Shortstember

Mouse Goes to War: Das dumme Gänslein (1944)

Studio: Fischerkoesen-Film-Produktion

Country of Origin: Nazi Germany.

First Screened: 20 July 1944

I find it terrifying to consider that, ten or even five years ago, I would have had absolutely no hesitation in writing this post. I mean, of course if I’m doing a retrospective on WW2 animation shorts I’d look at Nazi animation. Why wouldn’t I? The Nazis were, after all, kinda involved in the Second World War, right?

But that would have been in a simpler time when it seemed obvious that, whatever else we might disagree on, we were all more or less on the same “Nazis are bad” page (it’s a good page, nice font, excellent paper quality, highly recommended). But then…

Well, it’s been a year. That it has.

So yes, I did honestly consider scrapping this portion of the series but ultimately I decided against it. One of the goals of the Mouse Goes to War series is to inform and I’ve always believed that knowledge is not dangerous, only ignorance. And today’s short is a fascinating demonstration as to how fascist themes and messages can be worked into seemingly benign texts.

Y’know.

Just in case that becomes a useful skill at some point in the future.

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Mouse Goes to War: Nimbus Libéré (1944(?))

Studio: Les Films Robert Macé

Country of Origin: Vichy France

First Screened: Unclear, sometime in 1943/1944

Since starting this blog I’ve reviewed just north of 150 animated films. I’ve been an avid fan of animation from literally before I could talk. I have watched thousands upon thousands of hours of animation in my lifetime.

Nimbus Libéré (“Nimbus Released”) is the worst cartoon I’ve ever seen and it’s not even close.  If Foodfight! was a perfect 0, Nimbus Libéré is a minus googol. In every technical area, animation, sound, writing, it’s abysmal. In style, it is repellent. In intent, it is pure evil.

English language sources on the cartoon’s origins are thin on the ground and to be honest, I can’t even say for certain whether it was first screened in 1943 or 1944 (going by the subject matter, I’d guess early to mid ’44). Although credited to “Cal”, it was the work of Raymond Jeannin, a young French animator in his twenties whose two surviving works are Libéré and La Nuit Enchanté (“The Enchanted Night”).

La Nuit Enchanté is a fairly terrible mish-mash of awful animation and swiped character designs (Jeannin’s moderate talent in aping other people’s designs were probably what got him roped into doing Nimbus).  But it’s not fascist. I mean, there are some deeply uncomfortable racist stereotypes but, if I’m honest, nothing noticeably worse than what Warners was doing at the time and we don’t go around calling Tex Avery and Chuck Jones Nazis.

But Nimbus…my God in heaven.

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Mouse Goes to War: Momotarō no Umiwashi (1943)

Studio: Geijutsu Eigasha 

Country of Origin: Empire of Japan

First Screened: March 25th 1943

Momotarō the Peach Boy is a popular Japanese folk character who’s been round since the Edo period. Story goes, childless couple see a peach floating down the river, they open it up and inside is a baby who’s been gifted to them by Heaven. The boy grows older, goes on a quest, meets a monkey, dog and pheasant and they all team up to kick the asses of some local demons. It’s a really cool little fable, equal parts Moses, Superman, Wizard of Oz, you can definitely see why it’s remained so popular down through the centuries. And then, World War 2 had to come along and ruin everything.

Figuratively and literally.

American cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were hugely popular in Japan in the years leading up to the war, so the Imperial Regime wanted their own cartoon mascot. Momotarō was an obvious choice what with his cute, boyish appearance and cast of animal sidekicks. This led to series of films starring the character directed by Mitsuyo Seo who would go on to be one of the guiding lights of the animé industry after the war. The first of these films was the short Momotarō no Umiwashi  (“Momotarō’s Sea Eagles.”) I say “short”, but at 38 minutes that’s really taking the piss. Oh well, at least they didn’t stick it in front of a Pixar movie and make everyone watch it all the way through.

Disney: Worse than the Empire of Japan.

