Category Archives: crap

Toby the Pup: Lost Cartoons Still Lost

tobybluWhile a release of any pre-code sound animation should be worth celebrating, Toby the Pup from Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images should be approached with caution.

The basic background: these are cartoons made in 1930-31 by the three-way partnership of animators Dick Huemer, Sid Marcus (whom Huemer credited with creating Toby, despite what this release implies), and Art Davis for producer Charles Mintz and distributed by RKO. The series was a failure and ended after twelve cartoons, all of which are considered “lost.”

Four of them resurfaced in modern times by way of 35mm French release prints from Lobster Films and Serge Bromberg (not “Bomberg” as the release’s credits have it), and that’s mostly what’s included here; Circus Time is from UCLA Film & Television Archive (not “UCLA & Television Archives”, as seen, again, in the credits). Other Toby cartoons have been found, though I’m not at liberty to say how many (mainly because I’m not sure myself).

It should be telling that three errors seen on the Inkwell release needed to be corrected right off the bat, but even historical inaccuracies and embarrassing typos can be forgiven if the films’ presentation is satisfactory. Such is not the case, by a long shot.

As someone who does film restoration on a daily basis, I sympathize with those who have to work with a meager budget on material that has suffered to this degree. Bearing in mind the Toby cartoons’ history, raw transfers would’ve been just fine. Sadly, as is typical of an Inkwell Images release, Pointer seeks to “improve” the cartoons to the best of his technical abilities, which seem as ancient as the cartoons. Poor title recreations with generic fonts and fake irises pepper the set. Whoever mastered the Blu-Ray (BD-R, not a replicated disc) has no idea how to do so, since the 50 minutes of material is far more compressed than it needs to be, with a botched frame rate to boot (6o fps as opposed to the correct 24fps). The accompanying DVD-R actually looks far better.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release. BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

TOP: The Milkman as seen on the Inkwell Images release.
BOTTOM: As seen on Cartoon Roots.

What’s left of the material that is. Another Inkwell trademark is unnecessary censorship, pointed out in the feature-length audio commentary by Mark Kausler. He kindly alludes that cuts in Circus Time may be some long-dead besotted censor’s work, when in fact these were edits made specifically for this release. Compare the version of The Milkman seen here to the one on Tom Stathes’ Cartoon Roots. It’s over a minute shorter! True, the Stathes release reinstates some previously lost footage (taken from a 16mm print), but the Inkwell release is even missing more than that. The random censorship is a long-standing problem that Pointer has never adequately explained, if an explanation is even possible.

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Dig that full 1080p resolution!

Unsurprisingly, the sole saving grace of this collection is that 30-minute audio commentary by Mark. It captures any afternoon spent with this animation treasure for those not lucky enough to experience one personally: tons of fascinating insight, little-known history, and laughter. It’s just a shame he had his time wasted.

While the Toby cartoons themselves are as hit-and-miss as the Scrappy cartoons the Huemer-Marcus-Davis did for Columbia, there’s also a wonderful charm and life to them. Halloween in particular matches anything done by the Fleischers at their off-the-wall pre-code peak. They deserve better than Inkwell Images has provided. Fortunately the films and character are public domain (the “trademark” information is erroneous—you can’t trademark a public domain property, especially when you haven’t created any new content with said character), so someone can do a better job in the future with what survives. Let’s hope.

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Filed under classic animation, crap

Last Days of Coney Island

last-days

My first thought after watching Last Days of Coney Island, the 22-minute film Ralph Bakshi made via funds from Kickstarter (and which I only got to see after practically screaming at their door, despite having backed it), is that it’s an utter embarrassment. But, given what Bakshi’s name has been attached to for the last 40 years, what’s left to be embarrassed about?

The film is the train wreck we all expected, but the train took a messy detour through a couple ditches while derailing. For once the narrative and story aren’t entirely to blame; brothels made up of Coney Island clown hookers, and the woes of their lovers and children… you know the drill with Bakshi. Despite being utterly pointless and stupid, the script is surprisingly solid given the man’s track record. Its failure is all about the actual artless art that moves it.

Remember those kids in animation school that either flunked out or got an extension because their films weren’t finished? Coney Island is exactly that. There is no clean-up. There are no inbetweens. Clips of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassinations are taken from low-resolution YouTube rips. I had to make sure my high-speed Internet connection wasn’t lagging several times.

As a friend aptly put it, “Wow, this is like if a retarded 6th grader saw Malcom and Melvin and tried to make a Powerpoint presentation about it.” If it were a student film, any respectable teacher would’ve handed this back with an essay’s worth of comments on why the student wasn’t passing the course.

Which is a shame, because while the animation in Bakshi’s films was always all over the map, there was still much to admire. How could there not be with the talent he used and abused over the years? As the memoriam in the end credits reminds us, Bakshi worked with some of the best in Hollywood and New York animation. They ranged from those that loved him (Irv Spence, Marty Taras) to those that despised him (Dave Tendlar) to those he repeatedly denigrated (Bob Taylor). After seeing that list of thanks, my other immediate thought was, “Too bad he didn’t have any of those guys working on this.”

Bakshi is a common type in Hollywood: a relatively lousy filmmaker who keeps getting the chance to prove himself, repeatedly getting money and accolades only to offer nothing in return. I’ve noticed no accolades online for this film though (save from the usual sycophants). Despite a decent amount of press, Coney Island has warranted very little discussion in animation circles. Is everyone just in shock over how bad it is?

