Like Felix, Judge Victor Valdivia has a bag of tricks, too, but it's been outlawed in 38 states and is not recommended for pregnant women or children under 12.
Whenever he gets into a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks.
Felix the Cat: The Complete 1958-1959 Series compiles all of the episodes from the now-legendary late-'50s incarnation of Felix, perhaps the most famous version of the character for fans. Though these cartoons are not in the same league as the best animation of the era, they are still delightful and fun for animation buffs.
Facts of the Case
As the show's ridiculously catchy theme song sums it up:
Felix the Cat,
Meet Felix the Cat. He can not only remove his tail at will, but he's also got a bag of tricks, a little yellow bag that can turn into any object he wishes. He's the involuntary enemy of the Professor, a mad scientist who desperately wants his magic bag and hires Rock Bottom, a dimwitted bulldog gangster, to help him out. The Professor's nerdy nephew, Poindexter, a brilliant scientist who never quite seems to get anything just right, becomes Felix's friend. Felix and his cohorts get into all sorts of adventures in settings as varied as the North Pole, the Sahara Desert, and the inside of the planet Venus. Each cartoon lasts 7½ minutes, with a break for a commercial in the middle. The two-disc set contains all thirty-one cartoons from the show's first season. Here is the title listing:
The history of Felix the Cat covers almost fifty years, and several versions, although it's really one incarnation that most people remember. Beginning in the 1920s as a silent black- and-white cartoon under the direction of creators Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan, Felix emerged as a star almost instantaneously. He was such a crowd favorite, in fact, that Walt Disney patterned Mickey Mouse after him. Felix made a brief transition to talkies in the early 1930s, and then disappeared altogether for some twenty years. Then in 1958, animator Joe Oriolo decided to resurrect him for a syndicated series. The show, as it turned out, was a smash hit, and when many people think of Felix today, it's this version, rather than the earlier ones, that they're remembering. The show was so popular that it single-handedly popularized the use of the term "Poindexter" (named, amusingly enough, after Oriolo's lawyer) to mean "hapless nerd."
At first, it may be hard to remember or understand exactly why the show was so beloved. The first few episodes are painful to watch. By the admittedly high standards of Looney Tunes or Tex Avery, the jokes are corny and puerile. Everything that people mean when they use the epithet "cartoony" is in evidence: awful jokes, eye-popping overacting, silly voices, and nonsensical, incoherent stories. As the series progresses, however, it seemed that Oriolo and the show's staffers developed more confidence. The bag of tricks, always a cheap and easy gimmick, disappears and Felix increasingly defeats the villains with his wits rather than magic. Though the humor is never as sophisticated as it was in an Avery or Chuck Jones cartoon, some of the jokes in the later cartoons are surprisingly witty. The stories are simplified and rely less on convenient plot twists and more on characterization. The direction also becomes more elaborate and less static. Visual gags begin to appear, and the timing of these is defter and less heavy-handed and.
If the writing and direction improved, the animation stayed constant, though that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The animation is blocky and colorful, not as detailed or elaborate as Disney or MGM or Warner Brothers. Several shots are repeated from episode to episode, and even within episodes themselves. The show actually is a forerunner of the UPA style of animation that would become popular in the '60s: one or two-color backgrounds, simple shapes, primary colors. Nonetheless, this fits the character perfectly, and even adds to the show's charm. The appeal of Felix was never in lifelike drawings or elaborate backgrounds; it was in its simplicity, and the show's almost childlike look makes Felix more endearing and likable a protagonist than if he was drawn more realistically.
Some Felix fans may have trouble enjoying this series. It's true that for this show, Oriolo (assisted by voice actor Jack Mercer) softened Felix's edge. As the DVD extras show, the original Felix cartoons frequently invoked humor that was risqué, even adult. Since Oriolo saw this as a kids' show, his version of Felix is more gentle and fantastical. This means the comedy sometimes veers into downright juvenile and silly, and the supporting characters are slight. In the end, however, this version of Felix gets by purely on Felix himself. Always an appealing character, he now sports a cute laugh and catchphrase ("Righty-Oh!") that would have been irresistible to children of the era. Throw in some flashes of clever humor (in "Master Cylinder-King of the Moon," the Professor repeatedly proclaims that he must rescue his nephew Poindexter, and then adds, as a disgusted aside, "Oh, and, uh, Felix.") and the show finally falls on the side of "good enough." It's too bad, though, that the entertaining moments are intermittent rather than non-stop.
The shows are transferred in the original full-screen. The transfers are good for a cartoon that's some fifty years old. There is some grain, but the prints are in surprisingly good shape, with only minimal scratches or marks. The colors are vivid and bright. It's especially surprising that the episodes were done in full color, since this was a time when not many households had color televisions. The audio is in the original mono, and is crisp and clear.
The extras are well-chosen, though disappointingly thin. First is "Feline Follies" (4:11), the 1919 cartoon that introduced Felix (then called "Master Tom"). As can expected from a cartoon that's almost 100 years old, the visual quality is primitive, in silent, grainy black-and-white with jumpy, crude animation and title cards to express dialogue. The humor, on the other hand, is anything but cutesy, as the cartoon incorporates sex, unplanned pregnancy, and even suicide, all the while somehow coming off as sweet and amiable. It's a remarkable find, and it's a must-see for animation fans. Hopefully, more of these will be included in future releases, as the humor and characterization are remarkably complex and edgy even by today's standards.
Also included is an interview with animation historian John Canemaker (9:20), who wrote a detailed book on Felix and his career. Canemaker will be familiar to animation buffs through his appearances on the Looney Tunes DVDs, where he revealed himself to be an engaging, knowledgeable presence. Here, he gives a brief history of Felix from the '20s through the beginning of this series. At only nine minutes, it's just way too short, with Canemaker not even being able to reveal much of the story behind this very series itself. This really should have been at least twice as long, as Canemaker on animation is arguably as interesting to listen to as Roger Ebert on film.
Finally included are promos (2:43) for the Felix show, some of which are in different languages. Worth seeing once, but probably not more than that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes it's easy to be blinded by nostalgia. These cartoons are charming and endearing in their own way, but they're not "Duck Amuck." Even at their best, they can still be frustratingly clunky and sluggish. Felix is such an adorably charming protagonist that he can make even the weakest cartoons passable, but it may still be rough going if you're not already a hardcore fan. And it should be noted, kids 12 and under weaned on the lightning-fast pace of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network may find these unwatchable.
Felix himself has enough appeal to sell this set to any fan of classic animation. But it may be a good idea to only watch a few of these at a time. Watching several in a row just highlights their weaknesses.
Through sheer charm and likeability, Felix himself is acquitted and set free to be rediscovered by his fans. Genius Products is encouraged to continue and expand their extras for future releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Feline Follies
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