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Puppetoon Movie, The

Puppetoon Movie, The(1987)

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Home Video Reviews

Anyone unfamiliar with the name George Pal -- or who knows him only from the sci-fi films he produced, directed, or designed the effects for in the 1950s and '60s -- is in for a true discovery with the recent Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie (1987). The title is a bit deceptive, for while this sublime release does indeed contain a re-mastered hi-def version of The Puppetoon Movie, that movie is mostly made up of eleven of Pal's Puppetoon short films from the 1930s and '40s. The "extras" on this double-disc set actually contain far more material than The Puppetoon Movie itself: 19 additional Puppetoons, a feature-length documentary, interviews, featurettes, stills, home movies, a commentary, trailers, and even an entire additional feature. The net result is that The Puppetoon Movie comes across as simply one ingredient of many in what is really an extensive tribute to George Pal.

This is not to downplay the significance The Puppetoon Movie or of its director, Arnold Leibovit, in maintaining Pal's legacy. Leibovit deserves a huge amount of credit and gratitude for keeping this work alive; in fact, it's very possible that without Leibovit, Pal's Puppetoons would still be forgotten or even lost.

George Pal was a Hungarian animator who developed a groundbreaking technique of puppet animation similar to stop-motion. But instead of using single puppets and figures that could be manipulated 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, a 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."

Working in Europe in the 1920s and '30s, Pal honed his techniques while working as a commercial artist before arriving in Hollywood in 1939 and securing a deal at Paramount. As animation authority Jerry Beck writes in his liner notes, Pal was immediately embraced by Hollywood's animation community, who knew instantly what a visionary artist he was: "His techniques were so different from what the traditional screen cartoonists had been doing that no one thought of him as a rival or competitor. He was simply a colleague, and a beloved one at that."

Pal's techniques were and still are incredibly significant, influencing luminaries like Ray Harryhausen (whose first job as an 18-year-old was at the Puppetoon Studio), Tim Burton and Henry Selick (whose A Nightmare Before Christmas [1993] was heavily inspired by Pal), and Steven Spielberg. Today's Pixar films continue the chain of influence.

In the 1950s, Pal moved into live-action science fiction and fantasy movies, working on classics like Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Time Machine (1960), and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962).

He died in 1980, but in 1987 director Arnold Leibovit worked with Pal's widow to compile eleven of the original Puppetoon shorts into a new tribute feature, The Puppetoon Movie. Leibovit created a framework to introduce and conclude the film, with animated characters Gumby, Pokie and Arnie the Dinosaur reminiscing over Pal's legacy, but the bulk of the movie is simply eleven of Pal's Puppetoons strung together, with no narrative through-line.

Among the best in the film are Philips Cavalcade (1934), Tulips Shall Grow (1942), Jasper in a Jam (1943), and Tubby the Tuba (1947), four shorts that demonstrate an impressive diversity of subject matter. Philips Cavalcade, full of puppet characters performing jazz music and dancing, boasts an astonishing amount of detail and multiple 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 with incredible puppetry 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 for once in his orchestra (rather than just doing repetitive underscoring), it's so poignant and affecting that one wishes Pal had stuck with his Puppetoon-making for a few more years to come.

In addition to these eleven shorts, the Blu-ray package contains twelve more Puppetoons on standard definition (they still look very good), and seven more in hi-def, restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and released for the first time on home video. Among the best of these are the masterful Date With Duke (1940) and Rhapsody in Wood (1947), which feature Duke Ellington and Woody Herman in person, interacting with the animated puppets. In fact, many of the Puppetoons include a mix of live action, replacement animation, and traditional two-dimensional animation. Some also mix color and black-and-white, illustrating Pal's experimental and inventive mind. And of course, these two (and others) incorporate jazz and big band music in such a way that the music becomes the subject of the piece itself. Pal's instincts for combining image and music were pitch perfect, and do a great deal to keep these pieces feeling so timeless.

The "extra" shorts here also include two early adaptations of Dr. Seuss stories, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943) and And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1944), as well as the great Jasper entries Jasper and the Beanstalk (1945) and Jasper's Derby (1946).

