Saturday Morning Cartoon: Celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday with Magic Puppets

By  · Published on April 26th, 2014

Public Domain

Happy 450th Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Well, sort of. We don’t know exactly when he was born, though the traditional date is April 23rd, 1564. It makes for good symmetry with his death 52 years later on April 23rd, 1616. We just aren’t quite sure. What we do know is that he was baptized on April 26th, 1564. Today is the 450th anniversary of that! And, given that we’re talking about the most influential writer in the history of the English language it does seem reasonable to celebrate his birthday for more than a single, potentially inaccurate Wednesday.

Countless films have been inspired by the Bard’s work, including a handful of animated shorts. There’s Shakespearean Spinach, a ridiculous Popeye cartoon from 1940. A personal favorite is A Witch’s Tangled Hare, a Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1959 that builds its comedy from groan-inducing puns and vintage Looney Tunes absurdism. Yet instead of turning to the old studio shorts for material today, let’s look at Shakespeare through the work of a much more contemporary British artist.

Barry Purves is an award-winning animator who has worked on everything from children’s television to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. He was also the head animator on Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! until the production was switched from stop-motion to CG. This led Purves to some interesting and confrontational conclusions about computer animation, which you can read in this 1996 essay he wrote after leaving the project. He presents a compelling ambivalence, willing to accept the brilliant work of Toy Story but still insistent on an honest discussion of the potentially inherent drawbacks of a computer-generated image.

But let’s turn back to Shakespeare. Purves’s first short was Next, an Aardman Animations production back in 1989. It turns the legendary playwright into a puppet and drops him into an audition with Peter Hall, the famous 20th century English theatrical director and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Rather than reading out his famous monologues or sonnets, the 16th century luminary presents his work as a series of gags. He bounces about the stage re-enacting famous scenes from his plays in the briefest of snippets, with an increasingly elaborate series of props that seem to emerge from nowhere. He dons the donkey mask from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pops two balloons representing Richard III’s princes in the tower, and stands in for both Othello and Iago.

On the one hand it’s a great little game, trying to guess each play as they are presented with such rapid-fire impressions. Even if you can’t figure most of them out, however, it’s still incredibly charming. The music from Stuart Gordon (of The Korgis), John Sheaff and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp) is an Elizabethan array of melodies filtered through a 1980s synthesizer. The resulting mood is very playful and a little eerie, underlining the temporal impossibility of such an audition and instilling it with an aura of timeless magic.

The animation itself, meanwhile, is a helpful illustration of Purves’s ideas in that 1996 essay. He sees puppetry and stop-motion as partially grounded in reality, as opposed to computer animation which is completely divorced from it. Purves’s Bard has a certain weight to him, which makes it all the more thrilling when he defies gravity. He is constantly grabbing new props from thin air, doubles himself and defies all the laws of physics. All of this is more magical because the physicality of the puppet show is grounded in something real. In order to break rules, they have to seem at least marginally valid in the first place. If everything is more obviously possible from the get go, because the entire world is evidently created by a machine with limitless creative power, what is impressive?

In the many years since Purves wrote these sentiments, a lot has changed in the world of animation, both traditional and digital. It seems unlikely that the animator would feel the same way today as he did in 1996, at least on some points. Yet the combination of his arguments and his film make quite the case for a continued love and appreciation of traditional stop-motion puppetry. Next is a clever, mystical and magnificent tribute to the English language’s greatest poet. It is also, in itself, a celebration of a type of animation we might not appreciate as much as we should in the digital age.