Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Animating Childhood

Cartoon-blogging, essay 10 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

The Mitten (1967), directed by Roman Kachanov.
This is the tenth 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.

Artists often mine their childhood for inspiration.  Charles Dickens and Mark Twain recreated their childhood world in classic books;  Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts explored life through the eyes of children in classic comic strips.  I’m friends with a minister who often wears Snoopy and Charlie Brown ties to church, acknowledging their spiritual depth.  Schulz used the world of childhood to grapple with his own adult questions and struggles.  He tapped into deep wells by immersing himself in childhood.

When drawing together our list of 250 great animated short films, our panelists found a small yet rich selection of movies where artists recreate and creatively explore the world of childhood.  Animation is particularly effective at tapping into the recesses of the brain where our deepest memories reside.  An animated image can instantly summon up strong emotions tied to our past.

Of course, many people erroneously believe that animation is nothing more than a medium for entertaining children, probably because children are naturally drawn to the world of the cartoon.  In the early days of television, advertising and marketing salesmen quickly capitalized on the new captive audience.  Short bursts of 30-second animation can be very effective at lodging sales messages into the brains of children, creating an urgent need for the hot new toy or the sweetest breakfast cereal.  All film is manipulative, but there seems to be something especially crass about manipulating children through animation, whispering in their ears as they relax on a Saturday morning.

Fortunately, my topic isn’t “Animating for Maximum Manipulation” but the much more agreeable “Animating Childhood,” where the intent is to express an idea or vision.  Each of today’s selections opens into universality.  The Dr. Seuss-penned Gerald McBoing Boing widens to express ideas about creativity, Tulips Shall Grow begins and ends with children yet is dominated by war and loss in its middle passage, Boy and Girl explores gender and relationships, and Mikhail Aldashin’s Rozhedstvo (Christmas) brings a childlike innocence to the Jesus nativity story.  Very big themes can be explored through the eyes of childhood.

Little Tadpoles Search for Mama / Xiao ke dou zhao ma ma (1960):  Director Te Wei (1915-2010) made Little Tadpoles Search for Mama (also known as Where is Mama?) for very young children but its technique transcends its content.  Published in the same year (1960), P.D. Eastman’s classic American picture book Are You My Mother? has the same plot yet it remains rooted in its child audience.  Te Wei’s short film offers a deeper experience with nearly identical material, thanks to the miraculous beauty of its imagery.  The simple narrative of tadpoles in search of their mother becomes an exercise in brush painting in motion.

Te Wei made this groundbreaking film with important assistance from Tang Cheng and animators Duan Ziaoxuan and A Da (who directed Three Monks on our list).  Produced at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Little Tadpoles Search for Mama was the first film to employ brush painting animation and it received much acclaim for its effects.  The school of tadpoles moves through the water with a delightful random feel as certain adventurous tadpoles venture out while others shyly hold back.  The exquisite brush work conveys the pond environment through carefully chosen details.  The other denizens of the pond each receive charming personalities, from birds on the shore to a catfish, shrimp, and a crab in the depths.  The fifteen minutes pass like an enchanted dream — childhood evoked in a delicate flow of museum-quality images.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Little Tadpoles Search for Mama is available for purchase on Chinese Classic Animation – Te Wei Collection.

The Mitten / Varezhka (1967):  A puppet animation by Soviet director Roman Kachanov (1921-1993), The Mitten carefully and wordlessly establishes its plot in the opening minutes (a girl desperately wishes she could have a dog of her own) before discreetly shifting into the girl’s imagination.  From her point of view, we see a mitten transform into an adorable knitted dog and share in her joy at his doggy behavior.  There’s charm in abundance in Kachanov’s comic treatment of the wide variety of dogs in the neighborhood.  And I especially appreciate the sweet end of the film, as it wisely refrains from indulging in the extreme sentimentality of the scene that would naturally follow.

Tchou-Tchou (1972):  Director Co Hoedeman can animate anything.  He’s animated sand (The Sand Castle — it’s on our list), wire, sealskin figures, and teddy bears.  In Tchou-Tchou, Hoedeman animates blocks — for 13 vivid minutes, a simple children’s block set is in constant inventive motion.  The boy and girl at the center of the action are basic figures, each composed of three painted wooden cubes.  But watch as Hoedeman ingeniously finds countless ways to endow his building blocks with personality.  He’s a playful wizard behind the scenes, animating with childlike glee — making a difficult art look like child’s play.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Tchou-Tchou is available for purchase at the NFB website.

Here’s a sampling of a few other films about childhood from our list of 250 great animated short films.  While these films offer a child’s eye view of the world, they are not childish.  As William Wordsworth wrote when he recollected scenes from his early childhood, “the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

Little Nemo / Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (Winsor McCay, USA, 1911) 
Tulips Shall Grow (George Pal, USA, 1942) 
Gerald McBoing Boing (Robert Cannon, USA, 1951) 
Boy and Girl / Malchik i devochka (Rozaliya Zelma, USSR, 1978) 
Who Will Comfort Toffle? / Vem skall trösta knyttet? (Johan Hagelbäck, Sweden, 1980) 
The Snowman (Dianne Jackson, UK, 1982) 
Christmas / Rozhdestvo (Mikhail Aldashin, Russia, 1997) 
My Childhood Mystery Tree (Natalia Mirzoyan, Russia, 2008) 

© 2012 Lee Price

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