Anybody who thinks quality cartoons is an oxymoron does not know what they are missing. Kerrie Murphy selects her favourite examples of the art of animation
ANIMATION was invented when early humans drew multiple legs on animals in cave paintings, denoting movement. Their failure to develop the accompanying ‘‘ whoo- wawoo’’ sound effects meant cartoons stalled until the Bronze Age and invention of the anvil.
But during the 20th century cartoons came into their own. They were originally intended as entertainment for all age groups, or specifically for adults, before being relegated to children’s viewing, until the late 1980s when it became OK for grown- ups to watch again. It was then that critical debates began as to which animated shorts or movies were the best.
Even though it’s a genre that has made heroes out of unlikely figures such as an unintelligible sailor with a spinach obsession, there are criteria that make deciding greatness easy: longevity, innovative techniques, influence or redefining the genre, for instance.
But there is also something ineffable that separates a great cartoon from a good one, and so even though the animation landscape would be very different without Fantasia , Snow White and Bambi , the Disney studio’s work rarely tops great cartoon lists in the same way that, say, Warner Bros cartoons do. Perhaps it’s a character development thing: who would you rather have a beer with, Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse?
And if you’re writing apoplectic emails that Akira or Howl’s Moving Castle are excluded from the following lists, sorry, it’s a subjective thing. I’ve tried, but I just don’t enjoy anime in the same way as the pieces below. But enough of what’s not here; the following, in no particular order, is Review ’ s idea of the best animation has to offer.
MERRIE MELODIES AND LOONEY TUNES ( 1930- 69/ 1931- 69)
WARNER Bros began producing short cartoons to screen before movies eight years before Bugs Bunny appeared in 1938’ s Porky’s Hare Hunt . It was another two before the rascally rabbit took centre stage and asked: What’s up, doc?’’ in A Wild Hare , but he has proven to be one of the most endearing and enduring cartoon characters.
In his autobiography Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones, creator of Road Runner, Pepe LePew and Marvin the Martian, among others, wrote: I suppose it would be nice if I knew the age and social structure of my audience, but the truth is, I make cartoons for me.’’
It was Jones’s experiments with pieces that interested him that led to the feud between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny being thrown into the Ring cycle, resulting in the 1957 Wagner satire What’s Opera, Doc .
To fund such a lavishly illustrated piece, Jones and crew siphoned money from the cheaper Road Runner cartoons, and it was worth the effort. It’s almost impossible to hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries without singing Kill the wabbit’’ to the tune. There’s something about jamming pop culture into the highbrow arts that makes it timelessly funny. It captures the spirit of opera so well, it’s also a little moving, as Elmer the Wagnerian warrior loses his love, Bugs in a dress.
Another daring experiment was 1953’ s Duck Amuck, in which an increasingly exasperated Daffy Duck is erased and re- drawn in a series of strange forms and environments by an unseen animator who ultimately is revealed to be Bugs. The piece is so — wait for it — daffy it’s hilarious, but it also questions how far a cartoon character can be removed from its conventional form and remain recognisable. Daffy is still Daffy, even with a flower head and flagpole tail.
By the 1960s, the golden era was over at Warner Bros, but the studio continued to recycle its classic cartoons by bridging the shorts into feature- length stories and making ill- advised movie updates, such as 1996’ s Space Jam and 2003’ s slightly better Looney Tunes: Back in Action . There was also a cheesy Muppet Babies - style portrayal of the classic characters as children, Baby Looney Tunes , in 2002.
The best of Warner Bros’ recent efforts have steered clear of Bugs and co, such as 1992’ s darkly stylish Batman: The Animated Series . But the standout was 1993’ s Animaniacs , which captured the manic energy of the classic Looney Tunes without aping them mindlessly.
THE SIMPSONS ( 1989 - PRESENT)
THE Simpsons isn’t the first prime- time cartoon television series; that was Jay Ward’s Crusader Rabbit in 1949. Nor was it the first cartoon sitcom, following The Flintstones ( 1960) and 1972’ s Wait Till Your Father Gets Home ( a cartoon All in the Family ). But The Simpsons is the most successful, funniest and one of the longest running TV shows, animated or not.
