Why Cartoons Are Forever : ENCHANTED DRAWINGS: The History of Animation <i> by Charles Solomon; (Alfred A. Knopf: $75; 336 pp.; 0-394-54684-9) </i>
Let’s imagine a dozen relatives on your Christmas list. Is there one single gift you can give that will make every one of them happy?
Buy 12 copies of Charles Solomon’s “Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation.”
We may all disagree on horror films, romances or adventure epics. But all families love Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, “A Night on Bald Mountain’s” demon and the dinosaurs assassinating each other in a “Fantasia” rainstorm.
The animated cartoon is just about the purest, least arguable, most invigorating art form invented since mankind did shadow shows with wriggling fingers, then trapped them in cave-wall graffiti 200 generations ago.
In some ways, I wish Solomon’s text had been published years ago, for it is a gateway book that opens doors on Disney, Chuck Jones, Hanna-Barbera, UPA and scores of others. Solomon’s starter book turns corners in time, teaching animation landmarks as it goes. Fork left into Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s life with Uncle Walt in their “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life” or jog off after Chuck Jones’ “Chuck Amuck”, or “That’s All Folks: The Art of Warner Brothers Animation,” each of which details the crazed life of animators working under the gun and escaping into laughter.
Solomon’s book, with more than 400 illustrations, 250 in color, is useful as a building block to start your own 20-volume shelf, adding new texts on how “Fantasia,” “Snow White” and “Alice in Wonderland” leaped from the paint jars. The library grows. Even Mel Blanc is in print with his one thousand voices.
All these plus Gertie the Dinosaur, Pinocchio and (God help us!) Saturday-morning, not-very-animated TV are in Solomon’s book, in capsule form, waiting to see if you should want a larger dose.
Examining Solomon’s history raises questions.
Why do we love animated films as madly as we do? What is the secret of their longevity, their ability to outlive other art forms?
Films with flesh-and-blood actors come and go, until a year arrives when all are dead and we see only ghosts on late-night TV. But animation’s fountain of youth lies in the fact that its actors never existed at all!
The history of animation did not start with Disney’s “Skeleton Dance” in 1927, but the cartoon answers my questions; it symbolizes what makes animation work powerfully and without pain.
Myself, aged 7, stayed through a feature film four times just to see “Skeleton Dance.” Why? Because I was seeing skeletons that had no skeletons.
Do I play with paradoxes?
For all cartoons deal with exterior envelopes, skins, balloon shapes from which the bones have been removed with illustrative surgery. What remains does not collapse and die but, with renewed vigor, catapults through our lives, bouncing us off madhouse walls to land, six minutes later, refreshed and ready to live forever. There are no real skulls behind those faces. They cannot break, no matter how hard or fast their impact. It is this complete disembodiment, our being conjured by ectoplasms of comic images, that allows them to live beyond any real film, novel or museum-hung painting.
They cannot hurt through memory, the way we are hurt visiting museums of Greek and Roman busts or statues. To look upon the faces of 2,000-year-dead poets, lovers, children, is to tread through melancholy to achieve sadness.
So much of art is melancholy by the simple fact that it relates to humans alive for just an hour, five hundred years ago.
Not so with animated film. No speck, hair or breath of melancholy here.
Solomon--a free-lance critic who, five months ago, took over the feature “Current Paperbacks” for the Book Review--does not necessarily teach all this as we turn his enchanted pages, but the ambient truth is there. What he leaves unsaid breathes in the illustrations which surround him like warm hearths.
Today we are afflicted by those who claim that only the real, only the raw and bloody truth, will serve mankind.
These are the Joy Enviers, who hate those of us who were born and remain genetically happy.
Animation resists the attempts of these doomsters to fix us in sludge, to imprison us in their permanent ruins.
To them, cartoons are not serious and so must be nothing more than an art sub-species.
No, no, it is the highest form.
Comedy demands a finesse that few in serious drama can hope to attain. Keeping ten dozen colored orbs aloft demands balance, dexterity, imagination and love.
Otherwise, how explain the explosion of delight, a few years back, when a Mickey Mouse cartoon from the ‘30s was detonated in local theaters? The audience, surprised by joy, erupted. Perhaps because they sensed that just ahead in the feature lay guillotines, pole-axes, rapes and funerals best not attended.
I wonder how many men, hiding their youngness, rise as I do, Saturday mornings, filled with the hope that Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and Daffy Duck will be there waiting as our one true always and forever salvation?
But no need to wait until Saturday morning. It’s all in Charles Solomon’s book.
Let me confess further:
Once every eight weeks, long after midnight, I take out and re-run--"101 Dalmations.”
The entire film? Not always.
I fast-forward to six minutes of The Twilight Bark.
It is one of the most charming, metaphoric, mythical scenes ever cartooned. The dogs of London, fearing 101 puppies have been stolen, bark across the snow-filled landscapes, so the sound of their ruffs and yips move over starlit skies and sleeping towns to reach yet other faraway dogs who bark back answers re the purloined kennel. It is superb magic because it supersedes mankind. The animals commune with themselves. We are shunted aside, bones, flesh, skins and all. The dear beasts speak to loss, time and love. I never cease to marvel at the animators’ ability to slip me out of my body to bind me in simple creaturehood alongside fear and its answering response, family.
That might have been Charles Solomon’s almost better title, The Twilight Bark.
Hearing it, we are witness to a compassionate sharing above and beyond humanity, enacted by creatures that never were and so will always be immortal.
I would re-write Porky Pig’s end line:
“That’s all, folks?!”