Saturday Morning Cartoon

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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Mickey Mouse in Plane Crazy

Flight is cool. It’s always been cool. Its sheer physical absurdity and majesty has inspired countless works of art. Look no further than the trio of Oscar-winning cartoons I featured back in April, all of them about birds. Animation is particularly adept at capturing the breathless drama of a creature shooting through the open air. That’s certainly part of why we are now facing a second DisneyToon Studios movie about sentient aircraft. Thanks to the impressive box office success of last year’s Planes, in the face of absolutely dismal reviews, this weekend brings us Planes: Fire and Rescue. The cast list includes not one, but three talking forklifts. That may very well be all that anyone needs to know about the film, and you will be forgiven if you don’t rush out to see it. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seize another opportunity to celebrate the long love affair that animators have had with airplanes. The 1920s were a pioneering decade for both cartoons and aeronautics. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight, landing his “Spirit of St. Louis” in Paris on the evening of March 21st. His biggest fan? Mickey Mouse. America’s favorite rodent wouldn’t make his debut until November of 1928 in the enormously significant and eternally charming Steamboat Willie. Yet the first Mickey short produced was actually Plane Crazy, something of a Lindbergh fan film.

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Return to the Planet of the Apes

What would you do if someone stole your priceless, first edition copy of “The Complete Works of William Apespeare?” Not a typo. This week’s excavation of the bizarre history of television cartoons is Return to the Planet of the Apes, the only animated entry in the illustrious simian franchise if you’re not counting the CGI accomplishments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Only one season was produced, 13 episodes that aired on NBC in the fall of 1975. Then it was canceled and relegated to the dustbins of cartoon history. This was two years after the final installment of the original film series and one year after the equally short-lived Planet of the Apes TV series. The cartoon was the last gasp of the franchise before its revival in 2001, more of a farewell than a homecoming. But now, thanks to the marvel that is the Internet, you can watch all of it on Hulu for free!

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Blue Exorcist

Exorcism is a bizarre and unsettling thing. Filmmaker Scott Derrickson certainly understands that, which is why he keeps making movies about demonic possession. His newest, Deliver Us from Evil, isn’t exactly getting the best critical reception. Granted, neither did The Exorcism of Emily Rose and that movie remains a hoot to re-watch. Regardless of quality, exorcism and Catholic-inflected horror has its own inherent draw. The images are often compelling by their very nature, particularly if they’re composed well. This isn’t a cultural subgenre simply because The Exorcist made such an impression on its own back in 1973, though that obviously helped. With all of that said, you may not want to risk Deliver Us from Evil even if you are, like me, something of a nut for profane and terrifying Catholic imagery. I have an alternative for you. Stay home and watch some Blue Exorcist, a Japanese animated series currently available to stream for free on Hulu in its entirety. What’s the appeal? Exorcism isn’t actually owned by Western European Christianity. As the inimitable Shohreh Aghdashloo testified in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, demonic possession is a thoroughly international phenomenon. Blue Exorcist is based on a manga of the same title by Kazue Kato, who could easily have built something entirely out of East Asian mythology. Instead, he created a fascinating blend of different cultural currents. In adapting the books into an animated series, director Tensai Okamura and the animators at A-1 Pictures have continued that blend. It is still very much inspired by the Catholic horror films of Hollywood and its principal exorcists are at least […]

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Madame Tutli Putli Short Film

The big movie this weekend is Snowpiercer! Okay, so it isn’t. The big movie this weekend is Transformers: Age of Extinction. However, you can’t watch the bulk of the old cartoons for free online, and what’s available is, frankly, terrible. The web series that Hasbro put out to accompany this recent batch of features, Cyber Missions, is staggeringly dull. Don’t waste your time. If you have Netflix streaming do yourself a favor and watch some of the original 1984-1987 series, particularly a bizarre Season 2 episode called “Auto-Bop” in which the Decepticons take over a New York City nightclub. Thank me later. But back to Snowpiercer! I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that the cinema owes an awful lot to the locomotive. Trains look great on screen, particularly in the least hospitable climates. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago each feature stunning sequences that involve the proverbial Iron Horse. The train is perhaps the defining metaphor of and for the 20th century. Just look to the Estonian stop-motion short featured in my Annecy Film Festival round-up, Ülo Pikkov’s haunting Body Memory. Snowpiercer appears to be no different, a high-speed allegory flying through the desolate snowy wastelands of the post-apocalyptic future.

