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Monday, June 2, 2008

Next Stop, Toontown (originally published 11/03)

Ever since the release of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" in 1988, the firewall between the live action world and the cartoon world has seemed more like a sieve. These days, 'toons and people interact on the screen as effortlessly as Bogart and Bacall, in everything from "Cool World" (1992) to the recently released "Looney Tunes: Back in Action."

The truth, however, is that there never was a firewall. The combination of animation with live action has been going on since almost the very beginning. In the 1920's, Max Fleischer created a series of cartoons called "Out of the Inkwell." Each one began with live action footage of Fleischer dipping his pen into an inkwell and drawing a character called Ko-Ko the Clown. Ko-Ko would then come to life by means of animation, getting into more and more mischief until the exasperated Fleischer would send him back into the inkwell. You can find these groundbreaking "inkwell" cartoons on home video on a collection called "Max Fleischer's Famous Out of the Inkwell, Vol. 1 & 2." But beyond that, there are plenty of other notable examples of live action combined with animation that are also available on home video. Here are a few to look for.

"The Three Caballeros" (1945). During World War II, the European market for American movies largely dried up, for obvious reasons. That prompted Hollywood to court movie audiences south of the border. This lively Disney offering was one of the resulting films. Essentially it is a travelogue, extolling the wonders of the southern half of the Americas, from Mexico to Brazil. The proceedings are spiced up, however, by the presence of none other than Donald Duck. We see Donald interacting with all sorts of live action footage, including a bevy of real-life bathing beauties for him to swoon over.

"Anchors Aweigh" (1945). Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra play a couple of sailors on shore leave, looking for romance. In one scene, a young boy nags Kelly's character into recounting his adventures at sea for some school chums. Instead of a real story, however, the imaginative sailor makes up a fanciful tale of entering a magic kingdom ruled by a grumpy king who forbids singing and dancing. The part of the king is played by Jerry the mouse from the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons. Kelly saves the day by teaching the unhappy king how to dance in one of the most curious and entertaining dance duets ever filmed.

"Dangerous When Wet" (1953). Swimming star Esther Williams picked up on Kelly's idea in this aquatic musical. Her character plans to swim the English Channel to raise money for her family's farm. In one delightful sequence she indulges in a bit of water ballet with Kelly's old dancing partner, Jerry the mouse. Since Kelly, Williams, and Jerry were all under contract to M-G-M, you see, it was all in the family.

"Invitation to the Dance" (1956). On the strength of his box office popularity, Gene Kelly managed to convince M-G-M to allow him to do this fascinating but decidedly noncommercial little art film. It consists entirely of ballet, with no dialogue, not even singing. The film tells three separate stories, the first a circus tale, the second a sort of domestic comedy, and the third a retelling of the story of "Sinbad the Sailor." The Sinbad sequence stands alone in that it is set in a cartoon environment through which the live action Kelly dances.

"Mary Poppins" (1964). One of the most entertaining scenes in Walt Disney's famous tale of the perfect nanny is an animated sequence into which the live action characters are integrated. Mary and the children in her charge leap into a chalk drawing made by Bert the chimney sweep and become part of its fanciful world. Just like everyone else, the animated animals are charmed by the magical Mary.

"Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (1971). After Walt's death, the Disney people tried repeating the "Mary Poppins" formula with this story of an apprentice witch (Angela Lansbury) and three children in search of a book of spells. Their travels take them to a magical island ruled by animals, and from which people are banned. As in the "Mary Poppins" chalk drawing adventure, this sequence is entirely animated except for Lansbury and the children.

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