World Animation for the Season – 12 Days of Anime(tion)

Good day, and welcome back to Cartoon Milk. Last time we shared our thoughts on some cartoons the golden age of american animation, and today we are looking at 5 arbitrarily chosen cartoons from outside America. Animation is created all over the world by all sorts of creatives, and people from different places often have their own unique take on the artform. We see the traditions and feelings from all over the world in these cartoons, so more than ever we strongly recommend you to watch these animated films. We hope that among these selections, you will find a new favorite!

Julfilmen (1984)

Nobaddy: A swedish music video from the 80s, it’s a satirical look at swedish christmas with a strong underground punk vibe. Lots of interesting perspective and background animation, the background animation often used to make busy, fast visuals that keeps up well with the music, and of course replicates the rushed feeling of the holiday season. The santas and his elves are drawn grotesquely and aggressive, while a cute pig (ham is the christmas meal of choice in Sweden) appears through the film as a victim of the violent, capitalist holiday. The limited color palette reminds me of grocery store ads printed on cheap newsprint, I imagine this effect was intended. Other swedish traditions which are satirized include the watching of Donald Duck cartoons and being drunk.

AnimeGolem: Lennart Gustafsson has one message and he says it loud and clear, Christmas is bullshit.

Men collide in gnashing hordes, hands rip apart packages with an intensity only beaten by hands grabbing money, and santa rips off his face revealing he is long dead. A body lying in the street is trampled, cooked, and made into a product to be consumed for the christmas feast and tossed aside Even christmas itself is buried and ghosts dance on its grave.

On technical terms the film is filled with challenging perspective shots and a number of long takes. The character acting is largely only functional but the speed the scenes move at nothing more is really called for. I particularly liked the take of Alf drinking himself silly.

ibcf: Christmas wasn’t a particularly big deal in my household growing up, in fact we failed to celebrate Christmas to a probably uncommon degree. Even so, Julfilmen’s denouncement of Christmas is so visceral that it turns my feelings towards the holiday from mild annoyance to rage. Why do we put up with this hypocritical nonsense every year? This year I intend to steal all my neighbors’ presents and burn down their Christmas trees.

That is to say, this music video is excellent. Some of the references to Swedish Christmas traditions weren’t instantly recognizable to me (like ham being the symbolic Christmas meal) but the overall gist and tone are clear and powerfully expressed. The skeletal Santas, butchered pigs, and singing gingerbread men are drawn with an appealing cartooniness and flow and morph into each other with impressive perspective animation that keeps with the furious tempo of the song. Whether or not you even have any idea what’s going on, it’s a constantly eye-catching and engrossing experience

Christmas Cracker (1963)

Picture of Christmas Cracker (1963)

Nobaddy: The traditional Christmas Cracker is a sort of container which can be snapped open, and contains some gifts inside, usually a small toy, a paper hat and a joke. In the 60s, the National Film Board of Canada released an animated christmas cracker, but instead of containing cheap paper hats, we get animated skits from the finest animators associated with the film board.

The first two segments are short, and together take up ⅓ of the running time. The segments are introduced by a jester, the first one being a cutout animation of 2 kids dancing to jingle bells.The kids, whose shape even resemble bells, dance bouncifully to the tune. The bouncy nature of the animation gives the character a strong physical feel. It’s a lovely segment, where while not much goes on, the craftsmanship of the stop motion animation is so strong it doesn’t look animated at all. This is not meant as an insult to the film, but the way the kids bounce around just seem to be in real time. I don’t think I’ve seen stop motion try to bring characters to life in this way before, but it really does work. The second segment features toys. Aggressive toys. We see cars zooming around, a crocodile which eats, and robots which try and stop them. It’s a fast paced, clever and entertaining segment, but there really isn’t much to say.

The last segment, which takes up most of the film, features a man who is decorating his christmas tree. Unhappy with the star on his tree, he attempts to go to space to get the perfect star. Featuring a mixed animation style with cutouts and cel animation. The man, whose design consists just of a couple of lines, strives for perfection as he tries to put a real star from the heavens on his christmas tree. The star, however, does not want to be on the christmas tree and flies back to the sky, leaving the man with a normal paper star. It shows us that while one might have tools, passion and time to strive for perfection, we must consider the people around us. We can’t force someone to take part in a project they do not want to, and people must be treated with respect.

AnimeGolem: I adore the funny clown man that opens the film. The painted on soundtrack is also completely fitting. 

I always love animation that challenges you think about what is actually needed to convey character. The two dancing kids focused in the first segment are as simple as cutout animation can be but the charming simple movement meshes perfectly with the music. The peck on the cheek and bashful pull back is wonderfully charming.

