Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Animated Movies

The nature of the contribution of animation to the Cinema of the fantastic is enigmatic: at one and the same time it (a) cannot be overestimated and (b) is far too easy to overestimate. In the most pedantic sense, very few animated movies are not fantasy, in that a huge percentage of them involve Talking Animals like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and the rest. But this alone hardly qualifies them to be considered as full fantasies, for their events might otherwise be reasonably mundane: in some cases the whole point of an animated movie is that the circumstances may be fantasticated solely as a means of putting into context the foibles of people in the real world. In this sense many animated movies are related closely to the Beast Fables of, say, Aesop (> Aesopian Fantasy).

If we eliminate such movies from consideration, we still find ourselves with a huge number of animated movies that are most certainly fantasy. In addition, an ever-increasing number of movies combine – thanks to technological advances – live-action with animation, and these too are preponderantly fantasies.

The history of animation really began with such artifices as the flickerbook and zoetrope in the 19th century – unless one considers the cave paintings at Altamira, Lascaux, etc., as animations, in that flickering firelight seems to give them motion. However, it is hard to pin down the very first animated movie; often this is listed as Winsor McCay's Little Nemo (1911), but certainly the French animator Emile Cohl had produced some short movies several years earlier. However, Little Nemo, which McCay not only animated but hand-coloured, opened up to others the possibility of the animated movie as an artform; indeed, it is better viewed as a demonstration of possibilities than as a movie, because it made no attempt to tell a story. McCay's nine other shorts are described in the entry on him; here we should note that The Story of a Mosquito (1912) made the breakthrough into storytelling, while with Gertie, the Dinosaur (1914) he made the discovery that animations were best performed by more than one hand; in this short he himself executed all the drawings of Gertie, while his assistant John Fitzsimmons provided the backgrounds, based on McCay's originals. As examination of the credits of any more recent AM will confirm, this division of labour became a persistent – and necessary – feature of animation.

Others, like John Randolph Bray, Raoul Barré, Otto Messmer and Walt Disney, had far more ambitious ideas. Bray is best remembered for having produced the series of shorts based on a Munchhausen-like character, Colonel Heeza Liar; the first of these shorts, Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa (1913), was probably the first AM to be issued to cinemas rather than featuring as part of some other performance. Bray came up with various labour-saving ideas that were extended by Earl Hurd, who had the notion that much effort would be avoided if the moving part of the animation were drawn on transparent cels (sheets of celluloid) that could be overlaid on a painted background; through the use of several cels at once, even more time could be saved in the drawing, since not all parts of a moving figure are moving at any one moment.

Barré established various technical advances, but is best remembered for having founded the first animation studio, in 1914; his sidekick was Bill Nolan, another technical innovator. With animators Gregory LaCava and Frank Moser, they produced the Animated Grouch Chasers series of shorts, many of which were apparently fantasies. In 1916, though, the entrepreneur William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) hired Barré's collaborators to found International Film Service, which produced a number of largely forgotten cartoons as well as the screen versions of The Katzenjammer Kids and Krazy Kat (although from 1919 much better versions of these cartoons were produced by Bray's studios under licence from Hearst). Barré went on to work with Charles Bowers, who had acquired movie rights to the Mutt and Jeff Comic strip – although the credits on these animated shorts acknowledged only the strip's creator, Bud Fisher. The next few years saw many changes in responsibility for the production of the Mutt and Jeff shorts, but they served as an instructional hotbed for new animators.

In 1919 Otto Messmer, then working for Pat Sullivan's studio, created Felix the Cat, and the first Felix the Cat cartoon appeared later that year. (Although Sullivan claimed the credit for these cartoons and their associated comic strips, in fact Messmer and a team under him – which eventually included Barré – were entirely responsible.) Felix was still going strong while Walt Disney was producing his early cartoons, the Laugh-O-grams, Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and it was Disney who forced animation to take its next great leap forward when he produced Steamboat Willie (1928), the first sound cartoon. Starring Mickey Mouse, this has a soundtrack that is more whistles and yelps than anything else, but the noises were sufficiently well synchronized with the on-screen action to create the illusion of being integral to it.

