Not-So-Top Cartoons: Wreck-It Ralph

Something’s gone wrong in Videoland, and it’s not that Sarah Silverman found a way into it.

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I don’t know what to make of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s 2012 niche-teaser about a video game villain who just wants to be liked, dammit. Is it a morality tale? Is it an action film? Or is it just empty-headed entertainment that’s about as satisfying as a Sugar Rush?

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I’ll summarize it as best I can: there’s this arcade game called Fix-It Felix Jr., in which the player guides the friendly Felix up a building to stop the ape-like Wreck-It Ralph from busting up the place. It’s an obvious send-up of Donkey Kong, but this particular Kong is tired of getting tossed off a roof everyday. So, against the advice of his fellow bad guys, Ralph abandons his post and tries heroic deeds in other arcade games, so he can prove that he’s more than just a terrorizing thug.

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Along the way, Ralph is tormented by the violence of modern games, the gooey pitfalls of a saccharine candy-land, and the specter of a former villain who “game-jumped:” the glory hog Turbo, who caused two games to go out of order.

Like Pixar’s Toy Story or the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wreck-It Ralph presents us with a strangely complex society, with many rules and expectations for its citizens. Like the toons and toys of cartoons past, Wreck-It Ralph’s video game characters exist to please and entertain humans. As such, any individual’s attempt to rise above his or her station is considered disruptive to the community, and is thus met with disapproval. The mantra of Ralph’s support group, Bad-Anon, is, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I’ll never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

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So the message of the film seems to be the stale old platitude of “be happy with whom you are,” but with the tacked-on amendment of, “so long as you remember your place.”

I take issue with this because, in the real world, criminals (or “bad guys”) who reform are to be commended. It takes real effort and work to improve oneself, to recognize the consequences of one’s actions, to learn empathy, to foster positivity. Even if the motivation is self-serving, i.e., to avoid prison or to save money or to raise a family, breaking away from a life of crime is indisputably a good thing, for both the group and the individual.

So is the constant urging for Ralph to stop his pipe dreams of heroism and just get back to breaking things really healthy?

Keep in mind that I only “take issue” with this. I’m not offended by it, and I understand that Ralph’s world has certain requirements in order to function, but the can of worms that this story opens isn’t, and cannot be, fully explored, and that’s frustrating. There are many perspectives and feelings to consider in a topic as complex as this, and a Disney cartoon just isn’t equipped to handle them all. You might say that Ralph’s writers were aiming to raise questions, to encourage its audiences to have lively discussions on the ride home from the theater. When a movie’s height of humor is a sassy little girl spewing doody jokes, however, I highly doubt that it has such lofty artistic goals.

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Anyway, that’s my main beef with this film: the story feels slapped together to line up with its “Roger Rabbit in Videoland” premise. And really, that’s what Wreck-It Ralph is: an updated version of Robert Zemeckis’s masterpiece, only more niche. It references the Golden Age of Video Games, when kids actually played 8-bit games in arcades, it’s got cameos from faces such as Q-Bert, M. Bison, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Clyde, and its original characters are amalgamations of existing Disney fixtures, like Mickey Mouse and The Mad Hatter.

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I actually like that last part. Fix-It Felix Jr., as played by Jack McBrayer, is basically a human Mickey Mouse. He may have been modeled after Mario, but his movements, attitude, and mannerisms are all Mickey’s. Imagine any one of his lines in Wayne Allwine’s voice and you’ll see it, I promise you. I find this idea of a postmodern update to the Mickey persona fascinating.

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(spoiler warning)

Then there’s my favorite character, King Candy, who’s voiced by Ed Wynn…as impersonated by Alan Tudyk. Put a top hat on him and you’re back in Alice’s Wonderland. I actually think the King is more like Judge Doom, in that he’s an ancient, whispered evil in disguise, revealed by accident and assuming a monstrous form.