The storyboard for the second film is very tight and cuts quickly. The music is a constant escalation and builds tension. I’m not really sure what happens other than toys in revolt but it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The final segment is pretty clearly the most ambitious with nice line designs. In some moments when characters tilt their heads the designs have a surprising volume. The idea of trying to steal a star that exists for all people from the sky to put it on top of a disposable christmas tree probably has an even harsher valence now than it did back in 1963.

ibcf: A perfect Christmas package—3 cartoons in one! A sprightly live-action jester inhabits the spaces between the shorts, complemented by animated sparks, blips, and lettering. The interplay between the live-action and animation in these segments, which I assume are Norman McLaren’s handiwork, is delightfully creative and could probably sustain a film by itself.

In the first cartoon, two cutout children cavort and frolic to “Jingle Bells” amid a night of falling snow. Their adorable, minimalist designs wouldn’t look out of place in an early Minna no Uta.

In cartoon #2, a collection of beautifully crafted toys come to life by way of stop-motion. They race, rattle, play jump rope, and an ever-chomping crocodile on wheels causes trouble for everyone. Running at a minute and 20 seconds, it’s the most economic cartoon of the Looney Tunes-patented “stuff comes to life” genre I’ve seen.

The final cartoon is traditionally animated, and takes up the bulk of the anthology in terms of running time. A man requires a topper for his Christmas tree and sets his sights on a twinkling star in space. There’s charm in the style and atmosphere; the man is essentially a stick figure but is sympathetic in his quixotic quest, and the limited use of music and sound effects is creative. However, I feel like the pacing drags a bit at times. It’s a fun concept but I’m not sure I find it as clever as it seems to think it is, given how long some shots linger on mundane bits of animation.

Two Little Frosts (1954)

Picture from Two Little Frosts

Nobaddy: A Jiri Trnka film, one that hand drawn animation, cutouts and puppets. It’s about ghastly spirits of the winter, trying to make people cold. The ghosts move in an interesting, distorted way, but with a lot of character.The ghosts plan to freeze some travelers, yet constantly fail. Their banal quest, and goofy nature lead to some fun gags, the ghosts are very fun characters to watch in action, and contrast nicely with the humans who are presented in the usual “Trnka” style, which of course means they’re animated with great skill, and express themselves well.

The mix of techniques are quite wonderful. The ghosts move very fluidly and ghostly on a mix of cutouts and hand drawn animation, while the human characters are stop motion and are too animated with great skill. The sets are beautiful and wintery. I’ve sadly not familiarized myself with Trnka and his collaborators yet, so I do not have a lot to say about technical aspects, or even the films place in his filmography, but I do know that this is a good film.

AnimeGolem: The double exposures for the snowmen immediately bring Hubley’s work to mind. As in all of Trnka’s work the camera is used extremely well and despite combing stop motion, 2D animation and cutout techniques nothing ever seems out of place.  Trnka is no doubt one of the great designers of all time. Generally he does not resort to having a ton of different faces the way a modern film like Kubo might do but instead has a few set expressions that set the tone for the character and allow the motion to tell the rest of the story.  

ibcf: These ghosts will give you the chills! A couple of 2D animated frost spirits attempt to bring cold discomfort to travelers, with varying degrees of success. The most immediately striking thing here is the set designs, which are absolutely gorgeous and convincing snowy landscapes. The pine trees and barren branches are covered with the correct amounts of snow, and the snow on the ground rolls into mounds and banks covered with trails and footprints. Great attention to detail.

The ghosts are an entertaining pair with expressive designs and a limitless freedom of movement. Unfortunately their dialogue is lost in (un)translation, but the majority of the film consists of their pantomime antics. The stop motion humans aren’t as expressive but their designs are still fun and they move more or less realistically, which is what is called for. I like the concept of these cartoony sprites trying to interfere with the tangible real world—it’s a perfect way to blend 2D and stop motion while making it feel completely natural.

Christmas is Coming (1951)

Picture from Christmas is Coming

Nobaddy: A 1 minute short, so while there is not much to say, but there are certainly things to say. Lotte Reiniger is of course undoubtedly a master of animation, which is noticeable even in a 1 minute ad. When your characters are silhouettes, shapes and motion quickly become important. The animation really is like you’re watching the silhouettes of living people, and is rich in character. I love when Father Christmas is pushing the tobacco down his pipe, swinging his feet around (with his slipper loosely moving around on his feet!), giving the rocking chair a good rock while saying he isn’t going to bother with christmas. One does wonder why Santa is hanging out with angels in heaven however.

AnimeGolem:This is a promotional film for the British General Post Office. It’s one of the odd facts of history that around this era the GPO Film Unit was one of the most creative studios in the world. Beyond commissioning folks like Lotte Reiniger they funded nearly the entire career of Len Lye. It’s hard to imagine we ever see a post office be a world leader in artistic animation again.

