Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Chicago 10

With the national political conventions looming, the DVD release of director Brett Morgen's documentary on the trial of the Chicago Eight, titled "Chicago 10," seems appropriate – once again the country finds itself involved in an unpopular war and the sitting president is not seeking re-election.

In 1968, a protest aimed at the Democratic Convention in Chicago arranged by members of the Yippies and other groups opposing the war in Vietnam went from a media circus to bloody confrontations with police.

Following the protest much of which was seen live on television some of the organizers were charged with crossing a state-line to incite a riot: Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale. These men became known as the "Chicago Eight." Later, Seale's trail was separated from the rest and the group was redubbed "the Chicago Seven."

The film's title refers to the original eight defendants and their two lawyers. Although the group was not convicted on the charges, all were sentenced for contempt by Judge Julius Hoffman. These contempt sentences were later overturned.

Morgen's film seeks to recreate the events leading up to the protest through archival footage and reconstructed scenes. The bulk of the film, though, centers on the trial of the eight people who were accused of planning the civil disturbance.

What makes the film unique is Morgen's use of animation for the re-enactments. Normally, documentaries either use contemporary interviews with participants or observers to fill in the gaps or stage re-enactments with actors.

While the animation itself could have been more polished there was more traditional cel animation used as well as computer generated imagery (CGI) it is significant that animation was chosen for this purpose. It's rare that a commercial American film would use animation in this way. From an animation point of view, I was disappointed in the crudeness of the CGI footage. With CGI as the new favored medium of the art form, audiences demand much more "realism" that what this film's CGI offered. It was serviceable, though, and was used to depict the courtroom scenes.

What struck me about the event was how Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two of the key Yippie organizers, saw how comedy and satire was part of their strategy in planning the protest and then their reactions in the courtroom. In hindsight, their almost absurdist approach seems at odds with the seriousness of what the anti-war movement was all about.

I would have loved to see archival follow-up interviews with either of them both died well before the film's production to re-assess whether or not this tactic ultimately worked to question the validity of the war and to shorten its duration. I did not see a finished version of the DVD release, so perhaps material of this nature will be included in the extras.

The documentary's focus is defined to the protest in the street and its evolution. There are very few references to the Democratic race culminating at the convention a race that was marked by the murder of Robert Kennedy nor is there any mention of how journalists were treated while covering the convention. I think for many people seeing the film today who did not live through that time, a wider context would have better served the material.

These criticisms aside, the film provides some interesting links to our nation today, as noted by one of the defendants in the case, Bobby Seale, and Paul Krassner, an acclaimed writer who was part of the planning of the protest, but who was not charged with any crime.

Both men spoke with me about the film and the protest.

Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, said the film's history of the protest was quite accurate, but the movie didn't show that Judge Hoffman had him manacled and gagged for as many days as he actually was. Seale wanted to represent himself and Judge Hoffman refused the request. Ultimately, Judge Hoffman had Seale chained to a chair in the courtroom and silenced with a gag.

Seale recounted that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution gave him the right to represent himself.

"I had that right," he said. "For seven weeks the judge and I went round and round."

Seale, who is now a lecturer, author and barbecue expert, believes American society has changed since 1968. He's reminded that people were murdered during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He noted the number of African-Americans elected to public office has increased, but believes there is much progress to be made.

One of his concerns is the erosion of free speech in the last 10 years with the advent of "free speech zones" fenced off areas at public events where protesters are allowed to gather.

When Seale lectures at colleges today, he knows that the young audiences don't know about the Black Panthers and what the group was attempting to do. He said he gives an hour-long speech followed by an hour of questions and answers.

"When I'm introduced there is polite applause," he said. At the end of his speech, though, he receives a standing ovation.

Seale is currently working on another book, one that describes his time in jail.

Krassner is also seen in the film and said he liked the film.

"It captured the flavor and the emotions we felt," he said.

Krassner has been known as one of this country's premiere satirists and commentators. The founder and editor of "The Realist," a political and social commentary publication that figured prominently during the counter culture movement. Krassner, like Jonathan Swift before him, used savage cutting edge satire to make political observations.

He writes today for publications such as the Onion in its A.V. Club section, the Nation and High Times.

In 1966, he also became well known for publishing after the death of Walt Disney a poster titled "The Disneyland Memorial Orgy," in which the pantheon of Disney characters are seen in various illegal, unethical and inappropriate behaviors. Amazingly, Krassner was not sued then, a fact he attributed to a report he heard that lawyers for Disney thought a suit would only give the artwork more public attention.

