Being a kid in the 1970’s had its advantages, the least of which was not being responsible for the horrific clothing your parents made you wear. It was a time when cereal companies weren’t afraid to use the word “sugar” in their cereal names (“Super Sugar Crisp”, “Sugar Smacks”, “Sugar Pops”) because it accurately depicted what you were eating. Kool-Aid, also full of sugar, would bust through walls to quench your thirst, mentally preparing you to identify later with his fellow wall-buster, the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull. Unless you had a Coleco Telstar, you were happy to go outside and play the games Spike Lee used in the montage that opens Crooklyn. And cartoons were everywhere.
On the sixth day, God created man, and the three broadcast networks created cartoon junkies. Saturday mornings were filled with cheap-assed Hanna-Barbera cartoons, cheaper assed Filmation cartoons and shorts that used to play in theaters. The networks ran Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry shorts, neither of which were made for kids. The Looney Tunes looked awful by then, yet I wouldn’t realize it until I bought those remastered DVD’s. Meanwhile, “Schoolhouse Rock” taught me about math, grammar and history, even once saving me on an 11th grade U.S. History test years later.
At the (now landmark) Loews Jersey Theater, St. George slew the dragon in the clock at the top of the building, and every summer, I attended the Disney Summer Hit Parade. The Hit Parade was a way for Disney to get people to see their live action crap by pairing it with a classic Disney cartoon. The Loews Jersey was built in the 30’s, and looked a lot like Radio City Music Hall on the inside; the sound system was great and the screen and auditorium were huge. Even though the Disney classics looked a little raggedy by this time, I could still experience them as they were meant to be experienced. I fell in love with the animated form, even if I had to also endure Angela Lansbury in the days between her murderous turns in The Manchurian Candidate and Murder She Wrote. (Jessica Fletcher was killing all those people, you know.)
Today, we have entire cable channels devoted to cartoons. One of network TV’s longest-running series is a cartoon (The Simpsons). And each year, at least one of the top 10 grossers is a cartoon. Yet in terms of critical appreciation, most animation still gets sent to the back of the bus. So today’s “5 for the day” is devoted to full-length features that were more than just cartoons to me—features I return to often, primarily because of their visual style, but also because they offer themes, images and ideas that trump most live-action features, and break out of the ghetto in which animation so often finds itself committed.
1. Sleeping Beauty (1959). Unless you were the spawn of classical musicians, cartoons are probably where you were first introduced to Wagner, Liszt and, in the case of this movie, Tchaikovsky. Sleeping Beauty is my favorite cartoon and Disney’s masterpiece, a film so richly rendered that I notice something new every time I watch it. The attention to detail here is striking, even for Disney films of this period, and it is all hand-drawn. Like Maurice Noble’s brilliant background work on the Wagnerian (and much shorter) “What’s Opera, Doc?”, Eyvind Earle’s backgrounds exist in a patently hybrid universe where the real and surreal intermingle. He and the animators contrast a castle where, even at a distance, you can see the bricks in the walls and outside bridges, with the green hellfire of Disney’s spookiest villain, Maleficent. The film’s “art direction” and “costume design” rival any live action period piece, and look like medieval paintings because, as one character points out, “this is the 14th century.” The princess and her rescuer are both drop-dead gorgeous, as they should be; only the beautiful people live happily ever after. Disney has never been this gorgeously crafted before or since.
2. Yellow Submarine (1968). The closest I’ll ever get to dropping acid, this compulsively watchable 60’s movie based on one of those “This is the Beatles on Drugs” songs is weird, weird, weird. It defies description, save to say that it is a garishly colorful artifact of its time. With its 11 Beatles songs, one could argue Yellow Submarine has the greatest of all cartoon soundtracks, but what strikes me is how creatively trippy the animation becomes. It detaches itself from any knowledge of natural laws; one character (if I can call it that) vacuums up everything onscreen before turning on itself and sucking itself to oblivion. (Don’t be jealous, guys.) The places the Beatles and the titular object go, and the creatures they meet, bear no resemblance to anything we’ve seen before. The only recognizable thing to me was the giant “YES” that occupies Pepperland, a place the six-fingered Blue Meanies want to destroy because they can’t bring themselves to be happy by saying that giant word. At the end, the real Beatles show up and seem as unreal as the rest of the picture, which is so odd David Lynch probably loves it.
3. Beauty and the Beast (1991). A cynic is a romantic whose ass has been shredded by life. I’ve always had problems with movies where the ugly guy with the good heart gets the girl because she sees into his soul or some shit. She is then rewarded by having the guy turn into a super-hot piece of ass. Why can’t she stay beautiful, and the guy stay busted, yet they live happily ever after? Just a thought from this (busted) cynic. This movie made the list for several reasons. First, it’s the only animated film to appear with the big boys in the Best Picture category. Second, it cribs from Cocteau—not a bad name to copy. And last but not least, it’s Disney’s most blatantly sexual picture. Our heroine, Belle, has Angelina Jolie-style blowjob lips, and our villain, Gaston, is after her for a purely sexual reason, to breed more “strapping boys” like him. The song his lackeys sing about him must be an in-joke from Howard Ashman. “And every last inch of me’s covered in hair,” he proudly states before giving us a glimpse; meanwhile, the Beast, the guy whose every last inch really is covered in hair succeeds in wooing Angelina, I mean Belle, with help from the Disney-ubiquitous Angela Lansbury and the late, great Jerry Orbach. This leads to the dance sequence that would be a lift from Sleeping Beauty if it didn’t have that jaw-dropping, out-of-left-field camera swoop, a move as dramatic as Victor Fleming would have granted Scarlett and Rhett. It was a transcendent moment for me; I forgot I was watching a cartoon.
4. Spirited Away (2002). Hayao Miyazaki is called the “Japanese Disney,” but that isn’t a fair title, because he’s more daring and odd than Disney would have been allowed to be. His worlds don’t bother to explain themselves to us. We have to just follow along, trusting that he will lead us somewhere worthwhile and awe-inspiring. It sometimes doesn’t work (Howl’s Moving Castle), but when it does, as in this picture, the images are singed into your mind forever. I’ve always been partial to the little black dust bunnies with eyes (or whatever the hell they are) that show up in all his movies; I’ve read somewhere that they are supposed to represent the director, though I am not sure how. No matter. This film to me is his best, a road trip filled with images strange, fascinating and horrifying, yet somehow comforting in the end.
5. The Incredibles (2004). I didn’t want to leave Pixar off this list, because they’ve batted 1,000 with me.The Incredibles has gorgeous candy-colored animation, the last good performance by Samuel L. Jackson, and a script that skewers the superhero genre while being clever enough to include an Edith Head homage. It honors being different and special without the ghoulishness and self-pity of Tim Burton. This is my favorite Pixar movie, and it takes me full circle back to #1 on this list. I saw The Incredibles at an old, single-screen movie house in Bethlehem, PA, where they had a curtain across the screen and the popcorn was fresh-popped (and at 1975 prices). Watching the movie, I felt like that kid at the Disney Summer Hit Parade. That it generated such nostalgia disproves the argument that computer animation can’t be as effective as hand-drawn work. A great story elevates any type of movie, animated or otherwise.