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Mouse goes to War!: Fascist Jackboots Shall not Trample Our Motherland (1941)

Studio: Soyuzmultfilm

Country of Origin: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

First Screened: 1941 (Exact date unclear)

All of the shorts we’ve looked at in this series thus far have been propaganda to a greater or lesser extent. But they weren’t just propaganda. American audiences liked their propaganda leavened with comedy or drama or catchy tunes about farting in Hitler’s face. The Russians though? They took their propaganda straight while growling at the bartender to leave the bottle.

The blunt, hammer-blow-to-the-noggin nature of Soviet propaganda is right there in the name of today’s short Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.

“Good title.”

So a little background. Jackboots is one the earliest productions of Soyuzmultfilm, the pre-eminent home of Russian animation and screen puppeteering. The studio is still going to this day but its heyday was during the Soviet era where they produced beautiful and beloved animated classics like the Winnie-the Pooh trilogy and Hedgehog in the Fog.

What’s the Russian for “smurges”?

Now keep in mind, I don’t read Russian, so all my information is coming second hand from places like Wikipedia which claims, for instance, that after the fall of the Soviet Union Soyuzmultfilm’s facilities were sold to the Russian Orthodox Church and then promptly burned to the ground by Cossacks who believed that their puppets were animated with the blood of Christian children. And, while anything on the internet originating from Russia should normally be treated as purest truth from the beardy lips of God Himself, I find that a bit hard to swallow.

I mean c’mon, the blood of Christian children hasn’t been used to animate puppets since the late forties.

Anyway, that was all in the future. Although originally based in Moscow, Soyuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand when the Germans invaded and were put to work creating propaganda for the war effort. And one of those films was Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.

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Mouse Goes to War!: Reason and Emotion (1943)

Studio: Walt Disney Productions

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: August 27, 1943

After the ugliness and race-baiting of the Ducktatorswhat say we finish our look at American propaganda shorts with something with a little bit of class, by God! Reason and Emotion is a personal favourite of mine, not just because it’s a gorgeous cartoon (although it is) but because it’s that rarest of things, a piece of propaganda that actually appeals to your better nature. Propaganda shorts of this era came in many flavours. Some just plonked existing characters into war-specific settings with little commentary and had them do their thing. Some mocked and belittled the Axis powers to boost morale. And some were designed with an educational thrust to inform the public about a specific topic. In fact, even after the war had ended Disney continued making educational shorts on all kinds of subjects.

Oh yes. This is a real goddamn thing.

Reason and Emotion is, ironically enough, a propaganda short warning of the dangers of propaganda. It effectively and engagingly illustrates how propaganda works on the mind and how demagogues use emotion to suppress reason. For this reason, I almost hesitate to call it propaganda. “Anti-propaganda” might be a better term. The short was released in 1943 to great acclaim and was even nominated for an Academy Award, although it lost to the Tom and Jerry short Yankee Doodle Mouse, the first and last time the Academy ever got something wrong.

I hate to say “They Wuz Robbed” but they totally wuz.

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Mouse Goes To War!: The Ducktators (1942)

Hey guys, sorry for the missed update. Still up to my furry little armpits in other writing at the moment so I’m afraid the Snow White review is gonna have to be pushed back until next Thursday. By recompense, here is the next of the WW2 propaganda short reviews. Enjoy!

***

Studio: Warner Bros

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: August 1, 1942

As I mentioned in my last series of short reviews, you can break down the history of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts into four eras roughly corresponding to the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. Call them the Poor Man’s Disney, Wiseass Disney, Apex and Nadir eras, respectively. WW2 broke out in the middle of the Wiseass Disney era, where the studio had successfully reinvented itself as the sarcastic, irreverent joker to those squares in Burbank with their high falutin’ ideals of animation being art. While Disney were getting Deems Taylor to introduce abstract animation to the strains of Bach, Warner Bros were slouched in the corner smokin’ ceegars and yellin’ “Ah, yer muddah wears lederhosen!”. The Warner Bros shorts of this era are acclaimed by many fans as the greatest of the series but, with respect, those fans are liars and fools and once grown, their children shall change their names out of shame.