He now has a colorized version of the poster on sale on his Web site and still is awaiting legal action.

He wrote several of the scenes in the film and did use some creative license. He explained that in one scene he substituted a joint for a cigarette because he "wouldn't want to send that message [that tobacco is OK.]"

He said that 1,200 people a week die from complications due to smoking tobacco while the worst byproduct from smoking marijuana is people "raiding the neighbor's refrigerator."

He also noted that in one scene poet and political activist Allen Ginsberg is seen levitating while meditating also an example of the freedom of animation.

The use of animation also allowed the filmmakers to use audio of Abbie Hoffman's telephone calls to a radio host in New York City and provide a split screen image between Hoffman speaking at a phone booth and the host in his studio.

Krassner had hoped to supply his own voice in the animated sequences, but was unable to do it because of scheduling conflicts.

Comparing America in 1968 to today, Krassner said, "In my lifetime this is the worst I've seen."

"It's a challenge to be happy in these times," he added.

When asked who was the worst president Lyndon Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, who trampled on the Constitution, or George W. Bush Krassner replied, "That's the easiest question I've been asked my whole life, including my pre-natal period George Bush."

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, August 11, 2008

Interview with Michael Sporn

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sporn earlier this summer when I was on a business trip to NYC. Sporn is a guy who I admire because he has been able to acheive success as an independent animator – a road that isn't very easy to hoe.

Sporn doesn't strike me as pretentious, but he exhibits something lacking in pop culture today: taste. It's refreshing to see work that doesn't involve fart gags or boogers. It's also great to see animated productions that don't stop every five minutes for a song by some aging rock star.

Sporn is also a great commentator on animation through his blog and I find his blog a must-read.

For many people, animation is broken into nice little categories. There are the big feature films that are much heralded from Disney or Dreamworks. There's the stuff for kids and television that always seems to be searching for something innovative to copy. There are the anime productions from Japan and those non-Japanese productions that clearly try to imitate them.

And then there are animators like Michael Sporn. Sporn is one of a relatively small group of independent American animation producers whose subject matter and techniques put this productions in afar different category: art.

Now by saying that I don't want to scare anyone off. Two new DVDs released by First Run Features have two half-hour productions each that are truly memorable and accessible to all nearly members of the family. "The Marzipan Pig" is coupled with "Jazztime Tale," while "Abel's Island" is double-billed with "The Story of the Dancing Frog."

For anyone who enjoys animation, these two DVDs are a must for one's collection. Of the four films, the one that challenges you the most and has the lushest look is "The Marzipan Pig." With its oddly linear story, and its introduction from a candy pig that has fallen behind a sofa, the film has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. I was really intrigued with what was going to happen next.

"Abel's Island," adapted from the book by acclaimed illustrator William Steig, was a treat. A Robinson Crusoe-style tale of an urbane mouse on a desert island, it was the kind of story that, in other hands, would surely have been turned into a bloated musical of some sort. Sporn preserved the story's purity and the film is better for it.

Within animation circles, Sporn is well known. He is a two-time Emmy winner, a two-time CableAce winner and has been nominated for an Academy Award. Carefully adapting children's books to animation as well as presenting stories of social relevance in animation has distinguished his work. He was honored with a retrospective program last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Sporn also has one of the best blogs on animation on the Internet today. It can be read at www.michaelspornanimation.com/bios.html.

I visited Sporn in his Greenwich Village studio earlier this summer where, among other things, he discussed his first feature film, an animated biography of Edgar Allan Poe.

Originally, Sporn thought he would do six half-hour productions for HBO, but that concept didn't pan out. Instead, he is planning a theatrically released feature.

Sporn is using four of Poe's celebrated short stories to illustrate parts of his life. He said that "The Black Cat," in which a murderer is revealed by his own guilty feelings, is being used to show how Poe became guilty that he couldn't prevent the death his young wife from tuberculosis.

Poe's life and reputation has been hurt for years with false impressions and assumptions, much of which came from a biography written by a man who swore to get revenge on Poe, Sporn noted.

As is the case with any independent film, the production's pace has been dictated by the availability of funding. One of Sporn's animation mentors, Tissa David, has worked on the film and there is a 10 to 15 minute demo reel.