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Turbo is, of course, a device meant to lead Ralph’s quest to a battle to save all of Videoland, but I guess that’s okay. The real antagonist of this film seems to be the insufferable weight of one’s peers, though I suppose that’s open to interpretation. There are things I like about this movie — the performances of John C. Reilly as Ralph and McBrayer as Felix, the occasionally irreverent tone, the fact that it has no songs — but the rest of Wreck-It Ralph is pretty forgettable. As with most Disney productions, it never goes too far in any direction, for fear of upsetting somebody. So instead we get fizzy, fuzzy harmlessness painted in sweets and sugars, to be ingested for a quick high before seeking out something more filling.

A post-script: yes, the animation is excellent, but that’s to be expected from Disney. Besides, computer-generated animation is so prevalent now, even in freaking live-action films, that its spectacle has become numbing. Had Disney been bold enough to depict Wreck-It Ralph in the pixel-art style of the games it was evoking, it might have earned a real high score from me.

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Top Cartoons: Snoopy Come Home

There have been over forty animated Peanuts TV specials, and five feature films. There’s a timeless quality to these tales of precocious youngsters. Their lives, activities, pains, and pleasures — baseball games, flying kites, pulling pranks, fitting in — have rarely deviated from what children deal with even today. Snoopy Come Home maintains the themes of the comic, but it pushes them farther than they ever went before.

This is the second animated Peanuts feature, written by Charles Schulz and directed by Bill Melendez. As the title says, the focus is on Charlie Brown’s independent, imaginative, attention-loving beagle, but instead of playing vulture or chasing the Red Baron, he gets trapped at the peak of what amounts to a symbolic love triangle.

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There are tensions in the Peanuts neighborhood. Snoopy’s been spending too much time away from home, fighting with the Van Pelt kids, and standing up his play dates. NO DOGS ALLOWED signs are cropping up at his favorite haunts, and even that round-headed kid is pounding him with lectures. It seems as though he just doesn’t belong anymore.

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So when a letter from a mysterious girl named Lila arrives, which spurs Snoopy on an impromptu road trip, everyone feels responsible.

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It turns out that Lila is Snoopy’s original owner, who, for some reason, had to give up her puppy when her family moved. She returned him to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, where Charlie Brown’s parents later discovered him.

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Now Lila is sick with an unnamed, but  serious disease, and misses her pup terribly. Snoopy and his bud Woodstock try to use mass transit to reach her, but NO DOGS ALLOWED signs stymie them, so they have to make the trip through unfamiliar towns and wilderness on foot. They travel a mighty long distance together, bonding, joking, and generally dealing with the rustic life. On one occasion, however, their adventure, and their lives, are put in serious jeopardy.

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Having gone without human companionship, Snoopy is pleased to spot Clara, a gal playing in the sand outside her house. He runs up and greets her, but she seizes him, kidnaps him, and attempts to forcibly adopt him.

Clara is more or less a relative of Tiny Toons’s Elmyra, with no awareness or empathy for an animal’s feelings. She gives Snoopy a flea bath, repeatedly dunking him underwater. She ties a hefty rope around his neck and yanks him around. She dresses him in hideous clothes for a tea party. Then, when she spills her tea on him, she blames Snoopy, and gives him a spanking.

It must be noted that Linda Ercoli, the voice actress for Clara, is amazing. At only thirteen years old, she gives Clara an impressive range of emotions, from giddiness to rage, and she’s always  horrifying. She even sings a very complicated patter song with aplomb and perfect rhythm.

After a crazy and intense chase, our wayward heroes make their escape, perhaps having learned something about dealing with strangers.

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is haggard with worry. His friends reach out and provide advice to help him accept that Snoopy is likely gone for good, but nothing works.

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When Snoopy finally reaches his old friend, he has to make a tremendous decision. Lila feels so much better with her doggy around that she begs him to come back to her. It is here that Melendez’s direction best demonstrates its wisdom. Melendez understood that Snoopy’s comic strip thought-bubbles wouldn’t work in a film, so he instructed  his animators to pour their efforts into the pup’s physical expression. He may be a simple-looking cartoon character, but the agony Snoopy displays at Lila’s request is truly heartbreaking.