The story of a fat dumb man, his long- suffering wife and precocious children has been told many times in sitcoms, but no one does it as well.
Back in 1989 it was condemned for celebrating dysfunction, stupidity and brattiness, with then president George H. W. Bush saying: The nation needs to be closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons .’’ But such criticism mellowed as the show’s cleverness and heart emerged, such as in the episode Marge Be Not Proud where Bart is caught shoplifting and the pain he feels from disappointing his mother is almost palpable.
The Simpsons may not be the sort of show that you associate with the phrase family
TOY STORY ( 1995)
entertainment but, given that children watch for the slapstick and misadventure while adults chortle at the clever satire, the show fits the bill.
Its multiple layers also ensure it stands up to repeated viewing. The Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention,’’ creator Matt Groening said in The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favourite Family . This is just as well since every day Ten screens the show at least once, while pay TV channel Fox 8 offers three or more episodes.
Calculating the extent of The Simpsons influence is almost impossible; even the English language (‘‘ D’oh’’) borrows from the show. But it’s in animation where its fingerprints are most obvious. Shows such as Futurama , Family Guy, King of the Hill and South Park owe a debt to the show, even if only because its success gave TV networks faith in prime- time cartoons. The downside is that it casts a long shadow. It’s hard to think of a topic The Simpsons hasn’t successfully skewered in 19 seasons. As the almost as genius South Park affectionately bemoaned in the name of a 2002 episode, The Simpsons Already Did It . WHEN one of the earliest animated shorts, 1914’ s Gertie the Dinosaur , was made, the cell ( the transparent celluloid allowing animators to redraw only the parts that changed in a frame) had not been developed, so every frame was laboriously hand- drawn. Today, almost all animation is computerised. Even in traditional 2- D cartoons, computers handle the colouring and animation of hand- drawn images, giving rise to the term tradigital animation.
As well as speeding up the process, computer technology has spawned a new animation genre, the 3- D computer- generated imagery film, all but replacing the 2- D used to make feature films such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King .
Technology has improved considerably in the 12 years since Toy Story broke new ground. Indeed, as well as toys, early CGI films starred insects ( A Bug’s Life , Antz ) and fish ( Finding Nemo) because animators couldn’t render convincing hair, human skin or movement. But Pixar’s Toy Story doesn’t make this list because it was first; it’s a great story. The idea of toys living a rich life while their owner is asleep is an almost universal fantasy and the story of Woody the cowboy who feels his status as his young owner’s favourite toy is threatened by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, a flash but dim fellow who doesn’t know he’s a toy, is as touching as it is funny. Let’s hope the makers remember this when Toy Story 3 appears in 2010.
GERALD McBOING BOING ( 1951)
ON the surface, this almost forgotten gem, an adaptation of a Dr Seuss story, is just a sweet tale of a young boy who speaks only in sound effects. But its animation techniques were as revolutionary in its era as Toy Story s were more than 40 years later.
This academy award- winning cartoon came from United Productions of America, which was an innovator in what’s called limited animation. Tex Avery at Warner Bros had already broken away from Disney’s rigid adherence to the physical laws of the real world but Gerald McBoing Boing took it a step further by using stylised backgrounds. Instead of a lounge room there’s a roughly sketched armchair, picture frame and window. Limited animation also reduced the number of frames a second, making for less fluid movement and cartoons that were faster and therefore cheaper to produce.
Here, limited animation was an artistic, not a financial, choice but it led to the more workmanlike TV cartoons from the 60s onwards, such as Hanna- Barbera’s Scooby- Doo, Where Are You! UPA produced three more Gerald shorts and a half- hour TV series.
Two years ago, Canadian production house Cookie Jar Entertainment gave Gerald two talking chums and reinvented him for preschoolers. It’s cute but hardly innovative.
RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER ( 1964)
BEFORE CGI, 3- D animation was created with stop motion, in which a 3- D object is moved slightly for each frame. This technique was used for animated pieces and movie special effects, most notably by Ray Harryhausen in movies such as Mighty Joe Young ( 1949) and 1963’ s Jason and the Argonauts .