Sporn cast up and coming British actor Hugh Dancy as the voice of Poe and said the actor did a "brilliant turn."

Sporn admitted he was concerned about the end of the film, which uses one of Poe's lesser-known books that critics have dubbed as one of the first science fiction novels. The book addresses what Poe thinks God is and Sporn described it as "almost an epic poem." He said it is very positive and uplifting.

"I wasn't sure it was going to work," he said. With Dancy's reading of the piece, though, Sporn added, "I knew I had a perfect ending."

Other cast members include Alfred Molina and Dianne Weist, both of whom perform multiple roles.

One point of interest in Poe's life that fascinates Sporn is how the author died. Poe had gone to the train station to travel from Baltimore to Philadelphia, but never made it to his destination. Instead he was found in a coma in Baltimore in clothes that didn't belong to him. Sporn said there is one theory that Poe had been involved in a common voter fraud scam at the time of voting multiple times in different polling places. This part of Poe's life might make it into the finished film, he said, with Weist as Poe's mother-in-law telling the story.

With financing in hand, Sporn said the film should take a team of three animators about 14 months to complete.

While computer technology will play a hand in the production, Sporn is not rushing to embrace the latest trend in animation: computer generated images (CGI).

He cited "Kung Fu Panda" as a CGI film that could have been "graphically more interesting" than what it was if it had been done with traditional animation forms.

Of the legion of CGI animated features, he said, "Everything looks like a Viewmaster."

He admitted he is rarely impressed by animation today and said that CGI is great for special effects animation such as fields of grass waving in the wind.

While he said the career he has chosen "is really hard at times," he noted that both PBS and HBO have been great supporters of his work.

He added with a laugh, "I've nothing to complain about."
© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Persepolis should have won the Oscar

Marjane Satrapi is pretty animated herself. I took these photos during her talk earlier this year at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

When I had the opportunity of speaking briefly with Marjane Satrapi earlier this year when she appeared at Smith College I told her she was robbed. Satrapi’s animated feature based on acclaimed semi-autobiographical comic books, “Persepolis” lost the “best Animated feature” Oscar to “Ratatouille.”

With the up-coming release of “Persepolis” on DVD, people can see what I mean. While I enjoyed “Ratatouille,” it was not a film that advances the art of animation. It didn’t push boundaries or perceptions of
the story-telling ability of animation.

“Ratatouille” was another well-made computer animated film from PIXAR that could inspire a bunch of merchandising. “Persepolis” is a film that can challenge your ideas about a country and people most of us know little about – Iran – and yet tell a universal story about growing up under difficult circumstances with both humor and humanity.

What I loved about the film is that Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed it. Seldom has a cartoonist had such control over the adaptation of a property to film. The movie truly captures the flavor of the books and yet is as cinematic in ways only animation can be.

The DVD includes some great extras on the making of the film including a documentary with Satrapi leading a tour of the animation studio and explaining the purpose of each department. It also shows her very deep
involvement in the development of the film.

The film is presented on the DVD in both its original French language version with subtitles and in an English dubbed edition with actors that include Gena Rowland, Iggy Pop, Sean Penn and several of the original French cast. Satrapi directed the English recording sessions herself.

“Persepolis” is based on Satrapi’s four-volume graphic novel or as she prefers comic book. When she appeared at Smith – her books were chosen by the college to be required reading for the in-coming first year students – she quickly dismissed the idea of any elitism.

She said that in press tours for the theatrical release of the film journalists kept asking her why she elected to produce comic books. “Whatever I don’t write I draw. Whatever I don’t draw I write,” she said.
She believes that comics should be read “without shame,” and the medium makes “art available to everyone.”

Satrapi undoubtedly surprised her audience by not only rejecting the label of “graphic novel” but also saying she didn’t like the word “feminist.” She would rather be called a cartoonist and judged equally on her work.

“Persepolis” tells the story of a young girl growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran and the impact of the fall of the Shah and the rise of a Muslim fundamentalist government had on her and her family. To escape the oppression at home, her family sent her to France and Austria to live and go to school. Her mis-adventures in Europe and her efforts to adjust to a new way of life at home make up the core of her comic books.

Satrapi didn’t expect the success her books have enjoyed.

“I thought 300 French who feel guilty about the Middle East would buy the book,” she said.

“The reason it became a big hit, besides that I very talented,” she added with a smile, “is it was written from a personal point of view.”