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What follows is a series of shockingly painful scenes, restrained only with a stingy sprinkle of humor. There are tearful, even maudlin, partings, and a haunting portrait of real depression as Charlie Brown is unable to eat or sleep in the absence of his dear friend. The sequence plays to a wistful lament called “It Changes,” which, while written with innocent and childlike language, will likely never be understood by any but the most scarred of children.

Speaking of music, one will notice that Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes are missing from this film. You won’t even hear the iconic “Linus and Lucy” anywhere in it. The score is by Richard and Robert Sherman, who also worked on Disney’s The Jungle Book and Hanna-Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web. Their work here swerves from pleasant and dark, just like the film itself.

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Mercifully, two wonderful payoffs await, and the film closes with enough joy to conquer the preceding misery.

Snoopy Come Home baffled most critics, and even Roger Ebert described it as “schizoid.” I agree that it vacillates from one emotional extreme to the other, but I don’t know if that damages the film in any way. Peanuts has always been tinged with anxiety, and I believe that’s part of its endearing nature. I don’t believe it would continue to be printed in today’s comics if Schulz hadn’t dared to mix his own insecurities and doubts into the minds of his cute little characters. I think this movie is quite an achievement, even if it would never play well with today’s audiences, who expect shiny computer animation instead of the exquisite hand-drawn work shown here.

The Internet Critic Conversation

Okay, here’s the premise: Daniel (D) submits image/story/cartoon to website. Random site user (C) decides to leave a comment on it. Here’s how it invariably falls out. Keep in mind that this has happened to me many times, with many different people.


C: This is bad. Just bad. Idea has been done a million times. Obviously you don’t know what you’re doing.

D: That’s a little rude, not to mention unhelpful. You’re giving me no ideas on what to improve. Every idea has been done a million times, so you might as well say this about every bit of art on the site. Finally, if I don’t know what I’m doing, perhaps you could be kind enough to enlighten me? If this is all you have to say, then just leave it alone.

C: Well, this being an ART/LITERATURE/PORTAL SITE, I don’t feel I have to hold back on what I say. You need a thick skin around here, so don’t get so butthurt. GOOD DAY SIR

I then discover that C has blocked me from further contact.


Now, I really don’t care what people like this think of my work. Obviously they don’t have any real opinion; they just want to break stuff down and feel superior to someone. As you probably already know, I get like that myself.

No, what pisses me off is the childishness of it, the lack of self-awareness. Don’t they realize that I too, am allowed to say what I want on these particular sites? Don’t they realize that just because they can say what they want, it doesn’t mean it’s going to go over well? And don’t they realize that blocking me because I called them out on their shoddy critique shows a pretty damn bad case of butthurt on their part?

I know, I know. “Just ignore them,” you say. Normally I do. The last time this happened, though, the criticism was leveled at the concept of the work, which I did not create. The idea belonged to the man who hired me for the commission. I wasn’t personally offended, but I felt compelled to stand up for my collaborator. Bear in mind that I did not use any offensive language. I simply said that it was rude to slam the idea without offering any positives. The “critic” then whipped out the tired old speech about their right to say whatever they want, and added that my art wasn’t even that good anyway (no details of course). Then I got blocked. It all fell out exactly as it did above.

The only analogy I can think of for it is that it’s like watching a grown man stick his tongue out at you and mean it. All you can do is squint incredulously.

You’d think I’d be used to this sort of behavior by now, but I’m not. My attitude toward humanity is like that toward a bad movie: I keep hoping that it’ll get better somewhere. It never does, though, and my mind is continually boggled. I mean, they can’t all be this stupid, can they? Can they??

I’d better just relax. Anyone have any Oxycontin?

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!

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.