Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lantz and Fleischer DVDs

Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew has announced a collection of Walter Lantz cartoons that will appear on DVD this July. I'm assuming that readers of this blog are already aware of this, but they may not realize the importance of the cartoons on this set as the Lantz studio has been very poorly represented on video and DVD.

This set contains cartoons directed by Shamus Culhane, a very underrated director who never got the opportunities he deserved. In the '30's, Culhane worked just about everywhere, including a stint at Disney where he was something of a Pluto specialist. He worked on Snow White, Pinocchio (though there's confusion as to how much of his work is in the finished film), Gulliver's Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town.

At Lantz, Culhane took a studio that was turning out weak cartoons and jump started them with his interest in experimenting and his aggressive sense of timing. Culhane's best work at the studio was possibly the Swing Symphonies. While he admitted to having no feeling for jazz, he worked well with it and his musical cartoons are really vigorous. Abou Ben Boogie and The Greatest Man in Siam are excellent cartoons and worth seeing.

The set will also contain cartoons by Dick Lundy and Tex Avery. I admire Lundy's craftsmanship but not his directorial personality. He was a good animator and his cartoons are always slick, but I find his point of view to be pretty pedestrian. However, his cartoons contain the some of the best animation in the history of the Lantz studio and are worth watching for the animation alone.

Tex Avery's affect on the Lantz studio was much the same as Culhane. At the time Avery rejoined the Lantz studio, it was out of creative energy. Avery was able to bootstrap the studio with his posing, gags and timing. His four cartoons are a textbook case of how much impact one person can have on the output of a studio.

The animators who worked on these cartoons include Fred Moore, Ed Love, Emery Hawkins, Pat Matthews, Grim Natwick, Dick Lundy and LaVerne Harding. If you are interested in this style of character animation, this set is a bonanza of material.

There are other studios whose cartoons are not available on DVD, such as Famous Studios and Terrytoons, but the Lantz cartoons are probably the most interesting of this bunch and this release is long overdue. If you have any interest in 1940's style animation, I guarantee you that there will be cartoons and moments in this set that will entertain you and show you the high standards that were once commonplace in animation.

If it wasn't for the release of the Popeye cartoons, also in July, I'd say that the Lantz DVD was the animation history release of the year. The Popeye cartoons have had even less presence in home video than the Lantz cartoons, due to some rights issues that have finally been settled.

The Fleischer cartoons of the 1930s are worth watching for different reasons than the Lantz cartoons. The animation is not as slick, but the stories, characterizations and layouts are all of a high standard. In the 1930s, there were many different streams of animation all running in parallel. The Fleischer cartoons were urban, gritty, and focused on adult concerns like sexual competition. In the early '30s Fleischer cartoons, the world is a surreal place where anything could be alive and nothing could be taken for granted.

There's no question that Popeye, especially when voiced by Jack Mercer, was the most complex animated personality of the 1930's, far more complex than anything Disney, MGM or Warner Bros. offered up in short cartoons. It's only when Disney expanded to features that he began to approach the level of character depth that Popeye routinely displayed. Ironically, it's when the Fleischers expanded to features that Popeye began his decline, but that's not until volume 2 of the Popeye set.

At any given moment, there are dominant styles in animation. Right now, we've got the Pixar style, the Cartoon Network/Nickelodeon style and the anime style. While we're immersed in a style, we take it for granted as the way things have to be, but the thing about styles is that they eventually change. The best thing about these historical DVD collections is that they show approaches to animation that we don't take for granted. It's stimulating to see films from different places and different times and I hope that the release of these DVDs will shake things up a little and get people thinking in new (or old) directions.


J. J. Hunsecker said...

One modern style of animation you forgot to list is one that is derived from The Simpsons. I don't know what you'd call it. Perhaps "outsider animation" or refined crudeness.

After the popularity of The Simpsons came a slew of poorly designed and drawn primetime adult cartoons. The animation was stilted because the creators believed that stretch and squash was unrealistic and that rejecting such principles would lead to subtler animation. Usually the shows were produced and written by people with backgrounds in live action sitcoms (some of them were created by cartoonists, though). Examples would be Mission Hills, The Oblongs, King of the Hill, The Critic, Sammy, Family Guy, Beavis and Butthead, etc.

Most of these shows failed so it seems like this trend might have receded. But you never know, if The Simpsons movie is a hit I'm sure we'll see a King of the Hill or Family Guy feature.

Nancy said...

THE SIMPSONS is the artistic heir to the Bakshi Studio style, which also stressed gritty realism over Hollywood slickness.

It's certainly good to see the Lantz cartoons finally on DVD--some of the Avery cartoons are marvellous and I really hope to see more of Shamus Culhane's SWING SYMPHONIES.

I'd also like to learn more about LaVerne Harding. Lantz was far ahead of his time in that he hired at least one female animator and gave her screen credit.

now, when do we get restored Betty Boops?