Thursday, January 28, 2010

Help the Hodges Continued

Just a quick reminder that the Help the Hodges charity auction is still going on. The items that went up previously will be ending in three days and a whole new round of amazing one-of-a-kind items goes up today. Check out the auction page to see what's available.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

TV Time - Flash Gordon

My husband and I were out shopping and decided to check out the clearanced DVDs. We weren’t finding much until my husband spotted the 1979 Filmation animated series Flash Gordon (sometimes called The New Adventures of Flash Gordon to distinguish it from other retelling of the Flash Gordon stories).

“You’re not really going to buy that, are you?” I asked. Though I’ve found one or two of them charming, Filmation’s TV shows are not among my favorites. I was also thinking of all the still unshelved DVDs we had at home. Adding another one, one that even my husband didn’t remember as being very good, didn’t seem like a good idea.

Of course he bought it.

Later on at home, we settled in to watch a couple of episodes. Though my expectations were pretty low, I was pleasantly surprised. Filmation’s Flash Gordon may not be a great TV series, but it is surprisingly fun and – for a Filmation production – well-made.

The original Flash Gordon comic strip was created in 1934 by Alex Raymond. The comics followed the intergalactic adventures of Flash Gordon and his companions as they battle to save Earth and the alien world of Mongo from the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. Prior to the animated series, the strips were adapted into a radio program, a series of film serials, and various other formats. When Filmation got their hands on the property in the 1970s, Star Wars was in the process of taking the world by storm, creating a lot of potential demand for a TV series featuring adventures on an alien world. Filmation started out making a television movie later named Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All. NBC, which would be airing the finished Flash Gordon product, requested that Filmation turn the concept into a TV series. The movie was still completed though it did not air until 1982, despite the fact that it serves as an introduction to most of the characters and concepts of the series.

Flash Gordon does not stray too far from Filmation’s usual formula for TV animation. Limited animation? Check. Rotoscoping? Check. Constantly reused stock footage? Check and double check. If the animation in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe makes you cringe, you will probably not like Flash Gordon. I got pretty sick of seeing Flash and his lady love Dale Arden embrace and kiss in the exact same way dozens of times throughout the series. But stock footage aside and the occasional weird drawing aside, this is a pretty good looking show. Most of the characters, locations, and overall look of the series are taken directly from the comics, resulting in a fun and imaginative world with all manner of different environments, wonders, and challenges for Flash and his friends to explore. Fans of past versions of Flash Gordon may recognize hawkmen and their the flying city, Prince Thun of the lion men (though we never see any other lion men), Queen Desira (really) of the jungle kingdom Tropica, and various other elements from the original comic. In addition to rotoscoping some of the human and alien characters, Filmation’s animators filmed live-action wire models of the spaceships in the series and rotoscoped them to create the very consistent and convincingly dimensional animation of the ships in flight. Though the show may not be among the best television animation ever created, it is certainly among Filmation’s best work.

In its first season, the show utilized a serial format similar to the comics. The latest episode would pick up the story where the previous one left off. The continuing storyline did allow the writers to revisit some of the characters and setting in the show periodically and to show Flash gradually building an army of allies. But growth and development of character doesn’t really figure in to the story. Flash remains the exact same character throughout the series: brave, daring, athletic, and nearly as irresistible to alien women as James T. Kirk. Flash’s love interest Dale alternates between worrying about Flash when he’s in danger and being jealous when he’s around other women with very little change or evidence of a deeper personality, making it all the weirder that Flash remains faithful to her while so many lovely ladies of Mongo are throwing themselves at him. The only major character who undergoes any real substantial change during the series is Ming’s daughter, Aura. She switches both allegiances and love interests rather late in season one, but both happen so suddenly that it doesn’t really make sense. The main benefit of the continuing storyline was to provide some cliffhanger episode endings and give viewers additional motivation to keep tuning in. But NBC felt that the inability to rerun the episodes in any order outweighed whatever benefits the serial format had. When the second season went into development, NBC had the show changed to a more traditional format with stand-alone episodes.

Flah Gordon is not an exceptional cartoon. The writing is not very deep and the animation – while quite good by Filmation standards – is not generally stunning. What the show does have going for it is a good sense of fun and adventure, not unlike what you will find in He-Man or the much more visually engaging ThunderCats. There’s a feeling that just about anything can happen, any manner of character can be encountered, and some manner of bizarre beast lurks around every corner. With the right mindset, this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to fantasy can be quite entertaining. For fans of Flash Gordon, the series is one of the most accurate retellings of the original comics ever produced. Consider the most well-known alternative:

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Flash Gordon turned out to be fun, much more so than I was expecting. It’s a solid, straightforward adventure series and sometimes, that’s just what I’m in the mood for.

Trivia Time No one answered last week's trivia question, about the other animated movie to join the National Film Registry this year alongside Little Nemo. The film in question is Quasi at the Quackadero a surrel short from animator Sally Cruikshank, best known to the general public for her occasional segments on Sesame Street.

This week's question is a little easier. Several years after the Filmation cartoon, Flash Gordon starred in another animated series, in which he teamed up with fellow comic strip characters Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom to battle Ming once more. What's the name of this show?

Post your answers in the comments section. The person with the first correct answer gets a link of their choice on the site next week.

All images in this article are copyright SGC Entertainment and Hearst Entertainment.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Help The Hodges

Starting today, a tremendous amount of one-of-a-kind artwork will be going up for auction on eBay, and for a very good cause. Animation artist Tim Hodge's son Matthew was in a car accident that left him in a coma. The Hodges' insurance policy isn't covering all of their medical bills. Moved by the family's plight, the National Cartoonists Society Foundation has organized a benefit auction with talented artists contributing all sorts of signed artwork, posters, and other goodies. So if you want to help out a family in need and possibly pick up a unique piece of animation or comics memorabilia for yourself, check out the items going up for auction at or go directly to the auctions. You can also make a tax deductible donation through the PayPal link on the site.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wes Anderson's Animated Acceptance Speech

A new year means awards season is upon us once again. Pixar's Up had a good night at the Golden Globes, taking home the prizes for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Score. But the film has plenty of competition for future awards from movies like the critically acclaimed Fantastic Mr. Fox, which recently earned director Wes Anderson a Special Filmmaking Achievement Award from the National Board of Review. Anderson decided to use his acceptance speech pay tribute to not only the people who made the film with him, but also the medium itself. I really like animation that imitates the awkward qualities of live conversation, so I really enjoyed this break from the acceptance speech norm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Trivia Answers - The Other Captain Jack?

The winner of last week's trivia contest is Supermorff. The interloper in James and the Giant Peach is none other than star of The Nightmare Before Christmas Jack Skellington. Sort of. The costume and beard may be new, but the head is clearly Jack. To further drive the point home, upon discovering the unfortunate pirate captain, the Centipede comments "A skellington?" And if that wasn't enough, his very next line, when he spots the compass which the crew of the good ship Giant Peach require to get their journey back on track, is "Jackpot!"

Check out this week's trivia challenge at the end of the latest article.

Famous Firsts - Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo"


(I've decided to start announcing the winners of the previous week's trivia contest in a separate post, since my comments on them are getting longer.)

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving home and listening to a story on NPR about the 2009 selections for the National Film Registry. Every year, the National Film Preservation Board selects up to twenty-five films to be preserved for posterity at the Library of Congress. NPR mentioned a few of this year’s particularly interesting picks, including the Muppets’ big screen debut The Muppet Movie and Michael Jackson’s game-changing music video Thriller. Another film that got a brief mention was “a 1911 mix of live action and animation that influenced Walt Disney.” Curious, and slightly embarrassed that I didn’t immediately know what film was being described, I looked it up online once we got home. I discovered that the short in question was Little Nemo, which left me feeling both glad that the film would be preserved to be enjoyed by future generations and slightly annoyed at NPR. It turned out that their description was a very condensed version of the National Film Preservation Board’s own blurb on the short, but I still felt that it missed much of the point. I like Disney plenty, but I’m not a fan of the idea that in the world of animation, all roads lead to Disney. To suggest that animator Winsor McCay and his work are important chiefly because of their influence on Walt Disney is far from the whole story.

Winsor McCay was an amazingly prolific and influential artist, born sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s. Despite having very little formal art training, he became a newspaper cartoonist, producing a number of comic strips for various papers. His best-known creation is Little Nemo in Slumberland, which told the story of a young boy and his nightly visits to a fantastic dreamworld. The strip features superb draftsmanship and attention to detail, wonderfully intricate architecture, and a playful inventiveness in story and layout. Today, it is considered a sequential art masterpiece.

McCay developed an interest in the then fledgling medium of animation and partnered with J. Stuart Blackton – another animation pioneer, to create a short film based on MccCay’s comics. The National Film Preservation Board’s description of the resulting short as “a mix of live-action and animation” is somewhat misleading. It brings to mind shorts like the Fleischers’ Out of the Inkwell series or Disney’s early Alice Comedies: animated characters entering the live-action world or a live actor in an animated setting. Little Nemo is neither. It is two minutes of animation with a live-action frame story.

