Friday, October 10, 2008

Aesop's Film Fables

This week we pay homage to the wildly imaginative Aesop’s Fables series of vintage cartoons. These inspired animated treasures often feature a rapid fire series of nonsensical non-sequitur gags, reminiscent of the animation sequences in the Monty Python Flying Circus classic TV shows.

Thunderbean Animation wunderkind Steve Stanchfield has generously permitted us to share with you some fascinating examples from Thunderbean’s eccentric and vastly amusing Aesop’s Fables DVD collection. Steve, together with his creative sidekicks Chris Buchman and Rex Schneider, have produced a magnificently realized compilation of some of the best cartoons in the Aesop's Fables series.

But before we watch the cartoons, we can’t think of a better way to set the stage than by reprinting, with permission, Chris Buchman’s expert and entertaining commentary on the subject.

An Aesop’s Fables Primer

by Chris Buchman

Aesop’s Film Fables animated cartoons are loved by fans who accept them for the pleasant, oft-times, off-the-wall, diversions they are. They are loathed by critics who dismiss them as primitive efforts unable to meet the standards of the Disney polish – a comparison of apples and oranges if ever there was one, since the Disney polish was to come at another time. During the Aesop’s Fables period (1921-1933), Disney cartoons were in a similar state of primitive exuberance.

Animated cartoons, of course, don’t have to be polished; they don’t need to display a refinement of the artist’s and animator’s skills; possess strong characters, or even a coherent story line, to be thoroughly entertaining.

The Aesop’s Fables series, initiated by pioneer animator Paul Terry in 1921, proved a tremendous success from the start, and its continuing popularity is owing to the imaginativeness of Terry and his animators whose free-wheeling style, and sometimes surrealistic brilliance, anticipated the celebrated work of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Max Fleischer.

For added punch, each cartoon concluded with an Aesopian moral, though it is doubtful Aesop ever said, "Many a true word is spoken through false teeth.”

It matters not that the Fables bear little resemblance to the tales of the ancient philosopher-storyteller. They remain a curious lot from a different world inhabited by mice, farm animals, bugs, flies, spiders, jungle creatures, and even dinosaurs, with occasional appearances by Terry’s own Farmer Alfalfa, and a playful, sometimes protagonist, black pussy named Henry.

The Fables boast no super stars – just a stock company of inviting characters made delightfully expressive, frequently lovable, and irresistibly amusing by the animators.

One is easily provoked to giggling at the sight of petite Dame Hippo in tights holding a tiny umbrella, delicately pressing a finger against her one snaggled tooth, skipping merrily along, blushing coyly; or a big fat hairy spider, lusting after an innocent babe in the wood, gruesomely licking his chops; or a pair of love-smitten mice kissing passionately; or a chorus-line of amorphous fowl dancing themselves into graves.

With the arrival of ‘talkies’ in 1928, Amedee Van Beuren, who had produced the Fables series since its inception, assumed ownership and announced that all future pictures would be produced in sound with the remaining silents already completed to be accompanied by music and sound effects for release. Terry, whether averse to making sound cartoons or in conflict with Van Beuren, departed the company in 1929.

The first Aesop’s Sound Fables released, “Dinner Time” debuted at New York’s Mark-Strand Theatre on September 1st, 1928, rather significantly, a good two months before Disney’s “Steamboat Willie” (generally regarded as the first sound cartoon), made its bow at the Colony Theatre on November 18th.

The series eventually dropped the Aesop’s morals, introduced Cubby Bear and Tom and Jerry, who continued in their own respective series after the Aesop Fables title was abandoned in 1933, by which time over 500 silent and sound Fables had been produced.

The Aesop’s Sound Fables, like Fleischer’s Talkartoons, are outlandish, surreal (both adept at conjuring up grotesqueries), adult, and funny. They are supported by invigorating scores to set the adrenalin flowing and the feet to tapping.

The Aesop’s Fables have been called many things: wonderful, crude, vulgar, primitive, and inconsequential!

They are wonderful, crude, and vulgar; and it’s their sometimes primitive quality that makes them all the more appealing.

But they are hardly inconsequential, and the proof is in the viewing!

If you would like to discover other rare cartoon treats, Thunderbean Animation has produced a variety of other great cartoon collections you can read about here.

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