Saturday, 2 March 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - The Official Dr. Seuss Birthday Sounding-Off Place

Exactly one year ago, when 'The Lorax' movie starring Danny Devito came out, I read an interesting article about Dr. Seuss' widow Audrey Geisel, overseer of her late husband's estate. It was about quality control. "I'm not one to go commercial very easily", she told USA Today. "I like my little creatures kept in their little circle". Thankfully that "little circle" is now strictly an animated one. Mrs. Seuss, so underwhelemed by live action stink-stank-stunk like Jim Carrey's 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas' (2000) and Mike Myers' 'The Cat In The Hat' (2003), decided (thankfully) that all feature film output from then on in would be animated. Subsequent releases, which so far have included 2008's 'Horton Hears A Who' and 2012's 'The Lorax', have been steps in the right direction. Certainly more worthy of the Dr. Seuss brand, that's for sure. There's even a new CG 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas' now scheduled for 2015! 

I'm with Mrs. Geisel. I can respect Jim Carrey for trying. But Dr. Seuss' world was meant for cartoons!

Dr. Seuss, born Theodor (Ted) Seuss Geisel exactly 109 years ago today, was a skilled cartoonist in addition to being the most unlikely poet ever. His distinctive drawing style is recognizable even without the rhyme scheme to accompany it. And because that style is so distinctive, it's interesting his work was left to be interpreted by so many other talents. But that's partly because he inspired so many who wanted to work with him. 

Prior to writing his first books, Dr. Seuss was an illustrator for both newspapers (he created a comic strip called Hejji in 1935) and advertising, mainly for an insecticide called Flit, which he worked on for 17 years. 

There's a rumour that 2 lost cartoons he worked on during this time for Warner Bros., may have been advertisements for Flit - 1931's 'Neath The Badaba Tree and Put On The Spout, which I guess kinda sounds insecticide-esque. Little is known about these cartoons except that Dr. Seuss seems to be credited for the stories, and they don't exist.

By 1940, Dr. Seuss, the author, was making a name for himself, with the release of his book, Horton Hatches The Egg. Two years later, the cartoon was released as a Warner Bros. Merrie Melodie, directed by animation legend, Bob Clampett, who was a fan of the book. The story remains relatively faithful to the source material, except for a few creative flourishes you probably didn't see on television...

Dr. Seuss would work with Clampett again, along with other famous Looney Tunes directors, for a series called Private Snafu between 1943 and 1945.

'Snafu' (an acronym meaning Situation Normal: All F*cked Up) was for military only - an educational series commissioned by the United States army. Disney was given first crack at creating the series, but was underbid by Leon Schlesigner, who was overseeing the Warner Bros. animation department at the time. Good thing he did, because his creative team is what gave these cartoons the edge and personality to stand out, with heavy-hitters at the helm like Seuss and Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freling and Frank Tashlin. You can watch some of these as bonus features on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs. Here's one that wasn't included, featuring a special guest star you may recognize...

During this time, 2 stop-motion Puppetoon cartoons were also released, based on published Dr. Seuss books - The 500 Hats Of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943) and To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1944). I haven't seen them, but as you can tell from this pic, the stretchy and more abstract Dr. Seuss-style would have been harder to pull off with this type of filmmaking.

One of Dr. Seuss's most well-known contributions to the cartoon world was based on a record he wrote and illustrated for Capitol. Gerald McBoing-Boing is about a 2-year old who can only speak in sound effects. The cartoon, which won an Academy Award in 1950, was made by UPA (United Productions of America), and would come to represent an animation movement. The UPA-style of cartoon was considered to be the anti-Disney. Simplistic designs, basic backgrounds and experimental use of colour would typify UPA's output. It was a process that abandoned realism for style, and proved a great cost-cutting measure through the use of limited animation, unfortunately to the detriment of many cheapie cartoons to follow.

The popularity of the character resulted in Gerald headlining 3 more cartoons, which Dr. Seuss had no involvement in. He also had his own series, 'The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show', which aired from 1956-1957, and then again from 2005-2007.

