[28 May 2014]
Between the ‘40s and ‘70s, United Productions of America (UPA) created some of the most indelible animation works of the 20th century, some of which went on to win Academy Awards. And yet we seem to have completely forgotten about them.
Founded by animators who left Walt Disney Studios after a strike in 1941, the studio initially was used by the automotive industry and the government to create animation pieces that would serve as institutional guidelines, until they received a contract from Columbia Pictures to enter the very competitive field of theatrical animation (the short films that played before the feature presentations). One of such creations was the lovable Mr. Magoo, a nearsighted retiree who gets into endless problems because he refuses to accept that he needs glasses.
Voiced by Jim Backus, the short, wealthy retiree would go on to star in myriad short films, all of which are now included in a splendid DVD collection aptly called Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection. Containing 53 short films and one feature length (1001 Arabian Nights from 1959), this box set should ideally re-introduce audiences to one of the America’s most unique animated characters. Upon his introduction in 1949, Mr. Quincy Magoo would go on to become one of the few animated characters who would have a healthy life in both movies and television and we realize, watching the short films in chronological order, that the reason for this success was the nurture that was provided by the creative team behind him.
In his very first film “Ragtime Bear” we see, a slightly more elongated, Magoo reach the Hodge Podge Lodge where he plans to get some very much needed rest, until, accidentally of course, he gets tangled in a plot that has him turning a bluegrass-loving bear into his nemesis (don’t ask). To call it sweet and slightly nostalgic would be a disservice, given how fresh the humor and the effortless charm are (especially compared to the contrived plots we see in modern animation) and especially how in the simplicity of the animation, lies something akin to a feeling of being in wonder for the very first time.
The creative folks at UPA mastered the art of limited animation; meaning that they often reused the same elements of a frame to come up with something that seems more rudimentary when compared to the stylized human-like animation being perfected by Walt Disney around the same time. Seen now in the age of CGI and motion capture, the effect feels altogether magical.
Interestingly enough, Magoo doesn’t even seem to be the star of his first animated short (we could argue that the bear is), but we see how his creators saw something behind the mean, often shallow facade. It was at some point here where they realized that Magoo wasn’t a villain, instead he was a misunderstood hero, whose biggest problem isn’t his pride and stubbornness, but his refusal to let go of his more innocent version of the world.
Short after short Mr. Magoo endangers his safety and sometimes that of the people he loves (including his nephew Waldo), as in the hilarious Oscar-winning short “When Magoo Flew”, in which the retiree finds himself wreaking havoc in an airport which he confuses for a movie theater. The short feels especially poignant because it ironically highlights the studio’s sophisticated take on animated simplicity, while making us miss a time when you could make jokes about airports without seeming insensitive.
Perhaps the best part about this box set is that you might not even realize how much time you’re devoting to watching all the shorts. It’s amazing how fast over 400 minutes can fly by when you’re enjoying yourself. Backus’ voice work in particular, gets better and better in each subsequent short film, making a case for the notion that voice work does in fact require skills that go beyond reciting lines in front of a microphone. Indeed, through his sincere delivery we get to imagine the lines and facial expressions the animation sometimes denies us, which is not in itself a criticism to the animation lacking anything, but a compliment to the voice work getting so good that it becomes the character.
Magoo would go on to have a prolific career in television. Watching Mr. Magoo is rather like traveling in a time machine that takes back to when going to the movies was something special. Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection is presented in a terrific box set with bonus features that include audio commentaries, an interview with Leonard Maltin where he discusses the history of UPA, a documentary about the creation of the character and how the work being done by UPA was “anti-Disney”, a photo gallery and more.
This boxset is a dream come true for animation lovers, as well as casual viewers who want to remember their childhood. There was a time when the approach to animation was “less is more”, and it worked very well, indeed.