“When I wrote the book in 1999 I learned to be less angry, more civilized. I realized that anger was not going to solve any problem,” she said.

She didn’t grow up with comic books. She recalled with a laugh that American comic books were available in Iran and because she had lived in Europe her friends thought she could read English, which at a time she couldn’t. When they picked up a copy of a comic book with Dracula as the main characters, Satrapi simply made up the dialogue she couldn’t read. She and her friends decided if they ate raw chicken they too could become vampires, but all they developed was the mumps.

When she moved to France again in 1994, she was given a copy of Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking graphic novel “Maus.”

“It was a revelation in my life, she said. Comic books were for children she thought, but here a cartoonist was writing and drawing about the Holocaust.

Despite the often-grim sequences in “Persepolis,” Satrapi said that it is “important to tell a story with humor.”

“Laughing means understanding of someone’s thinking,” she said.

Recounting her story in the form of comics also “helped me to use a sense of humor without falling into cynicism.”

Initially she didn’t want to be involved in a movie because she views film as a passive medium while reading comics is not.

Eventually she decided to take up the offer of a group of producers and started in the process with fellow cartoonist Vincent Paronnaud, who had made some short films.

She admitted filmmaking was “very hard.”

“There were 100 people involved in the project. I hated them so much in the beginning. They wanted to draw like me, do everything like me. I got used to them. They brought so much to the project,” she said.

“It’s the story of life – you never love the people when you have them,” she added with a laugh.

She never wanted to film to be live action because she said that drawing is an abstraction to which anyone can relate.

The choice of traditional two-dimensional drawn animation came from her lack of experience. As a cartoonist she understood how to produce drawings rather than computer generated images.

Like the books, the film doesn’t shy away from the recent history of Iran, its impact and the perceptions Americans and Europeans have of the country. She sees the world press dehumanizing people and making an abstraction of the Middle East.

“Abstractions are extremely dangerous as that is the beginning of fascist ideology,” she said. “Instead of asking where terrorism comes from we fight a war against them.”

She believes the world is in much more danger from the policies of the Bush administration that of the current Iranian government.

“Democracy,” she said, “is extremely fragile.”

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, June 2, 2008

New titles to DVD


Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the guys behind "South Park," continue to surprise people with their show and the three-episode story arc of "Imaginationland" was no exception when it when broadcast last fall.

Now available on DVD, the three shows forms an unofficial second "South Park" movie and is in the tradition of their best episodes: taking sophomoric sexual humor and pairing it up with a high concept. In this story the two take the phrase "terrorists have captured our imagination" and developed it quite literally.

Our young heroes Stan, Kyle and Butters travel to Imaginationland where all of the fictional characters of our collective imagination from Mickey Mouse to Mighty Mouse reside. When terrorists attack the character they also unleash the evil characters of our imagination.

Stan, Kyle and Butters have to save the good Imaginationland and bring it back into the forefront.

Like their best offerings, their savage satire pokes holes at our pop culture and politicians. Although the uncensored DVD is certainly not for everybody especially children I certainly enjoyed it.

Parker and Stone offer a revealing commentary about the film as an extra.

Drawn Together: Season Three

While "South Park" still has something to say after being on the air over a decade, "Drawn Together," the animated parody of reality shows, long ran out of anything to say.

But because the hallmarks of the show are attempts at scatological, racial and sexual humor, obviously there is an appreciable audience. As long as there are 14-year-old boys out there, shows like "Drawn Together" will always have fans.

The Comedy Central show is lacking in any humanity, wit or charm. If the filmmakers are at a loss, they have a character vomit or perform a cheap sex gag.

"Drawn Together" is a nasty, very unfunny joke.

The Animation Show Volume 3

As regular readers might remember, I've loved animation since I was a kid and still do. In my role as an editor and co-owner of two animation magazines and as the author of "Escape! How Animation Broke in the Mainstream in the 1990s" available at all online booksellers I've had the privilege and pleasure of seeing the public warm up to the notion that cartoons just aren't for children.

This new collection of animated shorts put together by Mike Judge the creator of "King of the Hill" and independent animator Don Hertzfeldt underscores the diversity of animation styles and content.

Some shorts, such as "Rabbit," are surreal nightmares. "Collision" is a subtle political commentary. "One D" plays with the concept of a world with one dimension. "Game Over" by Pes is a brilliant homage to 1970s and '80s video games with a pizza and two fried eggs forming Pac Man.

