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MichaelBarrier.com Exploring the World of Animation and Comic Art

"What's New" Archives: February 2015

 

February 18, 2015:

Walt Kelly Takes the Disney Gang to the Circus

 

February 16, 2015:

A New Email Address, Again

Remembering Michael Sporn

"History Month"

 

February 9, 2015:

Strange Magic

Ted Bonnicksen, for Sure

 

February 18, 2015:

Disney Gang at the Circus

Walt Kelly Takes the Disney Gang to the Circus

When I wrote last July 23 about the subscription premiums offered by the Dell comic books, I mentioned the pinup shown above, by Walt Kelly and titled, with eccentric punctuation, "The Disney Gang 'at the Circus.'"A copy of the pinup, whose image area is 13 1/2 by 9 inches, was offered in 1949 to subscribers to Walt Disney's Comics & Stories. You can go to a larger version by clicking on the image above. My copy is framed, and I dreaded the thought of taking it out of the frame, but John Sykes, Jr., chief photographer for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the local daily, came to my rescue by taking the excellent picture you see here.

This is prime Walt Kelly, from the year when Pogo was first nationally syndicated. Kelly's covers for Walt Disney's Comics would end the next year, as would almost all of his comic-book work except for his own quarterly Pogo Possum. His long association with the Disney characters, at the studio and then in the comic books, is evident in the pinup; there are about thirty characters, and they almost all look "right" (Mickey Mouse may be an exception), even when they depart in some way from the standard models.

As far as I know, this pinup has never been re-published since 1949. That seems odd; I can easily imagine its being sold as a frameable print at Disneyland back in the 1950s, and in other venues as well, then and now.

 

February 16, 2015:

A New Email Address, Again

Changing email providers from Comcast to AT&T, as Phyllis and I did last fall, seemed like a good idea at the time but has turned out not to be, to put it mildly. Fortunately, we held off closing our Comcast account, so, please write to me again, and from now on, at michaelbarrier@comcast.net. My att.net address will remain valid for a little while longer, but the Comcast address is the one to use.

 

Michael Sporn

Remembering Michael Sporn

It has been a little over a year since that wonderful cartoon maker died, and I think of him often, especially when I watch some film on which we probably would have had a very enjoyable disagreement. And how I wish he were here to tell me what he thought of Funnybooks! Other people, especially his former colleagues in New York, remember him as warmly as I do. This comes from ASIFA-East:

Michael Sporn was one of the giants of the New York animation community. From 1980 until his untimely death last year, Michael Sporn’s studio produced many acclaimed television specials, most of them animated entirely here in New York.

To commemorate the first anniversary of his passing, ASIFA-East is hosting an evening of Tribute to Michael Sporn—and we’re encouraging members of the animation community to contribute to a tribute reel to be presented at the event and preserved online.

ASIFA-East Tribute to Michael Sporn
Monday, March 2, 2015
6:30 pm – 9:00 pm (doors open at 6:00 pm)
SVA Theatre [Beatrice]
333 West 23rd Street (between 8th & 9th Ave.)
New York, NY
(no RSVP required)

For the tribute reel we are inviting anyone to participate and send their personal message about Michael, his work, what he means to you, his animation, whatever you feel moved to say. You can write, draw, paint, photograph, GIF, audio record or videotape your message. Please email your tribute to asifaeasttreasurer@gmail.com by next Friday, February 20.

Please join the others who knew him, worked with him, and read “Splog”—his celebrated blog—to look back at his footprints and keep his legacy alive for the future.

 

"History Month"

Has anyone else been getting requests from students for interviews about Walt Disney as part of "History Month"? I've sat for a few such interviews, mostly by phone and once in person, but I eventually decided to call it quits. The kids have seemed, in the modern manner, interested not so much in Walt—and certainly not in what I've written about him—as in racking up points in some phantom academic competition. I'm not an evangelist who feels compelled to seize every opportunity to spread the Gospel of Walt, so I've been suggesting that my correspondents get in touch with the Walt Disney Family Museum. I hope I'm not making enemies there.

 

February 9, 2015:

Strange Magic

Strange Magic

Strange Magic has been treated as an embarrassment by its proprietor, Disney, and thus by Disney's internet lickspittles, many of whom obviously couldn't be bothered to test their opinions against the movie itself. Disney dumped this CGI feature cartoon, made in Singapore by its now-shuttered Lucasfilm unit, into the theatrical marketplace a few weeks ago with minimal publicity, and it has probably disappeared from your local theaters by now. Disney may reasonably have feared unflattering comparisons with Frozen, since two of the leading characters in both cartoons are sisters, and there's also a handsome, treacherous villain in both. By releasing Strange Magic under its Touchstone label, and not as a Disney cartoon, Disney put as much distance as possible between Frozen and Strange Magic, which it presumably had to release theatrically under its contract with George Lucas.

The online condemnations of Strange Magic were so sulfurous that I decided I had to see it. After all, I thought, it might be another Polar Express, which the animation jihadis hated but I found fascinating and even enjoyable.

Strange Magic is strange, all right, and the first hour or so is awful in the usual CGI manner. There's a thick crust of elaborated surfaces, way too much smarty-pants dialogue, a frantically restless camera, rapid cutting that repeatedly tests the weary eyeball's ability to keep up, and, especially, characters—elves and fairies and such—who, when they're not the usual plasticine dolls, resemble all too closely, but not really closely enough, their predecessors in roughly comparable films like Pixar's A Bug's Life, whose grasshopper villain anticipates the Bog King in the new film. (You can dismiss any thoughts of A Midsummer Night's Dream, supposedly the basis for the story, which is credited, if that's the word, to Lucas). What makes Strange Magic really strange is that it's a jukebox musical, with a soundtrack assembled from pop songs spanning several decades. Most of the music undermines any charm to be found in the fairy-tale visuals, and there's not enough wit evident in the choice of the songs, which conceivably could have been used to create a sort of alternative atmosphere: fey but with tongue in cheek.

