by Bob Clark
Of all the early pioneers of animation in Hollywood, perhaps none have gone so unduly forgotten as Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. The crucial part they played in the genesis in many of the first great cartoon characters has been largely overlooked nowadays. Few remember the work they did in the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” shorts alongside Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney, and how their designs paved the way for the likes of Mickey Mouse. A few more may remember the role they played in the foundation of Warner Bros.’ landmark animation studios, which would go on to spawn characters including Porky Pig, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. But when modern-day critics recall their collaborations on with the Looney Tune and Merrie Melodies series, it is rarely with the same appreciation that later talents like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones would be granted, men who elevated the art of animation to comedic heights that can stand alongside the works of Mark Twain as first-rate works of American satire.
Today, Harman & Ising are chiefly remembered, if at all, for creating one of the most controversial cartoon series to ever reach American screens—The Talk-Ink Kid himself, Bosko. Created in 1929 as a test piece of talkie-animation, Bosko became the first Looney Tune, starring in more than two-dozen shorts over the years. His bold black-and-white design represented the next step up from Iwerk and Disney’s Oswald and Mickey, and would go on to influence many of the characters that would later be created at Warner Bros. But few outside of animation scholars remember Bosko, either, and for good reason. In the past 20 years, Warner Bros. has gone to considerable lengths to cover up some of the more politically-incorrect aspects of once popular cartoons of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Those shorts played before all sorts of feature presentations, and were usually intended for audiences largely composed of adults, and as such offered a blend of humor that was at once childishly slapstick, yet filled with suggestive situations, risqué imagery and provocative double-entendres.
Many animated short-segments of the day pushed boundaries for laughs and wolf-whistles—Popeye the Sailor could occasionally be heart swearing underneath his breath, Betty Boop constantly found herself in all manner of salacious undress and compromising positions, and popular characters like Bugs and Daffy often cracked jokes that were likely to fly over the heads of children who laughed without ever knowing exactly why, hitting their parents right in the funny-bone. When these shorts arrived on television, they often found themselves recut, watered down and censored to cover up a variety of modern-day cultural offenses, from explosive violence to sexual suggestiveness. The most problematic item to consistently pop-up in the old cartoons, however, was race. Stereotyped imagery of all manners of ethnic groups, especially African-Americans, was common in animated shorts of the days prior to, and sometimes during World War II, particularly in the form of blackface, with characters suddenly breaking out in corked make-up for outbursts of shuck-and-jive song-and-dance.
In the age of Al Jolsen’s minstrel act in The Jazz Singer, such culturally insensitive comedy was seen as fair-game, and in many portions of the country, nothing less than good-old fashioned American fun, but when the time came to broadcast such shorts on cable-channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, those taboos became absolutely unacceptable. But while brief, ugly musical interludes at the cottontail end of a Bugs Bunny cartoon could be excised rather easily, more or less, Harman & Ising’s work presented a bigger challenge, because their cartoons not only featured blackface as an occasional feature—their main character was a representation of it, himself. With an ink-black body and a powder-white face, Bosko was one of many cartoon figures to be heavily influenced by minstrel-shows. Yet while Mickey Mouse and his forebears could disguise their source and distance themselves over the years as anthropomorphized animals, Bosko was a human being, and couldn’t survive such transitions so easily.
When Harman & Ising later moved to MGM, they took their trademark character with them, having largely been supplanted by newer hits like Porky Pig and Gabby Goat by then, and even attempted to revive Bosko in newer Technicolor shorts that presented the character as a somewhat more realistic, but still painfully stereotyped young African American boy—black, but no longer in black-face. The character later enjoyed a guest-star appearance on the Steven Spielberg-produced early 90’s series Tiny Toon Adventures, where he was retroactively portrayed as a dog-like character to offset the potentially offensive material (prefiguring the 30’s-inspired Animaniacs characters Yacko, Wacko and Dot). The original shorts, and most of the Warner Bros. material Harman & Ising produced has largely gone unseen for decades, their only lasting memory being of winning an Oscar for 1940’s The Milky Way, beating out Bugs Bunny’s debut cartoon A Wild Hare, directed by Tex Avery (a dubious honor, at best). But a year prior to that win, they were nominated for another one of their MGM shorts, which among animation enthusiasts has largely gone down as their crowning masterpiece—the anti-war animal fable Peace On Earth.