The film itself while short shows Reiniger flexing full mastery of her craft. Under the disney ideal of animation it should probably be impossible for completely faceless silhouettes to have real pathos but Reiniger pulls it off with ease. It all comes down to the little details in the motion and timing. A cherub reaches up to its face not in a smooth gesture but in a series of halting movements showing uncertainty. Father Christmas turns his head sharply, tamps down his pipe, and kicks out his feet. There is no question of just how little he wants to leave that chair. The details in the cut outs themselves are also impressive, the fringing of the reindeer fur, the 100’s of stars that make up St. Peter’s gate. It all seems like a real tedious process. 

ibcf: They say self-imposed restrictions can open up other forms of creativity, and that is certainly true of Lotte Reiniger’s films, which boil shape, motion, and clear posing down to their essence. It turns out literal cardboard cutout animation can be good and interesting if there is enough attention is paid to these details. With little more than a nod of the head, a bend of the arm, and sometimes a kick of the leg, Reiniger somehow sells a cupid’s anguish, a reassuring Saint Peter, and a disgruntled Santa Claus. The ornate character designs help, but the sheer precision put into the poses and movement give the silhouettes a surprising vitality.

Insect’s Christmas (1913)

Nobaddy: Christmas is here, and we are introduced to Father Christmas, who is actually a christmas decoration. He decides to host a party for the insects. An example of Ladislas Starevichs pioneering work, animation in his shorts are used to tell a story rather than being amusing for its own sake. Individual characters are brought to life. In this short, his insect characters are enjoying christmas, having been invited to a party by Father Christmas. My favorite scene is the one where the insects are sliding down a hill, and skating on the ice. An early example of character animation being used for comedy, the insects are clumsy at both sliding and skating. In 1913, animation had barely begun as an art form, and the amount of people who “got it” could probably be counted on one or two hands. Ladislas Starevichs is one of these people, and by the time of “The Insects Christmas” he might just have been the man who understood animation the best.

I think I will take the time to compare Starevichs work with Winsor McCay. I think to understand why Starevichs is such a pioneer of the artform, it would be helpful to compare his approach to animation to not just another master working around the same time, but also to see where their approaches differ. While Winsor McCays animation seems to hint at the great future in store for animation, featuring strong characters and drawings, they were often little more like tech demos of animations potential. While it would take decades for the draftsmanship featured in “Little Nemo” to be replicated, and Gertie set the stage for the golden age of american animation with It’s personality animation, both cartoons are presented as tricks. Little Nemo is set up as “watch the marvelous funny cartooning man make the drawings move!” and then shows the characters move around a bit. Even Gertie relies on this sort of presentation, having McCay be his “master”, shouting commands from a stage. These cartoons were made to impress by the fact the drawings are moving, and while McCay was the best at making the drawings move, Starevichs was bringing his insects to life. These are not tech demos or gimmicks. Starevichs is showing us a world where the insects are alive, following their own destiny. Starevichs was not hinting at how good animation could be, he was showing how good animation is.

AnimeGolem: For my money Ladislas Starevich is one of the early and underrecognized geniuses of animation.

All puppet films have to deal with the unliving nature of puppets as compared to 2D animation. Some animators like George Pal attempt to fight this off by replicating the tools of 2D animation by making multiple puppets that can squash and stretch and bug out eyes like the wildest looney tunes takes. Other like Jiri Trnka accepted and foregrounded the lifelessness of the puppets and pulled emotional appeal out of staging and careful motion.

Starevich doesn’t really fall into either of these extremes but somehow his puppets feel completely full of life. When Father Christmas walks into the empty fields the weight he puts on his cane, you see the wind whips through his coat. It’s not cartoonish in the slightest but a kind of early realism. We never move into close up and this choice probably does a lot to preserve the illusion. The standout puppets of course are the titular insects.

Famously when his films first premiered there were actual headlines run stating he had trained living bugs to perform in his films, this was of course not the case. 

ibcf: Incredible. I thought I was watching real people and bugs walking around, and not just because the bugs were actual formerly living ones. There’s a truly surreal quality to Starevich’s work; the thought and care put into the motion is such that these stop motion characters are amazingly convincing, even as the insects dance and do somersaults. Even modern CG/live-action combination stuff doesn’t have quite the same effect, perhaps because the realism is heightened and exaggerated here? Or the movement is just better observed? In any case it’s pure magic, and it shows how much the skill of an animator can transcend time and technology.

During the non-festive times of the year we will also be sharing our quick impressions of cartoons in the Cartoon Notes section of the website as well. 

See you tomorrow as the 12 Days of Anime(tion) continues!

-Cartoon Milk Editors

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