When I talk about animated movies with someone I realize most people only think about mainstream cartoons. A lot of them refers to 3d animation, Pixar and Dreamworks products. The nostalgic ones, to Disney classics. The edgy ones, to Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Mamoru Oshii or Sylvain Chomet.
And yet the animation movie has a remarkable history, not at all limited the one and only formula – more or less classic – of the cartoon. It is often an art form, in the higher meaning of the term.
That’s why I decided to write a little excursus on these long forgotten movies and medium-lenght films, almost completely ignored despite them being masterpieces. Just the kind of animation you wouldn’t expect.
Tale of Tales – Yuriy Norshteyn
Let’s start with the best animated movie of all times.
This is not my own personal, and arrogant, definition, but the title that Tale of Tales won in 1984 and 2002, despite remaining, and not just in Italy, quite ignored.
It’s a 1979 Russian medium-lenght film, made through different techniques of animation and découpage.
Tale of Tales can be described as a flow connecting one image to another, one idea to another. It leads us through remembrances, dream fascinations, memories, visionary transformations – it’s some private and intimate matter belonging to its own author, but at the same time it’s an universal fairy-tale as well. The life of one person representing the lives of each one of us.
Tale of Tales, indeed, in place of the ancient Songs of Songs.
The role of the observer and common thread of these scenes is played by a little wolf who is lost in a world in which it has become impossible for him to fit, a folklore figure representing both the spirit of Russian peasant people and the memories of Norsheteyn’s lost childhood. He also shows some supernatural features, he’s a domovoj of tradition – a house spirt – that is losing his sacredness drop by drop.
Still, Norshteyn’s masterpiece is not a movie that needs to be understood – it is a movie that has to be felt, in which poetry books turn into children, bulls skip rope and men disappear to go to the frontline during a tango.
Dimensions of dialogue – Jan Svankmajer
Jan Svankmajer, instead, is not such an unknown name; the master of Czech animation is mostly remembered for his personal version of Alice. But this time I’d like to talk to you about another medium-lengh film of his, dating back at 1983: Možnosti dialogu (AKA Dimensions of Dialogue), a more complex and less known piece.
In this one, Svankmajer makes every object (and flesh too) come to life, so to represent the possible interactions between scenes and themes: Factual conversation, Exhaustive discussion, Passionate discourse.
Fusions, digregations, matter exchange, blending: they serve to represent mankind and the progressing phase of civilization that is bringing us from differentiation to uniformity.
This pièce screams out all of its tradegy through grotesque.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed – Lotte Reiniger
Let’s go back more than half a century, to meet the woman who realized the earliest example of animation movie that was left to us. In 1926, Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger turns her passion for shadow play into a whole technique of animation, bringing The Adventures of Prince Achmed to life – and anticipating Walt Disney by over ten years.
This movie was born as an experiment, animating paper silhouettes in stop motion in 30.000 single frames.
It immediately claims his place in the history of cinema, and changes it forever.
It’s striking, seeing it today: the animation technique mirroring a puppet show blends with the themes of One Thousand and One Nights creating a timeless enchant, surprising and catchy in a way that’s nearly hypnotic – even after almost a century.
Street of Crocodiles – Quay Brothers
From one extreme to the other, at least as far as time and themes are concerned, we find the so called Quay Brother, twins Stephen and Timothy Quay. We are talking about a name that is almost legendary when it comes to stop-motion, and at the same time a vision that can be difficult and disturbing to approach to.
1986’s Street of Crocodiles is probably their most notorious medium-lenght film and, as I see it, their poetic manifesto.
We find each other in a proper realm, made of dolls, mechanics and decadence.
A realm that looks like a closed box, outside time and space, in which the inhabitants seem to be tragically imprisoned. Here, Gothic and Victorian blends together with a sharp, kafkian Surrealism – Svankmajer object ceases to be grotesque or sarcastic, it gives up his previous history/functionality, preferring a cold, mathematic strictness. Everything is machinery, and sometimes it can be difficult to understand the rules but, still, nothing’s left to the chance. A spring-loaded mechanism that activates/comes to life through external stimulation (in this case, through spit).
It would be hard to blaze a trail throught the dark, fetishist universe of the Quay twins, so I’ll leave you to decrypt the allegories which are haunting each scene, and I heartily recommend that you get lost in them, letting these late-Romantic atmospheres infect you.
Baron Prásil – Karel Zeman
Now, picture a movie where George Méliès meets with Gustave Doré drawings.
A movie that inspired Terry Gilliam, and came to life thanks to an exceptional mix between classic and experimental, modest production and imaginative splendour. All of this is Baron Prásil (better known as The Fabulous Baron Munchausen), by Czech Karel Zeman, 1962 movie split between animation technique (mainly live-action and stop-motion) and real shooting.
A magical, baroque world animated by dreamy, incredible fantasies – much like its protagonist.
Fantastic Planet – René Laloux
Last, but certainly not least, one of the animation movies I love the most. Fantastic planet, year 1973, is the offspring of two geniuses, film-maker René Lalous and the great provoker that is Roland Topor.
The two of them design a whole world (Ygam) in which men (Om) are pets belonging to the Draag, and they build up the complex mechanisms of the Draag society in extreme detail.
But overall it’s the ecosystem, along with the landscape and the living creature, that upsets and fascinates the viewer the most.
A permanent and invasive presence that is both assertive and magnificent.
In this trip among peculiar animation pieces, Fantastic planet may seem the most traditional one, suitable for all audiences, but the visual complexity and the richness of images makes it an art masterpiece that I would truly recommend everyone to watch.