The title card identifies the film as “Winsor McCay, The Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics,” though it is known to most people by the much less cumbersome title “Little Nemo.” The text goes on to proclaim McCay “the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move.” This is hyperbole at best and very strange, given that McCay’s co-director Blackton had himself experimented with using film to bring drawings to life. His Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is considered by some to be the first animated film and predates Little Nemo by at least five years. Blackton himself is not mentioned anywhere in the film, though the title card notes that the film was produced by the Vitagraph Company, which Blackton founded.


The live-action portion of the film deals chiefly with McCay explaining his idea for an animated short using his comic strip characters and then producing the drawings. Since there is no sound (beyond the jaunty, repetitive piano score attached to my copy of the short), the parts of the story that cannot be conveyed visually are explained in text. The story is a fictionalized version of the creation of the animated portion of the film. McCay explains his idea for creating moving film versions of his Little Nemo in Slumberland characters to his fellows artists, who laugh at him. He then demonstrates his drawing prowess by producing on the spot ink drawings of his creations. The text tells us that McCay promises his colleagues that he will return in one month with four thousand drawings that will create the illusion of movement. (This tight deadline is likely a gross exaggeration. Though McCay was capable of drawing very fast, a skill that was necessary for one of his other careers as a vaudeville “chalk-talk” artist, I’ve seen the actual time he spent working on this short piece of animation identified as not four weeks, but four years.) McCay sets about creating the four thousand individual drawings while enormous packages of drawing paper and barrels of ink are delivered to his studio. The packages, barrels, and door are labeled “drawing paper,” “ink,” and “studio,” for the audience’s convenience. Inside, McCay must deal with various interlopers whose nosing around threatens to knock over McCay’s numerous stacks of drawings and eventually does so. Finally, McCay presents his finished work to his peers.

Why bother with this fictional version of the film’s creation? My first thought was that it was intended as self-promotion for McCay. Selling his name to the public was an important aspect of all of McCay’s various careers. Showing McCay actually creating the animation could have been intended to create a stronger link in the minds of the audience between his name and his work. Animation was still very new to the public and few people understood exactly how it worked. So maybe the live-action footage was intended to both entertain and inform the public, filling out what would otherwise be a mere two minutes of animation with a fun and educational (if somewhat inaccurate) segment on the animation process. McCay may have simply wished to give himself some additional recognition for his hard work. This piece by Lauren Rabinovitz suggests that the live-action segments are further evidence of McCay the formalist. McCay’s comics are more focused on investigating and experimenting with the medium than the story itself. He was never afraid to call attention to or play with the structure of his comics, shattering panel borders and letting his hungry protagonists devour the letters from the strip’s title. So perhaps the scenes of McCay at work reflect the artist’s belief that the process and experimentation are as important as the finished product.

There’s an odd little moment before the animation begins in earnest. After McCay gathers his friends together and starts the camera rolling, an image of McCay’s character Flip appears line by line. But instead of continuing directly into the rest of the animation, the film then shows us McCay’s hand drawing the exact same image of Flip and sliding it into a three-sided wooden box, presumably to be filmed. It’s as if McCay is taking one last opportunity to remind his audience that no matter how magical the following scene may appear to be, he did actually draw the whole thing. The drawing of Flip is labeled “No. 1” referring back to McCay’s promise of four thousand drawings. The drawing of Flip suddenly goes from black and white to color. Since color film had not yet been invented, the film itself had to be painted by hand, one frame at a time.

Among the main characters in the Little Nemo comics and the animation is the Imp, an unfortunate racist caricature. In the strip, he is a boy from a tribe of cannibals who speaks either incomprehensible nonsense or fractured English. Fortunately, the Imp does not do anything particularly offensive in the animation and, like all of the characters, he never speaks. But he is still drawn as a sterotype of a native African, an image that would likely not have raised an eyebrow at the time of the film’s debut but looks horribly dated and ignorant today. I certainly do not approve of such imagery, but I also believe that art should be judged in the context of its time and not solely on the basis of whether or not it contains such problematic characters. Trying to ignore or erase the existence of racism in the past will neither change the fact that it happened nor prevent it from occurring in the future. If knowledgeable adults can be allowed to watch films like Gone With The Wind in spite of its rather idealized vision of the American South and the slave experience, then they should be able to watch Little Nemo (and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, but that’s another article.)


