The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / F├ętiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

The Cameraman’s Revenge: the camera as a mirror of human behaviour as performed by insect puppets

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

A deftly crafted and delightful animation short, this silent film comments on human foibles as performed by realistic insect puppets and on the role of cinema as a mirror of human behaviour and society, as a voyeur and as a purveyor of information and news. Mr and Mrs Beetle’s marriage has been stale for some time and both husband and wife are carrying on affairs with others. Mr Beetle has been seeing an exotic dragonfly dancer most nights and Mrs Beetle has been chummy with a grasshopper artist. The exotic dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend, who happens to be a cinematographer, vows revenge on his adulterous partner by secretly filming the dancer’s trysts with Mr Beetle.

Mr Beetle comes home early one evening and finds his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. He clobbers the missus with the lover’s painting and the grasshopper narrowly escapes being squashed dead by escaping through the fireplace and up the chimney and running off after a fight. Later feeling remorseful, Mr Beetle takes Mrs Beetle to see an outdoor movie. None other than the dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend is screening the film and he inserts film of Mr Beetle’s secret meetings with the dancer into the movie. Incensed at her husband’s hypocrisy and disloyalty, Mrs Beetle starts whacking hubby with her umbrella and he falls through the movie screen. He and the cinematographer get involved in a fight and the movie projector bursts into the flames. The last we see of the Beetles is in prison, where they vow to be faithful to each other.

In 10 short minutes, we have a complete and somewhat complicated little story of unfaithfulness, secret affairs, anger, revenge, hypocrisy and violence culminating in remorse and reconciliation. Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until they nearly lose it through their own selfishness and stupidity. The detail with which the insects are depicted as they perform human actions – they do them in the way we’d expect insects to, if they could walk on two feet – and the intricate miniature surroundings draw viewers into their little world. The stop-motion animation is obviously a labour of love, care and devoted attention. Colour is used in the film to suggest particular moods and perhaps to signify a darker, more complex change in the narrative.

Already at such an early stage in the development of the cinema and animation, director Starewicz uses the device of a film within a film to reflect back to characters (and the audience as well) their own actions, which may lead to an intensification of the plot or effect profound and long-lasting changes in the characters’ behaviours. The ambition behind the film and the energy invested in it are immense.

This zany little romantic comedy flick is far better than much animated product being produced with digital tools these days, and is highly recommended viewing.

Feline Follies: the folly of falling hard in love with no regard for consequences in a dark suicidal cartoon

Otto Messmer, “Feline Follies” (1919)

By no means a great cartoon or even a mildly interesting one, this animated short is notable mainly for the first appearance of the cat character later to be known as Felix the Cat. The plot is very sketchy and its message basically warns viewers of the consequences of being swept away by romantic love. An ordinary looking black cat, Tom (the prototype of Felix) falls heavily for Miss Kitty White, to the point of deserting his mouse-catching duties for his love. While Tom spends nights serenading his paramour and go-karting with her using musical notes born from his guitar that he then plucks out of the air, the mice live it up in his human mistress’s house smashing plates and gobbling up all the food. As a result, the woman boots him out of house and home. Dejected, Tom runs off to his love, only to discover she is the mother of a huge brood of mini-Tom kittens. What Tom does next will literally take viewers’ breaths away; at the very least his action qualifies this cartoon as not suitable for very young viewers.

The look of this animated short is very stylish in a minimalist comic-strip way, with enough interesting black-and-white background images to suggest a tidy semi-rural neighbourhood and an interesting use of distance perspective. There are enough sight gags to keep viewers interested: Tom being blamed for the mess the mice create, Tom turning his tunes into go-karts so he and his girlfriend can go racing, and Tom discovering that he is the father of a horde of little Toms. Title cards help move the plot and the action along.

Technically this is a decent little film (with a dark suicidal ending) that demonstrates what animators were capable of in the early years of film animation, with high aesthetic values being possible to achieve even in those early days.

The Little Pest: beaten up, walloped, drowned – what’s a pesky baby brother to do?

Dick Huemer, “The Little Pest” (1931)

Chiefly remarkable for its depiction of sibling-on-sibling violence, this short cartoon stars the boy Scrappy, who would go on to be a main character of several other short cartoons by US animator Dick Huemer. The style of animation is typical of cartoons of its time (late 1920s / early 1930s) with characters having rubbery arms and legs and capable of actions far beyond their real-life equivalents.

Scrappy and his pet dog decide to go on a fishing trip, and baby brother Oopie wants to tag along as well. Despite Scrappy’s reactions – which include smacking him and throwing him as far as possible, with the dog’s eager co-operation – Oopie manages to play a few tricks on Scrappy and the pooch, and (incredibly) arrives first at the lake to start fishing. The fish play a trick on the brothers by tying their fishing lines together underwater and Scrappy ends up hauling Oopie through the water and back onto dry land. Incensed at Oopie’s constant interruption, Scrappy hurls the bub into the water where he drowns. Suddenly realising he might end up on death row for killing the bub, Scrappy rescues Oopie and revives him – only for the brat to say he wants a drink of water! The next thing Scrappy does to Oopie doesn’t bear thinking about as the end credits soon start to roll.

It’s definitely not a cartoon to show children in case they get any strange ideas about how to treat their younger brothers and sisters. The tone is very sadistic and not a little creepy though it is funny to watch Oopie being walloped again and again and coming back for more punishment. Apart from this, there isn’t much else about the cartoon, its plot and characters that makes it stand out from other cartoons of its time.