There are also some very funny shorts such as "Versus" in which rival samurai armies compete for a tiny island.

There are two shorts from one of my favorite animators, Bill Plympton, and Hertzfeldt's own "Everything Will Be Okay" is simply amazing.

Anyone interested in animation needs to see this collection.

Attention Scrappy fans...read on!
If you're a horror film fan than you've undoubtedly heard of Hammer Films, the British company that produced many great terror flicks from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Their two lead stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, became best known as Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, respectively, although both actors performed many other roles.

And Hammer made many non- horror films and four of them are in this new collection from Sony Home Video. Two are pirate adventures, one is a thriller set in Hong Kong, while the other film deals with the Thugee cult in India.

Hammer was not a big budget outfit and one can only wonder if a writer came up with the titles "Pirates of Blood River" and "The Devil Ship Pirates" first and then worked backwards. The titles are classic B-movie titles promising fights at sea and other action that one expects of a pirate movie.

Well, "Pirates of Blood River" has plenty of pirates, but no boat and no ocean adventures. Lee stars as a pirate captain who is convinced a group of Huguenots who escaped religious persecution in France to set up their own society on a deserted island are guarding a treasure. It's much more of a siege movie than a pirate film.

The direction by John Gilling keeps the plot rolling right along and as a low-budget film it is quite acceptable. Lee is very good as the philosophical pirate and character actor Michael Ripper a mainstay in Hammer films almost steals the show as a member of Lee's crew.

"The Devil Ship Pirates" looks much more of a pirate film as at least there are a few opening scenes at sea. The pirate ship Diablo has been commissioned to be part of the legendary Spanish Armada that was defeated by the British and the captain again, Lee decides to bring his damaged ship in for repairs, tricking a remote British village into thinking that the Spanish won and they must do what he says.

Don Sharp makes the most of his cast and locations and at least has a boat although it can't sail!

"The Terror of the Tongs" is one of the worst Hammer films I've ever sat through largely because of its misuse of Lee as the leader of a murderous Chinese crime syndicate. All Lee does is sit and make announcements and stand and make announcements.

Most of the cast members who portray Chinese characters are British actors with really bad make-up. The political correctness of the film is pretty questionable in today's society. The film could easily be seen as racist.

The plot revolves around a strong and steady English boat captain whose daughter is murdered by the Tong. He's one of these heroes who goes into almost every situation unprepared and ill advised but he prevails.

"The Stranglers of Bombay" is not set in Bombay but in a smaller Indian community where the local British plantation and business owners are trying to figure out why their caravans of goods are going missing as well as dozens of people.

What they don't know is a cult worshipping the Hindu goddess Kali is murdering people as a way to show their devotion. Only one English army officer has discovered the answers, but no one is listening to him.

Based on history, "Stranglers" fascinated me as it has a very similar look and tone to the second Indiana Jones feature. I wondered as I watched this if George Lucas or Steven Spielberg had seen the 1959 film as children.

Three watchable films out of four isn't a bad score and the folks at Sony Home Video have added some bizarre extras that include an Andy Clyde two-reel comedy that has nothing to do with pirates, a color Scrappy cartoon which marginally has pirates and the first chapter of the 1951 serial "The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd," in which Kidd is a pirate and his "great" adventures include murder and pillage.

There are also commentaries from key Hammer personnel including director and writer Jimmy Sangster.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bender's a hit

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

I loved Matt Groening's other animation series "Futurama" and was sorry to see its cancellation by FOX in 2003. The news the series has returned through four direct-to-DVD movies is cause for celebration as the first film, "Bender's Big Score," is a very funny film.

If you've missed "Futurama" during its original television run from 1999 to 2003, then the film might seem a bit confusing. What you need to know is the future is just about as messed up as 2008 is and our heroes of an interplanetary delivery service are no more enlightened than we are hey, the preserved living head of Richard Nixon is the president of the Earth in the future.

The action in this film centers around three aliens who've discovered the secret of time travel and use Bender the amoral robot to go back in time to loot the Earth. There are alien nudists, gold-plated Death Stars and Al Gore all in the film who could want more?

The vocal performances from Billy West, Katey Sagal and Joe DiMaggio, among others, are stellar as usual and the visual look of the production is a tad richer than the original series.