As the animation starts, the words “Watch me move” appear above Flip’s head, which is pretty much all the animated segment of the film is. There is no plot whatsoever, just the characters cavorting about. Animation was still such a new thing at the time that audiences could be entertained just by the novelty of seeing drawings brought to life. Much of the animation consists of the characters chasing each other around, assembling onscreen, and magically distorting like funhouse mirror reflections. As the animation comes to an end, the camera zooms out to show McCay’s hand holding the final drawing, triumphantly labeled “No. 4000.”

So if there’s no story to speak of, what makes Little Nemo so special? As with McCay’s comics work, the visuals are what stand out. Not only is Little Nemo one of the earliest examples of an animated short; it’s also one of the most sophisticated of the early animated shorts. McCay’s drawings are amazingly detailed, and yet they move surprisingly well. From his very first actions of removing the cigar from his mouth and waving away the smoke, Flip looks like he exists in three dimensions. Details like Flip’s spiky tufts of hair and the Imp’s jewelry stay consistent as they run around. The distortions of the characters are not haphazardly drawn. They stretch and squash according to particular rules. While parts of their forms elongate, others compress at the top or bottom of the screen, depending on the direction they’re being stretched in. The motion isn’t always perfect: McCay seems to have trouble keeping Nemo’s large hat moving convincingly as he turns or bows his head. There are some jumps in the animation, which may be due to parts of the film being lost or damaged beyond repair over the decades. These are minor flaws though, and do not detract from the overall amazing quality of the work.

The blurb from the National Film Registry, along with many animation fans, notes how technically superior Little Nemo is t animated films that came before it. What I find equally stunning is how superior ir is to films that came after it. McCay would go on create more animation including Gertie the Dinosaur, widely regarded as the first animated character with true personality, but it would be years before the rest of the animation world would catch up with McCay. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, all American animation would utilize a much simpler style of drawing. Why? Because animation was becoming a business, a transition that McCay took a very dim view of. McCay saw the potential of animation to become a new art form and even imagined a day when the public would be so accustomed to moving art that they would regard works like the Mona Lisa as curious, static relics of a bygone era. But animation was growing into a studio product, and one man reportedly taking four years to make two minutes of animation was not a financially viable model. Dismayed by the commercialization of the medium, McCay later chastised his colleagues at a dinner held in his honor and wished them bad luck with their future endeavors.

To be selected for the National Film Registry, a film must be deemed significant either historically, aesthetically, or culturally. Little Nemo is a film that fits all three criteria. It is historically significant as an early work of American animation by one of the first masters of the medium. It is aesthetically significant because its visuals are literally years ahead of their time. And it is culturally significant both for helping to introduce the American public to animation and the animation process, and for influencing a new generation of animation pioneers, including – but certainly not limited to – Walt Disney. Little Nemo is certainly deserving of a place in the National Film Registry, where it can continue to amaze and inspire future animators for years to come.

Trivia Time! I’ll be pretty surprised if anyone – aside from a few of my animator friends – is familiar with the answer to this week’s trivia question. Little Nemo was one of two animated films to be picked for inclusion in the National Film Registry for 2009. What’s the name of the other film?

Copyright has expired on this film, but the images are taken from the DVD Animation Legend Winsor McCay

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lost Animation - James and the Giant Peach

Congratulations to our latest trivia contest winner asatira, who gave both the correct name of Louie the alligator's band in The Princess and the Frog and its connection to Disney history. "The Firefly Five Plus Lou" is a play on The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland jazz band whose members were also Disney Studios employees including famed animators Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas. The band has made a few cameo appearances in various cartoons and behind-the-scenes films, but this nod struck me as particularly sweet and appropriate.

Check out the latest trivia contest following the article.


After seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox, I started thinking about the other Roald Dahl book that was adapted into a puppet animation film. Released three years after the groundbreaking Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach was director Henry Selick’s second film. Unlike its predecessor, the film was not a financial success and has largely been forgotten since its release. I remembered seeing the movie in theaters, but not since, and looked forward to seeing how the film held up. The answer is “quite well,” though it does have a weakness almost as big as the titular peach which may have been what caused the film to fall into obscurity.

