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Puppetoon Movie, The

Puppetoon Movie, The(1987)

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teaser Puppetoon Movie, The (1987)

Long before making his classic science fiction and fantasy features of the 1950s and '60s, including When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Time Machine (1960), George Pal was a pioneering animator, turning out more than 70 "Puppetoon" short subjects (some of which are lost).Pal's method of puppet animation was similar to stop-motion. But instead of manipulating a single puppet ever so slightly from frame to frame--as per usual in stop motion--Pal laboriously and meticulously crafted thousands of wooden puppets (or parts of puppets, like attachable heads and limbs) in slightly different poses, so that for each frame of film, an entirely separate, new puppet (or puppet part) would be used. This was called replacement animation, and the resulting short films were called Puppetoons, which Pal described as "color cartoons in three dimensions."

A native of Hungary, Pal honed his techniques as a commercial artist in Europe in the 1920s and '30s before arriving in Hollywood in 1939 and securing a deal at Paramount, where he created Puppetoons until 1947. He was immediately embraced by Hollywood's animation community, who knew instantly what a visionary artist he was. And it didn't hurt that Pal was by all accounts an immensely kind, decent fellow.

Pal's techniques were enormously significant, influencing future luminaries like Ray Harryhausen (whose first job as an 18-year-old was at the Puppetoon studio), Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Henry Selick, whose The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was heavily inspired by Pal and used replacement animation techniques. Today's Pixar films and other computer-generated animations continue the chain of influence.

Pal died in 1980, but not before striking up a friendship with young filmmaker Arnold Leibovit, who went on to make an award-winning documentary of Pal's career, The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, in 1985. That experience led Leibovit to make a second film, this time entirely devoted to the Puppetoons: 1987's The Puppetoon Movie.

Working with Pal's widow, Zsoka, Leibovit compiled eleven of the original Puppetoon shorts and created a framework to introduce and conclude his film, with animated characters Gumby, Pokey and Arnie the Dinosaur reminiscing over Pal's legacy. The bulk of the movie, however, is simply the selected Puppetoons, with no narrative through-line.

Among the best are Philips Cavalcade (1934), Tulips Shall Grow (1942), Jasper in a Jam (1946), and Tubby the Tuba (1947), four shorts that demonstrate an impressive diversity of subject matter. Philips Cavalcade, made by Pal when he was living in the Netherlands, is full of puppet characters performing jazz music and dancing, and it boasts an astonishing amount of detail and moving parts in every frame. Tulips Shall Grow is a powerful anti-Nazi parable in which a young couple survives wartime destruction of their windmill.

Jasper in a Jam is one of many Puppetoons featuring the character of Jasper, a young black boy who is usually steered toward naughtiness by a scarecrow. The Jasper shorts contain racial stereotyping that would not be acceptable in modern-day entertainment, but Jasper in a Jam is one of the finest Puppetoons of them all, with objects and musical instruments coming to life in a pawnshop to play jazz. The music of Charlie Barnet and the vocals of Peggy Lee join to make this a unique and moody piece.

Tubby the Tuba, Pal's last Puppetoon, is probably the best known and most beloved of them all. The story of a tuba who longs for the chance to play the melody in his orchestra (rather than just doing repetitive underscoring), is so poignant and affecting that one wishes Pal had stuck with his Puppetoon-making for even longer.

Another famous Puppetoon included here is John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946), which was Pal's answer to charges of racial insensitivity in his Jasper shorts and which featured the voice of acclaimed actor Rex Ingram. Ebony magazine praised this entry at the time as "the first film that deals with negro folklore, that has a negro as its hero. It is that rarest of Hollywood products that has no negro stereotypes, but rather treats the negro with dignity, imagination, poetry and love."

"Rex Ingram was a big, wonderful man," Pal later recalled to author Gail Hickman (The Films of George Pal). "We recorded the narration in the studio, and at the end he was crying. And so was I. Everybody was very moved." This short was one of seven Puppetoons to be nominated for an Oscar, in seven straight years. None won, but Pal did receive an honorary Academy Award in 1944 for his imaginative techniques. He promptly incorporated the Oscar statuette into the opening credits of all his subsequent Puppetoons, which is why some of them begin with that image.

Replacement animation is actually only one of various techniques that Pal used in these shorts. Many Puppetoons also include a blend of live action and traditional two-dimensional animation, and some mix color and black-and-white, illustrating Pal's experimental and inventive mind. And music plays a big role in the storytelling, becoming in some cases the subject of the story itself. Pal's instincts for combining image and music were pitch perfect, and are a reason these pieces feel so timeless.

The Puppetoon Movie had its premiere at the inaugural AFI Film Festival in 1987. It was released that summer by Expanded Entertainment, and in the years since has been released on home video in all formats, including a deluxe Blu-ray with even more Puppetoons as extras.

Filmmaker Arnold Leibovit has done much over the decades to keep Pal's work alive and is currently working on bringing a second Puppetoon Movie to the screen. "The Puppetoon style of replacement figure puppets is still something to be admired but never duplicated," he said. "Those early techniques are in many ways the basis of modern computer generated effects." He added that their influence on Walt Disney was especially profound. "Many of the 'nine old men' [Disney's core group of animators] I knew told me how Walt would run the Puppetoons for them at the studio and how influential they were. Roy E. Disney also confirmed as well their influence on Disneyland with audio animatronics. 'It's a Small World' is really a Puppetoon."

Ultimately, Pal's Puppetoons were influential not just for their technical prowess but for the emotional nuance and rich storytelling they supported, and that is also why they have stood the test of time. Leibovit's film is a great introduction to Pal's work not least because it allows the Puppetoons themselves to do most of the talking.

By Jeremy Arnold

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