J. Stuart Blackton. J.R. Bray. Raoul Barré. The Fleischer brothers. Otto Messmer. Paul Terry. These names may not be all that recognizable today, but even the most casual observer of popular culture can see the ever-present results of their collective legacy. These men are just a few of the pioneers of animation–the artists, directors, and visionaries who laid the foundation for what the genre would become.
An essential new collection of remastered and restored early cartoons seeks to shine the spotlight on these and other legends of animation–a goal at which it excels exceedingly well.
Seriously, there aren’t enough superlatives in my vocabulary to fully express just how much I enjoyed this collection.
Cartoon Roots, recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, serves as a solid and impressive primer for introducing modern audiences to the joys of rare and classic animation. Roots is the brainchild of historian and avid cartoon collector Tommy José Stathes, the founder of Cartoons on Film and curator of the Bray Animation Project, an online tribute to and resource on the first animation studio. In putting together this (hopefully first of many) compilation, Stathes turned to Thunderbean Animation, an animation company (headed by historian Steve Stanchfield) which specializes in producing high-quality restorations of classic cartoons and features. Drawn largely from Stathes’ substantial personal cache of classic cartoons, and spanning a twenty-five year period from the earliest days of film itself through the dawn of sound, the fifteen cartoons included in this carefully-curated collection represent the work of many talented innovators who built an industry from the ground up.
Indeed, what Cartoon Roots does so effectively is to show, in brief, the evolution of animation as an art form, from its earliest days as a novelty act (Blackton’s “Lightning Sketches”) through its melding with live-action (Barré’s “Cartoons on Tour”), to a narrative place solely its own, marked by interesting, recurring characters and entertaining, fully-animated stories. We see animation’s beginnings, from experimentation and painstaking-yet-crude craftsmanship, and its growth into an industry, in which technical cleverness and assembly line-type construction methods allowed for quicker and more skilled production. And not only do we see the development of the art of animation itself, but also the early work of young cartoonists who would go on to find great acclaim in their later years, among them Bob McKimson, who found renown with Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros.; Preston Blair, who worked for both Disney and MGM; Grim Natwick, the “father” of the Fleischers’ Betty Boop; Walter Lantz, the creator of Woody Woodpecker; and Dick Huemer, who spent most of his career shepherding shorts and feature films for Disney.
Cartoon Roots is a veritable Who’s Who of early animation stars, featuring a mix of more familiar characters (Felix the Cat romps through a misadventure in the freezing north; Koko the Clown takes us on a trip to the circus; Col. Heeza Liar solves a real-life crime involving a wayward chicken) along with some genuine rarities, including a sample of the never-released Binko the Bear Cub series from the ill-fated Romer Grey Studio. Though some of the characters found in this collection have been somewhat lost to the passage of time, they are brought back to vivid life through the efforts of Stathes and the Thunderbean team. Their restoration efforts are truly a wonder; with visuals as crisp and clear as we could possibly hope for, the old gang has never looked better. And the cartoons haven’t sounded this great in a long time, either, with the silent shorts boasting a selection of lively new scores thanks to composers Ben Model and Robert Israel.
The animated shorts are treasures in and of themselves, but that’s not all Cartoon Roots has to offer. The Blu-ray is chock full of extras, from vintage publicity materials ranging from newspaper and magazine ads to theatrical posters and reviews, to behind-the-scenes material about the making of certain cartoons, including copyright documents and original art and sketches. Just about the only thing it’s missing is a commentary track for any or all of the included cartoons. Still, while that would be a welcome addition to an already exceptional collection, there is more than enough here to satisfy even the most voracious fans of early animation.
Cartoon Roots is available to order from Amazon now as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.
Editor’s note: On Monday, The Retro Set will feature an interview with the inimitable creator of Cartoon Roots, Tommy José Stathes. Be sure to check it out!