Like the book, the movie tells the story of a young boy named James Henry Trotter. James is a happy child with a loving family, until the day his parents are devoured by an escaped rhinoceros (a detail taken directly from the original tale.) The newly orphaned James is sent to live with his two horrible aunts Spiker and Sponge, who feed him fish heads, treat him as their personal slave, and never let him play with other children. The closest thing James has to a friend is a spider that spins a web in his window one day, a friend he soon loses when he has to get her out of the house and yard to save her from his insect-hating aunts. James’s salvation comes in the form of a mysterious old man who presents him with a bag of enchanted crocodile tongues and the promise that the wriggly little green things will bring magic into his life. But before he can put them to work, James trips and spills the crocodile tongue at the roots of a peach tree. The tongues work their magic and the formerly barren tree produces on enormous peach. Spiker and Sponge turn the peach into a local attraction and start selling tickets, locking James away in the house during the day so he can’t play with any of the children who come to see the peach and making him clean up the garbage they’ve left behind by night. While he works, James discovers a hole in the side of the peach and climbs inside. He discovers six enormous talking bugs, all transformed by the crocodile tongues, living inside the peach. When Spiker and Sponge come looking for James, the Centipede cuts through the peach’s stem and sends it rolling away toward the ocean. From there, James and his newfound friends embark on a voyage to Manhattan, the city that James’s parents had once promised to take him to.


I usually like to discuss the positive aspects of a movie before the negative ones, especially when it’s a movie that I like overall. But the biggest problem with James is that it starts out with its weakest material. The first part of the film is live-action; the switch to animation takes place when James enters the peach. This was not the original concept for the movie. Selick had wanted to use puppet-animation throughout the movie and use a live actor only for James. Despite their eagerness to work with Selick again, Disney balked at the price of this idea and Selick’s next suggestion of doing the entire film in animation. So the use of live-action was a compromise. Sadly, it’s a compromise that doesn’t quite work because the live-action segments are terrible. The acting is unconvincing, the production values are garbage, and even the peach looks more like a big, painted, prop than anything. The sets may be the worst part of the whole mess. They look shockingly insular and unconvincing. Now I don’t mean “insular” in the way that they’re supposed to feel insular because James is stuck in this ugly little house with a walled-off yard that he can’t escape from. I mean “insular” in the sense that the sets never feel like they’re anything more than sets, never convinced me that there was anything to this world beyond what the camera was seeing. As for “unconvincing,” I’m somebody who loves really out-there, imaginative set design. I like matte paintings and digitally treated film and all the other tricks that can make the setting of a movie look like a painting or a woodcut or some other place that isn’t quite the real world. But that isn’t the case here. Stone walls feel like Styrofoam, rooms feel like dressed-up sets instead of real places, and the aunts’ overgrown yard looks like a set designer trying to make a stereotypical overgrown yard. The look of the live-action segments has neither realism nor a specific aesthetic it’s chasing. Before long, I was feeling just as anxious as James was to get out of this awful place. But my feelings came from frustration with the terrible design rather than sympathy for the character.

I should mention that Paul Terry, the young actor who plays James, isn’t half bad. He’s not overly cute and speaks with only the slightest hint of a lisp. His singing voice can be a little annoying, but thankfully, he only has one solo song that comes very early in the film. James’s character doesn’t progress all that much beyond “lonely little orphan,” but he is likable enough and seldom grating. There was a moment where I worried that James was going to be one of those kid heroes who is the hero solely by virtue of being smarter than a bunch of characters who aren’t very bright, the part where James realizes that the peach can provide the travelers with sustenance as well as transportation. But his other ideas, such as harnessing seagulls to pull the peach out of the ocean to save it from attack by a mechanical shark, seem genuinely inspired. The kid may not be a great actor, but compared to many of the other live-action cast members or that kid who plays Edmond in Rock-a-Doodle, he’s amazingly talented.


The live-action portion of the film is a slog, no question. But once the animation starts, it’s all worth it. Fans of Nightmare Before Christmas will find the same lush, inventive, charming animation that Selick and his crew are known for. But this isn’t a visual retread. Along with the imagery from the Roald Dahl book, the film takes inspiration from Lane Smith, the illustrator whose art graces such subversive children’s classics as The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, who served as art director for the movie. Smith’s distinctive style can be found all over James’s insect pals, right down to the tiny peg-shaped teeth that the Centipede and the Grasshopper both sport. Both the characters and the backgrounds boast an incredible level of detail and texture. One of the film’s best scenes comes when the bugs get their first taste of the peach and dance around singing its praises. All the while munching, shaping, juicing, and otherwise enjoying glistening gobs of the fruit that literally look good enough to eat. It’s strange that in a film that contains both live-action and puppet animation scenes, the live-action bits would feel unrealistic while the animated sequences are surprisingly convincing.

