Sunday, July 29, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Volcano" (Dave Fleischer, 1942)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

If you're a DC Comics fan, chances are you've seen at least one of the nine Superman shorts that Fleischer Studios produced in 1941-1942 (not counting the additional eight made by Famous Studios thereafter). That series offered the first-ever big-screen adaptation of a comic-book hero. It features Bud Collyer's definitely vocal take on the character of Superman. It's available on home video releases of both high and low quality. It's cited as inspiration on the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series and its many follow-ups. It's one of the foundational documents of Superheroes in Other Media.

While the series as a whole is accepted as popular and influential, its individual installments are rarely given much attention. Conventional wisdom holds that if you've seen one, you've seen all of them. On the surface, it's easy to see why. Those first nine follow an extremely - absurdly - strict formula:

1) Opening narration: "Up in the Sky! It's a Bird! . . ."
2) Introduction of the villain or threat
3) Daily Planet editor Perry White assigns Lois Lane and/or Clark to cover the story.
4) The two reporters arrive at the scene separately or together.
5) Lois gets very close to the threat and is captured/endangered.
6) Clark changes into Superman and flies to her rescue.
7) He also defeats/destroys the threat in general.
8) Finally - and this is key, because it's the most charming thing - Lois and Clark exchange some sort of banter about the day's events.

Indeed, all of those elements are evident in this cartoon, the eighth entry in the series. But today I want to talk about the things that are going on between those elements - the ideas that are specific to this cartoon.

1) First of all, I want to highlight the gorgeous animation of the lava. Like many Fleischer cartoons, these made heavy use of rotoscoping. I imagine that technique was employed here, but however it was done, the flow of the lava has a naturalistic look and feel. I love the way it seeps slowly and methodically over the backgrounds.

2) This is the only Fleischer Superman cartoon in which the hero battles a completely natural disaster. There are no mad scientists, no giant robots, no magnetic telescopes drawing comets towards Earth. Just a super-strong fellow from space redirecting the flow of some lava like a champ.

3) The action is unusually tense. In this eight-minute cartoon, the volcano doesn't blow for over a minute and a half after Lois and Clark arrive on the scene. In that time, we are treated to three separate shots of the steaming volcano (plus a steamship for added foreshadowing). When the mountain finally does blow, the eruption initially occurs off-screen before Fleischer cuts to the lava bubbling over the top of the crater. It's just lovely.

4) Of all of the films, this one has my favorite take on the Lois/Clark dynamic. In many of them, Superman goes to the scene independently of Lois. In others, Clark makes an excuse for himself to go change. Here, Lois steals Clark's press pass, playing an active role in preventing him from getting access to the volcano. Her competitive streak comes up in several of the cartoons, but this is the only where she's actually willing to cheat to get ahead of him. I love her when she's like that.

The formula made the Fleischer Superman cartoons iconic, but the variations and details make them actually fun to watch. And this is one of the most fun.

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