The making of this film actually affected the future -- the producers say it lowered carbon emission. For more information log onto www.newscorp.com/energy.

Wayside: The Movie

For many years the folks at Nickelodeon have been industry leaders in producing animated series for children and that adults can watch as well. "Spongebob Squarepants" and "Fairly Odd Parents" are two recent examples of the Nick lineup which also includes shows such as "Ren and Stimpy," "Rugrats" and "Hey Arnold."

"Wayside" will not be remembered among the best of the Nick's offerings if this 49-minute "movie" is any indication. Based on a series of children's books, the film tells the story of Todd, a new student to the confused and confusing Wayside School. The contractor built the school incorrectly so that the 30 classrooms form 30 stories.

Todd (with a voice provided by Michael Cera from "Superbad") seems like a sensible kid who is completely unnerved by the randomness of his new school. The principal is in love with his microphone. The students use a window instead of a door. Cows are in the hallways partying the insulation out of the walls.

It's Todd's hope that he will make sense of all of the silliness.

The problem is the production simply isn't funny. While Todd is a sympathetic character, no else is and in fact they are shrill and annoying.

The look of the characters has no style and the animation attempts at times to reach the looniness of a "Ren and Stimpy" with some extreme poses and expressions, but it fails to reach those inspired heights. The use of gross-out humor, while all the norm these days, is very gratuitous.

Perhaps young kids would find this production entertaining, but be sure to excuse yourself from the room.

For more information, log onto www.paramount.com/ homeentertainment.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, November 26, 2007

Beowulf shouldn't cause any animator restless nights

© 2007 by Paramount Pictures and Shangri-La Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It’s easy to be cynical about the reasons behind why a movie gets made, and the manner in which it is made, but the new animated feature “Beowulf” has struck me as a near textbook example of how form trumps substance.

The sloppily directed movie couldn’t stand on its own without its gimmicks, but it is those gimmicks that have given a sub-par film a whole lot of buzz in the pre-holiday release season.

Setting aside the pedigree of the script by two fine writers – Neil Gaimen and Roger Avery– for a moment, let’s imagine this acid test: would “Beowulf” have been made at all if it didn’t have its video game animation aided by motion capture, its prurient brushes with nudity, the use of a name brand cast and its multiple platform release?

If you’ve seen the movie and you’re a fan of it, then God bless. I contend that “Beowulf” would never be in the same league with the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy if it had been made the same way – a live action cast operating in often times CGI world.

Before seeing the film, I had a discussion with a friend that “Beowulf” wasn’t an animated movie in the way a Harryhausen film, or a Pixar movie is an animated movie. While I’ll certainly call an animated film, I maintain the use of motion capture puts the animation at a different – lower – level.

This is not meant to be an insult to the many fine artists who labored on this film, however when one of the principal selling points of the film – here’s the marketing campaign showing itself – is the “life-like” animation of major stars, then one must acknowledge that “Beowulf” is 21st century rotoscoping.

When Max Fleischer invested rotoscoping nearly a century ago, he was seeking a solution for economical and speedy animation. Interestingly enough, as the number of skilled artists came into the industry Fleischer’s use of rotoscoping declined.

The studio’s last major use of the technique was in 1939’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” when the Gulliver character was rotoscoped in many scenes. This was an artistic decision to separate Gulliver from the Lilliputians.

Ralph Bakshi’s three rotoscoped features “The Lord of the Rings,” American Pop” and “Fire and Ice” are films he told me he admired, but he didn’t particularly like.

When used for an artistic effect such as in “A Scanner Darkly,” rotoscoping becomes merely another tool for an artist to use. That is not the case for “Beowulf.”

With this film, the motion capture is used to create a novelty of transferring well-known actors to the animated screen and allowing their filmed performances to become the basis for the animation – robbing the animators of the opportunity to do fully what animation is all about: creating the illusion of life.

The audience knows fully they are watching Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie instead of animated characters. The film achieves an annoying sense of self-consciousness through this effect.

And the result of this animation style is a cross between video game fare and Madame Tussaud’s wax sculptures.

The greater irony is that despite a budget of $150 million, the main characters project far more acting through the vocal performances than the animation. A Bugs Bunny 2-D cartoon made in 1943 shows a greater range of acting that in “Beowulf.”

Jolie has been nude on film once before in “Gia,” but her animated nudity and that of Beowulf himself is another irritating part of the film.

