From the New York Times
Article by Fave Kehr originally published on March 6, 2009
THE yin and yang of American animation, Walt Disney and the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, stood opposed on practically every level. The New York-based Fleischers, best known for their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons, were big city surrealists, their work buzzing with bizarre juxtapositions, erotic energy and ethnic references. Disney, who brought his Midwestern childhood with him to Los Angeles, stayed rooted in rural values, his more naturalistic work yearning for a lost connection with nature: gentle songs of innocence to counter the Fleischers’ jazzy tunes of experience.
The two studios struggled for supremacy through much of the 1930s, until Disney played his trump card: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), a feature-length animation in glowing Technicolor. A phenomenal success, “Snow White” changed the game, forcing the Fleischers to abandon their urban turf and play on Disney’s field. Rushed into production in a new studio built in Miami, the Fleischers’ “Gulliver’s Travels” (1939) made money at the box office but not enough to put the brothers on sound financial footing.
Cost overruns during the production of a second feature, “Mister Bug Goes to Town,” led the Fleischers to sell their studio to their distributor, Paramount Pictures. And when “Mister Bug” flopped — it was released on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — Paramount pulled the plug. The Fleischers were shown the door and their operations absorbed into an in-house cartoon unit.
The brothers, who had stopped speaking to each other, went their separate ways. Copyrights were not renewed on their two features, and the films fell into the public domain, where they have suffered decades of abuse. The Walt Disney Company, on the other hand, did rather well.
The old rivalry will be revived this week, with Tuesday’s simultaneous releases of Disney’s dazzling Blu-ray restoration of “Pinocchio” (1940), the studio’s second feature-length production, and a (necessarily) less-well-financed refurbishment of “Gulliver’s Travels,” on the independent Koch Entertainment label. The winner may be preordained, but the contest is still instructive.
Loosely based on a 19th-century children’s novel by Carlo Collodi, “Pinocchio” remains a technical summit of hand-drawn animation, executed with a grace and expressiveness of movement that even Disney’s artists were never quite able to recapture. On one level it is about the wonder of its own existence: the little wooden boy who comes to life is a metaphor for Disney’s process of creation, turning ink and paint into three-dimensional creatures that seem to breathe with a force of their own.
Although Disney used voices that audiences of the time might have recognized, these were not the A-list stars routinely drafted today to lend their familiar personalities to animated characters. The most celebrated member of the cast was Cliff Edwards, a popular vocalist of the 1920s who had a hit with an early recording of “Singin’ in the Rain.” His soft Southern vowels help to shape Jiminy Cricket, but the voice does not define the character, which emerges instead through line, color and the distinctive tilt of his head.
In adapting Collodi, Disney turned a social novel into a psychological one about, like so much of Disney’s work, the agony of growing up and the impossibility of resistance. The most nocturnal of animated films, “Pinocchio” begins with a vision of a clean, well-lighted place — Geppetto’s workshop — snugly barricaded against the cold uncertainties of the outside world. Over the course of the three episodes that constitute the main story, the palette turns chillier and the spaces expand to dizzying proportions, culminating with the near-black-and-white rendering of the undersea world of Monstro the Whale.
Although the Blue Fairy and Jiminy, her insect enforcer, do their best to impose a moral reading on the proceedings — Pinocchio’s experiences are meant to teach him industriousness, temperance and self-sacrifice — the imagery suggests a more physiological interpretation, as the little wooden boy grows a series of assorted appendages, including a long nose and donkey ears, that suggest an adolescent body in development.
Set in a sort of anti-Disneyland theme park, in which the principal activities are smoking, drinking and fighting, the Pleasure Island sequence buzzes with a wealth of Freudian detail. Here the Disney film seems influenced by the Fleischers, suggesting the dark view of burgeoning sexuality portrayed in the brothers’ shorts like “Bimbo’s Initiation” (1931) and the Betty Boop version of “Snow-White” (1933).
Unfortunately this theme is almost entirely missing from “Gulliver’s Travels,” which remains a resolutely grown-up film with a tendency toward political allegory. The Fleischers’ Gulliver is a shipwrecked American sailor who washes ashore in a miniature world that looks a lot like the political landscape of Europe in the late 1930s: the quaintly ineffectual ruler of Lilliput faces war with the bombastic, dictatorial King Bombo of Blefuscu. The mighty American looks down at this distant squabble, trying to decide when and if to intervene.
The Gulliver character, as well as some others in the film, was created through the use of rotoscoping, a process the Fleischers invented. A method of tracing over live-action footage to create cartoon figures, the technique is cost efficient (Disney used it too when he needed to cut corners) but produces unsatisfying results. The bodies may move, but they don’t have the squash-and-stretch plasticity of hand-drawn animation.
In spite of some creatively animated supporting characters — including a trio of spies, Sneak, Snoop and Snitch, who inspired their own short-lived series of cartoons — “Gulliver’s Travels” remains earthbound, with little of the bizarre imagery and quicksilver transitions of the Fleischers at their best.
The new DVD of “Gulliver’s Travels” uses digital restoration technology to remove dirt and scratches, but important details have been swept away in the process: the bold lines of the drawings have turned faint and wispy, the colors thin and unstable. Worse, the image has been reformatted to fit the wide television screens of today, losing the top and bottom of the original frame.
The Disney corporation, with its mammoth financial advantage, can obviously afford a more rigorous and expensive restoration, and the new “Pinocchio” looks magnificent, with a richness of color and a tight definition that evoke the theatrical experience. History, as always, is written by the winners, but at least the Fleischer brothers still have their page in the book.