Produced in the midst of armed conflict in Europe, the ten-minute cartoon deceptively begins as a standard Christmas short with cutely anthropomorphized squirrels singing carols in their own little city. It’s when a couple of young critters ask their grandpa what he means when he says “good will to men” that the piece takes a darker turn, as the grandfather explains what men are, or rather, were. What follows is a dark, harrowing depiction of the last war on Earth, reminiscent of first half of William Cameron Menzie’s film of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come, with rotoscoped-soldiers dressed in WWI-era gasmasks and helmets fighting to the last man in the blood and mud of bombed-out cities and barbed-wire trenches, until all human life is snuffed out, forever. As the smoke clears, however, all the animals of the forest come out to explore the newly emptied world the human race has left behind, coming together in the ruins of a church where a wise old owl reads from “a mighty good book of rules”. Inspired, the animals band together and rebuild a new, loving society from the wastes of war, and as they do so, we see how their entire city is built upon the detritus of war—helmets made into houses, bayonets made into lamp-posts. Peace on earth indeed exists, at long last, with only world-wide human extinction as its price.
It’s a surprisingly bleak cartoon, especially coming from a studio like MGM, whose animated shorts usually came attached to family-friendly musicals. One might’ve expected that sort of fare back at the more progressive Warner Bros., where socially-conscious message-driven pictures featuring gangsters, prostitutes and chain-gang fugitives reigned high, and whose cartoons usually packed more of the adult-punch we remember in the days of animation before the end of World War II. But the intensely moralistic, and implicitly Christian moralistic drive of Harman & Ising’s daring little featurette makes it a somewhat easier fit amidst the mainstream entertainment of the roaring lion, just as Fritz Lang’s provocative, Warner Bros-style lynch-riot movie Fury makes more sense at the studio once one takes into account the director’s strict, Catholic streak of personal responsibility and guilty conscience. Peace On Earth represented the creative team at their best, combining sly visual witticisms, surprising twists and relatively graphic and realistic depictions of violence, making it a bold effort for a studio whose audiences were more likely than others to be composed of kids, where it becomes as dark an entry in the canon of children’s cinema as Bambi. As such, it should come as no surprise that it would later find itself remade, and by another important pair from the history of animation—William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
Famous for creating the perennial-favorite Tom & Jerry shorts (another example of cartoons with slight, but noticeable stereotypes that had to be removed later on to be palatable for modern audiences—here in the form of a thick-dialect speaking “Mammy” housekeeper always seen, like most animated humans, from the waist down) and for bringing animation to television in the 60’s with both Saturday morning shows starring characters like Huckleberry Hound and primetime series like The Jetsons. While their animation studios would go on to spawn dozens of recognizable and beloved original characters worldwide, at the beginning they often had a tendency to imitate pop-cultural artifacts a little too closely for comfort. Sometimes all it amounted to was a mere namesake—the Yankees shorthand of smarter than average Yogi Bear. At times, personalities and situations could be noticeably derivative—Top Cat’s alleycat antics of gambling and con-games seemingly patterned, along with voices, after Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko. Occasionally, their work verged on flat-out plagiarism—when Jackie Gleason went after The Flintstones as an all-out rip-off of The Honeymooners in cave-man drag, he wasn’t far off (though lately, it seems that nearly all domestic sit-coms on television ought to be sending his estate a hefty royalty).
Therefore, it makes sense to see how much of Harman & Ising’s work from Peace On Earth winds up recycled wholesale in Hanna & Barbera’s Good Will To Men. Produced in 1955, its most obvious change is the switch from the small 1.33:1 aspect-ratio of 1939 to the wide, 2.35:1 of the 1950’s. To their credit, the pair make great use of the CinemaScope canvas, filling the screen with all sorts of new sights—some refined, like animal choirs and parishioners in a bombed-out, but not abandoned church, and others terrifying, with man’s inhumanity to man portrayed with a whole assorted arsenal of new weapons for the post-war age, including flame-throwers, bazookas, and most purposefully, the bomb. Besides that, alterations are either slight enough to avoid notice at a first glance, or non-existent—much of the original’s dialogue and imagery is copied word-for-word and shot-for-shot in the update, making it all the more unfortunate to note how Harman & Ising went uncredited in this new version. Yet it’s those subtle changes that must be paid attention to, as they alter the entire course of the picture. The animals themselves change from bushy-tailed squirrels to Tom & Jerry-esque mice—perhaps an attempt by Hanna & Barbera to put their own stamp on a hand-me-down story. Furthermore, the cartoon is fueled by an altogether more pronounced religious content, which magnifies the subtext of the original such to the degree that it looks positively secular by comparison.
Instead of street carolers, we have a mouse-congregation’s choir in altar-boy outfits, lectured by an old music-teacher in priestly robes, practicing a song to “the Lord, Our King” before a mass on Christmas Eve. When the wise old owl looks over a book of wisdom left over in a church’s ruins, it is explicitly identified as a Holy Bible, an aspect which remained implicit in the original. There’s even a line observing that human beings should’ve “practiced what they preached”, and the whole enterprise smacks of the kind of soapy, dishwater Christianity present in American society after the end of World War II. Hanna & Barbera’s post-war religious outlook is far more intensified, however, as nearly every element of the cartoon which mentions spiritual morality is retooled to identify the source of that ethical code as Christian. Harman & Ising kept their sermonizing to a minimum, and made all references to religion as non-denominational as possible. Besides the celebration of Christmas, the most recognizably Christian artifact of the entire short is the stained-glass window of the church-ruins, yet even that could’ve conceivably been found in a non-orthodox synagogue of the 1930’s. The religion they appealed to was less a specific creed than an all-encompassing belief in the inherent goodness of man, and the value of preserving life—the Christmas spirit, if you will.
