Saturday 13 January 2018

Animation Roundup

Been watching a lot of animation, mainly foreign stuff.

First with the US stuff.
The 1930s work of Disney collaborator-turned-rival Ub Iwerks, like another ex-Disney hand, David Hand's Animaland try to be too Disney, lovely but dull. Flip the Frog is halfway between a Mickey and a Bugs, trying to be mischievous but quite annoying, similar to Terrytoons like Heckle and Jeckle and even Mighty Mouse who always seemed out of place in his rural Funny Animal world. The John K-Ralph Bakshi series felt more tuned to the superheroic element. 
UPA's stuff is fascinating if not always appealing, their surrealistic style seems to be constructed to hide lack of budget. The Tell-Tale Heart works, almost Eastern European, and with James Mason to boot.  But for example with Gerald McBoing-Boing, there are sign of laziness - clothes are the same colour as skin AND the wall, and it changes, because it is actually transparent skin. Some neat scenes, though - i.e. Gerald in the radio room in a cowboy outfit doing gun noises. I never understand why he can't just impersonate human speech.

I've been delving into the output of National Film Board of Canada. I don't know how. I think their shorts were shown on RTE when I was little, but I have no memory of the shorts themselves, just the logo and the name. Obivously, they have done lots of live action documentaries from the fascinating crazed daredevil profile The Devil At Your Heels (1981) to the disturbing Not A Love Story (1981), and live action fiction - e.g. The Railrodder (1965) - possibly my favourite Buster Keaton, because it is him as an old man, on a final madcap journey through the great white North.
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The Owl Who Married A Goose (1974) shows the range of the NFB. Lovely inky black animation, similar to the later Sniffing Bear. Although by the 80s, the likes of Special Delivery, the piano-themed Getting Started (1979, with unusual 3D-like painted backgrounds), the fun fire educational short Hot Stuff (1971), the snaggle-toothed couples' argument The Big Snit (1985) and the Cat Came Back (1989) showed that the NFB were mainly making wobbly Dilbert-esque animations about people or animals in social situations backed by a harmonica score. Still in vogue by the time of 2006’s At Home with Mrs. Hen. The Big Snit's animator, Richard Condie also put his style to effect in the fun John Law and the Mississippi Bubble (1979), about the history of paper money, the medieval-themed Apprentice (1991), the early rough draft short Oh Sure and the early CGI ugliness of La Salla.
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Although this style was in the NFB as early as What on Earth (hence why it looks newer than it is) and the witty Spinnolio (1977), where a little puppet gets his wish – of becoming Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances, after the cricket gets eaten.

Also in that often-scratchy Cat Came Back style the lovely geriatric love story George and Rosemary and the biscuit ad-esque Tale of Cinderella Penguin, the UNICEF-sponsored Every Child, which becomes its own making of, and the overlong educational Les Drew’s Every Dog’s Guide to Home Safety, with voices by Cagney and Lacey’s Harvey Atkin, although the 1991 short Every Dog’s Guide to the Playground is more traditionally animated, more sitcommy, with its typewriting blue-furred protagonist. Drew's pollution-themed Dickens spin The Energy Carol (1975) with a blue pig as Marley is also recommended.

The NFB always are attractive, or were, pre-CGI, nothing as grotesquely rudimentary as the Steadman-esque ugliness of British animator Geoff Dunbar’s Ubu (1978), with the voice of  Canadian trailer narrator Bill Mitchell. The NFB always have a soul, like a lot of inventive foreign stop-motion cartoons, there’s no soulless weirdness for the sake of it like the Brothers Quay or even the slightly too pleased for yourself charming but not captivating spirit of the Animated Tales of the World or the Fool and the Flying Ship. A lot of foreign cartoons have this soul, something like the astonishing man-rat love story One Day A Man Bought By House, made by Pjotr Sapegin in Norway, who made for the NFB, the evil Filmfair-like Aria and the Moomins-styled Moms’ Cat.

S.P.L.A.S.H. (1980) has a nice Cosgrove Hall feel.

