Book Review: When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA
Abraham explains the purpose of this book in his Preface.
“In the 1950s, the artists of UPA moved beyond the rounded realism of the Walt Disney Studio and the crash-bang anarchy of Warner Bros. to create films that were innovative and graphically bold – the cartoon equivalent to modern art. UPA’s influence could eventually be seen everywhere, from Hanna-Barbera in California to the Zagreb Film studio in Europe – an influence that continues to this day, in television cartoons and in computer animation produced for the Internet.
“When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA examines this achievement and chronicles the birth, joyous reign, and regrettable decline of a unique American enterprise.” (p. ix)
Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone. In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail. Anyone interested in the history of the Disney studio should read this.
Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education. The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired. By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs. Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.
The end of 1941 also marked America’s entry into World War II. Many of the ex-Disney artists went directly into the military, or were soon drafted. Artists from the animation studios, including Disney, were also drafted. These artists seldom served at the front; they were usually assigned to film units making animated training films for the Army and Navy. These films usually had minuscule budgets, and the officers or government bureaucrats who ordered them were not concerned with Disney-style full-animation realism; so the animators were free to experiment with modernistic designs and cost-cutting methods. This also held true for artists hired by Columbia Pictures’s Screen Gems animation studio. Columbia, a “minor” studio, didn’t really care how its cartoons were made as long as they were cheap, so its new animators enjoyed considerable creative freedom.