August 13, 2012


i've been watching a lot of Flip the Frog cartoons lately, as they happen to be in a volume on netflix streaming called "forgotten cartoons," or something like that. the title is, sadly, appropriate. the volume i've been watching is all Ub Iwerks cartoons, mostly Flip the Frog and Willy Whopper. if you're like me, you probably never heard of Ub Iwerks or these characters, so i ended up looking him up, and i'm so glad i did.

Ub was a very talented artist, and was one of Walt Disney's oldest friends and collaborators. Iwerks came up with and animated the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which Disney eventually lost to Universal and has been in news recently for being traded back to Disney. he also created lots of early Disney characters like Clairabelle Cow, and co-created Micky Mouse, as well as animating most early Disney cartoons himself.

eventually he and Disney had a falling out, mostly over his feeling overworked and receiving little credit, and he went on to start his own studio, and employed fresh young animators such as Chuck Jones. after his own studio folded, Iwerks went back to working for Disney where he animated, pioneered special effects such as the combination of live-action and animation in Song of the South, and even designed theme park attractions for Disney theme parks. he was also the animator behind one of my favorite cartoons of all time, The Skeleton Dance. i was amazed i had never known about this guy, or Flip the Frog.

Flip cartoons have a certain charm and punkish nature i find endearing, especially compared to Disney cartoons, or even Looney Tunes at the time. for example, in the cartoon pictured above, Flip takes refuge in a spooky old house in a storm, only to find it inhabited by a scary animate skeleton, who tries to force feed him chicken bones, watches him dance with a skeletal lady, then decides Flip's skeleton would be the perfect size to add to his collection of assorted sized skeletons, and goes about trying to extract it with a large knife. in another, Flip tries to sneak out on his hotel bill in the middle of night, and in the ensuing chase with the hotel owner and a policeman, he keeps catching peeps at a shapely lady getting out of the shower (awesomely, when she catches the policeman peeping in her keyhole, she stabs him in the eye with a hat pin!). i'm a little sad that Flip was slid under the rug for so long, but glad that collections like this are bringing him back to a wide audience (including me!).

as i started watching these classic cartoons, i began to wonder what shaped them; as animation is an almost limitless medium, and these people were pioneering new frontier here, why were they so similar and formulaic? i understand that there was probably some meddling going on here from the top, like this is what sold and what people wanted to see, so make more of this, type of thing. but who started it all? why do inanimate objects suddenly spring to life? why is everything so round, jolly, bug-eyed and prone to whistling? why does everyone have noodly appendages and a penchant for sight gags? i was surprised to learn that it was all almost completely because of Iwerks. his style was what pretty much all animation aspired to be afterward.

i also find it interesting that Iwerks' cartoons were an influence for Osamu Tezuka, who saw them soon after World War II. so, in a way, Iwerks also had a hand in shaping the style of anime!

i know Iwerks is well known in many circles, but he and his work were new to me as an amateur animation enthusiast, so i thought i'd share how this little discovery has blown my mind.


Unknown said...

Iwerks rules! He's like the best kept secret in animation, right? His daughter made a documentary about him that was released by Disney a while back (I kinda wish it wasn't a Disney release but it's still good). Here's the first part: The Hand Behind the Mouse pt 1

Kaylie said...

yeah, i find it amazing he isn't more well-known! i had read that his daughter was a documentary film maker. i'll have to check it out. thanks, Nick!