For the $174,195 he raised, I can name any number of animators who would’ve done a better job. Mark Kausler, who animated key sequences in Heavy Traffic and Coonskin for only a couple hundred dollars each, immediately comes to mind. (EDIT: Mark wrote to tell me he was paid a grand per job.) Michael Sporn, who unsuccessfully tried raising less than ten percent of Bakshi’s goal to make a whole feature, is another.

In a fair world, it’d be the Kauslers and Sporns who’d get a chance or two to make a film without restrictions, and the other kinds of animators would be sitting in a corner praying that someone will remember they were once actually good at something. But Mark is retired, and Michael’s passed on.

One thing in Bakshi’s favor: a reoccurring theme in his work is contempt for how the liars, hypocrites, and conmen of the world get away with everything, while the good guys are stomped out. Pretty autobiographical, however unintended.

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Mark Kausler on ’70s Dizknee

I don’t want to take discussion of late Disney to any insane lengths, but as a follow-up to my review of Steve Hulett’s Mouse in Transition, this highly enjoyable piece from almost 40 years ago warrants a web posting.

Mark Kausler tends to shy away from reviewing animated works, even if he’s always capable of thoughtful commentary based on his decades of industry experience and passionate knowledge of American animation history. I think everyone will agree that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon are not the finest examples of the Disney empire (“lame” is the word that comes immediately to mind). I also think everyone will agree that Mark’s joint review and assessment of the studio in that period for Funnyworld No. 18 (Summer 1978) is entirely mild, fair and astute.

 

Funnyworld18-Kausler01
Funnyworld18-Kausler02

 

Funnyworld18-Kausler03

Funnyworld18-Kausler04

 

(Posted with permission from Misters Kausler and Barrier.)

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Chugging On

A frame from Svën Höek, the cartoon in postproduction at Spumco when the split between Nickelodeon happened in September 1992. Or was it?

A frame from “Svën Höek”, the cartoon in postproduction at Spumco when the split between Nickelodeon happened in September 1992. Or was it?

I guess it’s because I wrote a book trying to clear up misinformation about The Ren & Stimpy Show that further misinformation annoys me. The Huffington Post article published over the summer is of the most common sort: John Kricfalusi is in the news for some reason (this time for animating a backdrop for Miley Cyrus’s concert tour), so give him another soapbox. Easy click-bait, little work.

Lauren Duca, the writer of the article, never responded to my e-mail addressing how troublesome her piece was several months ago, but she has updated it today to incorporate a few quotes from Vanessa Coffey, the Nickelodeon executive who had to fire Kricfalusi in September 1992. Not September 1993, as Duca has it, regardless of her response to me on Twitter: “That’s not the information I have from John K. or Vanessa Coffey.”

I don’t know what John K. is saying these days, but Coffey and I spoke at length in December 2009 about the “nuclear fallout” (her words), and there was no question that it happened in the fall of 1992. (She also said in that phone interview that the plan to set up Games Animation to continue Ren & Stimpy went back to August 1992, probably around the time Nickelodeon saw a finished cut of “Man’s Best Friend,” the infamous ‘banned’ episode with George Liquor.)

As animation history has proved, memory can be fleeting. So why not look at a few primary sources? (Not the dumb Splitsider article Duca linked me to, citing a phony September 1993 date for Kricfalusi’s termination.)

The Hollywood Reporter
September 23, 1992
“Nick ticked by late Stimpys”
Paula Parisi

Nickelodeon is reportedly trying to separate animation whiz John Kricfalusi from his runaway hit “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” which has drawn high ratings and reams of publicity for the cable kids network since its premiere last summer. Kricfalusi’s reported inability to meet deadlines in delivering the new season’s episodes of “Ren & Stimpy” is said to be the primary source of discontent for Nickelodeon, which owns the show the independent animator created and produces through his Hollywood-based firm Spumco.

USA Today
September 24, 1992
Ren & Stimpy run into trouble at Nick”
Donna Gable

The future of Nickelodeon’s cult hit The Ren & Stimpy Show is in doubt after reports that creator John Kricfalusi was ousted for failing to produce new episodes in time.

Business Wire
September 28, 1992
“Nickelodeon and John Kricfalusi reach agreement on production of The Ren & Stimpy Show

Nickelodeon and Spumco’s John Kricfalusi, creator of The Ren & Stimpy Show, have reached an agreement to reorganize production responsibilities for the animated show.

“I felt confined by the rigors of this particular animated series and wanted to pursue projects with more artistic freedom,” said Kricfalusi. “I am thankful to Nickelodeon, especially Vanessa Coffey, for giving me my first break and I hope the show will continue to be a success.”

Those were three of a few dozen press clippings I have related to the Spumco-Nickelodeon split, and I could easily post several more. I spent an enormous amount of time sifting through the paperwork of Spumco, Games, Carbunkle Cartoons and Nickelodeon to figure out the minutiae of the series: when certain people were hired and left, how much a cartoon cost, when a cartoon was in animation, etcetera. You can have your debates on who’s insane and who sold out whom (for my own assessment, read my book), but facts are facts, and The Huffington Post has one wrong.

At times, I wonder if that research was worthwhile, and if correcting Ren & Stimpy misinformation is simply futile. Duca has not yet corrected the date error and seems clueless about the existence of Sick Little Monkeys, which I’m sure warms certain people’s hearts. But since she is actually writing for a widely read website, I feel compelled to keep at it. Any attention is good attention.

UPDATE: December 1, 2014: The article has been corrected with regards to the September 1992 date. No mention of where the correction came from, of course, but so be it.

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Filed under crap, modern animation, Ren & Stimpy