Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Animating the Quest

Cartoon-blogging, essay 7 of 21 blog entries on
250 great animated short films

Hedgehog in the Fog (1975), directed by Yuriy Norshteyn.

A deliberate movement from Point A to Point B.  That’s the quest in a nutshell.  Point B is the goal — the purpose of the movement is ostensibly to achieve the goal.  And did I mention there may be monsters between Points A and B?  In fact, there’s a very good chance of it.

In the immortal quest-promising words of Carl Denham in King Kong (1933), “It’s money and adventure and fame.  It’s the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.” 

One more thing about Point B…  The object achieved at Point B may not be the real point of the quest.  Even though the hero or heroine may remain unaware of this, the real goal is personal transformation.  If the hero completes the journey by returning to Point A, the hero returns a changed person.

The quest goes way back in time.  Composed nearly 3,000 years ago, Homer’s Odyssey is a classic quest.  Way before that, there’s even a chance that long-forgotten quest stories lurk behind the beautiful cave paintings left by our prehistoric ancestors.  The quest is in our blood — it’s part of our DNA.  So naturally, as the age of movies dawned, the first generation of filmmakers turned to the quest for inspiration.

The epic nature of quests may fit better with the feature film than the short.  Many animated features are quest stories.  Lotte Reiniger’s amazing animated feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1927) is centered on the quest for a magic lamp.  Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) follows the title character as he searches for transformation.  Pinocchio is on a rite-of-passage quest — the wooden puppet equivalent of the Native American vision quest that transforms a boy into a man.  The oeuvres of Disney, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli are filled with similar quests.

But short animated films aren’t entirely out of the picture.  There’s a lot that a skilled animator can achieve with a quest theme in a very short period of time.

Captain Grogg’s Wonderful Journey / Kapten Groggs underbara resa (1916):  Technically, Captain Grogg’s Wonderful Journey is more of a parody of a quest than a quest proper.  The hard-drinking and cantankerous Captain Grogg sets off on a picaresque adventure where anything can happen.  He flirts with a mermaid at sea, has his ship marooned by a whale, gets chased by a lion, joins up with the island natives, and romances a native princess on the island shore by the light of the full moon.

Victor Bergdahl’s animation is extraordinarily fluid and detailed for 1916.  This was the first of 13 popular Captain Grogg shorts that he made between 1916 and 1922.  This first one sets the tone for the rest.  The adventures are all in fun and nothing is really at stake, even when Grogg finds himself devoured by a lion.  The visual treatment of the natives is exaggerated in a racist manner, but the film has no qualms with a fairy-tale happy ending uniting the Swedish Grogg and the black island native.  It’s a quest in the footsteps of the real-life quest of impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, whose Point B turned out to be Tahiti.  Fade out on Gauguin under a full moon with a Polynesian beauty.

Hedgehog in the Fog / Yozhik v tumane (1975):  Yuriy Norshteyn’s Hedgehog in the Fog is a miniature (hedgehog-sized) masterpiece.  The imagery is haunting and the animation is dazzling.  The story is a quest, reduced to its most basic ingredients.  Following a vision of a white horse, our hedgehog hero descends into the fog.  A series of adventurous encounters ultimately leads him home, but with a transformed view of himself and the world.  The hedgehog has returned from a vision quest.

While Hedgehog in the Fog closely follows the structure of a classic quest narrative, the adventures themselves remain wonderfully elusive.  We never learn what the creature is that carries the hedgehog on its back through the water.  Animals like elephants, dogs, and bats mysteriously appear and then sink back into the fog.  The white horse functions as a symbol — and it is an inspired quest goal — but the meaning of the horse remains unexplained.  The hedgehog’s search for understanding takes place in a fog.

The ending is surpassingly beautiful.  The hedgehog returns home for a joyful reunion with his bear cub friend, yet the film closes with the hedgehog alone with his thoughts, forever changed by his quest.  Although small in scope and muted in tone, Hedgehog in the Fog is one of the most authentic portrayals of the quest ever captured on film.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Hedgehog in the Fog is available for purchase on The Complete Works of Yuri Norstein.

Death and the Mother (1988):  Ruth Lingford’s Death and the Mother is a classic quest tale adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Story of a Mother.”  After a personified Death takes a sick child from its home, the mother sets off on a quest to retrieve her child.  Along the way, the mother undergoes a series of terrible and wound-inflicting adventures.  A thorn bush tears her skin and her eyes fall into the water as she cries by the side of a river, leaving her sightless.  Reduced to a ragged blind beggar by the time she catches up with Death, she courageously makes her demand.  The end of her quest turns out to be a sad wisdom.

Lingford’s treatment of the story is based on traditional woodcuts.  Everything is conveyed visually, with no dialogue to break the mood — we do not hear the mother’s cries and sobs.  Partly because of this approach, the film avoids falling into the extreme sentimentality that would be natural to the story.  Instead, we get to marvel at the artistry of this primal world and appreciate the classic elements of the quest, as they fall into place one by one.

Support the artists and the art of the animated short film! Death and the Mother is available for purchase on The Best of British Animation Awards, Vol. 2.

Here’s a sampling of a few other films with quest elements from our list of 250 great animated short films.  These are some of the greatest tales of adventure on our list, but the quest narrative always suggests there is deeper meaning behind the chases, battles, and rescues.  Ultimately, wisdom must emerge from the experience.  From the safety of the campfire, the hedgehog will peer into the darkness beyond, haunted by his vision of the white horse.  “How is she, there… in the fog?”

What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones, USA, 1957) 
Little Tadpoles Search for Mama / Xiao ke dou zhao ma ma (Wei Te, China, 1960) 
The Ash-Lad and the Good Helpers / Askeladden og de gode hjelperne (Ivo Caprino, Norway, 1961) 
Dojoji Temple (Kihachiro Kawamoto, Japan, 1976) 
There Once Was a Dog / Zhil-byl pyos (Eduard Nazarov, USSR, 1982) 
The Monk and the Fish / Le moine et le poisson (Michael Dudok de Wit, France, 1994) 
The Old Man and the Sea (Aleksandr Petrov, Russia, 1999) 
Brothers Bearhearts / Vennad Karusüdamed (Riho Unt, Estonia, 2005) 
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello (Anthony Lucas, Australia, 2005) 
The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, Norway/Canada, 2006) 
The Legend of Shangri-La (Chen Ming, China, 2006) 
Peter & the Wolf (Suzie Templeton, UK, 2006) 
The Tale of How (The Blackheart Gang: Ree Treweek, Jannes Hendrikz & Markus Wormstorm, South Africa, 2006) 
My Childhood Mystery Tree (Natalia Mirzoyan, Russia, 2008) 

© 2012 Lee Price

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