Sunday, June 7, 2015

Swtichin' Kitten (1961) and Tom & Jerry's kooky Gene Deitch era

Tom & Jerry steers back into spooky territory (I previously posted on their encounter with a witch) in Switchin' Kitten (1961).

A stormy night finds Tom seeking shelter in this creepy old castle beautifully rendered in a multi-plane shot.

In a blink-if-you-miss it gag, Tom is actually tossed from a passing carriage into a swamp in a rope-drawn sack. The drowning of unwanted pets in this manner was apparently a common enough occurrence to be referenced in children's entertainment (there is at least one other instance of the "drowned kittens" trope found in the Tom & Jerry canon, 1949's Heavenly Puss).

Jerry, meanwhile, is living in the castle as assistant to a mad scientist performing experiments on animals. Here's his colorful array of beakers.

And the mad scientist's dungeon of cats for use as subjects.

If the characterizations of Tom and Jerry seem just a little... "off" in this episode, its because this was the first time they were depicted by Czech-based animation team Rembrandt Films.

When William Hanna and Jospeh Barbera left MGM in 1957 to launch their own studio focusing on animation for television, a deal was hatched with TerryToons animator Gene Deitch to churn out shorts in half the time and a fraction of the budget. Deitch's Czechoslovakian animators (Deitch, himself an American, had moved to Prague in 1959) had little exposure to American animation in general, and had never seen an actual Tom & Jerry short in motion, relying only on model sheets and stills for reference. The result was a bizarro-universe interpretation of Tom & Jerry that sometimes reminds me of the homemade, off-model cartoon characters you might find painted on the wall of a children's day care or on the side of a south-of-the-border supermercado.

Dietch attempted to compensate for the limited animation necessitated by the low budget with unusual sound design (instead of the standard cartoon-noise palette, these shorts are punctuated with what sounds like balloons popping underwater), eye-catching background paintings (like this rocky path illuminated by a lightning flash)...

...colorful, sometimes abstract effects...

...and inventive if not downright weird gags, like Tom, after having been buried alive, returning to the surface as a flower!

The Gene Deitch era lasted only two years (1961-1962) before the property returned stateside under the stewardship of veteran animator Chuck Jones, so these shorts represent little more than a detour in Tom & Jerry history. While reviled by many fans who felt these were merely a cheap knock-off of the real thing, I was always attracted to these cartoons because of their modern style and general strangeness, and would give them my full attention whenever they turned up on the local TV kiddie-show cartoon jukebox.

Switchin' Kitten wasn't the only fright-themed episode of the Deitch era. In Buddies Thicker Than Water, the duo are feuding in a modern apartment high-rise when Jerry powders up from head to toe, tosses on a Halloween sound effect record (Somber Records)...

..and proceeds to stalk Tom as a ghost.

This episode is also notable for a scene in which the pair get literally fall-down drunk after raiding the liquor cabinet!

The drunk jokes continue in Tall In the Trap, a western-themed episode set in the dusty town of Dry Gulp, where main street is a whiskey row of alcohol-centered gags. There's "Rigor Mortis Saloon. Come in and get stiff"...

..."Six Gun Saloon. Come in and get loaded"...

..."Band Aid Saloon. Come in and get plastered"...

...and finally, "Rocky's Saloon. Come in and get stoned".

Here's a sample of the colorful and artful design that crept its way into these shorts, a still from a dynamite explosion that looks like a tie-dyed flower.

With the endless back-and-forth cycle of violence between the two, have you ever wondered why Tom didn't just shoot Jerry in the head and put an end to it once and for all? Well he tried in one Deitch episode, Mouse Into Space.

Spoiler alert, Jerry survives, leaving Tom so guilt-ridden he offers Jerry a free retaliatory shot!

This episode finds Jerry applying to be an astronaut on a colorful rocket...

...but not before he passes his physical. No, this isn't a Hasbro Ghost Gun target, it's Jerry's X-ray.

The Tom and Jerry Cartoon Kit episode is a behind-the-scenes look at the cartoon making process, which turns out is little more than rearranging stock elements from a kit (and this kit not only includes Tom and Jerry, but a pack of cigarettes and cup of coffee for the animators!)

In this same episode, the pair enter a Judo school, which proceeds to shake, squash and stretch in reaction to the physical exertions within. In these stills you can see the morphing building becomes a work of modern abstract art.

One of Deitch's contributions to the Tom & Jerry universe was the addition of a new character, Tom's "owner", who for all intents is actually an abusive, angry father figure. I must confess this character's animal-like growlings and explosive expressions always unnerved me a bit.

Here he is sweating hate and administering beatings in Down and Outing.

And from High Steaks, the Angry Dad character is basically force-feeding his "child".

"Angry Dad" was cast as Capt. Ahab in an episode spoofing Moby Dick, Dicky Moe. Here's a funny gag where Tom, blackened from head to toe after falling in gunpowder, hides from the captain by pretending to be his shadow.

Ever been called "whale butt" and wondered exactly what part of the whale that is?

A beautiful multi-plane shot from the same episode.

Another bizarre Deitch gag... Tom transformed into a turtle after a steel drum is dropped on him in Calypso Cat.

Some attractive backgrounds from Carmen Get It...

