Sunday, April 5, 2009

Animation Wars

By David Luhrssen
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Everyone knows Walt Disney. His chief rivals in animation, however, are better known nowadays to historians and aficionados than the general public. But mention Popeye and Betty Boop and eyes widen with recognition. The cartoons of brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were usually more streetwise than Uncle Walt, less reliant on cute animals and serving a high adrenaline vision of modernity in motion.

The rivalry between Disney and the Fleischers soon spilled over from cartoon shorts into feature films. The Disney studio got there first with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the world’s first full-length animated feature. The Fleischers raced to produce the world’s second, Gulliver’s Travels (1939). It’s out now on DVD and Blu-ray disc in an edition also featuring other samples of the Fleischers’ work.

Much of Gulliver’s Travels would not look out of place in a Disney production. Its characters sing while they work, turn red and blue as they huff and puff with rage and are reduced to quivering bowls of jello when frightened. As with Disney, there is enormous visual inspiration at play, bending gravity and the other laws of physics in ways that only animation could achieve. The hand-painted frames are lustrous and except for the oddly wooden title character, the shipwrecked sailor Gulliver, the motion is fluid as life itself.

It seems likely that the Fleischers, feeling the competition, sweetened their shtick a little for the top-billed movie market of the time. And yet there is still something sly at work between the lines. Would Disney have considered adapting Jonathan Swift’s classic social-political satire as a cartoon? One more thought: in the opening scenes of Gulliver’s Travels, depicting the sailor washed ashore by storm-blown sea, the simple lines and color blocks look back at the influence of Japanese prints and forward to anime, the Japanese genre deemed at the animation forefront by many of today’s aficionados.

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