"When he is not surrounded by the fantastic, he creates it."—Film Critic on Felix the Cat, circa 1928
If you have watched any of Disney's more elaborate DVD supplements recently, you may have noticed animation historian John Canemaker, author of several books on Disney and other animation legends, as well as director of the animation program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. What you may not know is that Canemaker is an accomplished artist in his own right, with a varied body of work that displays a deceptively naïve quality, reflecting the freewheeling dreams of his subjects. For example, in his 1978 short "Confessions of a Stardreamer," an interview with an egotistical would-be actress, takes the form of childlike caricatures, moody watercolors, and even retouched live-action footage—any visual technique that might reveal the workings of her unconscious. Canemaker shows his knowledge of animation history in his range of styles: he can shift from high detail to abstraction, always with an eye to what is best suited to the material he is translated to screen.
Milestone Films, through Image Entertainment, has collected the best of Canemaker's short subjects into an hour-long anthology, John Canemaker: Marching to a Different Toon. Although print quality varies from short to short, this retrospective offers a refreshing look at an artist whose feeling for the medium of animation has often been overlooked in favor of his scholarship. Cartoons like "Bridghampton," an evocative and impressionistic portrait of the seasons, or "Bottom's Dream," a textured ode to Shakespeare, often seem fragmentary at first glance, as if Canemaker cannot keep an idea or artistic approach on screen for more than a few seconds. But close examination reveals that each cartoon is packed with more visual inventiveness than a dozen conventional cartoons, and Canemaker's scholarship has only expanded his artistic repertoire rather than forcing him into some dry, academic approach. Certainly, a heartfelt little tale like 1981's "The Wizard's Son," an allegory in defense of art and imagination, does not come out of a textbook, nor does its simple style seem derivative of any particular animation studio.
John Canemaker has also offered his artistry to a number of causes. You may recall a Deep Focus column I wrote a while back ("Tell Your Children") in which I discussed "Break the Silence," a Peabody-winning film about child abuse for elementary school counseling. Canemaker provided the powerful animation for that short (excerpts are included on this disc), as well as presentations on stress management ("Laughter Is Good Medicine"), Cold War fear ("What Do Children Think Of When They Think of the Bomb?") and even the title sequence for the science segments on the PBS show 3-2-1 Contact. He has also contributed animation to several AIDS public service announcements.
All this is presented on Marching to a Different Toon. Oddly, given Canemaker's background, there is no biography or commentary track provided for this program. Milestone does offer a gallery of stills and storyboards from a number of pieces in the feature program, as well as Canemaker's 1977 documentary on "Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat." This 25-minute program details the history of the first cartoon superstar and the artist whose influence on popular cartoons was overlooked for so many years. You can see hints of the Fleischer's joyful disregard of the laws of physics and Disney's strength of characterization (and mass marketing success) in the antics of the silent Felix. Canemaker offers lots of clips from this forgotten series, along with interviews with the then octogenarian Messmer. The documentary is a bit grainy and rough around the edges, but where else are you going to learn about this unheralded piece of animation history? If only Milestone had also included Canemaker's documentary on Winsor McCay (a personal favorite artist of mine) as well…
Overall, this disc's only major flaws seem to be a lack of background history on Canemaker himself and inconsistent print quality (a little restoration is in order here). John Canemaker: Marching to a Different Toon presents an entertaining look at a talented artist and scholar who has made fine contributions to animation. And Canemaker still has many years left to continue to add to the history of animation.
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