All seven of the hi-def entries were nominated for Academy Awards. None won, but Pal did receive a special Oscar in 1943 for his imaginative techniques. He promptly incorporated the statuette into the opening credits of all his subsequent Puppetoons, which is why some of the ones on this Blu-ray begin with that image.

It should be noted that Pal never intended for his Puppetoons to be consumed all at once. This collection is best seen slowly, a little bit at a time -- ideally as a prologue to seeing a feature movie. Watching the Puppetoons today, one marvels at the astonishing amount of work that went into their creation, as well as at the splendid Technicolor on display (which is beautifully served by the Blu-ray technology), but above all one is simply charmed by the pieces themselves. In their commentary for The Puppetoon Movie, Arnold Leibovit and Jerry Beck enhance one's appreciation by explaining Pal's animation techniques in great detail and with immense passion. In addition, Leibovit's 1985 documentary The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal explores Pal's entire career and includes interviews with Pal himself. There's also an interesting vintage interview with animator Bob Baker, who worked in Pal's studio.

On the second Blu-ray disc is a newly re-mastered print of Pal's first feature film as producer, The Great Rupert (1950), which is directed by Irving Pichel and stars Jimmy Durante, Tom Drake, Jimmy Conlin and Terry Moore, as well as a stop-motion-animated puppet squirrel devised by Pal. This little film is no great classic, but it does have some charming moments. The disc also contains a myriad of further extras: interviews with the likes of Disney animator Ward Kimball, Gene Roddenberry, Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Roy Disney, among others; an entire (and fascinating) episode of an old Los Angeles TV show called City at Night, in which reporters visit the set of Pal's Destination Moon (1950); footage from a premiere of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962); and more. Through it all, a portrait emerges of George Pal not just as a visionary innovator but as a genuinely nice person.

The boutique distributor B2MP has done an outstanding job working with Leibovit and Beck to put this all together in such a comprehensive and loving way -- a fitting salute to an all-too-forgotten movie pioneer. The package is limited to a pressing of 3000 units and is available on Blu-ray only.

By Jeremy Arnold
Are younger moviegoers familiar with the name George Pal? If they are, it's probably due to Steven Spielberg's 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds which may have inspired some of them to check out the original 1953 version produced by Pal and directed by Bryon Haskin. But for kids who grew up in the fifties and sixties and attended many a Saturday matinee, the name George Pal had the same clout as Walt Disney and conjured up a cinema of the fantastic. From the innovative Puppetoon shorts to the visionary sci-fi adventure Destination Moon (1950) - a precursor to Kubrick's 2001 (1968) - to the man-eating ants of The Naked Jungle (1954) to the musical fairy tale tom thumb (1958) to the futuristic world of The Time Machine (1960), Pal created a body of work that had a broader appeal beyond the niche audience for science fiction and fantasy films; his influence on Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton and other contemporary filmmakers cannot be underestimated or ignored. So it's a pleasure to see his artistry showcased in the 3-disc DVD set, George Pal: Flights of Fantasy. Released by Image Entertainment in November and overlooked in the year-end deluge of new DVD product, this is like receiving a belated Christmas gift.

George Pal: Flights of Fantasy consists of The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a 1985 documentary written, produced and directed by Arnold Leibovit, The Puppetoon Movie, a 1987 documentary also written and produced by Leibovit and George Pal's first feature film as producer and special effects coordinator, The Great Rupert (1950). Both of the documentaries are the expanded DVD editions and include some indispensable extras which will delight any true George Pal fan.