Now to the most famous Dr. Seuss cartoon of all - How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Dr. Seuss was reluctant to turn The Grinch into a cartoon, despite having worked with Chuck Jones before on 'Private Snafu'. Additions and updates had to be made in order to turn the book into a half-hour feature. And perhaps the biggest acceptance that Seuss had to come to terms with was Jones' decision to make The Grinch green. In the original book, it's hard to believe The Grinch didn't really have a colour, aside from the Santa suit he puts on. Now it's hard to imagine him being anything BUT green!

Dr. Seuss was also apparently concerned the characters would become more "Chuck Jones". And they did. But one can safely say now, it was for the betterment of the cartoon. Still, Chuck Jones, even though adding his own signature flair (like that bad-ass toothpick), still stayed true to the book's story, layout and design.

In addition to inserting new scenes like the descent down Mount Crumpit, the story was also expanded with songs, which Dr. Seuss wrote himself. As if anyone else could have made a "three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich" part of a holiday standard!

That song, "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch", was performed by Thurl Ravenscroft, who was also the voice of Frosted Flakes' Tony The Tiger. Upon first broadcast, many people assumed it was Boris Karloff, who performed the sing-songy "sounds of The Grinch". Aghast at this, the good Dr. reportedly apologized to Thurl and wrote numerous letters to newspapers to try and set the story straight, giving Thurl credit where credit was due.

The Grinch is a classic. And thanks to repeated TV showings every holiday season, it's now difficult to differentiate between the book and the cartoon. It's like the two were meant for each other though - the perfect coupling between two geniuses and their two very different mediums. The cartoon needs the prose, but the prose only gets better with stuff like this...

Chuck Jones also partnered with Dr. Seuss for a version of Horton Hears A Who in 1970, featuring most of his original crew from The Grinch, including Thurl Ravenscroft, who obviously accepted Dr. Seuss' apology.

Dr. Seuss then worked with Warner Bros. director Friz Freling at his new animation company with David H. DePatie. Starting with 1971's The Cat In The Hat, they would crank out a new Dr. Seuss special on an almost annual basis, continuing with The Lorax (1972), Dr. Seuss On The Loose (1973), The Hoober-Bloob Highway (1975), Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977), Pontoffel Pock, Where Are You? (1980) and ending with 1982's The Grinch Grinches The Cat In The Hat. Children and Dr. Seuss fans may enjoy these faithful adaptations, which have a look more consistent to Seuss's books. But if you're like me, the distinct lack of personality in both direction and design make for some very long half-hours.

Three more TV specials came after that, made at different studios.

I guarantee you haven't seen the first one - a 1986 adaptation of Thidwick, The Big Hearted Moose. That's because it was Soviet-made and officially called Welcome in English. I can't tell how faithful the dialogue is to the book, as I wasn't able to learn Russian this week. But it's a beautiful film made with paint-on-glass, directed by Alexai Karayev. Visually and stylistically, it's night-and-day compared to other Dr. Seuss adaptations. The ending, the lack of animal names and an absense of narrator are the other main differences. Dr. Seuss had no direct involvement in the film. Although he probably could have. Dr. Seuss seems to speak in his own language anyway. What's Russian for Winna-Bango?

There was an adaptation of Daisy-Head Mayzie put out in 1995 by Hanna-Barbera, but 1989's The Butter Battle Book was the last animated feature that Dr. Seuss was directly involved in. And what a way it was to close out a very "storied" career! Butter Battle was produced by animation legend Ralph Bakshi, who made cartoons for VERY big kids - notorious adult-fare like the X-rated 'Fritz The Cat' and 'Heavy Traffic'. The Butter Battle Book, both book and cartoon, makes very adult allusions to the Cold War, and Bakshi retains that edge (not to mention an open ending) in his cartoon, without losing an overall sense of charm throughout. This is another great example of two gifted artists, making one another's work even better. And it's nice to finally hear some stand-out songs by Seuss again, on par with the ones he wrote for The Grinch. This is my second favourite Seuss adaptation next to The Grinch, and a great way to end on a high note.

Dr. Seuss passed away at the age of 87 on September 24, 1991. But obviously he'll live on forever in his books and cartoons, which are still released with great frequency.

Caught myself enjoying an episode of 'The Cat In The Hat Knows A Lot About That' awhile back with my nephew. Martin Short has a great voice for The Cat! Classy, with a hint of insanity! My nephew would probably agree but he gets tired of hearing me talk about cartoons all the time, so I try not to pry.

Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You."

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