Case Number 03812: Small Claims Court

CUT-UP: THE FILMS OF GRANT MUNRO

Milestone Films // 2003 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 10th, 2004

The Charge

"The safety rules they knew so well, but all of them figured what the hell..." -- "Three Blind Mice"

The Case

When I was a kid and used to watch a lot of PBS, I remember those strange cartoon shorts that used to run in between the programs. The animation looked nothing like the Saturday morning silliness Hanna Barbara used to crank out by the truckload. It was often curiously delicate, with jittery lines or soft watercolors, entirely unlike the bold lines and squashy movement of Disney's films. There was little or no dialogue, and if anybody did talk, it usually came out as babble -- or even more puzzling, as French. Before each short, a title warned, this was a product of the National Film Board of Canada.

Who were these Canadians, and why did they make such strange cartoons? When I visited Canada, I saw no signs that they were any different from me. And yet, there must have been something. After all, here was a government that paid people to make cartoons. Very weird cartoons.

Cut-Up collects the best work of one of those government-employed weirdoes. Grant Munro grew up a precocious and artistic child from a small town near Winnipeg and went to work for the National Film Board under the "considerate and gentle" Norman McLaren, a sweet man with a boundlessly curious and creative streak. Together, they spent nearly half a century experimenting with film and inspiring animators around the world. Milestone Films (led by Dennis Doros, a longtime friend of Munro and McLaren) has created a two-disc set of Munro's work to accompany a similar package focusing specifically on McLaren. On a baker's dozen short films, Munro proves himself an accomplished animator and actor.

* "Three Blind Mice": A lesson in workplace safety, told in jazz and twisted cut-out animation.
* "On the Farm": An unfinished piece done in stop-motion, as Munro shows off a variety of special effects in the style of special effects pioneer Georges Méliès.
* "Neighbours": McLaren and Munro won an Oscar for this Cold War allegory in which two men compete over a flower bordering their homes, becoming more bestial with each conflict.
* "Two Bagatelles": Munro slides magically through an outtake from "Neighbours" and a second strange dance. While these last three shorts may look rather elementary now in these days of computer effects, consider both how difficult such stop-motion work was in the 1950s when they were made, and how clearly the artists enjoy their work and celebrate creative freedom.
* "Ballot-O-Maniac": Stanley Jackson directs a relatively normal satirical short about political campaigning, with Munro as an overzealous, if dimwitted, campaign volunteer who nearly sabotages his favorite candidate. Munro's versatility as an actor is on display here: he could have easily made a career as a character actor in Hollywood had he not focused on his own artistic pursuits.
* "Six and Seven-Eighths": Another unfinished short, with Munro hoofing to some Dixieland. It is unclear what the intended animation conceit would have been if this film had been completed.
* "Christmas Cracker": This series of adorably bizarre scenes in different animation styles shows off the work of several National Film Board artists, including of course McLaren and Munro.
* "Canon": This is a fairly abstract series of vignettes focusing on shape and color. This is exactly the sort of beautiful experiment the National Film Board excelled at that American animation studios, stuck with marketing regular characters and products for their parent companies, could never do.
* "The Animal Movie": Munro shows off a simple watercolor style, as a boy plays with different kinds of animals. This short is ostensibly an experiment in animating the movements of different animals, but it has a charm all its own.
* "Toys": Another Cold War allegory, as children watch a display of G.I. Joe toys suddenly come to life and stage a brutal battle. This short was quite controversial in Europe, where audiences actually thought the artists invented all these toys, when in reality they just bought them off the shelf at a retail store -- which makes this film that much scarier.
* "Ashes of Doom": This is the shortest piece on the disc: an anti-smoking PSA done as a parody of Dracula.
* "Boo Hoo": New Brunswick is the setting for this fairly straightforward (assuming anything on this disc could be called that) documentary portrait of a cemetery groundskeeper and our strange rituals surrounding death.
* "McLaren on McLaren": Check out the sherbet green checked jacket on Norman McLaren during this tribute to the driving force behind the National Film Board's animation unit. McLaren's easygoing and generous manner makes him a sort of anti-Walt Disney, and you can see why so many artists loved to work with him over the years -- and why the National Film Board produced such an impressive body of animation art.

In addition to these short films, Milestone includes two commentary tracks. On the first disc, Munro tells his life story, prompted by Dennis Doros and animation historian (and artist in his own right) John Canemaker. On the second disc, Canemaker and Doros lead Munro through a screen-specific commentary on the 13 shorts. Some of these commentaries run less than the length of their respective films, and in a couple of cases ("Neighbours" and "Toys") the commentaries run much longer, during which stills from the shorts run on screen. A stills gallery, some animation tests for "The Animal Movie," and an extensive press kit (in PDF format for your DVD-ROM) round out the extras.

Animation fans still locked in the traditional cel animation styles of Disney and other American commercial studios will want to check out Cut-Up and broaden their horizons. If you know anyone who dreams of becoming an animator, this DVD is a must in order to learn what the field has to offer. Grant Munro shows repeatedly that animation art has no limits, that imagination and creativity can overcome the limitations of budget and technology, and that joy in one's craft can produce magic. If only American animation studios would watch the work of Munro and McLaren all over again and rediscover what they seem to have lost in recent years. Maybe those strange Canadians can teach us something after all.

Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile
Studio: Milestone Films
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)

Subtitles:
* None

Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Two Commentary Tracks by Grant Munro, Dennis Doros, and John Canemaker

Accomplices
* None