9. Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953, Ward Kimball and Charles A Nichols)
A difficult proposition today like most early Disney, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom” incorporates both the old-school racism and sexism of early Disney (although not to the extent of more famous classics like Dumbo and Cinderella, respectively). A damning criticism, but the age old question of art and its purposes rears it ugly, fascinating head.
What do we do with a short that is both off-handedly caricatured in an omnivorous way, and a short that is also, at the level of bare construction, one of the great artistic Disney masterpieces? Obviously, discussing both in tandem is a bare minimum, forcing us to reconcile what art and morality even mean together in the first place.
A would-be minor educational short about music, this was Ward Kimball’s first short film (a request on his behalf, as he wanted to move away from realism and boldly push forth toward overtly stylized parts unknown).
When paired with Pinocchio veteran Charles A Nichols, what he manages to do with the simple idea of educating children about musical instruments is both a genial delight and a shockingly nuanced artistic effort inching closer to the Warner Bros style without ever sacrificing the essential Disney core and incorporating the more abstract tendencies of Soviet animation (shocking for the time) in subtle, slight doses that manage to both accentuate the impeccable physical comedy and warp the slight affair into something more bold and brash.
The early shot of the educator owl late for work, rushing forth in a flurry of abstract color backgrounds that heat and boil to externalize the rush of anxiety to get to work, is perhaps the most artistically audacious shot Disney ever pulled off. What to do with the short is another question entirely – the caricatures, as little as they appear, can not be taken away – but it absolutely should be watched and debated for a multitude of reasons.
10. The Hand (1965, Jiri Trnka)
A puppet sculptor, itself sculpted of wood mind you, and a hand in control. The pas a deux of these two figures locked in a power-play forms the backbone of a most subversive and haunting tone poem to the bitter realities of creation and destruction, both in the world and in the mind.
Most obviously, Trnka’s animation is a critique of Soviet control over the individual during the early Cold War years, depicting a green-masked hand literally puppeting a sculptor to sculpt only art that showcases the revelry and glory of the hand itself.
But there is much more; The Hand is also an exploration of art more fundamentally, a reflection on how art is always at the whim of some figure, be it the state or the painter theirself. “The Hand” is a commentary on the inherent subjectivity of art in any situation, and it is also, as it is torrid and dreary, exceedingly playful and whimsical.
Yet here the whimsy, the innocence, is a negative instilled by something much darker; the lightness of touch, the escape through sprightly animation techniques and experimentation becomes a manifestation of internal hopelessness about the real world.
It becomes a way to interpret the world, to avoid or transpose its harsh realities and shield the self (the vaguely hellish limbo that is the abstract color background of the puppeteer’s apartment suggests a sort of unending, open emptiness that dwarfs and suffocates the artist with the knowledge that he has nothing to his name but the need to produce).
It is not for nothing that Trnka depicts a dielectic between the hand and the sculptor, reminding that just as the hand forces the sculptor to create only certain types of art, the sculptor still does create art all the same, perhaps as a way to escape his or her inner torment.
For this reason, the short is also a towering statement to the power of art itself, reminding that, for whatever the state did do to hinder Trnka’s artwork, he still produced beauty, and that should never be forgotten.
11. Les Jeux des Anges (1964, Walerian Borowczyk)
One of Borowczyk’s most abstract and elemental films, this deliberately alienating and cruel collage of slow-going metallic objects and caustic repetition that loosely approximates everything from industrial complex to factory to the human mind should not be taken lightly.
It’s also hilarious in the driest possible way, coaxing us along on what we assume to be a narrative and then doubling back on itself, throwing away moments offhandedly and without remorse, repeating sequences for no real reason, and playing around with audio visual irony like no animation before or arguably since (the obtuse faucet noises and church organ that seemingly have no place in this particular collection of grey-on-grey images are marvels of untamed weirdness).
The very editing and camera movement, playing around with certain expectations of the manner in which objects are supposed to be depicted in a linear fashion, are wondrous. Comparisons to Terry Gilliam’s late 60’s work are impossible to ignore, but believe it or not, Borowczyk is actually more obtuse, more deranged, weirder, and more perverse in his humor. Whatever you have to put in, and you do need to put a lot in, the rewards are well worth it.
12. Storytime (1968, Terry Gilliam)
Released one year before the debut of Flying Circus, it’s easy to see the deconstructive anti-narrative mania of “Storytime” as a sort of test run for the cheeky linking meta-narrative Gilliam would often give episodes of the show, yet the short has an identity all its own.
The cheerfully off-kilter storytelling promises a children’s fable and rips the idea to shreds with venomous teeth, yet it still attains a certain sincerity in the way it strives to more honestly recreate the mind of a (particularly demented) child as it races from idea to idea with jazzlike improvisation.
Audio-visual irony has seldom been this sharp, such as when we witness a cockroach thrust its way into an empty hole while being informed it is about to “do the things that cockroaches do” before hearing all manner of particularly grisly, amorphous, perverse, distinctly artificial sounds that have nothing to do with cockroaches whatsoever.
Elsewhere, the patchwork quilt of the animation, intentionally under-nourished and simplistic, couldn’t be more perfect for the scattershot narrative and deliberately immature, delightfully low-rent approach to sense and logic.