Also sampled were the Milky Way ad-meets-Tex Avery living comic strip The Persistent Peddler (1988), Disney-esque Get A Job (1985), with the grotesque Carmen Miranda frog-businessman, the natural-themed animation of Sand Castle (1977), Garden of Ecos (1997) and Bydlo (2012) – all about moving nature and the arty, trying to be poignant Subservience (2007), the more recent Skeleton Girl and Uncle Bob’s Hospital Visit, which has the traditional NFB harmonica soundtrack, the uncanny valley Ryan, which with its CGI was a modern break from the norm. One thing about the National Film Board is that there can be shorts from 1966 that look like they are from 1986, and shorts from 2006 that could easily come from 1976, or 1952's the Jay Ward-esque Romance of Transportation in Canada or the early-CGI of 1974's Hunger, both of which could easily come from fifteen years later. They are ageless.
2011’s the Big Drive – a mix of photo-collage, off-model CGI and Clasky-Csupo/Mike Judge esque characters doing their own National Lampoon’s vacation, becoming increasingly freakish and uncomfortable, with added harmonica, then introduces cutesy cats riding the car, and earlier stuff as the surreal documentary-mixed-in-with-metaphorical psychedelic freakout animation of Man – The Polluter (1973) and the Underground Movie where a Scots-accented narration and chunky Noah and Nelly-types experiment on a dog Clockwork Orange style, while the drilling ship they’re all in digs through the various layers of the Earth (1972), as we are taught about limestone and sedimentary layers. That was by Les Drew, who also did the strange Dingles from 1988, about a loving depiction of a possibly-crazy-but-actually-nice cat lady.
Also watched the historical montage of 1990’s Mirrors of Time – which pleasingly feels like a 90s educational videogame, with weird cel-shaded animation, and Asterix-type Romans. Propaganda Message – which has scratchy hand-drawn, hand-shaded animation and French dialogue with comic strip dialogue bubbles as subtitles, to explain the differences between the Canadians and their neighbours.
Mindscape (1976) is very nice and appealingly gothy. It reminded me of the titles to  the BBC's Late Night Story.
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A favourite is the witty detachable-eared ex-actor Roger Rabbit-esque yuppie dog in a live action office, Buck Boom of John Weldon’s Real Inside (1984), a former Disney star (“I was in Snow White”) with an obsession for having sex with live action girls, arguing with his live-action prospective boss, familiar character actor Colin Fox.
Bretislaw Pojar’s egg-headed story of caution, To See or Not To See (1969) has cutesy egg-head men turned into spiral ghosts and disturbing human whirlwinds to show us which way is right, Pojar did various shorts for the NFB including the satirical E, featuring bowler-hatted arguments and resembling an educational study on the letter E until a violent denouement.
Also saw the 1995, rather Jim Henson/Cadillacs and Dinosaurs-esque How Dinosaurs Learnt to Fly. Almost every NFB short is at least fun vignette. The quality astounds me. Very few boring adaptations of Pushkin among the gold, like you’d get with Soyuzmultfilm.
Another of the recent ones is the stunning railway dance sequence of Runaway, which reminded me a lot of Belleville Rendezvous, same composer and all. Then, 2012’s Wild Life is stunning, but feels like a Honda ad. Its moving painting style needs narration by Garrison Keillor.

Blackfly (1991) is a Canadian folk story with a nice wobbly style a sequel to the earlier Log Driver's Waltz (1979). Very Canadian, by the McGarrigle Sisters too – Rufus Wainwright’s mum and aunt. Another folk story short the NFB did is the Alberto Frog-esque Frog Went A-Courting. They also did a version of An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly – similar in style to the Cat Came Back (1989).
Cosmic Zoom (1966) is extraordinary. Exactly what the title says.
The Sweater (1980) has that painterly style – like leaky paint, common as the aforementoned style.

Overdose (1994) is poignant – about a happy young boy’s day told in appealing broad-strokes and large head style – then he overworks himself and it all goes wrong.

Yes, that is Peter Ustinov promoting one of the NFB's few cartoon franchises, the limited animation of Peep and the Big Wide World. 

