The “Masters of Animation” film series, which begins tonight at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and continues through Nov. 26, sends us spinning and whirling through 75 years of world cartoonery.
Series researcher (and frequent Times contributor) Charles Solomon has gathered a package of 15 programs. It sweeps from 1911 and Winsor McCay’s trailblazing “Little Nemo” (tonight), all the way up through last year’s Oscar-winner, Frederic Back’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” (1987): part of a closing night tribute to Frederic Back.
The series focuses on sophisticated stuff: cartoons that could comfortably play art houses, before patrons with Proust in their backpacks. This isn’t to say these films are arch and dry. Far from it. It’s a giggly retrospective, infused with wit and love of delicious artifice.
We begin tonight with McCay’s painstakingly drawn “Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914), two spry but limited efforts. They make you yearn for the magic the phantasmagoric McCay, whose “Nemo” strips were models of psychedelic flux and flow 50 years before their time, could have accomplished with the resources of say, George Dunning (“Yellow Submarine”), a night of whose work will be presented Oct. 28.
Also tonight: crisply surrealist efforts from animator Otto Messmer (the hugely popular “Felix the Cat,” to whom Mickey the Mouse owes more than a little), and Max and Dave Fleischer (the “Out of the Inkwell” shorts.) On Saturday, Lotte Reiniger’s charming 1926 silhouette saga “Adventure of Prince Achmed.” Three masters of stop-motion puppet animation have nights to themselves: Russian-French emigre Ladislav Starevitch, whose grasshoppers, beetles and foxes of the ‘20s and ‘30s are sweetly articulated and often roguishly sexy (next Friday.) The great and now sadly neglected Czech, Jiri Trnka (Oct. 21), with his 1959 Shakespearean feature “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” plus shorts. And the contemporary Japanese, Kawachiro Kawamoto--whose animated dolls dance against backgrounds reminiscent of scroll and landscape paintings, complete with frilly, frothy waves (Nov. 5).
Three prime modernists are America’s John and Faith Hubley (Nov. 18) and Germany’s Oskar Fischinger (Oct. 15), whose experimental works were influenced by contemporary trends in painting: artists like Picasso, Klee, Miro and Kandinsky. The Hubleys’ work (the spectral “Moonbird”, the winsome “Tender Game”) is well known. But Fischinger, originally hired by Disney for the Bach section of “Fantasia,” is less seen, though “Composition in Blue” (1935) and “Motion Painting No. 1" (1949) are two of the cinema’s most mesmerizing abstractionist films.
Finally, there are today’s ‘toonists: Holland’s Paul Driessen (Oct. 22) and Canada’s Frederic Back (Nov. 26). Driessen, who worked on “Yellow Submarine,” specializes in strange, blowsy-looking line creatures: billowing pin-heads and giggling snorkel-noses, who whip through cruelly surreal ballets of vicious action and absurd reaction (1973’s “Cat’s Cradle” and 1981’s “House on the Rails”).
Frederic Back is gentler, plusher: a master of rounded, shifting, shimmering shapes that slip and metamorphose into each other. Like Marcel Pagnol, Back has adapted French novelist Jean Giono (“Trees”), and all three are lovers of nature. In the masterpieces “Crac!” (1983) and “Illusion,” (1975), Back exalts the shrinking wonders of the countryside, decries the burgeoning sterility of the city and sings a writhing elegy to the robust, passionate past.
It’s an urbane lineup. But lest anyone accuse it of elitism, the museum has scheduled a special 60th birthday salute Nov. 12 to the most popular ‘toon of them all: Mickey Mouse. Included are classics such as “Steamboat Willie” (1928), “The Band Concert” (1935) and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (1940) and, schedule permitting, a personal appearance, at 10:30 a.m. that day, by Mr. Mouse himself.
Roger Rabbit, eat your heart out! (Information: (213) 857-6000.)