Gilliam’s greatest strength, for everything he accomplished, is that his stories were only ever ones that could be told through animation; he is an animator’s animator, and everything he did to cut up and question the art-form was out of an obvious love for what it was capable of.
13. Quasi at the Quackadero (1975, Sally Cruikshank)
“Quasi at the Quackadero” could only have been released in the acid-tinged pop-art psychedelic waiting game that was the 1970s, but more than any American animation released post 1970, it understands everything that made classic Warner Bros shorts tick and work like gangbusters.
Sure, it’s slightly more demented and aimless here to fit the darker time period, but in doing so this closeted surrealist story about a duck, a Mae West soundalike, and an obtuse robot minion visiting a future amusement park only better elucidates the central dementedness of classic animation to begin with.
Deliriously abstract and infused with all manner of punchy visual gestures to highlight the fever dream that I the story, “Quasi” simply gets the trippy rhythms of the classic lunacy of American animation, without ever losing its own deranged spin on the material.
14. Hedgehog in the Fog (1975, Yuriy Norshteyn)
Retaining every ounce of the nuance, experimental thought, and pungently adversarial sweetness that marks Soviet animation as one of the most reflective, adventurous animated corpuses ever to grace the screen while also excising the often willfully difficult obtuseness that might mar the work for some, “The Hedgehog and the Fog” may be the most beautiful thing in any field produced in decades.
With the elegant simplicity of a children’s storybook depicting a hedgehog strolling through the fog, Norshteyn turns the storybook into an avenue for confronting the grand breadth of fear in pointedly elemental, blunt terms that hit harder than a horror film while retaining a level of pooling calmness unseen in most art forms.
The best thing about “Hedgehog” is how it utilizes the distinctly unfluid style of stilted cardboard cutout animation so popular throughout the world in the late 60s and early 70s – generally effective only in comedy – to highlight the stagnancy of pure fear, to terrorize and experiment with alienation, to induce jarring cognitive dissonance, and to punctuate every single motion the characters make with a brutal period of off-putting stillness.
15. The Street (1976, Caroline Leaf)
Canada’s National Film Board may be the most productive and essential corpus of animated shorts in the history of the medium, and they manage to achieve this without sacrificing genuine breadth; everything appears somewhere or another, from McLaren’s experimental doses of animation-as-thought pontifications to the prime 80’s comedy offerings as bellicose and zany as they were dry and disruptive.
Seldom, however, did they go to the well with the skeletal structure of an honest-to-God drama of anomie and dirge-like depression. Luckily, when they did, they released Caroline Leaf’s spellbinding “The Street”, a vague but pressing piece whose animation is a work of form perfectly ing its matching content.
The color, bleeding off and un-formed like amorphous life surrounded by numbing death, is upsetting in its muted brown to the point where a fringe-dwelling burst of bright color both draws the eye and reminds of the dearth of life and color surrounding it even more.
This is a ten minute story marinated in sadness, despair, and sickly decay, and the art that captures these emotions, externalizing internal loss without concession, could not be more perfectly fitting.
16. Dimensions of Dialogue (1982, Jan Svankmajer)
It’s easy to focus entirely on the early classics of animation in a search for genuine inspiration and experimentation, but Jan Svankmajer was interpreting animation as a field of play and storytelling well into the modern era.
His most famous contribution to the field, “Dimensions of Dialogue”, is also his best, tackling themes of love, death, loneliness, animosity, creation, diffusion, and decay in multitudinous, prismatic forms without ever resorting to the conventional or safe.
Indeed, his experiment in animating everyday objects and clay in three dimensions is willfully alienating and difficult but never less than fascinatingly perverse and wickedly demented without ever resorting to humor as a way to sand off its dark edges.
The title says it all: what does human dialogue means? Filtered through Svankmajer, it implies human faces composed of material rot eating one another and two clay figures bridging love and self-destruction.
Both of these death-marked dialogues harrowingly and provocatively question the idea of human dialogue itself, positing that what we think of as discussion and communication is nothing more than its own form of combat and human death. Many animated shorts are more pleasurable, but none has ever been as troublemaking, as unruly, as unsettling, or as confrontational.
17. Porgu (1983, Rein Raamat)
This tour of hell on Earth finds animation at its most perverted. Estonian animator Rein Raamat’s short collection abounds with theme and subtextual menace in its commentary on aging, sex, death, hopelessness, class, and most obviously, hedonism, but it doesn’t need theme to survive.
This darkly funny trip through a bar where humanity’s worst dreams and desires congregate is notable far more for its animation style, recalling the heavily scrawled demonic offerings of Francisco Goya most openly and matching them for imaginative depictions of human fairy tales at their most garish. This is a demented, dangerous little snicker in the dark, a Halloween treat of such primitive naughtiness.
Sure there’s depth, but when we try to connect images via subtextual meaning we sometimes forget one of the great early truths of the cinema, when film existed simply to show us things humans couldn’t see in everyday life, and things that would court they eye with their imagination, their perversity, and their rambunctious, unstoppable art.
The specter of this Cinema of Attractions style is at its best in Raamat’s contorted concoction of pointy, rawboned animation, all hard angles and jangly. This is animation that dares you to look away, and dares you even harder to look toward it.