Of the three discs, The Puppetoon Movie is probably the best place to start to see how Pal's technique and vision grew from a creator of animated shorts to a fantasy film producer. Although Pal originally set out to be an architect, the Hungarian native began working in film in Budapest and eventually moved to Berlin to design sets for UFA Studios prior to World War II. With the rise of the Nazis, Pal relocated to Holland where he began creating his famous Puppetoons; among them was "Tulips Shall Grow" which depicted the rise of fascism through an invading army of automatons. Luckily Pal fled to Hollywood before Germany invaded Holland and began working for Paramount where he scored his first Oscar® in 1943 for "the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as Puppetoons (plaque)." The Puppetoon Movie is a great introduction to Pal's brand of animation and functions more as a compilation film than a straightforward documentary. The bright colors, stylized sets, unexpected camera angles and use of music make the Puppetoons irresistible to children but adults will also enjoy the often bizarre and hilarious imagery, some of it playfully suggestive. In the 1941 "Hoola Boola" we glimpse the nude backside of the sexy heroine as she swims underwear a la Jane in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) and in "Together in the Weather," a case of unrequited love between two weather dolls culminates in a blissful sexual union. Typical of the period in which they were made, some of the Puppetoon shorts, particularly the ones featuring Jasper, contain racial stereotypes but despite this, Pal's approach is a celebration of black culture, one which he felt was possibly the richest in the world. And some of his most famous Puppetoons feature the music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and the Luvenia Nash Singers as well as Peggy Lee and Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra. The only real complaint about The Puppetoon Movie is a rather lame framing device featuring animated pals Gumby and Poky as hosts and the fact that the Puppetoons on display are edited versions for the sake of length. The good news is that the extras include 12 unedited Puppetoon shorts including Pal's first, "Ship of the Ether" (1934), created entirely with glass miniatures, plus an interview with Puppetoon animator Bob Baker, production stills and silent color footage of Pal outside of his studio in Eindhoven, Holland.

A more detailed overview of Pal's entire career is provided in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal which makes one realize the enormous range of Pal's talents - he could sketch, draw his own storyboards, design the sets, create the special effects, set the lighting, direct actors, write dialogue and raise money for his films. Though completely conventional in its presentation of talking heads and film clips, delivered in a predictable linear style, this documentary is worth a look just for the interview bits by industry peers who pay homage to Pal; among them are Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, authors Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch, director Joe Dante, animators Jim Danforth and Walter Lantz, actors Charlton Heston, Rod Taylor, Tony Curtis and many more. There is also the occasional odd moment such as one where Pal, in a promotional interview with TV host Ed Sullivan, does a slight of hand and reduces Sullivan to "tom thumb" size. One aspect of Pal's work that clearly emerges in this doc is his balance between a sense of wonder and an acceptance of the dark side of life which doesn't shirk the big issues - war, death, morality. Nowhere is this more clear than in his adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds which goes from a sun-drenched, idyllic small-town setting to a grim doomsday vision of the world with humans reduced to desperate scavengers. And there are apocalyptic moments in When Worlds Collide (1951), The Time Machine, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and other Pal movies. Since The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal was produced with the approval of Pal's widow, it tends to linger on Pal's successes and gloss over or omit his failures so you only get a brief segment on Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and no mention at all of The Power (1968) or Doc Savage - The Man of Bronze (1975), which was said to be the biggest disappointment of Pal's career. Hampered by a low-budget and arriving at a time when superheroes from comics and pulp fiction were not yet the big screen vogue, Doc Savage barely opened theatrically and was a box office bomb. However, you can see the Doc Savage promotional featurettes in the DVD's extra features which also include interviews with Pal's animator collaborators, rare kinescopes on the set of Destination Moon and at the premiere of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an interview with George himself and silent home movie footage of a fishing trip in Mexico and more. All in all, it's a great introduction to Pal and the only drawback is that the print quality of many of the clips on display leaves much to be desired.

The third disc in the set, The Great Rupert, marks Pal's entry into feature filmmaking and while it has moments of charm and invention, it hasn't aged well. By current standards, this black and white feature has the feel of a dialogue-heavy radio play and the stagy look of it doesn't help. The story of vaudeville performers down on their luck during the Depression and the squirrel who rescues them from poverty remains a sentimental favorite for those who saw it as children. And whenever Jimmy Conlin, the hilarious character actor who is best known for his many appearances in the comedies of Preston Sturges, and Rupert, the animated squirrel, are on screen, it's a total delight. Unfortunately, the majority of screen time is hogged by Jimmy Durante - whose brand of humor and singing are clearly a matter of taste - and a dreary romantic subplot featuring Terry Moore and Tom Drake. Still, the sight of little Rupert in his Scottish cap and kilt dancing a jig is hard to forget.

For more information about George Pal: Flights of Fantasy, visit Image Entertainment. To order George Pal: Flights of Fantasy, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeff Stafford