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Looking Thru the B-Sides Short Film

It’s Go Skateboarding Day! Go skateboarding! Or, if you aren’t the type to go skateboarding, don’t. Most of us aren’t, really. I’m not. But I do love skateboard cinema and so should you. The kinetic energy of the sport has inspired countless films over the years, from the early experiments of the 1960s through the massive culture of skateboard videos on the web today. We’ve come a long way since 1965’s Palme d’Or-winning short film, Noel Black’s SoCal surf rock classic Skaterdater. The proliferation of amateur footage online is almost breathtaking, and much of it is a lot better than you might expect. And, of course, the rough and tumble fight against gravity has inspired a whole bunch of excellent animation as well. The movement of the skateboarder and the aesthetics of skateboard culture beg for cartoon representation and a handful of filmmakers have risen to the challenge. Looking Thru the B-Sides is a bizarre cross between a skateboard video and “Through the Looking Glass,” funded by FUEL TV and directed by Saiman Chow and the team at the Golden Lucky animation studio. The plot is pretty simple. A young skateboarder, affectionately named “Ollie,” heads out to go to his local skate park. Upon arrival, however, he finds the gate boarded up and covered in intimidating signage. In a rage he tears off one of the warnings and seems likely to hop the fence, only to be met by a buffoonish cop who looks lifted right out of a Rankin and Bass TV special. The subsequent chase […]

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Black Gold PES Short Film

The Annecy International Animated Film Festival is the most significant event of its kind on the calendar, and it wraps up this weekend. Founded in 1960, this thrilling gathering of artists at the foot of the French Alps has premiered films from the likes of Jan Švankmajer, Hayao Miyazaki, Wes Anderson and Bill Plympton. Every year the competition line-up is filled with bizarre, unique and immensely intriguing work from all over the world, but so few of these films find their way to cinemas in the United States, where independent animation on the big screen is something of a rarity. Fortunately, Annecy is lending the world a bit of a hand this time around. They’re hosting three of their repertory programs online, as well as the entire competition of commissioned works. The festival ends tomorrow but the videos will be available until June 30th (and many of them will probably be kept online indefinitely by the providers). In total, the online festival includes over 50 films. It’s a bit overwhelming, actually. There’s so much creativity represented, a wide range of international shorts both new and old. The repertory programs include an homage to Norman McLaren and a retrospective glimpse at some of the best Estonian stop-motion films of the last 30 years. The commissioned works section, meanwhile, is characteristically all over the place. There are brief 30-second television ads, music videos, educational programs and public service announcements. I’ve watched them all. Here are five of my favorites:

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Why Charlie Brown Why

Youth, love and cancer. That’s a formula of sorts, one that conquered the world back in 1970 with Love Story and has since bounced back and forth between Hollywood and the Lifetime network. The most recent incarnation is The Fault in Our Stars, an adaptation of a Young Adult novel by John Green, starring Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley. It’s getting decent reviews and may very well be a head above the rest of the genre, to the extent that one can use the word “genre” to describe this mini-phenomenon. Yet what I find the most interesting about this particular sort of film is the way it might be seen as something of a psychological education. The fact that The Fault in Our Stars is a YA novel has raised some eyebrows and ruffled some feathers, in particular given the anger evoked by a Slate piece shaming adults for reading the book. While I’d object to the idea that YA books are exclusively for teenagers, I wonder whether we can consider them somehow proscriptive texts. Is The Fault in Our Stars, at least in part, trying to introduce young people to the concept of serious illness? That’s an open question. It’s also a good an excuse as any to look back at a particularly fascinating cartoon. Why, Charlie Brown, Why? is a Peanuts TV special that first aired in the spring of 1990. As you can probably tell from the title, it isn’t exactly the subtlest educational cartoon in television history. Like The Fault in Our Stars it is a […]

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Sleeping Betty Short Film

The story of Sleeping Beauty is ripe for reinterpretation, if only because of how simple and boring it can be. The title character, after all, is unconscious for the bulk of the narrative. Disney’s newest solution is Maleficent, in which the villain becomes the main character. Whether that was a successful call remains to be seen (our own critic wasn’t so impressed). For my money the best, most inspired feature-length twist on the story is that of Catherine Breillat, who countered the snoozing character’s complete lack of agency by giving her a rich and exciting dream life. The prize for funniest adaptation of Sleeping Beauty, however, goes to the National Film Board of Canada. Claude Cloutier‘s Sleeping Betty is a cartoon short film that takes the strategy of the Shrek series and turns it loose on a vast panoply of familiar images and cultural touchstones. It begins in a crowded room. The queen is distraught, hunched on a chair next to the bed of her dormant daughter. The king is next to the bed, trying to shake the princess out of her slumber. Around them is a strange cast of visitors which includes familiar images of Henry VIII and Queen Victoria, a court jester and a many-eyed extraterrestrial.

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