The next few decades' progress in animation do not easily submit to an historical account because they saw great diversification of aims and techniques; they are too often seen as being a question of "Disney, and the rest". This was far from the case (although Disney's contribution should not be underestimated; > Disney; Walt Disney). Of considerable importance in this period were, in their different ways, Tex Avery, Max Fleischer, Chuck Jones, Walter Lantz and Charles Mintz (?1895-1940) – not to mention Disney's collaborator, Ub Iwerks. Nevertheless, it was Walt Disney who realized that colour would be animation's next big milestone, signing a contract with Technicolor that allowed him to produce the first cartoon in full colour (there had been earlier dead-end experiments with limited colour), Flowers and Trees (1932), and it was he who created the first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney's pre-eminence also established a trend that continues to this day: the use of classic stories – especially Wonder Tales – as the bases for animated features. The first serious competitor to Disney in this field, Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels (1939; Gulliver Movies), conforms to this pattern, while Disney – and later the Disney studio – have over the decades produced Pinocchio (1940), The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad (1949) – based on Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (circa 1819) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908) (> The Wind in the Willows) – Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Sword in the Stone (1963) – a treatment of the Arthur legend, loosely based on T H White's The Sword in the Stone (1939) – The Jungle Book (1967) – loosely based on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (coll 1894) – Robin Hood (1973), Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983; > A Christmas Carol), Oliver & Company (1988) – very loosely based on Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) – The Little Mermaid (1989), The Prince and the Pauper (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992). Warner Brothers have raided a similar stockpot with movies like Treasure Island (1972), Oliver Twist (1974) and The Nutcracker Prince (1990); Richard Williams has dipped his spoon with Raggedy Ann and Andy (1977), based on stories and characters created by Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938), and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (1971 tvm; > A Christmas Carol); Rankin-Bass have done more than that with movies like Return to Oz (1964 tvm), The Cricket on the Hearth (1967 tvm), The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967), A Christmas Carol (1970 tvm), The Emperor's New Clothes (1972 tvm), The Hobbit (1977 tvm) and The Wind in the Willows (1987 tvm). Hanna-Barbera have been there with Jack and the Beanstalk (1967 tvm), Gulliver's Travels (1979 tvm) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1973 tvm). Others of interest in this context include: Animal Farm (1955); Journey Back to Oz (1974) by Hal Sutherland (1929-2014); The Lord of the Rings (1978) by Ralph Bakshi; The Water Babies (1979) by Lionel Jeffries; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1979 tvm); A Christmas Carol (1984) from Burbank Films; Adventures of Sinbad (1975), The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1975) and The Adventures of Sinbad (1979 tvm) (> Sinbad Movies); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1986 tvm) (> Jekyll and Hyde Movies); The New Gulliver (1933), Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon (1966), Gulliver's Travels (1976) and Gulliver's Travels Part 2 (1983) (> Gulliver Movies); The Phantom of the Opera (1987); and The Princess and the Goblin (1992). A recent example of note is Don Bluth's Thumbelina (1994).