To my surprise, though, I left the theater feeling quite cheerful, and with warm feelings for Strange Magic and its makers. Like the other people working on CGI features, they were imprisoned in a creative straitjacket, condemned to make a cartoon of the sort the market supposedly requires, but they found an escape route in the conflict between the two principal characters, the Bog King and the fairy princess Marianne. Even though they're antagonists at first, the Bog King is never presented as a coal-black villain, and so there's an opening for comedy, and then, eventually, for a full-blown romance. There is, remarkably, nothing arbitrary or abrupt about how the relationship evolves. There is instead a gradual change in their feelings for each other—not a steady progression, but the sort of back and forth that occurs as two people come to care for each other even when they have no reason to expect such an outcome. In other words, Strange Magic felt to me surprisingly real at its core.

I love animation for its ability, at its best, to make what we see on the screen seem as real as our own experiences, but in radically different ways. That is what happens in Strange Magic—very imperfectly and in a film most of whose running time is put to less exalted uses, but in today's CGI environment any such departure from the norm deserves applause. I don't know who deserves the most credit. Gary Rydstrom directed Strange Magic, and his background is in sound design, not animation, but he also shared the screenwriting credit. And then there's the indispensable voice work by Alan Cumming, as the Bog King.

Regardless, something good happened during work on Strange Magic. I can't encourage you to see it in a theater, because it won't be playing in many theaters by the time you read this; and I hesitate to recommend that you see it on Netflix, because so much of it is so bad, especially in the early going, that you may give up long before it's over. Maybe, like the Disney junkies on the internet, you should skip watching the movie and just go with what "everybody knows," "everybody" in this case being...well, me.

Comments

From Ralph Daniel: Thanks for your review of Strange Magic, especially the part about "frantically restless camera, rapid cutting that repeatedly tests the weary eyeball's ability to keep up". In my opinion, the modern cinematic cliche of shaky-cam and drifty-cam has been way overdone, but unfortunately, I see no end in sight. Maybe someone can come up with some stabilization software which will allow TV viewers the option of seeing steady pictures. Meanwhile, at least I know of one movie to avoid.

[Posted February 16, 2015]

 

Bonnicksen

Ted Bonnicksen, For Sure

I posted the photo above on July 16, 2011, under the heading "Mystery Men." I wrote then: "When I interviewed the Disney animator Jerry Hathcock in 1986, he lent me that photo so that I could make a copy negative. That's obviously Jack Hannah—animator, story man who teamed with Carl Barks, and finally director of Donald Duck shorts—at the left; Jerry told me that two of the other three men were Nicholas George and Ted Bonnicksen, but he wasn't sure which was which, and neither am I."

Ted BonnicksenBut now I know that the man in the striped shirt is Ted Bonnicksen, thanks to this message I received:

My name is Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen. I am Professor Emeritus of Forest Science from Texas A&M University. I am the son of Hans Madsen Bonnicksen, brother of Theodore “Ted” Bonnicksen. Ted is my uncle. We were all born in Cook County, Illinois; that is Chicago. I have very little information about my family, just some scraps from old home movies and a few recollections from family members. I remember Ted from when I was a little boy, maybe 6-8 years old, when he came to visit us in Long Beach, Indiana. What I remember most about him was his kindness. I kept asking him to draw a cartoon for me. He finally drew one on a napkin. It is long since gone. It was Bugs Bunny dreaming about a steak (which was dinner that night).

Uncle Ted was lanky (I know that from an old movie of him playing badminton with my father in the back yard). I also searched what few old movies I had to see if I could find his hair style and face. I did. One image is attached. I compared it with your photo. Uncle Ted is on the right and my uncle Andy, a famous WWII veteran (who flew 30 missions over France and survived, and won many medals for bravery), is on the left. They created a sensation in the papers when they met accidentally in England as brothers during the war. Of course, Ted had already been drawing WWII cartoons at the time. There is no question that Uncle Ted is the animator drawing something in your photo and wearing a striped shirt.

Ted Bonnicksen's name may be most familiar from his work on Bob McKimson's Warner Bros. cartoons; below is the model sheet for the Tasmanian Devil that he shared with his family. I'm glad to have the opportunity to give him some of the recognition he deserves.

Tasmanian Devil model sheet

Comments

From Thad Komorowski: I enjoyed the nice writeup on Ted Bonnicksen this afternoon. I wonder, was he an assistant to Art Davis? I know he was a full-fledged animator at Disney's, but his animation at Warners has so many similarities to Davis's that it reminds me of a sort of lineage common at Warners. (Abe Levitow's animation highly resembles Ken Harris's and Bill Melendez's is so similar to Rod Scribner's, and as you know, they had been their respective assistants.)

[Posted February 9, 2015]

From Hans Perk: About the "Mystery Men" photo (you know, Hannah, Bonnicksen...) - there can be no doubt it has been taken at Hyperion. It is part of a series of photos taken in 1938 and 1939. In a publication called Funnyworld, in Nr. 21, Carl Barks mentions that the Duck unit was in the back buildings of the Annex across the street "some months in 1939," and before I read that, I already was pretty certain it had to have been taken there. Also, it can be no earlier than February 1938, as there is a lady on their wall from Click Photo Parade of that month... By the way, it was the earlier Nr. 20 of Funnyworld that sparked my interest in the "old studio," so my being able to tell you the above is your own doing...

[Posted March 14, 2016]

 

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