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

    Friday, July 6, 2007

    New Hellboy DVD

    Hellboy Animated: Blood & Iron

    Comic book creator Mike Mignola's superb characters and situations translated well in a live action adaptation a few years ago and they also have done well in animation with this second production.

    If you've not heard about "Hellboy," the concept is very good: a professor who specializes in the paranormal is able to rescue and adopt a baby demon whom the Nazis were planning to use to win World War II. Instead of being a force for evil, Hellboy, as he is called, works for the United States government battling supernatural threats to us.

    In this production Hellboy and company wind up investigating a haunted house bought by a Trump-like developer and find out there is much more to it than just a publicity stunt. Hellboy is once again asked to live out his "true" role as a demon and his answer of "no" sets up a tremendous battle.

    What I like about these animated productions is the fact that Mignola is actively involved in them. They clearly have his fingerprints on them. The animation directors and designers have found a way to bring much of Mignola's artistic sensibilities to the look of the films as well. This is important, as Mignola is one of the great stylists of today's comic book artists.

    The vocal performances from the cast of the live action film Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and John Hurt also add to these productions a great deal.

    The DVD features a lot of extras including an animated Hellboy short subject, several making of features and a mini-Hellboy comic.

    This is great stuff.

    For more information,

    log onto www.anchorbay

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Re-packaging of Shrek films offers nothing new

    Okay, I like “Shrek” just fine, but this is just an example of redundant re-packaging in order to promote a new film due out his summer in theaters.

    If you don’t already own the first “Shrek” film, this package gives you the first film, plus the 16-minute 3-D film that was produced to bridge the storyline between “Shrek” and “Shrek 2.”

    I hadn’t seen the 3-D film previously and I’m a sucker for any 3-D film. I happily donned my red and blue glasses and put the disc in the player. It’s not bad, though not memorable either and the 3-D proved to my eyes at least as rather iffy – sometimes it worked and sometimes it looked just like a jumble.

    Don’t expect anything new in this package.

    For more information, log onto

    © 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

    Tuesday, May 8, 2007

    Spiderman Three is the weepiest superhero movie ever


    Considering the amount of CGI footage in “Spiderman Three,” I can’t help but view this film in the same light, as I would look at a Ray Harryhausen film. It may be a live action film, but so much of the film’s success rests squarely in animation.

    Having said that, I have to say this film is going to suffer when seen on a small TV screen. It was clearly designed for the big screen and considering how many animated scenes take on a dizzying quality, I’m afraid unless you have a nice big flat screen, what you see may be a little confusing.

    This is not necessarily a criticism. I’m happy to see filmmakers who are composing their movies for theatrical screens, rather than thinking about the second life on television screens.

    Director and co-writer Sam Raimi has given us the weepiest superhero movies ever. Peter Parker sheds tears at least four times. Aunt Mae cries. Mary Jane cries. Flint Marko cries. J. Jonah Jameson does not cry, but I was expecting him to.

    Emphasizing the Peter Parker twisted love life may turn off some action fans, but if my 12 year-old niece and her friend who accompanied us to the theater is any indication it served an important demographic. Both girls were quite smitten with Toby McGuire and his puppy dog persona.

    It was fun to spot Raimi’s salutes to “Saturday Night Fever” and Jerry Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor.” The scene in which a Venom-inspired Parker humiliates May Jane at her jazz club gig is at first funny and then truly disturbing.

    I think from a character development point of view, I would have thought by the third film Parker would have had grown a backbone and understood a little more about Mary Jane, but it seems the permanent Parker persona is a nerd.

    So does the animation deliver? I think so. The Venom scenes in which Topher Grace becomes the character are well done and the Sandman sequences are pretty impressive. I like the fact that essentially Sandman is a villain who can’t be defeated and the film’s ending depends upon forgiveness.

    The web slinging scenes are also well done and the illusion is quite good.

    Overall, I’d give “Spiderman Three” a solid B+ but I don’t plan to buy it when it comes out on DVD.

    © 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

    Monday, March 12, 2007

    Animated Hellboy is quite enjoyable

    Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms

    This animated feature was first broadcast on The Cartoon Network last year and is now on DVD with a ton of extras and a 32-page comic book, to boot.

    I've been a fan of Mike Mignola's comic books for years. Hellboy was a baby demon that was rescued from a group of Nazis during the Second World War by Allied troops. His existence has been kept from the rest of the world and as an adult he now works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defense, a government agency that "bumps back the things that go bump in the night."

    Mignola's hero is a masterful combination of a hero with a dark side in this case as dark as it gets with the morality of a classic gumshoe like Sam Spade.

    The character proved to be a hit with a live action movie and this animated one reunited Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Doug Jones with the roles they played in the live action film.

    The new animated film puts Hellboy in Japan where he an other members of the Bureau must understand why a noted professor has turned loose a pair of ancient Japanese demons.

    The animation is well done and this could have been a theatrical feature. I think it will satisfy both fans of the comic as well as those who just know Hellboy through the live action film.

    For more information, go to

    Friday, March 9, 2007

    Milton the Monster makes DVD debut

    Here is the first post for this new blog dedicated to reviewing animation. My hope is that people will contribute their own reviews. Drop me a line a mdobbs at crocker dot com with your review. Hope to hear from you!

    The Milton the Monster Show: The Complete Season
    Posted by Mike Dobbs

    I’m not sure just who at Shout Factory is a buff of obscure television
    animation, but whoever it is let me say “Thanks!” The company, which
    specializes in digging up pop culture gems, has just released the collected
    “The Milton the Monster Show.”

    Produced by the late Hal Seeger, “Milton” was an animated series that
    ran on ABC in 1965 and ’66. It was clearly an animated way to ride the trend
    set by “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and it largely succeeded. The
    cartoons have a wit about them that many animated offerings from the same
    period lacked.

    Milton isn’t much of a monster – he looks like a big friendly guy except
    smokes comes out of his head. His creator, Professor Weirdo, is disappointed
    in his lack of evil and is often trying to get rid of him.

    Cartoons featuring other characters, including the lucky cowboy
    detective Flukey Luke and the superhero parody Fearless Fly, accompanied the
    Milton shorts. Some of the other supporting cartoons are a bit painful to
    sit through – those with insufferable bad girl Penny Penguin were just
    awful, for instance.

    Seeger had worked for the Fleischer Studios (which produced the Betty
    Boop, Popeye and Superman cartoons, among others) and he used many of his
    Fleischer colleagues including animators Myron Waldman and Shamus Culhane
    and voice actor and writer Jack Mercer.

    While the animation is limited, the cleverness of the scripts frequently
    makes up the deficit.

    Milton is a monster animation fans won’t fear getting to know.

    For more information, log onto

    © 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs