Monday, September 17, 2012

Animating Love and Courtship

Cartoon-blogging, essay 4 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

The Little Soldier (1947), directed by Paul Grimault.

This is the fourth 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.

“They’re kissing again.  Do we have to read the kissing parts?”
The grandson in The Princess Bride (1987)

Yes, we have to read the kissing parts.

I unashamedly love the idea of love.  When watching movies, I want my love stories to end in either of two ways:  1)  with a kiss or...  2)  with both lovers dead or tragically separated.  For me, Shakespeare got it right with his comedies—ending in wedding scenes—and with the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.  Those are the models for me.

Courtship is a slightly different matter.  Courtship is the mechanics while love is the magic.  With courtship, you get the comedy of mix-ups, bad timing, and awkwardness, as well as moments of unexpected grace.  Romantic comedies find laughs in courtship along the route to love.  Did I mention that I like romantic comedies?  Yeah, I’m confessing that I’m a guy who likes chick flicks.

Courtship is a fairly easy subject for animated short films.  Explorations of love are a little tougher.  Nevertheless, our panel of seven animation enthusiasts uncovered a nice assortment of animated short films that handle romance with a sensitivity that you’ll find in few feature films.  As just one example, the portrait of a marriage that runs through the background of Frédéric Back’s wonderful short film Crac (1981) swiftly captures a lifetime’s worth of love and loss—and it’s not even the primary subject of the film!  (Note:  The real subject is a chair.)

For the three films that I’m highlighting, two take the Shakespearean comedy approach (ending in bliss) and the third travels the Romeo and Juliet route.  I can guarantee this:  They are all extremely romantic.

The Tender Game (1958):  Three years after John and Faith (Elliott) Hubley married, they jointly made The Tender Game, one of the sweetest celebrations of courtship ever filmed.  Initially trained at Disney, John Hubley was one of a small group of animators who revolutionized American animation through his spare and stylized animation style at UPA, a new animation studio, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  His distinctive stamp was on the early Mr. Magoo shorts, Gerald McBoing-Boing, and Rooty Toot Toot.  But he lost his job at the studio in 1952, blacklisted when he refused to name names at the McCarthy hearings. 

John and Faith teamed up personally and professionally in 1955, eventually collaborating on 22 independently-produced films (and four children).  The Tender Game was their fourth film.  In it, they reduce character to the movement of a few lines and squiggles.  But simple shapes have rarely been so eloquent—these artful lovers flirt with wit and passion.  Accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Trio, singer Ella Fitzgerald establishes a wistful mood in the opening minutes before the two characters meet and fall for each other, drawing the viewer into a courtship brimming with joy.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! The Tender Game is available for purchase on Art and Jazz in Animation.

The Little Soldier / Le petit soldat (1947):  Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” has been animated many times but never as romantically as in this French version.  Director Paul Grimault and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert made several changes to the original Andersen tale.  The soldier becomes an acrobat, the ballerina becomes a proactive and resourceful heroine, and a frozen-river climax is borrowed from the old D.W. Griffith silent classic Way Down East.  In the background, Grimault and Prévert place a somber French landscape in ruins, bombed out and desolate.  But the biggest change of all is that love triumphs in the final fade-out.

I’m fascinated by the participation of the great Jacques Prévert in this production.  Prévert was both a popular poet and screenwriter.  Before and during World War II, he served as the main screenwriter for Marcel Carné, a leading figure in the French film industry.  They made nine movies together, including Children of Paradise (1945), a romantic masterpiece set in the 19th century theater scene of Paris.  With The Little Soldier, Prévert found a welcome new collaborator in animator Paul Grimault.  Although The Little Soldier has no dialogue, the charm and compassion of the adaptation are hallmarks of Prévert’s work.  Prévert and Grimault continued to work together until Prévert’s death in 1977.  When Grimault attended the premiere of their last collaboration, The King and the Mockingbird, in 1980, he reserved an empty seat next to him in remembrance of Prévert. 

Voices of a Distant Star / Hoshi no koe (2003):  Voices of a Distant Star is an anime with giant robots, aliens, and spectacular explosions.  But these typical anime elements are secondary to the real event which is a love story that will tear your heart out.  I don’t cry that easily, but Voices of a Distant Star devastates me.

This short anime is the virtuoso work of a single person—director Makoto Shinkai.  I love the way he meets all genre expectations while keeping them entirely subordinate to the emotional powerhouse love story.  His central theme of communication over interstellar distance reminds me of Ray Bradbury at his most insightful and poignant.

I’ve watched Voices of a Distant Star three times now and it’s become stronger and more emotionally affecting with each viewing.  In this way, it reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.  I loved The Polar Express from the first time I read it and so decided to share it as a read-aloud with my children every Christmas Eve.  But after the first couple of times, I could no longer get through it without choking up at the end.  Well…  that’s the way I think it’s going to be with Voices of a Distant Star.  I’m not sure how many more times I’ll be able to get through it.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Voices of a Distant Star is available for purchase at Amazon and other dealers.

Here’s a list of some other films from our list that touch upon themes of love and courtship.  Not all are romantic—some cast a jaundiced eye on the dating scene—but all repay close attention.

Who Killed Cock Robin? (David Hand, USA, 1935) 
The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (Chuck Jones, USA, 1965)
My Green Crocodile / Moy zelenyy krokodil (Vadim Kurchevskiy, USSR, 1966) 
Café Bar (Alison De Vere, UK, 1974) 
Boy and Girl / Malchik i devochka (Rozaliya Zelma, USSR, 1978) 
Poor Lisa / Bednaya Liza (Ideya Garanina, USSR, 1978) 
Crac (Frédéric Back, Canada, 1981) 
George and Rosemary (David Fine & Alison Snowden, Canada, 1987) 
Knick Knack (John Lasseter, USA, 1989) 
Achilles (Barry Purves, UK, 1995) 
A Summer Night Rendez-vous / Au premier dimanche d’août (Florence Miailhe, France, 2002) 
Destino (Dominique Monfery, France/USA, 2003) 
The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, Norway/Canada, 2006) 
My Love / Moya lyubov (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 2006) 
Invention of Love (Andrey Shushkov, Russia, 2010) 
The Silence Beneath the Bark / Le silence sous l'écorce (Joanna Lurie, France, 2010)

© 2012 Lee Price

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