Rankin- Bass also made 2- D cartoons, but the stop- motion Christmas specials were its finest achievement. If you’re talking most memorable scene, it would be the Miser Brothers routine in 1974’ s The Year Without a Santa Claus , but Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer boasts a stronger story.
Based on Johnny Marks’s jaunty Christmas song, it has added trademark Rankin- Bass
flourishes of weirdness, such as an elf called Hermey who wants to give up making toys to become a dentist and the Island of Misfit Toys, the sad resting place for toys with imperfections. So popular was this latter story- line that in 1965 a new ending was added to show that Santa did fulfil his promise to find the toys homes.
Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer is not necessarily an innovative work but it is an endearing and funny one, and enduring. In the US, where it has played in prime time every Christmas since 1964, it’s the longest running holiday title. It’s not quite so cherished in Australia but is being rediscovered on DVD.
And what of the show’s stars, the models used to create the piece? Astonishingly, they were given to an employee’s nephew and all but Rudolph and Santa were destroyed.
The survivors appeared on the American Antiques Roadshow in 2006 and were valued at $ US8000 to $ US10,000. They’ve since been sold to the head of an online toy company and restored.
Given the time- consuming process, examples of stop- motion animation are few and far between these days, but the technique does have two high- profile practitioners, notably Aardman animation, makers of the Wallace & Gromit stories, Creature Comforts , and the films Chicken Run and Flushed Away. Director Tim Burton also flies the flag with gothic efforts such as 2005’ s Corpse Bride and 1993’ s The Nightmare Before Christmas . THE 1980s were a barren time for animated feature films. Disney still pumped them out but until 1989’ s The Little Mermaid , they weren’t really the award- winning box- office smashes ( and merchandising machines) they would become in subsequent years.
Ironically, it was Touchstone Pictures, a division of Disney established to allow the company to release non- G- rated live- action films without tarnishing its child- friendly reputation, that ushered in the modern animated blockbus-
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? ( 1988)
ter with Roger Rabbit . Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the satire centres on a Looney Tunesesque animated star who hires a human detective ( played by Bob Hoskins) to find out whether his wife Jessica has been playing pattycake with another man. This embroils the gumshoe in a complex conspiracy with a heavy nod to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown . As evidenced by the exceedingly sultry Jessica, it was one of the first modern cartoons to target adults and children.
A mix of animation and live action, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? features humans and
toons’’ interacting. It wasn’t the first time this had happened — think Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse from Tom and Jerry in Anchors Aweigh — but it was the most sustained and convincing attempt.
Impressively, all 85,000 cells were completely hand- animated, even though Disney had already started to use extensive computer animation on its 2- D cartoons. Of course, paint doesn’t come cheap and, at a cost of $ US70 million, at the time Roger qualified as one of the most expensive films made.
But what really makes it unique is that as it poked fun at the conventions of cartoons from the 40s, the makers thought it fitting to feature the cartoon characters from the period. It’s the first time Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and also Daffy and Donald Duck, share a scene. However, just as when the megastars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen worked together on The Towering Inferno and insisted on equal lines, lawyers ensured that Mickey and Bugs had the same number of words.
While the advent of computer animation has led to increasingly sophisticated feature films, marrying them to the real world has rarely been attempted since Roger Rabbit . A mooted prequel never made it out of development; surprising when you consider how much easier it would be to make today.
Still, the modern era of cartoons Roger heralded continues. In recent years, cult shows such as Futurama and Family Guy were so popular when released on DVD that new episodes were commissioned years after the networks axed the series. Combine that with the continued popularity of CGI films at the box office and the longevity of The Simpsons , and the future of animation looks very healthy. And with computer technology improving by leaps and bounds, the realm of what will be possible seems limitless. Let’s just hope the strive for realism doesn’t go too far.
It will be a sad day when animation is so true to life that a toon walks over the edge of cliff and falls before they’ve even had a chance to notice.
Homer not alone: Creator Matt Groening says Simpsons rewards those who pay attention