Saturday 20 October 2012

More UPA Critic Snobbery

It wasn’t until “Gerald McBoing Boing”—and its Oscar nomination—that film critics noticed what UPA was doing and started dragging out the Disney comparisons. We reprinted Aline Mosby’s United Press column of February 22, 1951 HERE. But here’s a syndicated piece dated April 5, 1951 with snootery at its finest.

Strictly Personal
Harris Says Animated Cartoon Can Be Good

BEST THING I’ve seen in the movies in months has been a new kind of animated cartoon called “Gerald McBoing Boing,” put out by a couple of bright boys who broke away from the dismal Disney influence.
“Gerald McBoing Boing” is witty and mature—and yet absurdly naive enough to appeal to children. I went with a little boy of 10, who laughed so hard I had to take him to the bathroom. Or maybe he took me.
I have long insisted that the animated cartoon has become a debased product since its early years. It is rarely funny, and never original—specializing instead in sadism of the lowest order. The tiresome chases and repeated brutalities represent a libel on the whole animal kingdom.
Now United Productions of America—the impressive company title of the two lads who created “Gerald McBoing Boing”—is planning to do James Thurber’s “Men, Women and Dogs” as an animated cartoon, with a commentary by the master himself.
As a comedy art form, the animated cartoon has tremendous possibilities which have been scarcely scratched so far. There are scores of stories not adaptable to live action that would bring a new era of intelligence and taste to this imaginative field.
Offhand, I can think of St. Eupery’s “The Happy Prince,” Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose,” Twain’s “Jumping Frog,” and a dozen of Saki’s superb “Beasts and Super Beasts” stories. In our time, E. B. White has written some charmingly thoughtful fairy tales.
The crime of the animated cartoonists has been that they confuse simplicity with stupidity. A child’s mind is simple, but not stupid; it wants what it can easily understand (don’t we all?), but it must be something worth understanding. “Everything,” said the Red Queen, has a moral, if you only know where to look for it.”

The problem with such criticism is not that the writer wants cartoons to reach more rarefied intellectual levels; there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s nothing wrong with young Gerald. The problem is that champions of UPA engaged in a wanton dismissal of any other forms of animated entertainment. Time has shown there’s nothing wrong with Bugs Bunny cartoons—generations of children and zillions of dollars in Warners’ coffers have irrefutably proven that—but intellectuals circa 1951 seized on UPA to denigrate any animation that didn’t appeal to their aesthetic level. They steadfastly refused to consider, let alone accept, the proposition that there was room on the screen for all kinds of cartoons.

Fortunately, and deservedly, the critics’ love affair with UPA was short. At least, I’ve never seen anyone equate Oscar Wilde to “Ham and Hattie.”


  1. The second most annoying types of critic is the one who takes a "What I know about first and you don't is better than what we both know about" attitude -- they want so desperately to be the champions of a trend they reflexively denigrate anything that's already popular.

    The most annoying type of critic, though, is the 'groupie'. Those are the ones who champion a certain artist, writer, actor, etc., no matter what they do, and tell you whatever they release is golden ... until after you've bought it or paid money to see it and find out it's a waste. Then when that person's next effort appears, the 'groupie' critic again tells you it's the greatest thing since sliced break -- and much better than their last effort. They basically lie about the quality of the product to champion their pet cause, and hope you'll forget their last whopper when their next one comes out.

    All that is a long way of saying UPA had both types of critics on its side; those who couldn't help themselves from trashing the other more popular cartoon studios while praising UPA, and as the years rolled on, those who wouldn't tell you the entertainment value of UPA's later releases were just slightly above late-Paul J. Smith efforts at the Lantz studio. It's the same attitude that spawned things like Action for Children's Television -- the "Death to Fun" people of the late 1960s and 70s -- as well as the current generation of arbiters who still think entertaining the audience even in a pop-culture setting is less important than educating or enlightening them

  2. This brand of blind praise for UPA permeated film criticism for many, many years, long after UPA had degenerated into complete hackwork and far long after it hit the wall artistically. The miracle of UPA's final production phase is the meteoric ratings success of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol," a cheaply produced radical Dickens adaptation distinguished only by its voice acting and its top drawer songs. Everything else UPA touched after the mid fifties turned to dung until it limped to a sorry end in the early sixties. If one takes a serious critical eye to even UPA's best cartoons, only about four stand out as stellar efforts. Had the studio not purchased Dr. Seuss's great standalone story for "Gerald Mc Boing Boing" their entire roster of cartoons that year would have scarcely been noticed as above average output. The abysmal UPA theatrial shorts "Giddyap" and all of the "Family Circus" cartoons do not, to put it charitably, stand the test of time. Later theatricals, such as "The Rise of Duton Lang" are far worse. UPA was a flash in the pan whose rep was woefully exaggerated and over the years inexplicable. It's forgotten today for a reason.

  3. Fans of animation certainly cannot (or at least should not)dismiss the work of anyone from the golden era of cartoons. And I also think its ridiculous for certain reviewers to put UPA on a pedestal while considering every other animation house to be lesser, particularly Disney, who did set the standard as Jim Henson's Muppets did for puppetry.

    But I do also love UPA, and more as an observation than a defense of anything, I think it should be remembered that the animators who founded UPA did so to escape the "one way of doing things" mentality of the Disney school of animation (though that one way was certainly a sight to behold), where drawing and animating from life was the golden rule. UPA's experimentation in the abstract, the jazzy, the out of he box, out of left field style of visual storytelling was revolutionary, and as significant as anything Disney or anyone else had contributed to the history of animation. Yes, UPA told some intellectual stories, and often eschewed gags for thought provoking parables or classic tales from bygone years. But why is that a bad thing? if there was room for cavorting cartoon animals tossing anvils and dynamite at each other, then why not room for macabre interpretations of Poe, or a tragically comical retelling of the ballad of Frankie and Johnny? These animators, these cartoonists, these writers and visionaries sought to expand the scope of cartoons the same way Disney did with their feature films, and Looney Tunes did with their humor and irreverence. They all contributed a patch to the greater quilt of cartoon history, and we who appreciate animation are all the warmer for their creative efforts.

    1. It's not a bad thing in and of itself, but as Bill Scott and others noted there were certain segments of the staff at UPA that also looked down their noses at anything not created by UPA -- while the Warners staff always gave Disney credit for creating the style they adapted, the UPA crew seemed to try their hardest not to admit their early stirrings came mainly out of the Jones unit's experimentation at Warners.

      If a critic wants to be an elitist, condescending snob, you can't do anything about it, since everyone's entitled to their own opinion. When some of the staff at UPA basically egged on those critics by agreeing with them that the rest of the theatrical animation was mindless, violent dreck, they should know better (but if they did, they might have stopped making cultured dreck in the late 1950s and wouldn't have had Columbia pull the plug on them in favor of the bland, high-concept, low-budget Loopy de Loop).

  4. You have to feel bad for Warner Bros. and the Fleischers in this scenario; because critics considered everything non-UPA or Disney to be bunk, the innovations of those studios won't be full appreciated until the 70's.

    Even today, the most beloved and hyped of WB cartoons are Chuck Jones' most UPA-esque cartoons (What's Opera Doc, One Froggy Evening, etc.), and accolades for the Fleischer cartoons are still few and far-between.


    1. What about:
      MGM, Paramount/Famous (the successors to Fleischer), Walter Lantz, Columbia (animation-wise, the predecessor to UPA :)), or Terrytoons? :)