Within a few year’s time, of course, the two of them would join the war effort, as Hugh Harman directed Army training films, while Rudolf Ising became an enlisted man, himself. Their gesture of animated good-will when men and women of all faiths watched as the Nazi menace walked the Earth, and as such was designed to remain as open to as many audiences as possible. Hanna & Barbera’s cartoon, however, arrived on screens in the days of the Iron Curtain and McCarthyism, giving their steadfast Christian perspective a political slant against the godless ways of Communism. Furthermore, it has an earnest, religious fear all-too understandable during the Cold War—with mankind closer than ever to nuclear weapons, the prospect of meeting your maker carried much more weight than it did before. The pair spell out the chilling realization of mutually-assured destruction with an element of awful, poetic symmetry that children and adults could equally understand, and have nightmares over. Their depiction of man’s extinction, a possibility which looked ever more inevitable as the U.S. and Soviet Union kept staring down one another, doesn’t arrive with the same somber, bloodstained hope as Lumet’s Fail-Safe or the gallows-humor comfort of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—instead, Hanna & Barbera’s vision offers nothing but a harrowing glimpse of a nuclear winter where the only miracle is that any life at all is left over to pick up where we left behind and follow the better angels of our nature. They may have stolen their story from Harman & Ising, but the conclusion they reach is their own—when doom is certain, the only thing left to do is pray.
Both shorts have a timely essence—Peace On Earth plainly speaks to an audience anxiously following headlines of Fascist powers in Europe, while Good Will to Men addresses congregations of moviegoers forever kept in the suspense of waiting for Khrushchev’s other shoe to drop. Yet at the same time, there’s a timeless quality they both share, thanks to their reliance upon occasionally anachronistic depictions of warfare—all those muddy trenches, Don Quixote-esque helmets, and masks with shining eyes and Elephantine trunks designed for an age of mustard-gas instead of fire-bombs and fall-out shelters. They’re successful in transforming human beings from noble creatures into monsters—a psychological side-effect of wartime apparel that George Lucas would later capitalize upon in the masks for his bounty-hunters, Stormtroopers and the breathing-assisted Darth Vader. Thanks to Harman & Ising’s canny treatment of WWI-era battlefield technology, mankind is turned into just as much a nightmarish relic of the past as in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, as the last man on Earth realizes that an endangered species will almost certainly be a feared one. But there’s also a naïve blindside that such reliance upon anachronism provides, as it paints the stern warning of mankind’s future annihilation in the outdated terms of the past. What ought to be a nightmare vision of tomorrow looks more and more like the foolish fears of yesterday, readier to be outgrown today, rather than learned from.
This is but one of the many problems which plagues Shane Acker’s 2009 release 9, a piece of animation that follows squarely in the footsteps of Harman & Ising and Hanna & Barbera, while at the same time conjuring up a post-Apocalyptic vision as original and inventive as anything to grace the screen in the past several years. Expanded from his own short of the same name (nominated, like Peace On Earth and Good Will to Men, for an Academy Award in animated short-subjects), Acker’s feature debut tells the story of a group of ragtag “stitchpunk” robots, created by a Scientist who hopes for them to carry on mankind’s legacy after the human race has fallen to the diabolical machines he created for a despotic, fascist regime. With an ensemble cast of voice-actors including the likes of Elijah Wood, Martin Landau, Christopher Plumber, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover and Jennifer Connelly, its vision of a world in which human beings have been destroyed is powerful and uncompromising. As the numbered stitchpunks argue over whether or not to explore the bombed-out world they’ve inherited, populated only by themselves and the last of the Scientist’s murderous machines, which want to suck their souls dry, we see countless little indicators of the loss of life present in the entire, grim-lit world that never push too far into graphic territory. It’s a world where dead bodies are present, but never dwelled upon, allowing children to learn the effects of war without being bombarded by them. At its quietest moments, 9 is a rare triumph of impossible conditions—a ruinous portrait of a traumatized world that never quite traumatizes its target audience.
