Understanding Animation: Huh?

Fred Patten reviews Paul Wells latest text, UnderstandingAnimation, and reveals why it is an oxymoron.

Paul Wells is Subject Leader in Media Studies at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. Understanding Animation is an academic study which "not merely wishes to address [issues of animation beyond Disney] and reclaim the animated film as an important art form in its own right, but to provide a variety of points of access into the study of the medium. To study animation is to acknowledge its place in cinema history and to properly evaluate its achievements." (pg.3) The author goes on to explain that, "Understanding Animation represents the first tentative steps to introduce some of these agendas [of the esthetic and cinematic value of animation] to students of animation, and to provide some models by which they may address a highly complex form exemplified in numerous ways by hundreds of animators worldwide. Understanding Animation is, therefore, part history, part theoretical speculation, and part spirited defence of a neglected but important film form. Inevitably, it will be flawed, seeking not to be definitive but provocative ..." (pg. 8) Well, yes. A study of animation that purports to be the result of earnest scholarship and considered artistic evaluation, intended for serious students of the cinematic medium, must be held to higher standards than a superficial overview written for the popular-culture market. Understanding Animation is riddled with errors of fact that cast doubt on the validity of its interpretive judgments. The Facts? In addition to misspellings of words which may be typographical errors (" . . . to illicit sympathy for . . ."; pg. 3), the names of numerous notable personalities are misspelled, not just once, but consistently, for example: Norman McClaren (McLaren), Matt Groenig (Groening), Otto Mesmer (Messmer), Dawes Butler (Daws)*, James Baskette (Baskett), etc. There are also incorrect dates (Disney's "Beauty and the Beast (1989)"; it was a 1991 release). There are inconsistencies, e.g., Japanese animators are listed both surname last in the Western style (Osamu Tezuka) and surname first in the Oriental style (Otomo Katsuhiro). There are misapplied terms; "Japanese manga films" (pg. 3) and "the Manga films from Japan" (pg. 195), using the Japanese word for comic books rather than "anime," the now well-known Japanese word for animation. In a four-page analytical plot synopsis of Betty Boop's Snow White (1933) as "a literal illustration of the lyrics" (pg. 75) of the song "St James' Infirmary Blues," Wells identifies one of the elements as "a 20 cent piece"; the actual lyric is, "Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain . . ." Drawing Conclusions Some of Wells' provocative opinions of animated films are unsupported: "It is no accident that Disney's Aladdin may be read as a thinly veiled metaphor for the USA engagement with Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military in the Gulf War. Indeed, it is almost the perfect vehicle to represent the enlightened, technologically advanced, self-evidently just rationale of the West, not only in its acts of political intervention, but in its popular entertainment." (pg. 220). Others are elaborated upon at length. A 3 1/2-page "deconstruction" of Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck analyzes Daffy's constant change of costuming by his unseen animator: "Just when he seems granted the legitimacy of `a sea picture' -- an obvious reference to both Donald Duck and Popeye -- Daffy is subjected to further humiliation." (pg. 41) Why is this an obvious reference to Donald and Popeye? Donald may always wear a sailor's suit but very few of his cartoons are set on the high seas. Since Daffy has already gone through Musketeer, farmer and Eskimo costumes and more by this point in his effort to be an actor, it seems more logical that placing Daffy in a sailor's uniform means no more than that he is being cruelly misled into expecting to star in a naval picture. On Osamu Tezuka's Jumping: "The narrative of the film is defined by thirty jumps. Each jump takes the viewer high into the air and back down to the ground." (pg. 78) Actually, each jump is higher than the one preceding, starting with hops of mere inches and escalating to leaps spanning continents. Isn't that significant enough to warrant inclusion in a two-page explication of the meaning underlying the film? ("The 'up and down' aspect of the piece redefines the notion of linearity in narrative progression, and characterizes human perception as selective, random and incidental.") I could go on for pages. Yes, Understanding Animation is provocative. You can argue with so much of it. *Butler's actual name was Charles Dawes Butler, but he consistently used the spelling "Daws Butler" as his professional name. Understanding Animation by Paul Wells. London & New York: Routledge, 1998. 265 pages. ISBN: 0-415-11597-3 (paperback) £12.99/US$19.99; ISBN: 0-415-11596-5 (hardcover) £40.00/US price not listed. Fred Patten has written on anime and animation history for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.