Reel Streaming: Animation Nation
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 55
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
With the warm reds, yellows and browns of autumn currently transforming the landscape, it’s high time I take a look at some of the more colorful vintage animation that’s making the rounds. That there hasn’t been a Reel Streaming feature devoted to the animated sector in more than 18 months of weekly columns is quite an embarrassment on my part, but one that’s being amended right now.
While computer-generated animation remains the biggest theatrical draw to a generation of millennial parents and their progeny—this year’s Paw Patrol: The Movie and The Boss Baby: Family Business are prime examples—it’s still traditionally drawn animation that works for me. Call them cartoons, if you’d like. They’re just so appealing and real, as if I could see artists’ fingerprints on the animation cels. Proof of the made-by-actual-people genuineness of the article, if you will.
Here are three recent animation Blu-ray releases (they’ll be available for streaming any day now, as well) that made it over my transom and into the Blu-ray player. Two are remastered, reissued vintage pieces and the third is a traditionally animated new film that’s actually a remake of a classic live-action feature.
Leading the pack by a long shot is the latest installment in Warner’s Tex Avery Screwball Classics series, a compilation of the seminal Golden Age animator-director’s toons from the Forties and Fifties.
Steering away from the strictly family-friendly and sentimental fare of the Disney Studios, the Texas-born Avery’s characters were as appealing to adults as they were to children. Sarcasm, irreverence and irony were the flavors of his frenetic, sight gag-filled shorts, enacted by such legendary characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd, all of whom he played a major role in creating.
Volume 3 in the series focuses on the work Avery did at MGM following his groundbreaking time spent with the Warner Bros. animation unit. Such irresistible if lesser-known characters as Droopy Dog, Screwball Squirrel and Red Hot Riding Hood are featured here, with Droopy at his most jowly and lethargic as he portrays a bullfighter, a Western deputy and a Mountie in various shorts. At the front of the pack, though, is the fascinating 1942 short Blitz Wolf (not to be confused with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer).
Avery’s first short for MGM, Blitz Wolf is a propaganda piece that parodies the “Three Little Pigs” from a World War II perspective. The uniformed Adolf Wolf attempts to invade a trio of porcine domiciles in the land of Pigmania. Ending with Adolf Wolf being blown to Hell (literally) by an artillery shell filled with U.S. Defense Bonds, it’s a clever, biting, funny and appropriately pro-American delight. Not surprisingly, Blitz Wolf was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Ironically, it lost to another anti-Nazi propaganda production, Der Fuehrer’s Face featuring Donald Duck.
Jumping ahead three decades to 1972, Fritz the Cat is the first film from Israeli-born American filmmaker-animator Ralph Bakshi.
It tells the tale of the frisky Fritz (voiced by Skip Hinnant), an anthropomorphized feline cavorting about New York City circa 1968. Dropping out of college, the womanizing, weed-smoking Fritz encounters all manner of NYC denizens as he gets involved in a race riot, becomes a counter-culture revolutionary and swears up a storm. With all the film’s profanity and sex and drugs and race-baiting, it became the first American animated film to receive an X rating from the Motion Picture Association, which launched it into the box office stratosphere as the most successful animated independent picture of all time.
Bakshi’s debut first feature in a career that has thus far yielded ten of them, Fritz is based on the comic strip by R. Crumb, which Bakshi’s reportedly came across while browsing in a book store on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan’s East Village. The film’s satirical take on the era is definitely of its time but still coarsely effective, as is its fine animation, which frequently features watercolor backgrounds based on tracings from photographs. It was a new technique at the which gave the film a stylishly realistic look (particularly in the Harlem and Washington Square Park sequences).
Very representative of the anarchic, off-color work of Bakshi’s early independent period (which also includes such adult-oriented features as 1973’s Heavy Traffic and 1975’s Coonskin), Fritz still has the ability to raise eyebrows 50 years on.
Let’s end with a zombie attack.
As a public domain film, George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is fair game to just about anyone who wants to do something with it—they can reissue it, remake it or reimagine it.. And the industry has sure as hell taken advantage of that status: Living Dead been remade a number of times over the past 30 years, notably in 1990 by special effects titan Tom Savini. Based on the original screenplay but pumped up to graphic extremes in the gore department, Savini’s “official” remake wasn’t anything special—certainly not when compared to the landmark film that inspired it. But it remains the best of all the remakes that came after it, so you can only imagine what the others are like.
The most recent of these is the just-released-to-Blu-ray Night of the Animated Dead, which is–you guessed it–an animated version of the original directed by John Axinn that’s essentially an animated shot-for-shot remake of you-know-what. It immediately reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho in that it lifts the same story, the same camerawork and the same basic editing that was seen in the original.
The only visual differences between the Animated Dead and the Living Dead are that the original was shot in unnerving black-and-white, while its animated descendant is in vibrant color, all the better for the film’s gore and cannibalism sequences. And the animation, while crisply and colorfully rendered, is still unexceptional, giving one the impression that the voice cast featuring Josh Duhamel, Dule Hill and Jimmy Simpson may have been the most the costly line item of the production. Meanwhile, thematically, the subtle racial and social commentary that Romero injected into the original doesn’t really carry much weight in the new version.
So, just as critics and audiences asked of Van Sant’s Psycho, the question here is “Why?” Is there a reason for Night of the Animated Dead outside of it being blatant, modestly-budgeted money grab? I don’t want to look too closely for an answer.
If you’ve somehow never seen Night of the Living Dead over the past half-century because you’re afraid the forebearer of zombie cinema may be too cheesy or maybe because you’re adverse to black-and-white (perish the thought), put your apprehensions aside and check it out. You can always say you were inspired to see the original when you learned there was an animated remake stalking the Blu-ray shelf.
After the live action zombies, have some fun with one of these vintage animated releases. The zombie apocalypse may be upon us, as box office and streaming reports regularly inform us, but with a steady stream of fresh releases and remastered favorites in the Blu-ray and streaming pipelines, the animation revolution is just beginning.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.