The Puppetoon Movie

The Puppetoon Movie (1987)
Image Entertainment
Extras: 12 Bonus Puppetoons, Theatrical Trailer, Interview, Photo Gallery

When animation went digital, a terrible trade-off occurred. Digital technology may have made the inert photo-realistic; yet at its heart, animation isn’t about realism, it’s about style. Whether it’s pen to paper, brush to cel, or fingers to clay, something transfers between the animator and their medium. That symbiosis makes the difference between stale cartoon knockoffs and a story that rings true even in its fabricated environment.

Before he conquered space or whizzed us through time, filmmaker George Pal created animated short films such as the world had never seen before nor seen since. Like the alchemists of old, he transmuted pieces of wood into fluid, moving beings. Arms undulated, legs arched, feet shuffled, and faces bloomed in eight-minute bursts. The era of sharing his gift, a complex and painstaking process known as "replacement animation," unfortunately came and went, as do all Camelots. Thanks to the new Image release of Arnold Leibovit’s "The Puppetoon Movie," we have a chance to once again experience not only Pal’s mastery of that lost art but regale in his gentle pleas for tolerance, compassion and love.

"The Puppetoon Movie" is a fond compilation of some of George Pal’s best-loved and just plain best Puppetoons. Leibovit starts the tribute with a newly filmed stop-motion prologue, in some ways prefiguring the opening scene of "Jurassic Park." We are in a peaceful glade, the roving camera piercing through branches until it settles upon a deer drinking from a brook. Suddenly, a ferocious T-Rex stomps into frame, approaching the hapless doe. A couple of roars later… and the dinosaur loses his nerve. We then realize we are on a movie set and Arnie the Dinosaur laments that he cannot continue with the scene. The director is none other than Gumby and he’s puzzled by Arnie’s behavior. Arnie, turns out, gave up his savage ways after experiencing the wit and gentility of George Pal (as an extra on one of his Puppetoon films, no less). Gumby, now joined by PA Pokey, professes that he is unaware of Mr. Pal’s achievements or philosophy. All three retreat to an editing room (adorned with posters from Mr. Pal’s films) and engage a moviola, first explaining a little about George Pal the man and then proceeding into the body of the film. At the end, practically every stop-motion creation ever made gathers on the set to pay a heartfelt tribute to Pal (including one rather mischievous fellow).

Eleven of the Puppetoon shorts compromise the rest of the film’s 79-minute running time. Selected from the films made in Holland prior to 1939 (when he left a few months before the Nazi invasion) and his American output at Paramount, the selection covers a range of storylines. Musical revues like "The Philips Broadcast of 1938" and "Philips Cavalcade" evoke images from Busby Berkeley films (filming musical numbers from overhead) as well as the anarchy of Warner Bros. animated cartoons with twisting limbs and dancers growing out of the floor.
"Together in the Weather" tells the tale of two climate-crossed lovers, Punchy and Judy, forever separated by their roles as weather forecasters. Pal’s impish humor is on display here, with a few outrageous sight gags that recall the more lascivious Tex Avery cartoons, any claims at impropriety diffused with its moral ending. "Tulips Shall Grow" echoes the horror of the then seemingly unstoppable Nazi machine, made literal here with the "Screwball Army" invading the peaceful existence of Jan and Janette. "Tubby the Tuba," presented here as the crowning achievement in the Puppetoon canon, shows how an orchestral prop found his voice and shared it with the world.

For me, the Puppetoon represented in the theatrical version that really shows Pal as a visionary is "John Henry and the Inky Poo." Nominated for an Oscar (as Best Animated Short) in 1946, "John Henry" is an epic account of the railroad worker who bested a rail-driving machine and entered legend. So much is going on during the film’s eight minutes that I can barely begin to list. The film brings to animation the mythologizing of American history that several filmmakers toyed with during the ’30s and ’40s, the best example being John Ford’s "Young Mr. Lincoln." Low camera placement emphasizes John’s heroic stature. The booming intonations of narrator Rex Ingram (who also voiced John) give the narrative sweep and import. Of course, there’s the "man vs. machine" context, a staple in many a science fiction story and film. Finally, the embodiment of American myth in African-American folk culture is especially poignant since some images from the earlier shorts were shackled by preconceptions of the period.

