A somewhat marginalized figure in film history, the cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay is now the subject of a splendid DVD collection, which presents remastered versions of his 10 known works for the cinema. McCay was the creator of the “Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic strip and his movie animations extend Nemo’s obsession with dreaming. McCay maintains an admirable level of idiosyncrasy through his grotesque yet alluring visuals, and those who think of animation as a children’s plaything may be shocked by the adult effrontery of “How a Mosquito Operates,” “Bug Vaudeville,” or “The Pet,” each film a sublime disquisition on all-too-human anxieties brought to nightmarish life in a vengeful dream space. Yet these films’ characters are less one-dimensional horrors than testaments to McCay’s dark sense of humor. An oversized parasite with a greedy proboscis (“Mosquitos”), a spider that breaks the fourth wall (“Bug Vaudeville”), and a continually growing dog/cat creature—these are simultaneously lovable and dangerous creations, as likely to hug and entertain you as they are to eat you alive. McCay obviously relishes the shared experience of cinema. Often placing himself in live-action framing stories that detail his creative process, McCay comes across as an honest personality who delivers on that inestimable showman’s promise: “You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry!” It’s little surprise that the animator’s most renowned film creation, “Gertie the Dinosaur,” was conceived for the vaudeville stage where a live whip-cracking McCay would interact with his hand-drawn counterpart. The sight must have been miraculous in its time—seen now (with intertitles replicating McCay’s stage presence) it’s a profound mixture of both cinematic and theatrical techniques, a humbling reminder of the non-exclusive power of the arts. Yet the troubling and affecting “Sinking of the Lusitania” is the director’s undisputed masterpiece. In visualizing this infamous historical disaster, McCay reveals both a tremendous empathy and a disturbing racism, akin to D.W. Griffith’s contretemps with The Birth of a Nation. In between questionable intertitles (the final one, which instructs the audience to hate the “Hun,” is almost subliminal) and an inexcusable class bias (through photographs, McCay memorializes the rich and the intellectuals while ignoring the lower classes) lies some of the most moving imagery ever committed to film. McCay is a master of timing, and it is to his credit that the “Sinking of the Lusitania” seems to occur in real time, allowing for a full experience of the disaster. Watching his animated figures leap off the sinking ship’s stern is reminiscent of our 9/11 horror, though McCay shows how the arts can channel our rage and confusion into focused experience—the film’s timeless imagery helps to expose the intertitles’ dated propaganda, a bracing celluloid reminder as we navigate the troubles of our present era.
By all historical accounts, McCay only produced 10 animated shorts, all of which are included here in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Image quality varies-not surprising considering the dates of production ranged from 1911 to 1921-but the only truly questionable transfer is "The Flying House," which crops several of the characters' talk bubbles. Gabriel Thibaudeau contributes newly composed piano scores, presented in excellent Dolby Digital stereo.
McCay historian John Canemaker provides audio commentary over all the films. It's an uneven track, with Canemaker seeming alternately engaged and bored, but there are plenty of insights that help to contextualize McCay's place in cinema history. "Remembering Winsor McCay" is a short documentary from the 1970s wherein former McCay assistant John Fitzsimmons fondly recalls his employer. Also included is an extensive stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos detailing McCay's work and home life.
An essential addition to both cinema history and any cinephile's DVD collection.