Of course, it’s hard to traumatize anyone when hardly anybody in the movie stands still long enough to think very hard about the bleak prospects of their dangerous world. Much like Acker’s original short, the film consists largely of one thrilling chase and action-packed set-piece after another, with only occasional pit-stops for the stitchpunks to argue, deposit expository, or in very rare instances, simply share a few quiet moments to simply take in the scenery. As such, it isn’t long before a sense of battle-fatigue sets in, and no matter how inventively conceived or staged the action is, the movie winds up feeling tedious and long at only 79 minutes, including credits. Much of the blame can be laid at the script by Pamela Pettler, who also contributed to the script of co-producer Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which expands the director’s original story without articulating it in the same, crisp visual language that was to be found in the Oscar-nominated short. There’s none of the dynamism that Andrew Stanton displayed in the celebrated Pixar production Wall-E, whose first third relied largely upon the pacing and patience of silent-era filmmaking before introducing us to any characters who spoke in more than robotic monosyllables.
Here, characters talk endlessly whenever they aren’t being chased by some mechanical beast, yet thanks to the lightning-fast speed at which the story moves, we’re never given more than a moment’s notice to learn anything about the mysterious arcana they’re all talking about, turning much of the tale’s storied backstory into nothing more than half-baked obscurities. The story becomes particularly belabored when it introduces the occult-theme of a magical talisman which allows the Scientist to give up his soul to his stitchpunks, and gives the evil machines the ability to steal those pieces of soul away, leaving his robotic rag-doll creations nothing but empty, lifeless husks. This theme was present in the original short, as well, yet Acker was able to present it with all the necessary information and drive in less than ten minutes—what was clear and self-evident without any explanation in short-form becomes obtuse and incoherent in the declamatory exposition of the feature. It does the double-disservice of not only draining much of the emotional weight from those moments when the sewn-together characters’ spirits are gobbled up by the beasts, but also demystifying the supernatural qualities of the story, which winds up heightening sabotaging a great deal of the conclusion.
When the protagonist of the short sets free the souls of his fellow creations at their makeshift gravesites, it’s a deserved bit of redemption. Instead of the religious propaganda of the MGM shorts, Acker’s cartoon presents only the vaguest, most universal idea of eternal souls, with the friendly ghosts and burning pyres good-naturedly borrowed from Return of the Jedi. In the feature, however, after all the supernatural elements are plainly explained, the same sequence loses much of its power, and feels nothing more than a piece of naïve, spiritual wish-fulfillment. Other moments throughout the film ring hollow as well, like a brief post-battle respite that includes Judy Garland’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow played by a dusty gramophone—it clearly aims for a combination of playful innocence and soulful irony, but arriving too quickly and sandwiched tightly between suffocating action-beats, it feels decidedly unearned and comes off only as an exercise in painful sentimentality. It’s sad to see what worked so effectively as a short-subject fail to capture the same magic when expanded to feature form. It is very much the opposite effect from what George Lucas did in THX 1138—weaving avant-garde gold out of low-fi sci-fi, blossoming a thirty-minute chase-sequence into an hour-and-a-half epic.
Acker’s imagination and visual command is daring and evocative, but wears out its welcome all too quickly and wastes most of the creative capital it earns from its first few minutes. That’s unfortunate, because beneath the faults throughout, 9 contains some of the most original and interesting animation put to the screen in years. In an age where critics cynically write off any work of feature-length CGI that isn’t produced by Pixar or DreamWorks studios, it represents a quality effort of technical craft and genuine artistry that can not only stand up to the works of its peers, but also to works done in more classical practices like hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. No matter how truncated its pace forces it to be, the film still finds moments to live and breath with the same vitality of animators like Henry Selick and the Brothers Quay, the strength of its imagery and atmosphere often making up for the deficiencies of its script. With its tale of heroic robots as the last leftovers of humanity striving against infernal machines, it works as a childlike articulation of perennial sci-fi man-vs-machine motif—a combination that borrows from Cameron’s Terminator films, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy and, perhaps most of all, the last reels of Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, with the next stage in Mecha evolution all too often mistaken for another close encounter with the third kind.
Furthermore, its storyline of antique, outdated visualizations of wartime apocalypse arrives in theaters at exactly the right time for such timelessly anachronistic fables to be appreciated. After the modern-day revisionism of alternate-history movies like Watchmen, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds, adult audiences are thoroughly primed to appreciate a post-apocalyptic vision of the future from the era of World War II. With his vision of a world that never made it past the technology of the late 30’s before it was brought to a finish, Acker accomplishes what Kevin Conroy could not with his gee-whiz look at yesterday’s future in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, bringing to life our nightmares of the past, instead of merely our fondest flights of fancy. No matter how flawed, 9 represents a worthy first work from a promising new voice that can stand proudly among the caroling pairs of old. It’s not the best animated movie of the past ten years, but perhaps the one most worth revisiting, a film that can remind audiences young and old of the value of life and the dangers of war, all by conjuring up a very cinematic kind of déjà vu—nostalgia for the end of the world.
Note: This piece was published 2009 over at Ari’s The Aspect Ratio, and is reposted here with his permission.