ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #4: Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers

And now for something completely different.

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If you haven’t heard of Wallace and Gromit, it’s time you got plugged in, because these claymation characters have had some wonderful adventures. Wallace is a brilliant but scatterbrained scientist, and Gromit is an intelligent but silent dog. The two characters have a sort of Inspector Gadget/Brain relationship, in which Gromit constantly has to bail Wallace out of trouble of his own inadvertent making, and the formula never fails to entertain.

Wallace and Gromit starred in three televised specials: A Grand Day Out (Oscar-nominee), The Wrong Trousers (Oscar-winner), and A Close Shave (another Oscar-winner). So successful were they that they went on to a big-screen feature, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (which also won an Oscar). I find, however, that the long format doesn’t suit these two very well. The Wrong Trousers, which fits into a half-hour, feels better paced than the movie, and it’s still the best cartoon that Aardman has yet made.

The Wrong Trousers starts off with a rather simple scene: Gromit spends his birthday morning collecting the mail and preparing breakfast. On paper, this sounds quite dull; not the sort of thing you’d want to start your cartoon with. However, the animation has an easy, languid quality that’s incredibly attractive, and that makes even ordinary actions fun to watch. It invests us almost instantly, too: we get the sense this is a (relatively) realistic world we’ve entered into, where life is really all about enjoying a good cuppa. It doesn’t matter that it’s a clay dog selling us on this, either; our minds are already hooked into this place. Just watching old Wallace eat his toast with jam invariably makes me hungry for a slice of my own. How does that work?

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Anyway, poor Gromit is feeling pretty neglected. Wallace behaves as though he’s forgotten the doggy’s birthday, and though that turns out to be a ruse, his gift doesn’t help matters.

It’s a pair of mechanical “techno-trousers,” which can be programmed to walk over predetermined routes with its front control panel. With a lead attached, they’re the perfect automated dog-walkers. Gromit isn’t too thrilled with the present, though. For one thing, the trousers move too quickly for Gromit to enjoy his trips, and for another, it seems as though Wallace only got them so that the two could spend less time together.

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So when budget troubles cause Wallace to let out a room to an emotionless penguin…

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…the sensitive Gromit really starts to feel unwanted.

This odd lodger insists on taking Gromit’s room instead of the spare. In the mornings he hogs the bathroom, and fetches Wallace’s paper and slippers before Gromit can. At night, he chuckles over cheese and wine with Wallace, and then leaves his radio on at full blast, even when he goes out.

Also, he has this unexpected interest in those techno-trousers.

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Feeling that he’s lost Wallace’s favor, Gromit runs away, and moves into a rubbish can. Then, one morning, he wakes to see Wallace wandering around town, stuck in the techno-trousers! The machine’s control panel is missing, and Wallace has no idea who’s operating them. Gromit is no dummy, though, and he decides to do a little snooping.

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Gromit tails the penguin into an alley, where he takes cover inside a cardboard box and witnesses some strange behavior.

Mysterious music plays, and we watch through Gromit’s eyes as the penguin scribbles notes, scales walls, and measures windows (I particularly admire the animation of the measuring tape). The effect is surprisingly eerie and menacing, and the scene closes with a “gotcha” moment that’s both thrilling and hilarious.

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Gromit returns home to discover that this “paying guest” is planning an audacious heist. The building he was casing is actually a museum where a diamond exhibit is taking place. Using the vacuum-soled boots of the techno-trousers, the penguin sends Wallace marching up the side of the museum, down through a ventilation duct in the roof, and then upside-down along the ceiling to where the diamond lies.

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The heist scene, for all its silliness, is nail-biting all the way through. Nick Park, who wrote and directed Trousers, obviously knows suspense. He knows when things should go smoothly, and he knows when things need to go wrong, so when the penguin sweats, you’ll sweat with him. Park earned his Oscar for this scene alone — though there’s one coming up that’s even better, if you can believe it.

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The thief manages to get the booty back to home base, where he locks Wallace and the trousers in a wardrobe. Gromit steps in to save the day, but this penguin’s packing heat, so doggy and master are soon reunited.

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Gromit manages to short the techno-trousers and make them charge at the penguin, smashing the wardrobe open in the process. In surprise, the penguin leaps to the engine of a passing toy train, a train whose tracks run all over the house. Thus begins the most gripping and memorable sequence of The Wrong Trousers: the train chase.

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This chase has the kinetic, slapstick spirit of a Roger Rabbit cartoon, but it’s really a very smart scene in which Gromit and the penguin continually thwart and outwit each other.

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And you’d have to be dead inside not to laugh and cheer at some of the things that happen:

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Perhaps fittingly, the techno-trousers themselves save the day when they block the penguin’s path and cause everyone to crash in one place. What happens next is so hilariously satisfying that it’s certain to make at least one person in the room stand up and applaud. I know this because that person is usually me.

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It should be clear by now that I adore this movie, and that I regard it more highly than most cartoons in the world. Still, I struggle to define exactly what it is that I love about it so much. The Wrong Trousers is a subtle and gentle thing; it’s about as far from “in your face” as possible. It doesn’t have the artistic pizzazz of the other Ultimate Top Cartoons, nor does it have the emotional or narrative complexity.

So what is it?

I think what impresses me most about The Wrong Trousers is that it defies expectation and classification. It pulls some chips away from Safe, Cute, and Charming, puts them down on Menace, Suspense, and Violence, and then goes and shoots seven after seven after seven. I mean, that’s got to be some kind of miracle.

Divine or not, The Wrong Trousers is a joy to watch over and over and over. I think it is the most humble of the Ultimate Top Cartoons, but it is also the only one you can watch with kids around, and the surest to brighten your day and leave you smiling. I recommend you take it with a nice port, and some Rogue River Blue.

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ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS #5: Ninja Scroll (Jubei Ninpocho)

Many are they who consider this their anime gateway drug.

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And rightly so. When I saw my first glimpse of this masterpiece on MTV, all of my brain cells dropped what they were doing and shouted a single question at once:

“What the hell was that???”

God bless 90s MTV. 90s MTV understood that, as emotional media go, music and animation are very close cousins. To develop the “edgy” attitude that it needed to stand out, the network employed freaky, stunning animation for its IDs and commercials. It even produced shows specifically to showcase wild animation. Liquid Television was the first such program, and it turned Æon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head into national names.

A later show, Cartoon Sushi, used clips from Ninja Scroll as commercial bumpers. My brother called me over to check it out because he knew I’d go nuts for it, and holy shit, was he right. I couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Even my father said “Whoa,” when he happened to see it. You know your cartoon’s special when mere seconds of it get a better reaction than the remainder of the show it’s sprinkled in. It also helped that Japanese animation as we know it was just beginning to sink its claws into American culture at this time. Most of us hadn’t seen shit like this before.

But once we had a taste, we all wanted more.

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The Japanese title of this movie is “Jubei Ninpocho,” which means “The Jubei Ninja Scrolls.” This peculiar phrasing is taken from the titles of ninja novels written by Futaro Yamada. These “ninja stories,” or “ninpocho,” were each titled in a similar manner: Koga Ninpocho, Edo Ninpocho, Yagyu Ninpocho, and so on.

The cartoon is set in a twisted version of feudal Japan, where blood and betrayal flow freely. In the opening scene, a roaming warrior named Jubei Kibagami is accosted by thieves, and seconds later, we’re told not only what we need to know about the setting, but also about our hero:

1.) Jubei is an unflappable man with a well-honed spider-sense.

2.) Jubei is a decent man who despises injustice.

3.) Jubei…is a badass.

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He even catches the rice ball without looking.

He is based on the Japanese folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuroshi, a great samurai who was dismissed from service to the Shogun for unknown reasons, and who then spent years wandering Japan, perfecting his swordsmanship. Think of him as a Davy Crockett to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Our Jubei enters into a complex and nefarious plot when he happens upon a horrible scene: a monstrous man, Tessai, raping a young woman.

This woman is Kagero, a poison taster for the Koga ninja clan. She has just witnessed the slaughter of her comrades at the hands of her captor, who has since revealed himself to be a bloodthirsty monster with a skin of stone. Jubei bravely confronts Tessai anyway, and creates an opportunity for both he and Kagero to escape.

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The two ninja part ways, and while Kagero reports the night’s terrible events to her indifferent lord, Jubei is caught by the highly-pissed Tessai. What ensues is a frightful battle in which Jubei is nearly overwhelmed. Tessai’s sheer strength and stone shell seem insurmountable, but then something happens to turn the tide: the monster’s skin starts to crumble and soften, seemingly for no reason. Thinking that Jubei used some unknown technique on him, Tessai pours his rage into one last attack — one that backfires on him in a most satisfying way. This whole scene is dazzling from top to bottom, and you might need to rub your eyes afterward because you forgot to blink while watching it.

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Thus, Jubei draws first blood in a war against Tessai’s buddies, as well as the attention of a doddering, walleyed priest named Dakuan, who sees potential in the young ninja — and some use.

Dakuan, who is really a government spy, is the trickster of the story. His comical voice and appearance belie a cunning and ruthless personality whose motives are only ever kind on the surface. Still, he comes off as likable, and he’s also the only one who knows what the hell’s going on in this movie, so I can’t imagine anyone hissing when he shows up onscreen.

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Dakuan explains to Jubei that Tessai was one of the Eight Devils of Kimon, a team of demons hired by the Yamashiro ninja clan — the same clan that Jubei once ran with. The Devils are contracted to protect the Yamashiro as they smuggle gold to their lord, the Shogun of the Dark (a.k.a. Toyotomi), an unseen villain who wishes to overthrow the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. The Devils crossed paths with Jubei and Kagero while on their way to recover gold from a smuggler ship that sank accidentally, and now it seems they are entangled to the bitter end.

So how did the Yamashiro boys end up with all this cheddar? Well, some years back, its leaders discovered a gold mine, and instead of reporting it to their master, a Tokugawa daimyo, they tried to sneak the riches past him. A series of betrayals followed, and in an attempt to eliminate everyone who knew about the mine, one of the Yamashiro leaders, Gemma Himuro, ordered the extermination of his own men. This forced Jubei to slay his fellow ninja in self-defense, but in turn, he found and decapitated Gemma, and became a ronin.

But Gemma has revived, having somehow developed an ability to reconstruct his body after even the most traumatic of injuries. He now leads the Devils of Kimon, and seeks to undermine both Tokugawa and Toyotomi by purporting to guard the Yamashiro smuggling operation, and then stealing the gold for himself.

Whew! You get all that? Well, sorry; I tried. Let’s carry on.

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These Kimon guys are an eclectic bunch. Each one has some unique and creative method for killing. One of them can literally hide inside shadows. Another can both animate, and detonate corpses as if they were bombs on legs. One carries a nest of hornets in the flesh of his back, and is able to communicate with them and give them orders. Still another can use the snake tattoos covering her body to hypnotize and attack her enemies, while the last can generate deadly amounts of electricity and conduct it through even the thinnest steel wire. Such powers might not sound immediately useful, but the movie sees the Devils apply their skills in some mighty creative ways.

I find it incredible that this movie makes time for encounters with eight separate supervillains, but it DOES, and if I tried to cover them all in-depth, we’d be here for months. So, I’ll just talk about my favorite of the group instead: Mujuro.

Mujuro Utsutsu is a pale, soft-spoken fellow who appears, at first, to have little of the supernatural about him. It turns out he’s an archetypal blind swordsman, but that’s really not that exciting, not after some of the crazy shit this movie’s already shown us.

But then, he goes and pulls out a really nasty trick.

Mujuro is so skilled at determining his unseen opponent’s position that he can calculate the angle at which to tilt his blade so that it will reflect the glare of the sun right into Jubei’s eyes.

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“Your sight is your weakness,” he says.

This is one of my favorite moments in the film. Jubei is once again outmatched, but this time it’s in a way that’s so deceptively simple, it’s wholly unexpected. When combined with Mujuro’s aggressive fighting style, this bizarre talent nearly presses Jubei to the ground, and Jubei only survives the encounter because of pure luck.

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Well, luck, and the loyalty of a friend.

While it initially seems that Jubei and Kagero have divergent paths, and that they would likely be rivals in other circumstances, it’s soon made clear that fate has linked them together. Both are their clans’ sole survivors, and both of them have suffered from the cruelty of the Eight Devils of Kimon. Both are immensely talented warriors, and both have a strong sense of justice. They are also both in need of someone to trust while they’re in this awful situation.

So only an idiot would be surprised that these two fall in love. What is surprising is that they really can’t do anything about it. Kagero has spent so many years immunizing herself to poison that her body is now saturated with it. Anyone who makes love to her, or even kisses her, is signing his own death warrant (just ask Tessai). Kagero tries to carry this deadliness as a point of pride, but it is plain that she resents it, for it has caused her to lose something beautiful and human about herself.

It’s a doomed romance to be sure, and it certainly ends tragically, but the connection between the two is indelible. In a gesture of honor and respect, Jubei dons Kagero’s ruby headband, so that they may continue to fight — figuratively — as one. This metaphor becomes literal in the desperate, final battle when, having lost his sword arm, Jubei resorts to head-butting Gemma until the Devil’s skull turns to paste. It’s amazing.

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My most recent viewing of Ninja Scroll was also my first viewing of it on Blu-Ray, and holy shit…it looks better than it ever did. It sounds strange, but it really looks more impressive today than it did when it was first released, and that’s not something that can be said about many movies. I paused the playback many times just so I could take in the details in the artwork and to analyze the motion in the lightning quick ninja moves. I can’t imagine animation of this caliber ever, EVER losing its appeal.

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Of course, it’s not just the animation that makes Ninja Scroll wonderful, it’s the direction. The pace fluctuates as it should in any good movie, but it never gets too terse or too slow. The action scenes fly by with one intense, perfectly-trimmed shot after another, while the softer sequences provide much needed breathers. I’d hazard to say that there are one or two scenes that go on too long, but overall, it feels like the whole thing was produced in time with a metronome. I still marvel at the fact that this was made in 1993.

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If you’ve somehow not seen this movie before reading this entry, relax; you need not fear. Ninja Scroll is so masterfully produced that nothing I could write on this silly little blog could ruin it for you. Even after dozens of viewings, it continues to give me the chills. So if you’re going to see it for the first time (and for that you are envied), all I have left to say is that you should curl up in a warm blanket beforehand, because Ninja Scroll will hold you in shivering, wide-eyed suspense, all the way up to its final betrayal.

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS: Contact Imminent!

Well, here we go! The time for Ultimate Top Cartoons starts here. The following cartoons are simply the best. Projects of their scale, depth, and beauty are what I have always dreamed of being part of…or even producing myself.

Now I admit that I’m prone to gushing at times, but since these works are so enormous, it’s impossible for me to like every single bit of them. I hope that no one will be upset with the criticism that I level at these cartoons. If it bugs you, then you should really just relax and remember that no work is perfect.

Anyway, let’s hit the gas.

Ultimate Top Cartoon #5 is incoming….

ULTIMATE TOP CARTOONS: A Primer

There are so many cartoons that have inspired me to become what I am that it’d be impossible for me to expound on all of them fully. In fact, I’ve avoided discussing the five greatest cartoons of them all because they are so huge, and so powerful, that the thought of exhaustively describing their every wonderful aspect scares the hell out of me.

Still, I think it’s worth a shot.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to blab about the five biggest, boldest, bad-assiest cartoons I know. All of them are feature-length, and all of them are well-known…to the right circles, anyway. The choices themselves might not be surprising, but I think that my reasons for choosing them are, so please look forward to them!

A LisVender Xmas Mix

For those of you who just can’t silence the individual, here’s a set of songs that paint Christmas in a drier, but no less enjoyable, light than most carols. Put some of these on during the ride to Grandma’s and I’m sure you’ll be smiling in no time:

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Kick-ass Kwanzaa, etc. I’ll just say “Happy Holidays” to cover the rest, and that still don’t make ya happy, well then go the hell. 🙂 See you next year.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1971)

Here’s an animated adaptation that most folks aren’t aware of. I didn’t know about it until earlier this week. While considering the depictions of the supernatural in “Carol” adaptations, I found it curious that no animated special attempted to design the Ghost of Christmas Past as Charles Dickens devised it. Perhaps the animators felt beneath the challenge:

“It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

Even this, though, when Scrooge looked at it with increasing steadiness, was not its strangest quality. For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.”

I decided to search through the multitude of “Carol” cartoons to see if any of them got it right. Well, it turns out that one did, and wouldn’t you know it? It was made by Richard Williams, the same man who would go on to direct the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

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This adaptation, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1971, dares to illustrate Dickens’ story in a realistic style, which makes the supernatural elements all the more frightening. Just as Dickens wrote, Williams’s Christmas Past shifts shape and appearance, and leaves an eerie trail of afterimages in its wake. It moves and speaks in a flat, distant manner, and the effect is as disturbing as it is beautiful.

Oh, and speaking of disturbing:

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The contrast between the realistic living characters and the freakish specters works greatly to the cartoon’s benefit. It reminds me of the old John Hurt “Storyteller” programs that Jim Henson produced in the 1990s. Seeing the man behind the Muppets spin tales about death, devils and dragons created a thrill in me. I thrilled for a future in which genius creators such as Henson could graduate from children’s fairytales and tackle dark, grandiose epics. It never came to be, but it was nice to wonder at.

