Sunday, January 27, 2008

Balloon Land (1935)

Okay, first post.  I've been an animation fan all my life, but it's only in the last couple years that I've become passionate about it ... at least, for the first time since I was a little kid.  (When I was very little, I wanted to be a cartoon when I grew up.  I remember even when I was 12 or 13 finding this a compelling notion, even though I recognized it was nonsensical.)  I suspect DVD and the internet are what revived my interest, although a number of my other interests have fed into it, from comic strips to linguistics to cognitive science.

What fascinated me about cartoons early on, one of the first things I remember thinking about cartoons, was the rules.  Cartoon physics, though I didn't know that term yet, and I think "physics" is misleading (more on that another time).  You won't fall if you don't look down.  Everything and everyone is a little elastic and rubbery.  You can paint a hole on a cliffside and turn it into a tunnel -- but be careful, there may be a train coming through it.

Cartoon motion is distinct.  Cartoon characters are -- or were, in the classic cartoons I grew up with -- made of more expressionistic stuff than we are, and Tex Avery's approach is only one example of this.

But these are real rules, see.

These aren't the prescriptive rules of grammar class, where you can't end sentences with prepositions or make them too long -- rules that cease to exist when people stop memorizing them.

These are rules that don't have to be taught, rules that just seem to be there -- rules that, like those in nature, seem to have been discovered as much as invented.  I know that's not really the case -- I know a good deal of genius is behind everything that seems easy.  But when I was a kid, in those formative years when you pick up your accent and lifelong associations, cartoons seemed like a kind of magic.

Anyway, I'm not an expert animation historian.  I'm a full-time writer, but that's not my field, though I've incorporated my interest in animation into work when it's appropriate (when writing an American history textbook, for instance).  Because I write, because I've always written, I learn best by writing.

So that's what this blog is, a place for me to think about cartoons by writing about cartoons.  I think it will be primarily review-driven, which means I don't guarantee weekly updates or anything like that -- it all depends on what comes out and when I have a chance to pick it up.  And of course, not everything inspires a review, even if I love it.

My interest is mostly in classic animation, but I'm in my 30s, which means I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s -- and, by extension, grew up with reruns of the 60s -- so I have a deep affection for what I consider the "golden age of television animation," which I guess would be from the 60s until the part of the 80s when toy tie-ins took over.  I'm just old enough that I never watched the Nickelodeon or Disney Channel cartoons that I see younger people get nostalgic over, and hearing ANYthing on the Cartoon Network described as "old school" weirds me out.  I do love early Adult Swim, though -- but again, that's pretty much because of growing up with the Hanna Barbera cartoons that Harvey Birdman, for example, so brilliantly riffs on.  I can't imagine what that show feels like without that resonance, without actually remembering Peter Potamus.

I also want to point to things on Youtube and other places from time to time, so I'll do that now.  

This is the Ub Iwerks cartoon Balloon Land, one of the first non-character cartoons to really WOW me when I was little. It does almost everything I ever wanted a cartoon to do. It evokes this other world, not exactly a fairy tale world but certainly not science fiction (and as a kid, I saw that fictional worlds tended to be one or the other), one that's completely absurd -- something nobody could get away with in print -- a world where everyone and everything is made of balloons (right down to the celebrity caricatures we get at the beginning -- which is a nice little shorthand way to introduce the audience and get them thinking "okay, this is sort of our world, but not really -- they still have Laurel and Hardy, though").

Balloon Land was part of the ComiColor Cartoons series -- the same series as the now-infamous Little Black Sambo, a series mostly of fairy tales and adaptations. Though this is an original story as far as I know, it draws upon fairy tale flavors and imagery. The use of balloons is perfect for building on that rubbery nature of cartoon worlds -- we have an instinctive understanding of how much a balloon can be twisted and pinched, but also of how vulnerable they are to being popped.

Like a lot of early cartoons, what's interesting here is the animation itself, the color palette, the movement -- not so much the characters or the story, beyond those basic premises.