The insects give the film much of its warmth and appeal. Despite their being six of them, they all manage to have unique personalities and something interesting to do with the possible exception of the Glowworm, who is mainly a partially deaf light source. The Old Green Grasshopper is a cultured, monocle-wearing gentleman who prefers playing the violin – with two bows, thanks to his extra pair of arms – to producing chirps like his insect brethren. The Centipede is a multi-armed Brooklyn tough guy, prone to bragging and a natural antagonist to the sophisticated Grasshopper, but good-hearted nonetheless. Mrs. Ladybug is a sweet, grandmotherly type, while the Earthworm panics at a moments notice.


For me, the standout of the cast was Miss Spider. Voiced by Susan Sarandon doing her best Natasha Fatale, Miss Spider is a generically European Goth artsy type. She sports a black beret and high-heeled boots. Because of her carnivorous nature, she is the outsider of the insect group, a point that I wish had been played up a little more. But she loves James. She is, of course, the same spider that James rescued from his aunts and his act of kindness has won him her undying loyalty. While most of the other characters rally around James for his intelligence and their mutual hatred of his aunts, Miss Spider has a very specific relationship with him that is truly touching. It would have been easy to cast the natural mother Mrs. Ladybug in this role, but giving it to the spider is a far more interesting twist.

This movie was made during the time when pretty much any animated film – especially one released by Disney – was all but required to be a musical. Randy Newman, who had enjoyed an enormous success with Toy Story just a year before James premiered, provided the score, borrowing some of his lyrics from Roald Dahl. The songs are pleasant, except for the hero’s treacly introduction “My Name Is James.” But none of them really feel essential to the film or all that memorable.

I do have a couple of issues with the story that go beyond the weak live-action scenes. Some of Roald Dahl’s books can at times read like a series of descriptions or largely unrelated events and the movie doesn’t entirely escape this. The various obstacles James and the insect encounter are very entertaining and do sometimes work to highlight or develop the characters of the bugs, but James himself remains largely unchanged by his experiences. He does manage to recover one of the crocodile tongues , which seems to be linked to his discovering the hole in the peach. But aside from become a little stop-motion boy instead of a live-action one, he remains exactly the same. The movie asserts that James must learn to face his fears. But very few of James’s adventures deal with this idea. Most of his accomplishments center on problem solving rather than gathering his courage. There is a scene late in the film where James confronts a monstrous stormcloud version of the rhino that ate his parents, But the detail of the carnivorous rhino is so odd – even in a movie about a huge flying peach and oversized talking bugs – that the scene is more confusing than anything. James seems to be dealing with his fear come to life; he event yells out that it isn’t a real rhino. But since a real rhino did devour James’s poor parents, his battle with an imaginary rhino seems less than a full victory. I was just never convinced that James’s trouble hinged on anything but his situation. Standing up to Spiker and Sponge wouldn’t have done him any good without his big bug buddies there to back him up.


The movie does take one good stab at connecting James’s miserable life with Spiker and Sponge to his later friendship with the insects by having his aunt’s insulting nicknames for him all be insect related: “bug” or “worm” or the like. Later on, James has a cut-paper animated nightmare in which he is a caterpillar being chased by his aunts. It further cements James’s connection with the insects, but it still make it clear that James learns anything or grows into someone who is capable of changing his situation for the better. What he gains is the friendship of the bugs, and as we see when he rescues the then-tiny Miss Spider, he was always capable of being a good and caring friend.

So why didn’t James ever become the cult classic that Nightmare did? I’m not really sure. It has the same great animation, wonderful characters, and dazzling visuals as the previous film. It’s charming, and not overly kid-aimed. Maybe audiences who embraced Nightmare weren’t interested in a movie that didn’t feature Tim Burton’s work. He’s credited as a producer on James, but my impressions was that he was much less involved with this film than with Nightmare. Or maybe the movie didn’t have the same “Hot Topic appeal” as its predecessor. (Perhaps the advertising should have focused on Miss Spider.) Or maybe moviegoers were so turned off by the live-action that opens the film that they didn’t stick around for the good part. I don’t really know. What I do know is that, putting the live-action bits aside – this is a great little film that deserves a lot more recognition than it gets for its place in the modern history of puppet animation.

Trivia Time! I’m giving you an easy one this week. What character from another film has a cameo role in James and the Giant Peach? Post your answer in the comments. The person with the first correct answer gets a mention and a link in the next article.

