DVD Review: Cartoon Roots

A great set that offers both a DVD and a Blu Ray, this release from Tommy Jose Stathes’ “Cartoons on Film” series is among the most important releases to current home video. It presents some of the truly brilliant and historically significant animated films in cinema’s history.

At the turn of the 20th century, the idea of a moving picture was still a novelty. Narrative cinema developed very quickly, and movie pioneers like Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith soon helped develop cinema’s syntax.

At the same time, animation pioneers discovered ways to make art move. From the simplicity of J. Stuart Blackton drawing stereoytypical images of African Americans and Jews (out of the words “coon” and “Cohen,” no less) to the gradual development from outlined sketches with jerky gestures, to fully shaded drawings with naturally flowing movement, animation has an alternative history that is every bit as rich and fascinating as live action cinema.

On “Cartoon Roots,” we are offered many great efforts among the pioneers of animation, some early examples of classic characters, and even some early sound productions. Many of the earlier films combine animation and live action, including the wonderful “Col. Heeza Liar, Detective” (1923) made by the Bray studios, an important company that gave several top animators their start. The effects are quite dazzling -- The animator, in live action footage, tosses props like a hat and a gun to his drawing on a sheet of paper, they become drawings themselves, and are caught by the character.

“The Circus” is one of the earliest from the Out of the Inkwell series, produced by Max and Dave Fleischer. Best known for Popeye and Betty Boop, this live action and cartoon combo features Koko the Clown before the character even got his name. The rapid flowing movement of the character is especially impressive in this 1920 production. There is constant movement among the characters, making them manic, fidgety, and more amusing.

Paul Terry’s “The Jolly Rounders” (1923) is remarkable for its rough subject matter about a drunken hippo character who cheats on his wife. He gets his brother to dress up as a female and pretends to flirt with him to fool his wife. The kids come in and state “here comes pa with a bimbo.” The wife chases the both with a rolling pin and beats up the brother in drag.

“Cartoon Roots” also offers some great animated subjects from noted characters such as Mutt and Jeff, Felix the Cat, Farmer Alfalfa, and Krazy Kat. These films are chiefly interesting for presenting early examples of some of animated cinema’s first noted stars. Clever visuals are abounding as animation grows and refines several elements throughout this era, from more detailed background, to the movement of several characters at once.

This disc also features a world premiere. A proposed Binko The Bear series produced two cartoons in 1930, neither of which were released The films remained lost until one of them was found by Stathes and David Gerstein at the Library of Congress in 2012. It has been restored for this set. The animators, Robert and Tom McKimson, would make a much greater impact years later.

This disc concludes nicely with the visually dazzling “The Farmerette” (1932) from RKO/Van Buren. The farmer’s animals are lazy and won’t work, until a flapper comes along and introduces them to jazz music. When she squeaks out “Some of These Days” and it results in the plowing of fields and the laying of eggs, the entire rhythm of the short is enhanced.

Cartoon Roots is an absolute must for fans of animation, as well as libraries and research centers. The importance of its subject matter cannot be overstated. The hard work of the disc’s producers benefits anyone with an interest in film history.

Cartoon Roots is available here.

James L. Neibaur