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The True North, Strong and Meek

Christopher J. Robinson reviews Karen Mazurkewichs Cartoon Capers, which covers the long and exceptionally diverse history of Canadian animation.

Canadians, always the conscientious, the humble and subservient (we get more riled over hockey results than cuts to social programs), have preserved the lives of many trees when it comes to documenting the Canadian animation landscape. Attempting to find pages on Canadian animation is akin to driving from Ontario to Alberta: long and tiring, with lots of empty space. This absence is not only surprising, given Canadasreputation as one of the premiere producers of animation in the 20th century, but also disgraceful. With the release in 1998 of Gene Walzs Cartoon Charlie and the recent Cartoon Capers: The History of Canadian Animators by Karen Mazurkewich however, it appears, much to the chagrin of tree huggers everywhere, that a few more trees are leaving the forest.

Written by journalist Karen Mazurkewich, Cartoon Capers covers the long and exceptionally diverse historyof Canadian animation -- from the early work of Charlie Thorson, Raoul Barre and Bryant Fryer, through the National Film Board of Canada and Norman McLaren, to animators from virtually every region (e.g. British Columbia, Winnipeg, Quebec, Halifax), computer innovations, women pioneers, Canadians abroad, and the new industrial giants like Nelvana and hmm...Cinar.

Unfortunately, Mazurkewich, in typically Canadian style, gets it all wrong. Whenever we Canadians shed our suit of modesty for the finely tapered duds of pride, we invariably bust a seam. Now to be fair, capturing a cohesive portrait of the various exploits of Canadian animation, like defining Canada,is impossible. Mazurkewich does provide an adequate survey for general readers of a decidedly motley crew of animators. Virtually no Canadian voice of the past is left unheard and readers are presented with a decent overview of animation beyond the National Film Board of Canada. Sadly Mazurkewichs knowledge of contemporary Canadian animation seems to be non-existent. Influential independent artists like Richard Reeves, Stephen Arthur, Helen Hill, along with the important contributions of the Quickdraw Animation Society and the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, are nowhere to be found in Canadian Capers. Even when dealing with history, Mazurkewich merely skims through the Canadian landscape like a toboggan on a snowy hill. Written in an almost anecdotal fashion, Mazurewich, in true journalist mode, fails to capture the complexity and context of Canadian animation production. Everything is taken for granted and rarely questioned or considered.

One of the most astonishing aspects of Canadian Capers is the decision to dedicate more time to generally non-Canadian pursuits than to those who have contributedto Canadian culture. In a chapter called "The Diaspora: Canadians Abroad," the exploits of Richard Williams, John Kricfalusi and a handful of guys, whose claim to greatness is the creation of a variety of villains and smart ass sidekicks for Disney films, are each given more paper than Norman McLaren, Frédérick Back, Rene Jodoin, Marv Newland, Caroline Leaf, Paul Driessen and a host of other people whose enrichment of Canadian culture considerably outweighs the exploits of Williams, Kricfalusi and amigos. As an equivalent, imagine overlooking the contributions of Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand and other Canadian filmmakers in favour of James Cameron, Jim Carrey and Pamela Anderson who, while all Canadian, have contributed nothing to the Canadian cultural landscape except for a birth certificate. But hold on, before we go off on the whole issue of what is national identity, let it be stated that Mazurkewich also glorifies the work of very minor Canadian figures like Arthur Lipsett, Ryan Larkin and John Paizs. Lipsett and Paizs have made significant contributions to the cinema landscape, but certainly not as animators. Larkin created a handful of remarkable films, notably Walking, but does this qualify him as a master of Canadian animation?

One of the most disturbing characteristics of Canadians is our desire to play the little brother to the "mighty" Americans. We continually measure our exploits using a yardstick from down south. There are endless examples of Canadian films, books and music that have failed here, but when met with the approval of U.S. folks, are subsequently hailed by Canadians as a brilliant, decidedly Canadian cultural expression. Mazurkewich too seems taken in by this cloying desire to capture the approving eyes of an Americanized audience. Understandably selling a book on Canadian animation to a general audience is a tough task that needs glossy pictures, an easy to read style, a loopy, "cartoony" cover, and proof that weve been accepted by focusing on Canadians who have made it in Hollywood. This is grudgingly acceptable in todays marketplace, but it is thoroughly revolting and insulting to every single Canadian artist, to conclude this unique Canadian journey with a series of American "cartoony" drawings and the big bold voice of Hollywood: "And tha... tha...thaaaaatsall follllkkkkssss!!!!!!!"

Like an annoying aunt who talks loud but has nothing to say, Canadian Capers will be, in true Canadian tradition, tolerated out of politeness more than need. Still, it is the first of hopefully what will be many more books publishedon this rich Canadian culture and for all its misguided views, Canadian Capers at least liberates voices that have largely gone unheard.

Cartoon Capers: The Historyof Canadian Animators by Karen Mazurkewich. Toronto, Canada: McArthur and Company, 1999. 284 pages. ISBN: 1-55278-093-7 (CA$29.95).

Christopher J. Robinson is Executive Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. In his spare time, he is, much to the chagrin of those involved, a board member of ASIFA-Canada. Robinson has curated many film programs, served on a variety of juries, and has written articles on animation for Animation World Magazine, Fps, Animato, Take One,and Plateau. He is currently working on a book about the history of Estonian animation as well as a biography of the great hockey player, Ted Lindsay. Go figure.