“Mouse, what did we agree?”

“Sigh. No telling people that their children will change their names out of shame just because they disagree with me on the respective merits of different eras of animated shorts in the Warner Bros filmography.”

“You lasted ONE DAY.”

Okay, that’s harsh. There are many fantastic cartoons from this era but, honestly, the shorts from the fifties (including but not limited to What’s Opera Doc, One Froggy Evening and the Hunter Trilogy) leave them in the dirt.

The shorts of the forties had a lot going for them, namely some of the finest animators, directors and voice talent to ever work in the medium, but compared to the later fifties shorts they’re sorely lacking in one thing.

Class.

To be blunt, there’s a nastiness to a lot of the Warner Bros shorts of this era, and not just because of the racism (although, jeez louise, it’s like they thought there was an Olympics for racism and they had their heart set on winning gold for their country). Propaganda is dirty business, but some cartoon studios came out a lot cleaner than others, if you catch my drift.

Of all the major American cartoon studios, Warners seemed to succumb to their worst instincts the easiest. Disney, Fleischer et al certainly produced cartoons in this era that make for uncomfortable viewing but Warner’s took it to another level.  For a good example, let’s take a look at the Ducktators.

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Mouse Goes to War!: Jungle Drums (1943)

Hi guys! We are now halfway there to getting Mauricio safely out of Venzuela and, as promised, here is the second of the war era animated short reviews. Because you’re all superheroes, and because I thought it might be particularly cathartic right now to watch some Nazis get punched in the face, today we’re looking at one of the Superman shorts from the 1940s.  Enjoy, and please consider donating if you haven’t already.

***

Studio: Famous Studios

Country of Origin: United States

First Screened: March 26, 1943

Recently, the internet came down with a case of the vapours when it was announced by the BBC that the next Doctor would be played by Jodie Whittaker, who has lady bits.

Jolly good, quite right, good idea, quite right, jolly good and not before time. Now, when it comes to Who I haven’t really had skin in the game since Ecclestone left but I’m sure she’ll kill in the part. There have been bad Who writers, bad Who directors and even bad Who seasons but they have never cast a bad actor in the lead role (no, not even him) and I doubt very much they’ve started here. But Whittaker’s casting does raise some interesting questions. How will people in the past react to a character whose main defining trait is showing up out of nowhere and bossing everyone around when it’s a woman doing the bossing? How will, say, the Puritans react to this trouser wearing lady with a mysterious blue box and what can only be described as a magic wand? Will every episode of Doctor Who consist of angry peasants trying to ascertain if Jodie Whitaker weighs as much as a duck? It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.

Of course, the status of women in society has swung wildly upwards and downwards over the millennia depending on the era and society in question. Progress is not a hill, but a rollercoaster. Consider Lois Lane, who, as the perennial love interest of one of the most famous pop-culture icons of the last century has had an unbroken presence in various media for almost eight decades now, and so represents a useful yardstick for the portrayal and status of women in American culture. In the Silver Age, this was Lois Lane.

The fifties saw Lois’ role as a daring and accomplished journalist minimised to almost nothing so that she could engage in an unending spiteful love rivalry with Lana Lang over who could dupe Superman into marrying her first. It was a terrible time to be a woman in America, and it was a terrible time to be Lois Lane.

Contrast this with a decade earlier, where we find Lois Lane wasting bitches with an uzi.

“Take that ya rat bastards! When you get to hell, tell em Lois sent ya!”

World War 2 brought huge advances both for women and minorities because America had to either make the most use of every available person regardless of race or gender or risk total defeat to the forces of fascism and America was all “Ugh, fine.” You see this in the Fleischer (later Famous) studios Superman shorts with their depiction of Lois Lane, still one of the finest interpretations of the character three quarters of a century later. And possibly the character’s finest hour is today’s short, Jungle Drums.

