When Magoo Flew

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So, I was on the wireless-radio-box last night talking about Adam Abraham's fantabulous new book When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. While the animation histories of Warner Bros and Disney have been rehashed ad nauseam, UPA's significant contributions to the art have been somewhat overlooked (though they're adored by the cartoon cognoscenti). Abraham's timely, and exhaustive, effort might (hopefully) go some way to setting that right.

The studio may have burned at its brightest for a brief span,1 but their minimalist/modernist aesthetic proved hugely influential (and that influence is still being felt today). Perspective was turfed out the window. Backgrounds were monochrome and flat. Characters were emphatically two-dimensional, and often wholly transparent. Scene changes would be executed not by cuts, but by backgrounds being erased and then drawn back in around the characters. As Adam Abraham says, the key feature of UPA characters was that they were unequivocally drawings. Not attempts to approximate boring ol' reality.

Their first Oscar winner (in 1950) was the magical Gerald McBoing Boing (based on a sound recording made by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss).2

One of the main men behind Gerald was Robert "Bobe" Cannon, who in partnership with T. Hee made some of "purest" UPA cartoons – in terms of that flat, bare-bones, modernism. One of their best is Christopher Crumpet – the tale of a boy who would imagine himself into a chicken when he didn't get his own way.


Christopher Crumpet by WackyJacky

The absence of a rigidly imposed "house style" meant UPA could range from delightful whimsy like the above to the Gothic gruesomeness of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by James Mason).

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Oh, and then (of course) there was the indefatigable Mr. Magoo – an odd-ball Victorian gentlemen adrift in the modern world. One whose near-blind misapprehensions are almost wilful. As Abraham says, the cartoons are not so much about his inability to see the modern world around him, but his dogged refusal to see or acknowledge it.

Complimenting Abraham's book are two new DVD releases. TCM's UPA Jolly Frolics (3-disc) set, and The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection (1949-1959). Buy them. Then give them to me.

Footnotes
  1. Undone, partly, by persecution from the House Committee on Un-American Activities [back]
  2. Gerald McBoing Boing's Symphony (1953), and How Now Boing Boing are also fabulous. [back]

March 7, 2012

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