Thursday, December 29, 2005

Lincoln Center's Cartoon Musicals in NYC

A much-awaited film series has begun this week: the return of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's series about the wide-ranging intersection of animation and music, Cartoon Musicals! This is a dream come true for animation buffs: the series features some truly rare and offbeat stuff, and curator Greg Ford shows his excellent taste and vast, insightful knowledge of the medium.

The first part of the series, back in August, already set a high bar. A Disney compilation showcased the early Silly Symphonies with their imaginative world-building -- the best one showing the rivalry in a music world between lands of classical and jazz music -- and the wild graphic inventiveness of some of the more experimental segments from compilation pictures like Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, and Melody Time -- the best being "All the Cats Join In" from Make Mine Music, which I recognized as largely animated by Fred Moore's, since the wild joy of the dancing teens in the cartoon shows his famed ability to create appealing characters. Fantasia 2000's "Rhapsody in Blue" segment, shown at the end, looks like a pale retread of the graphic styles used earlier. Meanwhile, the screening of Tex Avery and company's MGM shorts showed the power of crowds: there's nothing like hearing one's fellow theatergoers break into applause at the mere anticipation of Red Hot Riding Hood, the moment her name appears in the credits! And the screening of Columbia shorts gave an opportunity to see a rarely shown studio's work -- although this was the least popular of the screenings I attended, the audience apparently gravitating to watch, say, Warner Bros. cartoons with a crowd (a good resource about Columbia's cartoon character Scrappy is Harry McCracken's Scrappyland website).

This time around, the roster is equally impressive. Shorts programs include compliations of such off-beat artists as Oskar Fischinger's abstract animation and George Pal's 3-D stop motion Puppetoons. Pal was basically the only person in America at the time to regularly use the stop-motion animation technique; and instead of using movable puppets, he used a mind-boggling technique of "replacement" animation which involved creating thousands of separate physical copies of a character. He then went on to make live-action films that included some of the pioneering serious science fiction films, such as Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, and When Worlds Collide.

Features include the Fleischers' Hoppity Goes to Town and Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure. The latter is particularly rare, and I've been curious to see it ever since a January 2003 retrospective of the great Tissa David (who was one of the first women in animation) included a charming clip of her animation of Raggedy Ann and Andy in the forest; other master animators who worked on the film included Emery Hawkins, Art Babbitt, Grim Natwick, and director Richard Williams -- as the program notes point out, it's odd that the mainstream success of Williams's Who Framed Roger Rabbit hasn't led to more interest in his other work. (See also Eddie Bowers's website about the sad story behind Williams's ambitious, experimental feature The Thief and the Cobbler, which was taken out of his hands just as he was completing it and released in butchered form). Also, it was the subject of a great making-of book by animation historian John Canemaker, The Animated Raggedy Ann and Andy, which includes chapters on David, Hawkins, Babbitt, and Williams (it's truly refreshing to see such solid emphasis on the animators in these days of celebrity-voice overexposure).

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