For most people, three-dimensional animation is best typified by the creations of Ray Harryhausen of "7th Voyage of Sinbad" or the walkers from "Empire Strikes Back." There, a puppet made of rubber cast over a metal armature is manipulated and filmed frame by frame to simulate life. The puppet itself never changes, though. Pal’s technique of replacement animation required the constructing of thousands of removable parts to feign motion. Over 20 variations of one face would be needed to complete a smile. Consequently, each short required an army of technicians to complete. One could understand why the process died so quickly. For the time it shined, however, the Puppetoons had a fluidity of movement unachievable with stop-motion and only emulated now with digital technology.

Usually at this point, I discuss the technical aspects and delve into the special features. This time, I will go into the special features first and then the specs, for reasons that hopefully will be apparent.

The DVD is touted as a "Special Expanded Edition" and for good reason. Thanks to the storage capacity of the format, the disc offers an additional dozen Puppetoon shorts, complete and unedited. In some cases, the shorts are complete versions of titles only partially represented in the theatrical version like "Hoola Boola" and "Philips Cavalcade." Other bonus titles include "Aladdin and the Magic Lamp" (featuring some truly detailed sets), "Mr. Strauss Takes A Walk" (with the frizzy-hair conductor featured in several of the shorts on a nature hike) and two of the "Jasper" films. An 11-minute interview with animator Bob Baker, flanked by a table filled with puppets, manages to cover quite a bit of ground. Baker fondly recalls the buzz of activity at the Puppetoon studio, uses the puppets to help illustrate the replacement animation process (it’s always helpful to use visual tools!) and laments the loss of Pal for himself and the world. Baker’s rather casual comment that the studio averaged 300 – 400 filmed frames a day is astonishing. That’s only 16 seconds of running time completed for an entire day’s work!

A production photo gallery displays a real-time rotation of shots of Gumby, Arnie the Dinosaur on set as well as production photos taken from the various shorts.
A theatrical trailer offers a generous montage from the film and is presented full-frame. The DVD also manages to sneak in a plug for Leibovit’s "Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal" with the inclusion of a trailer (made for the video release) and a production photo gallery of Leibovit and such Pal alumni as Charlton Heston, Rod Taylor, Russ Tamblyn and Alan Young.

The full-frame transfer of the theatrical feature exhibits good color fidelity despite the age and condition of the shorts. Grain is present in several instances, as expected for film dating back almost six decades. Solid black levels allow for adequate detail delineation. What amazed me however is the video on the bonus shorts. In almost every instance, the colors are sharper, the black levels deeper and details just pop off the screen. In the cases of the shorts represented in the theatrical feature, they look better in their separate presentation. The theatrical feature looks like the transfer was done from the master negative and it shows in the new animated prologue and epilogue. When comparing "Hoola Boola," "Philips Broadcast" and "Philips Cavalcade," you can actually see the sheen of the lights off the faces of the puppets and colors just seem brighter and more intense. I detected no digital or compression artifacts.

The prologue and epilogue are in stereo with the shorts, understandably, presented in their original mono. Again, given their age, the audio holds up well, displaying a minimum of distortion and a wide range. Indeed, with "Tubby" there is actually some low-end oomph when Tubby plays. Funneling the monophonic soundtrack through my center channel speaker sounded clean and natural. Similarly, the opening and closing in Pro-Logic mode widened the soundstage to great dramatic effect, showcasing Paul Tripp’s and George Kleinsinger’s catchy ditty for "Tubby" and giving the film the right touch in thanking Pal for his timeless efforts.

At the end of "John Henry," someone remarks that "a man can do anything a machine can do… if he has a mind to do it." A computer can work wonders but it still takes human fingers to make it happen. Watch "The Puppetoon Movie" and see what an imaginative, giving man wrought using his hands and his heart.