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

R.I.P. Art Clokey

Yesterday brought the sad news that Art Clokey, best known as the creator of Gumby and Davey and Goliath, had passed away at age 89. This obituary gives a nice overview of his life and work. Above is Clokey's short film "Gumbasia" - the name being a combination of "gumbo", the nickname for the clay-like mud Clokey used to play with when visiting his grandfather's farm, and the Disney film Fantastia. Clokey's work was a huge influence on the world of animation and he will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Thoughts on "The Princess and the Frog"


Before I get to my musings on Disney’s latest, I’m going to announce the winner of IPC’s first trivia contest, which illness prevented me from doing last week. Our winner is markwilliamsjr, who correctly identified “Love” from Robin Hood as the song in Fantastic Mr. Fox that makes reference to another animated film with foxes in the starring roles. Check at the end of today’s article for a new trivia challenge.

It’s no secret that I’ve been looking forward to The Princess and the Frog. Disney movies were what got me interested in animation in the first place and I have eagerly anticipated the studios return to their roots with a new hand-drawn feature. Plus, it felt pretty good to know that many more little girls would soon have a Disney princess who looked like them. But as the release date drew near, I was feeling conflicted. I liked a lot of what I was hearing about the film, but most of the trailers I had seen weren’t quite winning me over. I wanted the film to succeed and prove that hand-drawn feature films could still be successful. But at the same time, I worried that the film was going to be bogged down with unappealing sidekicks and suffer from all the same mistakes as the films that led to Disney kicking traditional animation to the curb. So when my husband and I finally found the time to see the movie, I was both excited and worried. Happily, the film soon put my fears to rest and gave me hope that Disney was really coming back.

The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s old recipe for success, with enough new ingredients tossed in to keep it fresh. The one that’s getting all the attention, and not without reason, is that the film features Disney’s first African-American princess. The New Orleans setting also gives the film a distinct flavor that helps it stand out, giving direction to story, visual, and music. It sits comfortably alongside the previous Disney fairy tales, but avoids feeling like a by-the-book retread.

One element the movie handles particularly well is making both of its protagonists interesting people with their own problems to work through rather than one being the person who needs to grow and change over the course of the story and the other being more or less an object of pursuit. Tiana is the daughter of working class parents. Her one wish is to realize her late father’s dream of owning a restaurant. In her eyes, her problem is that she needs money to make this happen. But her real, internal issue is that her pursuit of this dream has caused her to shut out almost everything else in her life except work. On the other end of the social spectrum is Prince Naveen, a foreign royal visiting New Orleans. Naveen is theoretically in town to meet, woo, and marry a young woman from a wealthy family, but he’s not particularly interested in doing so. It’s not out of any romantic dreams of true love; Naveen simply doesn’t want to settle down or stop having fun, despite the fact that his carefree pursuit of the good life is the very reason he needs to marry money. Naveen’s parents, disgusted by his spendthrift ways, have cut him off. So if Naveen wants to continue enjoying the lifestyle he’s accustomed to, he needs to find a new source of cash.

It should come as no surprise that these two characters don’t exactly fall in love at first sight. It doesn’t help the situation that by the time Tiana meets Naveen, he’s had a run-in with the nefarious Dr. Facilier and been transformed into a frog. The characters’ initial relationship with each other is based solely on self-interest and lies. Naveen outright lies to Tiana about his financial situation, promising a monetary reward if she kisses him and breaks the spell. Tiana isn’t quite as bad, but once she realizes that Naveen could provide her with the money she needs for her restaurant, she doesn’t exactly correct his mistaken notion that she is a real princess and not just in costume. The rocky start to their relationship makes for some pretty entertaining moments as they slowly become friends and eventually start to fall in love. One of the nice twists that keeps the story from feeling too familiar is that Naveen, ostensibly the less sympathetic of the two characters, ends up being the first to realize that the life he’s been pursuing may not be the path to true happiness after all, while Tiana takes nearly the whole movie to get her priorities straight.

The rest of the cast fares pretty well too. Particularly notable is Dr. Facilier the “shadow man.” His voice is provided by Keith David, who also voiced Goliath on Gargoyles. David is just phenomenal here, giving the main villain a dark charm and fast-paced energy that is reflected in movements that border on rubber-hose animation at times. The cast is generally a nice balance between voice and “face” actors, none of whom turn in a bad performance. One of my biggest concerns based on the trailers was that Ray, the buck-toothed Cajun firefly, would get on my nerves. But thanks in part to a very solid performance by the ubiquitous Jim Cummings, Ray is genuinely appealing and his personal story adds a good variation on the film’s central themes of believing in your dreams and the power of love.

