During the ’40s, a group of talented artists and writers who’d either been fired from or quit the animation factories at Walt Disney and Warner Bros. banded together to form United Productions Of America, and sparked a revolution in the cartoon business. Partly because of their tiny budgets, and partly because they believed that the major studios were wasting time and money chasing “realism,” UPA animators like John Hubley and Robert Cannon relied on abstraction and modernist design to make their cheap, stiff short films stand out. While Disney films looked like illustrations from 19th-century novels, and Warner Bros. and MGM were extending the tradition of slapstick two-reelers, the UPA team was occupying itself with dry, wry cartoons that looked and felt like a combination of New Yorker gags and children’s picture books. Before long, UPA shorts became staples at the Oscars, and even the usually stodgy Disney started loosening up its style to become more UPA-like. The UPA look became more of the norm for animation in the ’50s and ’60s, especially once studios started pumping out even cheaper cartoons for television.
And yet those original, industry-changing UPA shorts never found much of a home on TV the way the Warner, Disney, MGM, and Lantz cartoons did, because while UPA did feature some recurring characters—most notably Mr. Magoo and Dr. Seuss’ Gerald McBoing Boing—its most innovative work was eccentric and eclectic, and not always easily classifiable as “for kids.” That’s what makes the three-DVD UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection so welcome. It’s not just that the shorts have been beautifully restored (though they have); it’s that they’re available to see at all, after decades of being consigned to the repertory circuit. There are so many classics here: Hubley’s gorgeously jazzy take on the old “Frankie & Johnny” legend, “Rooty Toot Toot;” Cannon’s faithfully chalky adaptation of Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline; William Hurtz bringing James Thurber to life in “The Unicorn In The Garden;” Ted Parmelee’s painterly, spooky, James Mason-narrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart;” Cannon’s hilariously deadpan lesson in lawlessness “The Jaywalker;” and more.
UPA wasn’t above formula. The company’s partners at Columbia Pictures urged UPA to keep bringing back Magoo and McBoing Boing, and even in its one-off shorts, UPA returned over and over to the subject of flustered suburban dads and their weirdo kids. (Some of these cartoons, such as Cannon’s suburbia-as-Wild West piece “Willie The Kid,” are brilliant; others are more pedestrian.) And UPA’s association with Columbia led to an early-’50s “purge” of leftists, including Hubley and future bestselling children’s book author P.D. Eastman, which had an impact on the quality of the work in the latter part of the decade. But that mainly means that the shorts on disc three of The Jolly Frolics Collection are downgraded from “brilliant” to “very good.” Even the late ’50s shorts designed to capitalize on the calypso/folk craze are vibrant and funny. UPA’s innovations became standardized quickly, but the original brand is flavorful in its own way, with a sensibility that’s at once humble and knowing.
Key features: A brief intro by Leonard Maltin, commentary by Maltin and Jerry Beck on selected shorts, and copious samples of original art and promotional materials.