Director / Cinematography / Art Direction Wladyslaw Starewicz; Music Eduard Flament; Cast Toy Dog (himself)
by Stephen Russell-Gebbett
We often apply a double standard when we judge the worth of animated work. If the animation is technically impressive we forgive it its narrative weaknesses. If the story is diverting we ignore the shortcomings of an uninspiring aesthetic. We don’t often make the same allowances for live-action feature films, allowances that are, in some respects, patronising.
It is clear from the beginning of The Mascot, in which live-action sets and backdrops are blended seamlessly with animation, that Wladyslaw Starewicz is a very talented film-maker in any realm. His background was in documentaries and his panoramic understanding of film shines in every frame – in the whiplash fast chases through city traffic to the tender moments of the singular bond between child and toy.
The Mascot begins with a mother (played by the director’s wife) knitting a toy dog for her daughter (Starewicz’s daughter!) who lies ill (and blind) in a nearby bed. Animation is full of breathtaking instances of creation, where the inanimate become animate, gaining a soul and life and any moment we will be treated to something quite breathtaking…. The mother, sad, sheds a tear that falls into the stuffing of the un-stitched dog .That very tear becomes its beating heart. Even in a world where special effects might seem to make the fantastical trite, this miracle of love is heart-stopping.
It appears that the girl is craving an orange and the doleful dog dutifully sets off onto the vicious streets, in the company of a couple more of her toys, to get one for her. The stop motion that allows the toys and everyday objects in The Mascot to venture into the big city is utterly convincing and elating. It is, I believe, unmatched to this day, all of 76 years on. The illusion of life is so astonishing that it reminds me of the child who asks: “Did that man really turn into The Hulk?”
That said, the film so enamoured of its own design’s ingeniousness that the story is, momentarily, left to lie dejected in the corner. The initial concept is enthralling, if nothing out of the ordinary for children brought up on (and by) Pixar’s Toy Story films, and exceptionally well realised. Therefore, when the ingenious treatment of the story stutters The Mascot suffers through the contrast as opposed to any fundamental incompetence. Gothic horror elements that may have influenced recent films like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline are shallower diversions – a choir of skeletons and automata performing danses macabres that spook our dog and endanger his mission.
The unrestrained nature of these scenes beg the question as to why everything is alive. At first it appears that objects with living analogues come alive, such as dolls and toy cats but soon we are led to believe that anything made by human hand contains a spirit, including champagne glasses. The lack of a distinction between the two dulls their specialness.
Nevertheless, even in these parts, there are sparks of wit and intelligence. The devil who wishes to separate the dog from his mistress’s orange (we feel intensely that he is merely a guardian) takes shape out of a puddle of spilt wine and a melancholic doll in a cobweblike dress struts gracefully amongst the articulated chaos. The Mascot still stands out.
In the end the dog clambers back up to his mistress’s window and gives her the orange, but not before greedily munching some of the juicy fruit himself. The girl beams, the mother smiles and the dog is beaten over the head by a toy policeman’s truncheon.