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Charlie the Unicorn (2005)

I hate the internet sometimes. Sometimes I feel like it’s just this huge malevolent thing that holds me in its thrall, designed to make me outraged and depressed and extract as much money from me as is physically possible. Sometimes it’s hard to keep sight of just how much it’s changed the entire world, and often very much for the better.

Oh yeah, this series is still going. Sorry about the delay. One of the reasons why (apart from work being crazy) was the sheer, monumental task of picking just one animated short to represent the first decade of the 21st century. It’s like I said; before now there were only so many animation studios producing shorts in the West to choose from. Now though, virtually anything that appeared on Newgrounds between 2001 and 2010 was fair game, literally thousands of creators. How to pick just one? I bounced around between Homestar Runner and Badgers, which was essentially “something I could never cover in just one post” versus “something I couldn’t talk about long enough to fill even one post” before finally settling on today’s short; Charlie the Unicorn.

I said back when I reviewed Injun Country that just because a cartoon is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be good and Charlie is a pretty excellent example of that. It is objectively the worst animated of any of the shorts I will review for this series but it overcomes that through a combination of strong writing and hilarious voice work (all done by animator Jason Steele) all leading up to a single, hilariously dark punchline.

It’s a great short, and pretty much a perfect summation of my generation’s sense of humour. There’s a clear Simpsons influence with an even bigger debt to South Park, two of the single most important shapers of the comedic voices of anyone who grew up in the nineties. It’s also a reaction to the  ridiculously saccharine cartoons of the eighties, correctly twigging that there was something undeniably sinister about relentlessly chipper characters who want everyone to get along and have fun no matter what.

Be honest. If it turned out the Care Bears were harvesting organs, would you be shocked?

Animation was once one of the most exclusive and gated art forms in existence, with only a handful of universities and companies worldwide offering an entry point. Now, with the explosive democratisation of the artform brought on by the internet, anyone with an idea or a story to tell can buy some inexpensive software and become an animator. And, with the advent of sites like YouTube, they now have the perfect platform to thrive on.

Animated shorts never died, they just went to heaven.

 

Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990)

Alright, this series of reviews that was supposed to last for one month has been going on since August so it might be a good time to pull the car over and try to figure out how we got here before the cannibal hillbillies come back. We started with animation in the silent era before moving to the dawn of integrated sound. We then had animated shorts as visual accompaniement and advertising for music and then as wartime proganda. Moving into the fifties we had the Golden Age of Warner Brothers shorts, the ignoble end of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in the sixties, the advent of more adult themed animation in the seventies and the first glimmer of the Pixar era in the eighties. So that brings us up to the nineties, a decade I am old enough for it to still feel like it was ten years ago. Refresh my memory, what was happening in animation in the nineties? Oh that’s right! The renaissance!

 renaissance

No, no, no. The ACTUAL renaissance.

renaissance

 

Thank you.

So, exciting times. Great time to be an animation fan. Disney’s back, kicking ass and taking names, animé is more readily available in the west than ever before and even Western TV animation has stopped eating paste and is becoming increasingly not-awful. What changed? Well, the generation of kids who had grown up watching classic Disney movies and Warner Bros shorts were now adults and working in the film industry and wanted to bring the medium back to its former glory. Foremost amongst those kids was a guy called Steven Spielberg. Now, I say the word “Spielberg” and, depending on your age the first image that pops into your head is:

 jaws

Or…

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-274

Or…

AP-SS-233 The Spy Who Shagged Me , February 4, 2004 Photo by Blake Little/newline.wireimage.com To license this image (3905509), contact NewLine: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) info@wireimage.com (e-mail) NewLine.wireimage.com (web site)

Or..