The film’s PG-13 rating doesn’t seem to be tested by the film’s abundant violence. Nipples and genitalia, though, are another thing. That is why we have Jolie’s character without nipples and labia when she is seen and why Beowulf hides his penis artfully during his fight scene with Grendel.

Well, if we can’t see such things why suggest them? Because we want to create a buzz. It’s not about the art of the film. It’s so people talk about the scenes on the Web. They’ll wonder if Jolie’s actual breasts were used as the model and that sort of thing.

By having Beowulf naked, but then hiding his penis behind jugs of mead, the film derails the climatic fight and turns it into a smug joke. I doubt that’s what Gaimen and Avery had intended.

Robert Zemeckis’ haphazard direction further sinks this production. The vocal performances are all over the map with the characters all speaking with a different accent. Crispin Glover’s Grendel is incomprehensible at times.

There are many unanswered questions presented by the film. Why does the flame in the mead hall turn blue when Grendel is there? When Grendel is defeated is it because Beowulf has shattered his over-sized eardrum? Why does he shrink in size? Why do Jolie’s feet turn into high heels worthy of a strip club when she appears before Beowulf? This is Denmark in the sixth century, right?

Take away its gimmicks and you take away the power of this film to attract a word-of-mouth audience. In its two weeks of release “Beowulf” has earned $56.4 million. It has a long way to go to become profitable. In the parlance of the industry, I doubt this film has legs.

I can’t believe this film has the more traditional animation community worried about the death of the older forms of the art. This is a mediocre film whose gimmicks have been sold with the calculation of a William Castle but with none of his fun. If it does have a lasting impact it is only because its box office numbers has convinced the soulless suits that run the entertainment industry that gimmickry, not style or substance is the way to go.

© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, August 13, 2007

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938

The following is the review I wrote for the newspapers I edit of the new four-disc set of the first five years of Popeye cartoons. I’ve additional comments aimed for animation fans that follow:

The advent of home video and the development of the DVD format have allowed movie fans to become movie collectors and have encouraged the release of material that has long languished in films vaults.

In the past, the release of restored prints of all of Buster Keaton’s classic silent comedies was a hit among collectors. Seeing director Fritz Lang’s science fiction opus “Metropolis” close to the form he had intended was a revelation on DVD.

The release last week of the Popeye cartoons produced by Max and Dave
Fleischer will be welcomed by older animation fans and should prove to be an eye-opener to young fans who have only read about these cartoons or seen only a handful of the shorts that have fallen into the public domain.

“Popeye the Sailor 1933-1938” features 60 shorts, two of the Technicolor Popeye 20-minute Christmas specials, and some excellent documentaries about the making of the cartoons.

Most importantly it makes available for the first time on any home video format some of the most popular and enduring animation ever created.

Now I will, in the interest of full disclosure, admit I’m prejudiced. As a kid I loved the Popeye shorts, which were a staple of local television programming until all black and white material was shunted aside by television programmers. In college I was reacquainted with the cartoons made by Max and Dave Fleischer and fell in love all over again.

I started researching the studio and interviewing a number of the people who worked on cartoons, including the Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman series. It has been a thrill and privilege to sit down with the people responsible in creating films that have meant so much to me and many, many others.

It has been one of the greatest mysteries to animation fans why King Features Syndicate, which controls the rights to the cartoons, has never allowed a home video release of the black and white shorts. The company has authorized collections of other, frankly, inferior Popeye cartoons, but not the ones that people craved to see once again. Thanks goodness that finally these productions are once again available to see.

The Popeye shorts, based on the tremendous comic strip “Thimble Theater” by E.C. Segar, were highly popular in the 1930s and into the 1940s. While contemporary film critics lavished praise on Walt Disney, exhibitors soon learned that many audiences preferred the one-eyed sailor to Mickey Mouse.

This collection begins with the first Popeye cartoon, actually an entry in the Betty Boop series and the evolution of the character is fascinating to watch. Taking their cue from the comic strip, the Fleischer animators and writers saw Popeye as a rough and tumble type who eventually showed his tender side and a strict moral code.

Depression-era audiences may have identified more with urban look and themes the Popeye cartoons featured.

These black and white cartoons also show that while a format for the seven-minute shorts were established, the Fleischer staff sought ways to bring freshness to the shorts, something later cartoons failed to do.

