Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Animating War and Violence

Cartoon-blogging, essay 5 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

Tulips Shall Grow (1942), directed by George Pal.

This is the fifth of 21 essays inspired by a list of 250 great animated short films, composed in August 2012 by Scott Bussey, Jorge Didaco, Waldemar Hepstein, Bill Kamberger, Robert Reynolds, Sulo Vatanen, and Lee Price, with additional assistance from participants on the IMDb Classic Film message board.

Ferdinand the Bull is in.  Tom and Jerry are out. 

To be more specific… The very sweet Disney short Ferdinand the Bull (1938) made it on this entry’s sample list of animated short films that deal with themes of war and violence.  But the two Tom and Jerry cartoons that made our big list (The Night Before Christmas and The Cat Concerto) aren’t here.  Much as I enjoy the orgies of destruction in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I watch them knowing the shenanigans are ultimately all in fun and no one gets hurt.  The violence isn’t real.  In Ferdinand the Bull, the threatened violence is very real and must be addressed.  Therefore, the bull gets in.

Our list of 250 great animated films has a respectable selection of World War II propaganda cartoons, anti-war message films, and meditations on the roots of violence.  While cartoons have certainly been made that present war as an exciting adventure, none of them made our list.  Even our propaganda selections, like Blitz Wolf and Der Fuehrer’s Face, express profound discomfort with violence.  Hitler is the violent one;  in this context, Donald Duck is the voice of reason and peace.

For me, the scenes that linger in the memory are the haunting ones that show the aftermath of the violence.  In the marvelous Story of a Certain Street Corner (1962), the viewer’s eye searches the ruins of a bombed-out city hoping for signs that our principal characters have survived.  We see immense loss, as well as glimmers of hope for the future.  Yuriy Norshteyn’s brilliant Tale of Tales (1979) is even sadder.  The women dance with their men who fade off the screen.  Notifications of their deaths fly like birds to their waiting loved ones.  A powerful anti-war message is delivered without ever showing soldiers in conflict.

Tulips Shall Grow (1942):  The Holland setting looks enchanting in the opening, brought to storybook life with neat rows of flowers, picturesque windmills, and young lovers.  Then the Screwballs attack and things quickly get real ugly.

For all its childlike simplicity, Tulips Shall Grow had to be a personal statement for its director, George Pal.  He had just completed working six years in the Netherlands, mastering the art of puppet animation.  America beckoned and Pal accepted an offer from Paramount Studios, leaving the Netherlands with his wife and son just months before the Nazis invaded in May 1940.  The Screwballs in Tulips Shall Grow are Nazis.  Their monstrous presence befouls the formerly beautiful countryside.

Adding an additional layer of interest for me, one of my heroes—Ray Harryhausen—worked as a model animator on this film.  Harryhausen, who went on to become the animator and special effects wizard behind movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), was just 18 when he began his Hollywood career in the new George Pal Puppetoon studio at Paramount.  He made ten shorts with Pal before enlisting in the U.S. Army, where he eventually wound up working in Frank Capra’s Special Service Division film unit.  While the wood puppets of the George Pal films frustrated the artist in Harryhausen (who really wanted to do King Kong-style animation), he concedes that the experience was very valuable for him and the films were “elegant in their own way.”

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Tulips Shall Grow is available for purchase on The Puppetoon Movie DVD.

King-Size Canary (1947):  One of classic Hollywood’s wildest directors, Tex Avery is represented by two films on our war and violence list.  Avery’s Blitz Wolf mercilessly satirizes Hitler and King-Size Canary is a very funny—and frighteningly prescient—stand-in for the impending US-Soviet arms race and its "mutually assured destruction" philosophy.  Avery was at his best with such extreme material, fashioning endless sight gags that threaten to escalate into complete madness.  In fact, the end of King-Size Canary escalates the situation just about as far as you can take it.

Avery was the least sentimental of the great Hollywood cartoon directors.  Everything was forward motion with him; everything was over-the-top and exaggerated to the max.  You didn’t go to Avery for a romantic love story.  But if you were in the mood for a hot-blooded take-no-prisoners gag-packed cartoon, he was your man.  We’ve got four Avery classics on our list—Blitz Wolf, Red Hot Riding Hood, King-Size Canary, and Bad Luck Blackie.  That’s more than anyone else except for Chuck Jones (who somehow netted five).

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! King-Size Canary is available for purchase on the Command Decision (1949) DVD.

Balance (1989):  With Balance, twin brothers Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein hit on an inspired metaphor to examine human nature and the roots of violence and warfare.  Five strange, faceless individuals co-exist on a floating platform.  Even though they know they must keep the platform balanced, the curiosity and greed of the figures inevitably unleash cold-blooded havoc.

Despite the bleakness of the setting and the pessimism of the story, Balance is strangely exhilarating.  The choreography of the characters’ movements within the limited space is brilliantly timed—at times, it’s almost like watching a Gene Kelly dance routine.  And even though the nature of these characters remains mysterious, their gestures of threat and fear make it clear that these creatures are all-too-human.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Balance is available for purchase on The World’s Greatest Animation DVD.

Here’s a list of some other films from our list that touch upon themes of war and violence.  It’s not a fun group of films this time (Education for Death has to be the most depressing of all Disney shorts) but these are movies loaded with genuine insight into human nature.

Ferdinand the Bull (Dick Rickard, USA, 1938) 
Peace on Earth (Hugh Harman, USA, 1939) 
The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company “B” (Walter Lantz, USA, 1941) 
Blitz Wolf (Tex Avery, USA, 1942)
Der Fuehrer’s Face (Jack Kinney, USA, 1942) 
Education For Death (Clyde Geronimi, USA, 1943) 
Neighbours (Norman McLaren, Canada, 1952)
Story of a Certain Street Corner / Aru machikado no monogatari (Eiichi Yamamoto & Yusaku Sakamoto, Japan, 1962)
The Thieving Magpie / La gazza ladra (Emanuele Luzzati and Giulio Gianini, Italy, 1964) 
The Roll-Call / Apel (Ryszard Czekala, Poland, 1971) 
Tale of Tales / Skazka skazok (Yuriy Norshteyn, USSR, 1979) 
Tyll the Giant / Suur Tõll (Rein Raamat, USSR, 1980) 
Memories of War (Pierre Hébert, Canada, 1983) 
Grasshoppers / Cavallette (Bruno Bozzetto, Italy, 1990) 
The Restaurant of Many Orders / Chumon no ooi ryori-ten (Tadanari Okamoto, Japan, 1993) 
Felix in Exile (William Kentridge, South Africa, 1994) 
Achilles (Barry Purves, UK, 1995) 
Rocks / Das Rad (Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel & Heidi Wittlinger, Germany, 2003) 
Voices of a Distant Star / Hoshi no koe (Makoto Shinkai, Japan, 2003)

© 2012 Lee Price

No comments:

Post a Comment