The movie packs a lot of visual punch as well, retaining much of the appeal of past hand-drawn Disney films while adding in a few new surprises. There’s plenty of nicely observed detail, from Tiana’s skeptical expressions and hesitant body language when she first encounters the prince turned frog to the intricate metalwork on the balcony where they meet. Lighting plays a big role in setting the mood of each scene: sunlight gleaming through various colored glass bottles, Ray and his firefly clan lighting the protagonists’ way through the bayou, and the sunshine streaming in through the roof of the run-down building that Tiana hopes to turn into her restaurant, which both highlights the dusty, dilapidated condition of the place and casts the scene in the glow of Tiana’s hopes. Tiana’s nearly achieved dream also kicks off her “I want” song and one of the film’s two big stylistic departures. As Tiana sings “Almost There,” the Art Deco illustration that has been the physical touchstone for her dream comes to life. Such flat, graphic animation is nothing new, especially since Flash came along. But what’s truly impressive is that Tiana in particular never feels like a two-dimensional paper cutout. Even as the animation style changes, she still feels like a living, dimensional character. The scene was supervised by animator Eric Goldberg, who also headed up the Hirschfeld homage “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence in Fantasia 2000. The movie’s other visual extravaganza is Dr. Facilier’s musical number “Friends on the Other Side.” Facilier seals the devil’s bargain that will turn Naveen into a frog as the scene shifts to a black-light nightmare, complete with singing masks and dancing voodoo dolls.

Despite its strengths, The Princess and the Frog is by no means a perfect movie. One of my biggest gripes was with the designs of Naveen and Tiana as frogs. While they both move and emote well enough, the look of the characters just feels a little over-simple to me, like it could have used a little more finessing and detail. Randy Newman, who provided the songs for several of Pixar’s films, composed the film’s score and musical numbers. The overall score is something of a mixed bag. The New Orleans flavor is there, but the tunes themselves range from toe-tappers to pretty melodies to completely forgettable ditties. It’s worth noting that my husband, who is not a fan of the musical genre, liked the songs, but I found the majority of them merely OK. Borrowing Randy Newman may not have been a bad idea, but it there’s one thing that I wish Disney could learn from Pixar’s movies, it would be subtlety in storytelling. Though the story does keep the connection between race and social class from overpowering the story without eliminating it altogether, the main themes are much more blatantly stated. I look at a film like Up where so much is conveyed without words and where Carl never has to come out and say “My wife died,” or “I don’t need physical objects because I have my memories,” or “I have to stop living in the past and make new connections with people,” and I wonder why Disney can’t have a film where the theme is “Never lose sight of what’s important” without having characters literally say those words, let alone clarifying that love is what’s important. This is still a strong return to form for Disney that does a lot more right than wrong. But there are still problems, which I hope Disney will be aware of the next time they tackle a classic fairy tale.

The task of “saving” hand-drawn animation is a lot for any one film to take on. It’s not entirely a true picture of the state of the industry either. Whatever happens, hand-drawn animation will still be around, courtesy of other countries, independent animators, TV shows, advertising, and any number of other sources. At most, what’s riding on the success of The Princess and the Frog is the future of American theatrical hand-drawn animation, assuming that if Disney can’t make it work, other studios won’t bother to try. Even then, it may be only a matter of years before a new success or failure comes along and changes the future of the medium once more. I can’t tell you if The Princess and the Frog will “save” hand-drawn animated features in the U.S., whether audiences will go to see it in big enough numbers to make it a success or ignore it in favor of another film, if home market and merchandise sales will be good enough to make more such film seem commercially viable. What I can tell you is that The Princess and the Frog is a good movie with some fantastic visuals, engaging characters, and a fun story that make it well worth seeing.

Trivia Time! Disney’s return to hand-drawn fairy tales brings with it several nods to previous Disney films. You may notice the magic carpet from Aladdin being shaken out from a balcony in one of the film’s first shots. You’ll almost certainly recognize one of the Mardi Gras floats that shows up closer to the end of the film as King Triton from The Little Mermaid. And if you’re familiar with some of the people behind the scenes at Disney, you might spot John Musker and Ron Clements – the directors of Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog - tossing beads from the Triton float. But these aren’t the only in-jokes in the film and there’s another one that really warmed this old Disney fan’s heart. It has to do with the name of Louis’ band towards the end of the movie. What’s the name of the band and why is it a Disney in-joke?

Once again, the answer is not too hard to find online, should you choose to do so. The first person to post the correct answer will be named in the next article, with a link to the winner’s website.