...and from a jungle-themed episode, Sorry Safari.

Tom & Jerry visit a beautifully rendered cartoon-modern ancient Greece in It's Greek to Meow.

The entire Gene Deitch era is available on a newly released DVD Tom & Jerry The Gene Deitch Collection.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hard Time at Disneyland

No, I'm not talking about the Pressler Era (ta-dum-dum. heyyyy-oh!)

I'm talking about Hard Time On Planet Earth, a short-lived science fiction TV show from Touchstone Television that lasted only 13 episodes.

The year is 1989. An alien warrior from another galaxy is found guilty of fomenting rebellion and sentenced to serve time on a primitive planet called Earth. He'll trade his normally robot-like appearance for a human disguise that looks a lot like the square-jawed, muscular Martin Kove (Death Race 2000, The Karate Kid).

Joining "Jesse" (that's the Earth name Kove's character adopts) throughout his sentence is "Control", a floating football-shaped robot whose voice resembles Paul Reuben's Star Tours navigator RX-24 (the actual voice actor is Danny Mann, and he may very well be the first CGI character on television.)

Control acts as Jesse's guide and companion while Jesse serves out his term, learning the ways of Earth's strange inhabitants... and just maybe a lesson or two along the way? Control also comes with an annoying catch-phrase: "Negative outcome. Not good." which he'll deliver repeatedly throughout the show as a dead-pan, hilariously understated observation.

We're going to need a lot of these, right? This catch-phrase is gonna be HUGE.

In episode 3, "Losing Control", Jesse and Control visit an "important center of rejuvenation" that "reverses the human aging process"... Disneyland. The whole episode amounts to a barely veiled advertisement for the park (exploiting television in this way was a Disney tradition going all the way back to 1954!)

Jesse and Control first enter Disneyland and encounter the clockwork and calliope installation that was part of a "35 Years of Magic" celebration in anticipation of the park's 35th anniversary the following year.

Over the opening credits, we are treated to flyover views of Fantasyland accompanied by synthesized, electronic renditions of "It's A Small World" and "When You Wish Upon a Star" that sound like cover versions you might expect to hear broadcast on the Star Tours radio station, K-DROID.

The gravity-defying Control briefly ducks into a garbage can to avoid attracting too much attention...

...and in a moment that somehow got past Disney's lawyers, describes a guest's half-eaten hamburger as "minced bovine carcass and vegetation immersed in hydrogulated fat and heat", then quips "These humans will eat anything!" Now THAT'S corporate synergy!

After noticing the Mickey Mouse balloons, Jesse suggests Control hover above him in a similar fashion as a disguise.

We ride the Skyway buckets, pass the original Star Tours, and the Rocket Jets...

...then Control splits off to explore on his own, getting an up-close look at a hippo from the Jungle Cruise.

Something resembling the early stages of a plot starts to develop, threatening to interrupt our Disneyland showcase, by way of a child ("Johnathan") telling his parents he wants to see "Captain EO and the Crystal Arcade". The Crystal Arcade? Mmm-kay. The Peoplemover is visible in the background.

The interior of the Crystal Arcade on Main Street strangely resembles the much larger Starcade in Tomorrowland. Johnathan plays the moving-cockpit version of Sega's Afterburner...

...while nearby we find Blasteroids, Pac-Man, and a Star Wars machine whose marque had to be partially obscured since its an intellectual property that Disney doesn't own the rights to.... for now.

Control finds his way into the Crystal Arcade/Starcade and is somehow able to play the games wirelessly by projecting lasers. He takes on the game grid of Tron first...

...before playing a row of machines all at once for a greater challenge.

The exertion of videogaming not only causes the entire arcade to blackout, but completely drains Control of his energy, who drops lifelessly to the floor, where Johnathan mistakes him for a free souvenir. Jesse witnesses this from his Peoplemover cabin as it passes through the upper level of the arcade.

Jesse needs to get Control back from that kid. Cue Chase Sequence #1! Jesse bolts out of the Peoplemover, featuring the World of Tron...

...and follows Johnathan and family onto Big Thunder Mountain, bypassing the line by leaping the fence, scaling the rocks and dropping right into the moving train from above!

The chase continues across the greens of the not quite open Splash Mountain (it would debut a few months later, in July '89) before Jesse is stopped by Disneyland security...

...and invited to take a walk through Disney's California Adventure Version zero-point-oh (i.e. The Parking Lot.)


...about 20 minutes of plot occurs not relating to Disneyland, in which Chase Sequences #2-4 happen, before our hero is given an excuse to return for a night visit... because you haven't REALLY seen Disneyland until you've seen it at night!

Plus, for Summer nighttime entertainment, you can't beat The Main Street Electrical Parade. Jesse who?

The plot conceit that brings Jesse back to the park is that he has recovered the still defective Control and believes he must return to the Crystal Arcade to rejuvenate him. Alas, the arcade is still closed from the earlier damage...

...leaving Jesse with no choice but to recharge him with a broken electrical main cable he finds lying on the ground somewhere near Coke Corner. While reviving, Control begins to sing the lyrics to "It's a Small World" in a slow, mechanical drone that resembles HAL 9000's dying swan song. Nothing creepy about that.