Williams’s “Carol” is born of that same desire, I believe, to pull the general view of cartoons away from the safe sweetness of Walt Disney. Indeed, this cartoon feels more like a the work of artists who wanted to experiment, to follow their own minds, to make something unfettered by stifling market-think. I daresay that the final result suffers a bit for this:  the cartoon is prone to navel-gazing, and even the most powerful moments from the book are made limp by the lingering direction.

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This is not a Top Cartoon, but I still think it’s worth your time. It is a marvelous, moving art exhibit made by folks who live to share their imaginations. It will show you things that you’ve never seen before, so I pray you won’t miss out.

Top Cartoons: Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol

magoo theater actor.png“Do you know the weight and the length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It is a ponderous chain! Oh, captive bound and double-ironed! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity misused? Yet, such was I….”

Not the sort of dialogue one might expect from a cartoon, eh? A snottier animator than myself might even say that it’s not something that belongs in some chintzy UPA production, but I’m no snot-rag.

To me, cartoons have never simply been about art and movement. They’ve always been about presentation, performance, and timing: all the things that make any drama appealing. Just ask any Pixar fan his or her opinion on the studio’s success, and you’ll realize that with animation, as with all forms of acting, motion always comes second to emotion.

This is why I consider Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol to be the best of the myriad animated “Carol” adaptations. Sure, the animation is limited. Sure, the backgrounds are wildly exaggerated. Sure, the characters rarely evince their existence in the third dimension. All these stylistic qualities are unarguable, but to fault this cartoon for them would only reveal an artistic prejudice in the viewer. Magoo is beautifully drawn, finely directed, powerfully acted, and a joy to watch.

magoo.jpgThe cartoon sets up the story as a Broadway production, in which the myopic Magoo is the star. Jim Backus does some impressive voice gymnastics here, as he successfully buries the familiar Magoo dottiness beneath a surprising veneer of cruelty, sorrow, rage, and fear.

And Scrooge has much to fear. The four ghosts of the story lose none of their malevolence in their cartoon manifestations. Christmas Present grandly admonishes and condescends, and the legless, looming form of  Christmas Future remains my all-time favorite version of the character. Even the childlike, androgynous Christmas Past exhibits an unsettling aspect in its final departure.

74c790eb3b2c850d26feaab5f619a9cf.jpg xmaspresent.jpgGhostOfChristmasFuture-Magoo.jpgBut the grooviest ghost of them all is Jacob Marley, by far. Thanks to a jaw-dropping performance by Royal Dano, Marley is sure to get the attention of everyone in the room as he laments with frightful, operatic anguish. Marley’s scene was one of the first in animation to move me to tears, but not in the way you might expect.

There is a particular moment in the scene when Marley orders Scrooge to peer through his bedroom window and behold the afterlife that awaits him. And then, several fiery threads knit themselves together: a desperate musical cue, a vision of lost souls, a horrified outcry, a somber warning, and a swelling bass tone. And it’s all constructed so well that it becomes a thing of limitless, abstract beauty: something I cannot react to except to weep. It is not Scrooge’s plight that overwhelms me, as no other adaptation of this scene has elicited such a response. No, I think that I am simply awed at a craftsman’s level — amazed and moved at this perfect achievement of effect.

marley.jpgOf course, there are moments later on that actually aim to yank out the tears, and I think they’re quite good too, considering the simple drawings we’re looking at. The talented musicians, songwriters, editors, and voice actors all deserve great credit for this accomplishment.

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Still, Dickens’s timeless tale is the cradle of these emotional forces, and the truth is that any minor tweak to it can ruin the whole soup. Thankfully, UPA wisely treats the work with great reverence. While concessions understandably had to be made for time, much of the heady dialogue and darker scenes from the book were retained. No punches were pulled for the sake of offending a child viewer, and I think the results speak for themselves. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is by turns sad, warm, funny, wondrous, and frightening, and neither Disney nor Warner Bros. were able to pull the Carol off so well as this. The simple technical skill massed within these studios is meaningless without the innate understanding of timing, heart, and power that UPA demonstrated here.

Or, to make my point more simply, “it’s not the number of frames in the life, it’s the amount of life in the frames.”