PAYING HOMAGE TO PAL’S ‘PUPPETOONS’
Before George Pal (1908-1980) produced and directed his landmark science-fiction features, he created a series of charming short animated films known as “Puppetoons.” Arnold Leibovit’s “The Puppetoon Movie” (in a nine-day run at the Nuart) is a commendable but often misguided homage to them.
This 80-minute compilation feature contains nine complete “Puppetoons,” including three of Pal’s best shorts--"Tulips Shall Grow” (1942), “John Henry and Inky Poo” (1946) and “Tubby the Tuba” (1947)--all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. (Pal never won the Oscar for animated short, despite seven nominations; he did receive a special Academy Award for the body of his work in 1944.)
In the gentle anti-war statement “Tulips Shall Grow,” Pal caricatured the Nazi invaders of Holland as the robot “Screwball Army.” Ebony magazine praised “John Henry,” an adaptation of the folk tale of the “steel-drivin’ man,” as “that rarest of Hollywood products that has no Negro stereotypes, but rather treats the Negro with dignity, imagination, poetry and love.” Arguably Pal’s best short, “Tubby the Tuba” is a wistful, sensitive treatment of the popular children’s story.
His adaptations of the Dr. Seuss books “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” (1943) and “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1944) are curiously absent from the compilation. “Jasper in a Jam” (1946) is the only example of Pal’s popular series about the adventures of a black boy.
The film’s greatest weakness is its length. Pal never intended audiences to sit through more than about seven minutes of his animation and he paced his films accordingly. Eighty minutes of fast-paced activity proves rather wearying, and the movie becomes as cloying as a surfeit of bonbons.
The heavy-handed prologue and epilogue suggest that Pal was the spiritual father of every recent stop-motion character, from Gumby to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Joe Dante’s Gremlins. He actually devised a special technique for his films that has rarely been used by anyone else. Willis O’Brien, who created stop-motion animation for “King Kong,” has had a much wider influence on American animation.
George Pal’s best films retain their charm after more than 40 years and they don’t need this kind of misleading hype. The “Puppetoons” can stand on their own merits, but they’re more enjoyable one or two at a time.