Sunday, April 6, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Feline Edition

Title: Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
Director: Tex Avery
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On Google video and YouTube here.
A tiny white kitten finds herself endlessly harassed by a sadistic bulldog, until a chance alley encounter with Bad Luck Blackie, a black cat who happily accepts commissions to incur bum luck on animal abusers. Simply by trotting past causes some grave misfortune to befall his victim, usually in the form a heavy object that befalls on their head. The dog is subjected to a rather senseless succession of cranial injuries including my personal favorite: he wields a lucky horseshoe to counteract the bad karma only to get conked on the noggin by three horseshoes from heaven… and the horse. When the villain contrives to paint Blackie white, it’s up to the kitten to save the day.

“Bad Luck Blackie” is the undisputed king of things-falling-on-people’s-head comedy, a joke that manages to stay funny despite repetition because of the brisk pace and surprising variation. There is a lot of graphic wit selling the physical comedy, including visual echoes on leitmotifs like stairs and B&W color, but the main driving force behind this being my favorite Tex Avery short is the fun-loving, zany violence (and the clear implication that Blackie is a hobo cat).

Title: The Cat Came Back (1988)
Director: Cordell Barker
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: Available to watch online at the National Film Board here.
This animated retelling of the vintage 1893 song “And the Cat Came Back” describes Mr. Johnson’s failed attempts to get rid of a rather destructive and tenacious cat. He tries abandoning it in the woods and even drowning it in a sack, but upon returning home he always finds the feline hard at work dismantling his property and lacerating his livelihood. The animation style is not particularly attractive, using the stout character design and wavy uncertain lines typical of Richard Condie and Cordell Barker, but the unkempt, dynamic visuals fit the manic music and mini-tragedy arc.

The National Film Board of Canada has helped produce many popular animated and stop-motion shorts including “The Big Snit” and “Every Child.” They also provided a lucrative home for experimental shorts auteur Norman McLaren, whose "Pas de Deus" and “Neighbours” (a personal favorite, dealing with escalating Cold War politics) should have gotten full reviews, but you can at least watch them through the links. “The Cat Came Back” is a good example of some of NFBC's best output, setting a catchy song to a memorable story and aiming for a broad appeal despite moments that might offend the sensitive (humane society alarmists in this case).

Title: Cat Soup (2001)
Director: Tatsuo Sato
Time: 35 minutes
Availability: Available on the self-titled DVD.
“Cat Soup” is a spirit-quest about a young cat named Nyatta who tries to pull back his sister from Death himself. He succeeds only in splitting her soul in twain and must take his zombified sibling on a journey through a phantasmagorical underworld to revive her. His adventures take him to a circus presided over by God, a desert where a liquid elephant marches and a dinner where he’s not on the guest list but the menu. Except for the plushie-potential character design this short defies most anime conventions (and even there the vacuous giant-eyes are more of a mockery than a rehash) and stands out as a creative tour de force that dips into ancient myths and contemporary psychoses with equal imagination.

“Cat Soup” was brought to my attention by “Mad Dog” Mora, and it has since maintained a place in my all-time pantheon of great films (not limited to animation or shorts). Few works ever break the mold so completely and do so while never sacrificing execution just for the sake of novelty. The DVD may cost a pretty penny, but the film itself is worth it and the disc case keeps up the experimental gimmickry with its pink gel-filled cover on which you can push around suspended character cutouts.

1 comment:

Mad Dog said...

I also enjoy Cat Soup and its limited edition liquid art cover. But I now see that my enjoyment of it is eclipsed by yours.

If you liked that, the director's done some other weird stuff. He's directed an unlicensed TV series called Kemonozume which is sort of a Romeo/Juliet thing where a monster hunter falls in love with one of the monsters. He's also one of the directors taking part in the currently unreleased (and looking to stay that way for a while) anthology movie Genius Party.