Crank up the old Jack-in-the-box! Thunderbean's Noveltoons: Original Classics is here, and it's a gem of a collection.
It's pretty ironic that a cartoon studio bearing the moniker "Famous" produced so many shorts and characters that weren't.
They were better known for Popeye, Superman and Casper the Ghost, but they also churned out a number of other creations
like Herman the Mouse and Baby Huey, not to mention hordes of one-shot wonders.
Most of these miscellaneous shorts were released under the banner of the "Noveltoons" series. Famous Studios was formed in 1942
in the aftermath of some bitter business between Max and Dave Fleischer and distributor Paramount Pictures, so most of the staff from
the original Fleischer studio remained. Many of them were master animators who had been in the game since the silent days,
and it's interesting to see what they came up with when they weren't just making more Popeye or Superman shorts.
Not surprisingly, the animation in most of the Noveltoons is top notch, especially in the earlier entries. The art of Dave Tendlar,
John Gentilella, Isadore Sparber, Seymour Kneitel, and Dan Gordon shines, as does that of Jim Tyer, one of the wackiest animators
ever to pick up a pencil. It's nice to see these films with their original credits restored so that these artists can be appreciated by name.
Another aspect of the Noveltoons that really stands out is the voice acting. Sadly, it appears that Paramount, like many cartoon producers,
had no interest in giving the actors credit. But they're good ones: Jackson Beck (who voiced Bluto in the Popeye shorts), Jack Mercer (Popeye),
Sid Raymond, and Arnold Stang, among others. Composer Winston Sharples provides great musical scores as well.
As for the humor, well, after watching several Noveltoons in a row, it becomes clear why they aren't more popular. While the animation and
artistry are on par with the best series from other studios at the time, the laughs aren't. The stories are mostly linear and straightforward,
and the timing is often slow. The characters are memorable, but with many of them there's a feeling that we've seen them before. Blackie the Lamb could
stand in for Bugs Bunny, Buzzy the Crow could be Woody Woodpecker, and Herman, for all his wiseguy charm, is really just another cartoon mouse in a sea of others.
Even the overgrown lummox child concept had been done before Baby Huey showed up. (Junyer Bear, anyone?) At their best, though, these cartoons are still enjoyable,
especially in the way the characters look and move. The cat and dog in "Cheese Burglar", the wolf in "Teacher's Pest", the horse in "Ups an' Downs Derby",
and others just LOOK funny. It's also obvious when animator Jim Tyer is drawing them...they suddenly take on new levels of wackiness.
By the 1950's, the Famous cartoons got pretty formulaic and budget cuts put a damper on the creativity, but this DVD focuses on the 1942-1950 period,
and there was some real experimentation going on here. There are rowdy cat-and-mouse chases clearly influenced by MGM, but there are also sweet,
touching stories like "The Enchanted Square" featuring Raggedy Ann. There are chase cartoons, but there are also able attempts at Disney cuteness.
The real selling point of this DVD set, though, is the effort Steve Stanchfield and his team put into restoring these films. They're public domain, so they're easy to find...
in fact they're a dime a dozen. Most of the copies out there, though, are shabby, faded and beat-up. They've changed hands so many times over the years that
many have their titles and credits lopped off and replaced with a TV distributor's logo, are re-titled as "Harveytoons", and look like they were rescued from a
local TV station's dumpster. (I suspect many of the prints used on the old public domain vhs collections were, in fact, acquired through Waste Management.)
Stanchfield decided to go the extra mile and track down original theatrical prints with their original Paramount/Famous titles and credits, with unfaded color.
If you've seen them before, you've never seen them like this! The colors pop, the lines are crystal clear, and the sound is excellent. These cartoons were made in
Technicolor, and they USED it. At times it's dazzling, particularly the backgrounds. The skies in "Lamb in a Jam", the fantasy world in "The Enchanted Square",
the backyard in "Naughty But Mice", and the house in "Stupidstitious Cat" will knock your socks off. Some shorts definitely look better than others, and you'll
come across some dust, lines and the occasional film splice here and there...but it really gives you the feeling that you're watching these cartoons as they
were seen back in the 1940's. Even the one or two lesser-quality prints on here look better than anything you'll find in the Wal Mart bargain bin.
It's also nice to see that Steve worked with the experts on this one. Jerry Beck, Thad Komorowski, Mike Kazaleh and Bob Jaques all give very informative commentaries.
There's also bonus material including model sheets and drawings, plus a storyboard to finished cartoon comparison.
This DVD gave me a new appreciation for a series of cartoons I knew very little about, and introduced me to several great Golden Age films I'd just flat-out never seen.
If not consistently funny or groundbreaking, they're beautiful to look at, and the animation is fantastic. Steve Stanchfield and Thunderbean Animation did this one right,
and if you're an animation enthusiast, this belongs in your collection.
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