Producer George Pal (1908-1980) sired a grandiose string of science-fiction and fantasy epics like DESTINATION MOON (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), and THE TIME MACHINE (1960). But first the Hungarian emigre collected an Oscar (and five nominations) for his
"Puppetoon" series of stop-motion-animation short subjects released through Paramount starting in 1941.
Three-dimensional model animation had been seen before, of course, in KING KONG (1933) and others. Pal, with a 45-member staff of artisans and miniaturists, somewhat simplified the stop- motion process by creating pre-posed interchangeable parts and expressions for his wooden-limbed Puppetoon
dolls that standardized movements and made filming quicker and easier. This feature revives several of the better-known Puppetoon shorts (each running about eight minutes long), including perhaps the most famous, "Tubby the Tuba" (1947), which, with "The Little Broadcast" (1943) and "Rhythm in the
Ranks" (1941), use a light narrative mainly as a springboard for musical numbers, in the style of Disney's successful "Silly Symphonies" cartoons of the preceding decade. Best of all these is "Hoola Boola" (1941), an energetic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend in which big- band swing from a
phonograph breaks a spell and awakens an enchanted castle from its slumber. Other standouts include the Oscar-nominated "Tulips Shall Grow," a 1943 anti-Nazi allegory depicting a peaceful Holland-like land overrun by "Screwballs," a monolithic army of invincible automatons, finally halted by
raindrops which rust their metal joints. Actor Rex Ingram narrates "John Henry and the Inky Poo," a retelling of one of America's classic tall tales.
There's a very brief prologue and epilogue in which tribute is paid to Pal by more recent, better-known stop-motion characters, like Art Clokey's clay-animated Gumby (enjoying a revival in the 1980s mainly thanks to a swinish TV parody of the character by Eddie Murphy) and Speedy Alka-Seltzer. If
that gesture is meant to make the Puppetoons interesting for modern children, it's largely futile. With a few exceptions ("Hoola Boola," particularly), Pal's Puppetoons seem stodgy and antiquated, interesting from a technical standpoint but very much grounded in attitudes and aesthetics of days
gone by. Presented in their entirety, these shorts definitely come off poorly compared to the timelessly lively Disney, Warner Bros., and Fleischer studios animation from the same period. Furthermore, many Puppetoons trafficked in the offensive racial stereotypes of yesteryear. While no doubt
meant innocently, Pal's major running character was a bug-eyed Negro boy named Jasper who romped through folklore along with rural pals like Black Crow. No need to explain why these shorts are no longer revived; imagine if Walt Disney had invested most of his craft in SONG OF THE SOUTH's Uncle
Remus rather than Mickey Mouse. The Puppetoons must remain only a sideline in the life of George Pal, whose Hollywood career was remarkable for its variety and ambitions, as shown in a 1986 feature documentary THE FANTASY FILM WORLDS OF GEORGE PAL. While the short subjects ceased production at the
end of 1947, the George Pal Puppetoons made guest appearances in the features TOM THUMB (1958) and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962).
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