Also been watching the Soviet animations of Soyuzmultfilm, the leading animation company of the Cold War.
Cheburashka – a Monchhichi-esque stop motion character – like a Soviet Rankin/Bass. Apparently, he's a Mickey Mouse figure in Russia, like Soyuzmultfilm's Soviet adaptation of Winnie the Pooh.

Moy zelenyy krokodil – Duncan the Dragon-esque blue crocodile and Babycham cow fall in love, then crocodile turns suicidal and turns into a leaf.

Yuriy Norstein – Tale of Tales (1979)- oddly apocalyptic, painterly photomontage, Gilliamesque mix of figures, autobiographical not unlike Raymond Briggs.

The wondrous Hedgehog in the Fog is like an MR James cartoon – disturbing Soviet hauntologia.

Lisa i zayats – has a bear in floral crown – something woodcut-like, folklorish, and also gets meta, with lots of screens, characters jumping from screen to screen.

Seasons – moving, like a serious cartoon of the Morecambe and Wise Doctor Zhivago Sketch.

Also saw the shorts Choonya – fat pig’s adventures, and Antoshka – with an androgynous Wickie-esque caveboy.

Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood, from 1990, feels more like 1970, but nicely surreal - with the 3 Little Pigs, Musketeers and Red fighting a big bad Wolf. Their later films often feel trapped in an earlier era, as in their 2-D Russian folk village tale Laughter and Grief by the White Sea (1987).

1969’s Bremen Town Musicians – weird half-trad half-surrealist style, James Last-esque score, Soviet’s view of Western music, very odd. Funny animals played seriously. Soyuzmultfilm Boring Pushkin adaps.

Soyuzmultfilm is so strange – because their stuff feels quite basic, in some respects, sometimes they’re stunning, like Hedgehog in the Fog, and other times, they’re basic kidvid, but because they’re Soviet, they can get weird like the baseball-hatted medieval donkey of Bremen Town, but they’re always well-animated, there’s no Hanna-Barbera cheap cuts, there’s always something organic especially Murun Buchstansangur-esque Fru-89. Their views of the world are especially alien - weird views on what little they have seen of American cinema as 1967's Spy Passion, the supposed Godfather spoof Robbery on... (1978) (which has an MGM spoof) and the pale face-people's movie studio-themed Film, Film, Film (1968) (which uses photos of Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton,etc), the caveman-themed time-travelling love story of I Shall Give You A  Star,, and the Donald Sutherland-as-Frank Spencer cartoon the Adventures of Vasi Kurolesov (1981). про сидорова вову (1985) is odd, very cutesy, little boy in the army, couldn't tell if it was a comedy or a parable. тайна третьей планеты (1981) and 1953's A Flight to the Moon are very interesting Soviet space operas, the former a fantasy with dustbin-robots and a Goldblum-esque hero and lots of nice designed aliens and worlds including a six-armed Sontaran-type thing, while the latter is an educational "what if?".
Soyuzmultfilm - the Soviet Disney, Hanna-Barbera and NFB all rolled into one. 

As for Soyuzmultfilm rivals, there were Ekran - who then spawned Pilot - makers of Mike, Lu and Og for Cartoon Network and otherwise often disturbing, weird, feel-bad shorts like the b/w Andrei Svislotskiy and the bestiality-themed John Carpenter/Cronenberg-like Hen, My Wife. In contrast, I watched Ekran's considerably jollier Plasticine Crow - like the 2-D stop-motion of the Moomins, its shape-shifter a bit like the tongue twisters in RTE's Bosco. Ekran's Relatives (1993),  about two brothers is especially Csupo-like, but their Soldier's Tale (1983) is much more solemn and painterly.
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Remember Mike, Lu and Og - "I can't believe it's not Klasky-Csupo!"
 Although Pilot's Igor Kovalyov would work for Csupo.

