Entomology and Animation: A Portrait of An Early Master Ladislaw Starewicz
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In the Frogland Commonwealth things were going pretty well until a whimsical assembly of Wise Croakers got together and proclaimed: "Fellow Croakers! Our democratic form of government is all wet. Let us beseech Jupiter to send us a king!" (Could these be Luddite extremists trying to revert instantaneously to an ancient way of life?) The pompous, inconvenienced Jupiter looks down mightily from his cotton clouds at the foolish frogs, and reluctantly grants their wish. With a flash of lightening the frogs are honored with -- the Tree King!, who does nothing but sit. The frogs plead again: "Out upon him! He is but a blockhead!...Instead of a King thou sendest us presidential timber!" Jupiter, who could snuff them out with one shot of lightening, replies: "These frogs know not when they are well off. They are almost human!" He complies, though, once more, and sends a stork this time. "Long live King Stork!," chant the frogs, until, unfortunately, they find out that King Stork has a taste for frog. Jupiter does not help this time, leaving one croaker to pithily proclaim:

"Dear friends, before I
         make my slide
Into this greedy stork's
Give ear unto my parting
         Moan --
Moral: Let well enough

Succinct and to the point. Just the way Starewicz liked it. This film seems to have a sort of homemade blend of storytelling influences. Partisan politics and Greek mythology mix together in a folktale format. It is a unique approach that effectually brings together separate generational points of view, perhaps like Homer speaking with Hemingway. As he did with Nightingale, Starewicz has made a story that finds its heart in a child's point of view, and yet maintains its underlying multitudinous design.

I am fascinated with how Starewicz's stories approach traditional myth, and yet, being very grounded in everyday life, also speak of the joys, hardships and neglected truths of present day rural and urban existence. He blends modern events with legendary fairytales, elevating ordinary, modern characters to a generational platform, and grounding personified figures with temperaments that are so believably contemporary. In Nightingale, the bird is no less than human, representing qualities that affect us all. It is no different with the frogs from the Frogland Commonwealth, or the dragonfly who ignored the ant. These historical caricatures could be our next door neighbors, the government under which we live, or ourselves.

A Groundbreaking Pioneer
It is unclear just how influential Starewicz's work is, but The Mascot (1933) is without a doubt a precursor to the work of Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas), John Lasseter (Toy Story), The Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles), the bolexbrothers (The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb), Jan Svankmajer (Dimensions of Dialog, Alice, Faust) and Nick Park (The Wrong Trousers, A Close Shave).

The Mascot begins as live-action with a bed-ridden, young girl requesting an orange from her mother. They are not so well off, and the mother, who sews dolls for a living, cannot afford to get her one. As the girl repeats the request her mother's eyes form tears. (The repeating of questions and imperative statements are a common motif throughout all of Starewicz's work. It reveals vulnerability, as well as perseverance and pride, among both protagonists and antagonists.) One tear rolls down her cheek and onto the puppy dog doll that she is working on. She is not aware of the puppy doll as it suddenly twitches and blinks (already I'm seeing the old man in Street of Crocodiles whose spit puts in motion the mechanisms that bring a puppet man to life). When the mother leaves her worktable the puppy doll hops into the girl's arms. The girl smiles in her half-sleep, but when the mother returns she must remove the puppy doll to be packaged away with other dolls enroute to the toy store. (Now here comes the Toy Story connection....)

The Mascot could be a forerunner to Toy Story. © Disney/Pixar.

Within the delivery truck, on their way to the store, the dolls congregate inside their box. One particularly stealthy, street-wise doll decides that he's going to cut his way out of the box, and produces a long knife from under his coat. He cuts a hole, which leads directly to the outside of the truck, and leaps out. The other dolls hesitate, but soon follow, except for the puppy doll. He completes his journey to the toy store where he is bought, and while perched inside his new owner's car accidentally gets bumped out the window. Out on the urban street he is at first disoriented and frightened by the hustle and bustle. Soon, though, he makes his way to a fruit stand, and takes the opportunity to attain an orange for the little girl. He gets it, and begins to make his way back to the dollmaker's house.

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