It might be easy, looking at the length of this list, to get the impression that animated movies are nothing but retellings of the classics. But this is certainly not true. Particularly outside the USA, commercial moviemakers have recognized that animation can be used to create new tales, and to challenge rather than merely entertain. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the career of the Czech animator Jan Švankmajer. He has produced only two features, both using a combination of live action, stop-motion animation and puppetry, and both might seem, to judge only by their titles, to fall into the pattern of animated classics: Alice (1988) and Faust (1994). In fact both are extremely disturbing, extremely complex works in which the originals are mere springboards for tales that could probably be told in no other way: they are adult fare, not children's entertainments. With much lighter intent, but again with great ambition, the Italian Maurizio Nichetti has made live-action/animated movies that are open to deeper interpretation than their wildly entertaining exteriors might suggest: Allegro Non Troppo (1976), which he cowrote, and Volere Volare (1991), which he cowrote and codirected. The US emigré Don Bluth has produced various animated movies that are superficially entertainments but in fact pack a message, notably An American Tail (1986), while the Australian Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992) and the UK Watership Down (1978) likewise sugar-coat their different pills – as, indeed, did Disney's Fantasia (1940), whose agenda was the popularization of classical music. In the USA, it is hard to think of a commercial animator who has consistently picked up the glove offered by the medium except Ralph Bakshi, who has – not always with success – uncompromisingly produced adult material, including the fantasies Wizards (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), Fire and Ice (1982) and the live-action/animated Cool World (1992).

This last is an excellent example of the use of the mixture of live-action and animation to generate what is in effect a new breed of fantasy creature: the Toon, the animated character which has to cope with a physical, human-populated world. Other relevant movies include Dunderklumpen! (1974), Pete's Dragon (1977), Volere Volare (1991), The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Last Action Hero (1993) – to a much lesser extent than the others – and of course the magnificent Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Tron (1982) reverses the process, making humans vulnerable in a toon environment.

In the 1990s animation has achieved a healthier state than it has enjoyed for decades, and is now regarded as an important component of the commercial Cinema, with each new Disney feature regularly being among the top grossing movies of its year and with, for example, Tim Burton's stop-motion The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) being an astonishing international success. True, there are still some very poor – patronizingly poor – animated movies being released, but this is countered by the fact that people like Bakshi, Bluth, Nichetti and Švankmajer (not to mention Disney, of course) are still at work. Adding vigour to the scene is the fact that the Comics and animation have – thanks probably to the huge popularity of Japanese Anime – resumed the mutually beneficial relationship which they enjoyed in the earliest days, with very creditable attempts being made to transfer comics material to the screen – as in Batman – Mask of the Phantasm (1993; > Batman Movies). In the same year, almost entirely ignored, came Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1993), based on the Winsor McCay strip and with an astonishingly impressive credits list. And the future looks exciting, too, especially since reasonably priced animation software packages have become available for use on home computers. In spring 1996, moreover, the huge success of a string of recent Disney animated features brought many other studios, established or specifically set up, into the game. [JG]

further reading: The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology (1980) ed Danny Peary and Gerald Peary, recommended; Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (1980; rev 1987) by Leonard Maltin, recommended; World Encyclopedia of Cartoons (1980) by Maurice Horn; Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928 (1982; rev 1993) by Donald Crafton, which also has a companion video compilation, Before Mickey: An Animated Anthology (1993), containing such shorts as Fantasmagorie (1908), Gertie (1914), Out of the Inkwell: Perpetual Motion (1920), Alice's Mysterious Mystery (1926), The Lunch Hound (1927) and Felix the Cat in The Oily Bird (1928); The Great Cartoon Directors (1983) by Jeff Lenburg; That's All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation (1988) by Steve Schneider, which sadly lacks an index; Tom and Jerry: Fifty Years of Cat and Mouse (1991) by T R Adams, an exceptionally useful book covering Tom & Jerry in their various incarnations, containing also good filmographies (> Hanna-Barbera) plus a lot about MGM animation; The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons (1991) by Jeff Lenburg (based in part on The Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoon Series [circa 1981] by Lenburg), inaccurate but useful; Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (1993) by Eric Smoodin, concentrating on shorts; Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (trans Anna Taraboletti-Segre 1994) by Giannalberto Bendazzi. For books on the Disney output > Disney.

see also: Akira (1987); The Black Cauldron (1985); The Brave Little Toaster (1987); Dick Tracy (1990); Ducktales: The Movie – Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990); Dumbo (1941); The Last Unicorn (1982); Mary Poppins (1964); The Pagemaster (1994); The Return of Jafar (1994); Superman Movies; Yellow Submarine (1968).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.