Also watched 1935's the New Gulliver, the stop-motion Soviet Jonathan Swift reimagining - which has a weird newsreel-like feel, and nicely grotesque animated characters. Better than the actually quite interestingly designed-though-slightly too Disneyesque Fleischer version of Gulliver's Travels (1939 - where, like its stablemate, Hoppity Goes to Town, every character seems lifted from a character in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves - though some end up looking like Elmer Fudd's inbred family - which clashes with the heavily rotoscoped Gulliver). New Gulliver is by Alexander Ptushko, the maker of such MST3K-friendly Mosfilm/Corman Viking fantasies as the brownface-heavy Arabian/Indian adventure of Sadko, the Sword and the Dragon and Sampo - which often seem to feature pixellation. Ptushko also worked on 1967's  Viy, a "fairytale" which is actually the same story that Bava adapted in 1960's Black Sunday, told in the style of the Singing, Ringing Tree (hence how it get away with being the first Soviet horror film), with flying broomstick scenes and scary gargoyle-goblins and stop-frame teleporting-ageing scenes. Therefore, it might be better than Bava.

I find British animation best from when it comes from between the 60s  and 80s. As a kid, I was kind of disturbed by cartoons where all the voices were done by one middle-aged narrator, even though I liked the series enough., which is I think why I avoided watching much of the 70s Paddington on reruns, and prefered the 1997 Canadian version, although while Michael Hordern voiced the 70s one, the 90s one only had Cyril Shaps!
Because you can never have enough Cyril Shaps.

In terms of British animation, the 50s and beforehand is too quaint, and the 90s post-Aardman, post-Snowman seems to be trying to be very quaint, and aimed at doing specials for C4 that I watched as a kid, but wouldn't watch now. Even in the late 1980s, there is invention like 1988's Rarg, by Tony Collingwood, whose stuff became quite quaint, but there's a Gilliam-esque (not in terms of animation, but in terms of design) approach in the masses of giant babies gathered around a cartoon Michael Gough in a strange clockpunk techno-dream city, similar but darker than their series Oscar's Orchestra. 
The Goffster

I wonder if Cosgrove Hall is to blame. I watched their stuff constantly as a kid. Their stuff is endlessly high quality. Chorlton and the Wheelies from what I've seen of it is fun and it has Joe Lynch doing voices and sneaking in jokes about Dun Laoghaire (and pronouncing it the RTE way too), DangerMouse is fun, the Wind in the Willows is sweet, but I think their trend of sweetness is to blame. dd since their BFG (1989) is one of the best Roald Dahl adaptations,  miles better than what Spielydrawers and his Globe Theatre-running "pantomime dame of legitimate theatre" pal Mark Rylance did. But their stuff does go for either cutesy or in the case of their 1990 short the Fool and the Flying Ship, that nice "you'll like this" (but you'd rather watch Diamonds Are Forever) well-animated but rather static prestige animation based on a folk tale your parents sit you down to watch a la the Animated Tales of the World or the Animated Shakespeare (though IIRC, my mum thought they were too frightening for me).
Though I must watch more Alias the Jester, because Richard Briers as an alien time-travelling Flash-cosplaying dwarf in the time of King Arthur may be the best concept for a television series ever. Fantomcat is rubbish. A British attempt to do a Batman The Animated Series, but with Robert Powell as a feline Adam Adamant. Yes, really.

Watching Bob Godfrey's stuff - which I find a bit nudge nudge wink wink, a bit men's magazine editorial cartoon - though I like that his "Know Your Europeans" list of British heroes includes Virgil Tracy, John Steed, Arfur Daley, Des O'Connor, Roger Moore, Alan Bennett, Custard the Cat, John Cleese, Sid James, etc. 

Also been watching Halas and Batchelor's shorts such as Automania 2000 and The History of Cinema, Flow Diagram, and they are beautifully done, charming, but they are nowhere near as joyous as the NFB. They feel a little "Make Learning Fun" at times, and sometimes as if they are trying to pass themselves off as Canadian, or in the case of 1967's the Question and the Foo Foo stuff, as UPA films.

Also been watching several shorts by Oscar-nominated Dane animator Borge Ring (e.g. the Bruno Bozzetto-referencing Anna and Bella, Run of the Mill, O My Darling, all quite like the NFB - little snippets of life), the grotesque work of Ukraine's Studio Borisfen (makers of BBC's 64 Zoo Lane), and Tallinnfilm's junk-filled portrait of marriage The Triangle from 1982, all weird, colorful, unique, although Borisfen's Bluebeard is nonsensical.

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