Cartoons Forever!

As Toy Story 3 racks up some of the best reviews of the year, I’m pleased that so many critics have taken time to make note of the innovative short-subject that accompanies it. Day & Night—which is so clever it’s almost impossible to describe—is the work of an up-and-coming talent named Teddy Newton whom the folks at Pixar have earmarked for big things.

John Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues know that while there is no real monetary return to be derived from the production of shorts, they serve as a fertile training ground for animation directors, artists, and storytellers. What’s more, audiences enjoy them. Lasseter and Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi even collaborated on a hardcover volume called The Art of Pixar Short Films, which Chronicle Books published last year. (Lasseter also green-lit a hilarious short made at Disney called How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, which was designed to look and—

—sound just like a Goofy cartoon from 1950. But even Disney “didn’t know what to do with it,” as studio distribution chiefs are fond of saying, and I doubt that more than a handful of people have ever seen it.)

Likewise, DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky (the Ice Age people) and Sony ImageWorks (now Sony Pictures Digital Productions) have presented shorts as curtain-raisers for some of their feature films.

I’m not counting “content” these studios create for DVD, the Internet, or as TV specials, because there is particular delight in seeing an animated short on a big screen, and hearing the often-audible response of an appreciative audience.

Another facet of that response is surprise, because people don’t expect to see a short-subject when they pay for a feature. That’s a complete reversal of the way things used to be, even when I was growing up. From the silent era right through the 1950s, virtually every theater in this country programmed “selected short subjects,” which might include a newsreel, a travelogue, or a comedy, but always incorporated a cartoon. Many exhibitors continued to book cartoons right through the 1970s, and producers like Walter Lantz, Terrytoons, and DePatie-Freleng obliged by turning out a yearly roster of new releases.

Being the nerd I was—and remain—it didn’t take me long to figure out that my home town theater in Teaneck, New Jersey had poor taste in cartoons, often opting for dopey Terrytoons, while the Oritani in nearby Hackensack almost always ran Warner Bros. cartoons. O happy day!

More on those Warners cartoons—past, present, and future—in my next posting.

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May 2024