The Popeye shorts have long been criticized by some for their violent slapstick and for the treatment of Olive Oyl, Popeye’s often-fickle girlfriend. There are also some racial humor and references that are inappropriate today. Warner Video obviously was concerned enough about the contents to put a disclaimer the collection was intended for the adult collector and may not be suitable for children.

While I understand these issues, the Popeye shorts are fairly free of racial humor; unlike other cartoon series produced at the same time and, with the proper introduction, could be shown to children.

Highlights in this collection are shorts such as “A Dream Walking,” a spectacular example of timing and perspective in animation; “A Clean Shaven Man” and “Brotherly Love,” which both feature wonderful tunes by composer
Sammy Timburg; “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” another great marriage of music and animation; and two of the three Christmas specials featuring Popeye, “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor” and “Popeye the Sailor
Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves.”

These latter two films had fallen into the public domain and have been on hundreds of home video compilations over the years. They are presented here in the form audiences saw them during their original release and they are fabulous.

Several of the commentaries, specifically those of Disney animator Eric Goldberg and “Ren & Stimpy” creator John Krifalusi, point out just how accomplished the animation is in these shorts. Krifalusi comments he wouldn’t be able to animate some of the scenes seen in the cartoons.

After years of limited animation the basic vocabulary of the art form has been stunted. These classic “full animation” productions reveal the art of an earlier time.

The documentaries and commentaries are largely informative and accurate with “Forging the Frame: The Roots of Animation 1900-1920” essential viewing. What is missing is a separate documentary that explains who Max and Dave Fleischer were and the place they hold in motion picture history.

I’m a little too close to the subject, so don’t let that quibble stop you from picking up this landmark DVD release.

Several additional comments:
First, if the producer of the next round of Popeye cartoons would like a script and materials for a documentary on the Fleischers, I’d be happy to help. Not having something that actually put their careers properly within the context of American films history was an over-sight. I was surprised the great little story that was included in a “Popular Science” short from 1939 was used as an extra.

  • To see a clip of that short go here.

  • I was very happy to see the producers of the set pay homage to Jack Mercer and help set the story straight about who did Popeye’s voice when.

    I remember asking Jack Mercer who did the voice when he was in the military in World War II and he said no one would tell him. Mercer never received on-screen credit in a theatrical production as the voice of Popeye until his vocal cameo in Robert Altman’s “Popeye” in 1980.

    The lack of screen credit allowed other people to make claims that were not true and these claims were painful to Mercer.

    Until no less than a person than Jackson Beck confirmed to me that Mae Questel performed the voice while Mercer was gone, I would have thought it was more of the ego that Questel was known to exhibit.

    It was satisfying to me that the documentary nailed down the number of times Harry Welch performed the voice. Welch made claims over the years as being “the” actor to provide Popeye’s voice following William Costello.

    In the March 1941 edition of Popular Science piece by Milton Braeker quotes Welch as being Popeye, six of the Seven Dwarves, the Big Bad Wolf and Olive Oyl. This is, of course, complete manure. Welch didn’t do his Popeye work until Famous Studios moved back to New York in 1942. And he was just a fill-in for Mercer.

    One of the problems anyone has researching animation is the lack of the credits on cartoons. I was glad that through several of the commentaries, the fact was explained the two first of the two animators credited in the Fleischer shorts acted as the director in the way we think of an animation director.

    Dave Fleischer did two primary tasks as far as I’ve been able to determine: he added gags and he supervised recording sessions. He did sign off on model sheets, but his was not the only signature on many I’ve seen.

    This isn’t to knock Dave, but to emphasize the cartoons beloved by some many were really the product of great collaborators, rather than just one person.

    If we are looking for an auteur for the Fleischer cartoons, that person is going to be difficult to find. Willard Bowsky contributed a lot of the spooky themes seen in the Betty Boop and some Popeye cartoons. Myron Waldman liked sentiment. Lou Fleischer and Sammy Timburg obviously helped shaped the cartoons with their musical tastes – very New York, very urban. Waldman once told me that Roland “Doc” Crandall should receive the credit for the success of many of the early Boops. Look at the cinematic influence of Dan Gordon in a film such as “Terror on the Midway.

    Mercer and Questel should be lauded for their voice work. Mercer is right up there with Mel Blanc in my book.

    I’m tempted to credit Max’s influence with the reoccurring theme of machines in many of the shorts.

    I think you understand my point.

    What did you think of the series?

    © 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs