather than in spite of it. Besides, it wouldn’t be too controversial a position to state that all three of Laika’s films are better than all of the last three Pixar features. All of that said, take a second and imagine what a Laika film would be like if it were made using computer animation instead of stop-motion. At one point they were planning on a CG feature called Jack & Ben’s Animated Adventure but it was dropped in 2008 in the context of a major layoff of the company’s employees. When they were founded, all the way back in 2005, it wasn’t clear that stop-motion would become the primary product. At that point […]

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Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka is hard to over-hype. Certainly the most influential animator in Japanese history and among the most significant contributors to the form worldwide, his work launched both manga and anime as we know them today. He’s been called the Japanese Walt Disney, a bold comparison to say the least. Yet it works because of the ingenuity they shared, as well as their impressively broad body of work. The American built an empire out of theatrical cartoons, animated features, theme parks and more. Tezuka has an equally diverse body of work, bridging the world of print manga and animated cartoons for both television and cinemas. He also made a number of experimental short animations, one of which turns 50 years old this weekend. Mermaid premiered in September of 1964, right in the midst of a real hot streak for Tezuka. Astro Boy, which would become his most internationally successful series, was approaching its 100th episode. Big X, an anime series about Nazis and the young man who foils their plans, had just debuted in August. Galaxy Boy Troop, a TV series that incorporated both marionettes and traditional animation, was entering its second year. It’s something of a miracle that he even had the time to think about working on anything smaller and less commercial.

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birth

Rocks in My Pockets is a rare commodity, a stellar example of something we rarely get to see: animation for adults. The film is a memoir, a family chronicle and a national history. Director Signe Baumane grew up in Soviet Latvia, one of an enormous brood of cousins whose grandparents lived through the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s, bracing for Communist and Fascist invasions and struggling to get by. More specifically, Rocks in My Pockets is a family history of depression. Beginning with her much-harried grandmother, Baumane traces emotional hardship and the manifestations of mental illness down through her own generation. More contemplative than sad, this shape-shifting odyssey of strength and weakness is an artistic achievement the like of which doesn’t come around very often. But don’t take my word for it. I can offer you some proof of Baumane’s unique approach to visual storytelling in the form of a cartoon. Birth premiered at the Berlin Film Festival back in 2009. It’s the story of a young woman named Amina, pregnant at only 17 years old. She goes to the doctor alone and resists telling her mother. Seeking advice from her aunt and her friends, she builds up a great deal of anecdotal knowledge, some of it true and some of it almost mythologically distracting. She obsesses in particular with that monstrously vague word, “delivery.” This is a film about the state of the mind, pregnancy as a psychological process as well as a physical one.

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I Didnt See It Coming Video

Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter of Belle and Sebastian, has directed a movie. It is called God Help the Girl, it stars Emily Browning, and it opens this weekend. It’s obliquely autobiographical in a sense, its protagonist a spiritual stand-in for the musician. It is also not animated. In fact, there isn’t all that much animation tied to the work of Belle and Sebastian in general. The Scottish indie pop group has mostly stuck with narrative-minded live-action videos over the course of their career. There isn’t even a French cartoon based on the children’s book from which the band took their name, “Belle et Sébastien,” though there is a Japanese anime series from the early 1980s. All 52 episodes are on YouTube. However, that sort of tenuous excuse to watch a cartoon won’t be necessary this week. Belle and Sebastian have actually made two animated music videos, both of them sitting along the edge of their discography. “I Didn’t See It Coming” was released in the summer of 2011, “Crash” in the spring of 2012. Yet while these are rare, and also rather late examples of their work attached to video (the group’s first studio album, for context, was released in 1996), there’s an odd sort of continuity. Many of their singles over the years have been accompanied by videos with a very fluid yet contained sensibility, from the Richard Lester homage of 2001’s “Jonathan David” to the bizarre office space of 2003’s “Step Into My Office Baby.” These two more recent adventures are no different.

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Drafthouse Films

This weekend sees the release of The Congress, from visionary director Ari Folman. It’s the Israeli filmmaker’s first feature since his 2008 masterpiece, Waltz with Bashir, but unlike its predecessor, the new film is not a documentary. It’s in English, rather than Hebrew, and stars a handful of recognizable Hollywood actors. It is, to say the least, something of a departure. Yet it shares one very significant piece of DNA with the earlier film: it’s animated, under the leadership of the great Yoni Goodman. A masterpiece, after all, is not always the work of a single genius. Waltz with Bashir may have sprung from the mind of Folman, but the execution owes a great deal to Goodman’s ingenuity, particularly in the pioneering of Adobe Flash cutout animation. It looks like rotoscope, the tracing over live-action footage, but it’s not. This approach to design gave the film its rich style, vividly evocative of forgotten memories and blurred nightmares. Moreover, Goodman’s contribution was more than just the brilliant utilization of a technique. His stylistic vision is consistent across a number of his other accomplishments, though most of them aren’t on the grand scale of his collaborations with Folman. Let’s take a look at three examples, riveting cartoons with an almost eerie beauty.

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Hare-um Scare-um Bugs Bunny

Tomorrow, August 24th, is the 75th birthday of Andy Panda. How are you going to celebrate? I am obviously kidding. No one cares about Andy Panda. He now sits in cartoon obscurity next to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Gabby Gator and Dapper Denver Dooley. Yet it is his 75th birthday and we should honor it somehow. The very first Andy Panda cartoon, aptly titled Life Begins for Andy Panda, premiered on August 24th, 1939. It was Hollywood’s greatest year, even if its cartoons may not have lived on with the vigor of its live action triumphs. That said, three other cartoons that also premiered during the month of August 1939 offer an entertaining snapshot of this particular chapter in the Golden Age of American Animation. This was something of a transitional moment, between what cartoon historian Piotr Borowiec calls the “Disney Realism” and “High Warner” styles. That sounds high-minded and obscure, but it’s just a fancy way of explaining the shift from Disney’s talking animals that obey most of the laws of physics to Tex Avery’s talking animals that don’t. The details are a bit more complicated, which is why it’s more fun and more informative to just watch the cartoons.

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Screencap

It is not the best week for a movie called Let’s Be Cops to open. 20th Century Fox didn’t know what the American media landscape would be like when they scheduled the film, obviously. Then again, what with the film’s absolutely dismal critical reception one could argue that they didn’t need to make the thing at all. Still, the awkwardness of the release of Let’s Be Cops in the wake of the militarized disaster in Ferguson, MO affords us a bizarre moment of contemplation. Much of the anger over the last week has been directed at the major American news outlets, television in particular. The crisis after the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer took a surprising amount of time to really arrive on 24 hour news networks. This raises all sorts of questions about the way that police brutality represented in news media and culture more broadly.

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Mutant Turtles Superman Legend

“We’re turtles! Fighting turtles! Not normal slow-poke turtles!” The above quote is not, unfortunately, the refrain of a song in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The newest film in the franchise, demolished by critics, may not actually be much fun at all. Fortunately that doesn’t really matter for us, just as it didn’t matter for Hercules or Planes: Fire and Rescue or Maleficent earlier this year. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a great excuse to talk about cartoons, the bonkers relatives of this floppy blockbuster that share its reptilian heroes if not its sense of style. The (likely badly translated) quote above is from the theme of Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. To call it a television “series” would be accurate but also something of a fib, given that this obscure entry in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles canon ended after just two episodes. It was produced in 1996 by the Japanese animation studio Ashi Productions, otherwise known for such television as Magical Princess Minky Momo and Space Warrior Baldios. They also produced Vampire Hunter D, the 1985 horror cult classic (though not its sequel, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust). I know what you’re thinking. Why on earth would we take the time to look at this bizarre two-episode series, low-budget and entirely ridiculous, rather than the highly regarded and enormously successful American animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)?

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Rcoon Dawg

There aren’t a great many movies about charismatic raccoons. Dogs, sure. There are plenty of cats with leading roles. There are even a surprising number of heroic mice. But raccoons? You’d be a bit hard-pressed to find any. Perhaps the success of Guardians of the Galaxy will solve that problem, Bradley Cooper’s much-praised performance as Rocket the space raccoon catapulting these much-maligned creatures back to the spotlight. Not that I would hold my breath if I were you. But if you’re still in the mood for an anthropomorphic raccoon flick, here’s one from the classic catalog of Walt Disney Pictures. R’coon Dawg may not be the high water mark of the Golden Age of Animation, but it’s worth a look. It’s a Mickey Mouse cartoon starring Pluto, the eternally lovable mutt without even an ounce of intelligence. This time he’s ostensibly out with his master to hunt raccoons.

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Popeye

Hercules may be the original superhero but he’s also something of a bore. The problem is that spectacular strength, when you get down to it, isn’t the most charismatic of superpowers. A gigantic, muscled titan without either personality or weaknesses can only wow an audience for so long. This is why Superman has the alien back story, why Achilles has that issue with his foot and why The Hulk suffers from anger-management issues. It is also why a great many Hercules films are hopelessly dull. And here we are, faced with yet another trip back to labored Ancient Greece with Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson. But I’m not here to judge the newest Hercules. I’m also not going to try making you watch the old animated television series, The Mighty Hercules. It ran from 1962 to 1966, trying to capitalize off of the wave of Italian-made muscled movies of the era. Aside from some truly amazing theme song lyrics (“Sweetness in his eyes/Iron in his thighs), it was made on the cheap and features some pretty terrible scripts. Part of its problem, actually, is the inherent blandness of the character. He’s a powerhouse of strength with an impenetrable, enormous chest. He’s always going to win. That’s dull. Enter a long-beloved American hero, Popeye the Sailor Man. He’s the sort of guy who wouldn’t even flinch when faced with this boring Greek demigod in the ring. Or, rather, the Olympic Stadium. 1948’s Popeye Meets Hercules is set at the very first Olympic Games, where the gods themselves have […]

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published: 12.19.2014
A-
published: 12.18.2014
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published: 12.17.2014
B+


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