JURASSIC PARK, 1993. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

Or…

Schindler's List

But you probably don’t immediately think of animation. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg is like the Forrest Gump of American animation post-1980. Practically every pivotal moment involved him somehow. Don Bluth? Spielberg produced his earliest films. The Disney Renaissance? Wouldn’t have happened without Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The drastic improvement in TV animation? Would have looked very different without Tiny Toons, Animanaics and Pinky and the Brain. Dreamworks? Whaddya think the “S” in “Dreamworks SKG” stands for, hombre?

Shaddup.

Shaddup.

So in the wake of Roger Rabbit’s incredible success, Spielberg’s production company Amblin and Disney partnered to bring the long defunct animated theatrical short roaring back to life with a series of high budget, high quality Roger Rabbit shorts. And my God, you just need to look at the calibre of talent attached to these things to see how serious they were. Rob Minkoff, who would later go on to direct the single greatest canon Disney movie of all time I said it it’s official no one can disagree it’s over I won,  super producers Don Hahn, Rob Marshall and Spielberg himself of course, Charles Fleischer and Lou Hirsch as Roger and Baby Herman and they even got Kathleen Frickin’ Goddamned Turner back to voice Jessica Rabbit even though she only averages three lines a short. So, before we go any further there’s two things you need to know about these shorts.

1)      As animation, they are absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

2)      As cartoons, they don’t really work.

That’s not to say that they’re complete failures. Anything this beautifully animated fully justifies its existence. But they are a fascinating example of the whole being less than the sum of the parts, and why sometimes fans of something are not always the most qualified people to make a new version of that thing. I’ll get back to that in a second. Only three shorts were made, with a fourth cancelled in pre-production and they very closely follow the formula established in Somethin’ Cookin’, the opening short in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The formula is as follows:

1)      Mommie Dearest leaves Baby Herman in the care of Roger Rabbit, warning him that there will be dire consequences if anything happens to him.

2)      Baby Herman wanders off into danger.

3)      Roger loses his goddamn shit and screams like a Bedlam inmate.

4)      Roger has to protect Baby Herman while suffering violence upon his body normally reserved for the Christ.

5)      Gratuitous Jessica Rabbit cameo.

6)      Gratuitous Droopy cameo.

7)      Roger ruins the take and bursts through the fourth wall into the real world and everybody hates him for being a screw up.

8)      FIN.

So let’s see how that plays out in practice with Roller Coaster Rabbit, the second short and by far the strongest.

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The Adventures of André and Wally B. (1984)

In their book The Illusion of Life (still the Bible of animation 35 years after it was written), Disney legends Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas set out 12 principles of animation. The first and most important of these is called “Squash and Stretch”. Basically, it boils down to this: In animation, a form can change shape, but never volume. Observing this rule gives characters weight and solidity, and allows your brain to forget that you’re just watching a flat two dimensional image. As long as the character observes the same rules as an object in the physical universe, the brain perceives it as an object in the physical universe. In essence, it becomes real.

This rule was, for a long time, a hard barrier for computer animation. Early CGI could create solid three dimensional looking objects no problem, but they were always static. Rigid. To give the illusion of a living thing, an image has to not only be able to move but to change its shape while keeping its volume consistent and trying to do that with CGI in the early days would invariably cause any computer to throw up its hands in frustration and get back to plotting the enslavement of all mankind.  All that changed in 1984. Well, not the plotting enslavement thing. They’re still doing that.

"Sooooon..."

“Sooooon…”

So in 1984, Lucasfilm had a subdivison called The Graphics Group, a group of computer scientists who had been recruited out of NYIT by George Lucas, who had decided that computer generated imagery might be useful in creating special effects.

As sentences laden with prophetic doom go, that's right up there with "That night, Alois Hitler decided not to bother with a condom."

As sentences laden with prophetic doom go, that’s right up there with “That night, Alois Hitler decided not to bother with a condom.”

The Graphics Group decided to create a short to demonstrate that CGI could compete with traditional animation. And when I say “short”, I mean “short“. This thing clocks in at a whopping 86 seconds.

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