Balloon Land: a fantasy fairy land where life is fragile, death is close by and a serial killer is on the rampage

Ub Iwerks, “Balloon Land” (1935)

For sure this cartoon with the Hansel-and-Gretel morality fairy-tale plot is weird and dark, and its theme of the fragility of life and the randomness with which life is given and can be taken away by violence can be very disturbing, even for adult viewers. In Balloon Land, everything – even the trees and rocks, and the figures of famous 1930s comedians Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – is made of balloons. An inventor creates a balloon boy and a balloon girl, and gives them life by pumping air into them. He warns them that they are mere air and can be easily destroyed if they go into the forest and meet the dreaded Pincushion Man, who will pop them dead with his dreaded pins. The boy laughs at the warning and drags the girl into the forest (a sexual intercourse metaphor) where, lo and behold, they come across Pincushion Man (voiced by Billy Bletcher, who did work for Walt Disney) who has been eavesdropping on the boy boasting about how all the tales about Pincushion man are baloney. The villain chases the children and they run back into Balloon Land where they sound the town alarm by pulling all the bottles out of the mouths of babes!

When Pincushion Man convinces the village idiot to allow him to enter Balloon Land (and kills the poor fellow as well – in these old, unself-consciously racist cartoons, the black guy is always the first to die), he goes on a murderous rampage across town killing balloon people with his huge phallic pin. The balloon boy and girl call on the army to mobilise and soldiers roll out their weapons of goop-filled catapults to stop the villain dead in his tracks. The army eventually covers Pincushion Man in tree sap goop, the whole ball rolls off a cliff and Pincushion Man disappears, perhaps forever.

As might be expected of a land where everyone and everything is made of balloons, the look of the film is colourful and rubbery-wet, and balloon animals make squidgy sounds. (That’s bound to get some rubber enthusiasts more than a little excited.) Sight gags involving balloon elasticity and the tendency of balloons to fly in circles when popped abound. Inventive plot twists ensure that the film never goes stale but remains fresh and vibrant. Bletcher does an excellent job in giving gleefully malevolent life to Pincushion Man through his voice. The desperate battle that Balloon Land fights to get rid of Pincushion Man, if its citizens are to survive, gives the cartoon an edgy quality.

The film does carry a conservative message that young people should obey their elders and not challenge what they say or otherwise transgress social conventions. The balloon children learn this lesson the hard way but make amends for the trouble they cause by raising the alarm so that Balloon Land can mobilise its defences quickly. The other lesson they will learn is that life is fragile and precious, and death is never far away and could take them at any time.

Blue Cat Blues: a Tom and Jerry cartoon comments on materialism, capitalist society and the class divide

William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, “Blue Cat Blues” (1956)

With dark themes of depression, substance abuse and suicide, this Tom and Jerry cartoon demonstrates that these lovable cat-and-mouse animated shorts were not targeted solely at young children. The cartoon is unusual also in that Tom and Jerry are portrayed as friends supporting each other, and not as eternal adversaries inflicting extreme sadistic violence upon each other. Jerry also narrates (in voiceover) the sequence of events that has led Tom into an existential hell, from which there is no escape except death.

Like all other roads leading to hell, Tom’s particular paved path started innocently enough: he becomes infatuated with a lovely lady cat and is completely obsessed with winning her attentions. Unfortunately he is competing with rival cat Butch who has more piles of money than he has lives to waste. If Tom buys a bouquet, Butch lays on a wreath; if Tom buys a ring with a microscopic diamond, Butch buys a rock so large that you need to wear a welder’s mask to see it; and if Tom buys a second-hand jalopy by signing away his life and those of his descendants down to the seventh generation, Butch simply runs over it with the most impossibly lengthy coupe money can buy. No matter what sacrifices Tom makes to win over the object of his love, the lady cat is easily bought off by Butch’s manipulations.

Tom descends into abysses of depression and milk abuse, and attempts suicide by falling into a stormwater drain, but faithful pal Jerry tries to rescue him and give moral support whenever he can. In the 1950s however, there were few psychological support services for depressed cats and eventually Tom ends up on a railway line. Jerry reflects on his own good fortune of having gained romantic love – until he spies his girlfriend being unfaithful to him by being hitched to a rich mouse in his coupe with a “Just Married” sign on it!

The dark and sombre tone is lightened (but not much) by slapstick humour that relies on exaggeration to induce smiles and laughs, but too much repetition of such burlesque wears thin. Sight gags such as Tom getting drunk on milk are amusing. However the march towards doom is relentlessly brisk and very little in the animation (not particularly good) or in the characters’ backgrounds and previous adventures can stave off the inevitable as the train whistle is heard in the distance. The cartoon can be seen as a slight social commentary on shallow materialism, the damage capitalist society can do to people who try to compete against those with more power and wealth, and on the class divide that ruins Tom.

Swing You Sinners! – horror morality story goes to extremes in imaginative animation

Dave Fleischer, “Swing You Sinners!” (1930)

A bizarre little cartoon short, filled with the most startling surreal imagery and mobile rubber-limbed characters typical of cartoons in the late 1920s / early 1930s, and a horror morality story that doesn’t end well for its main character to boot, “Swing You Sinners!” has lasted extremely well for its age. The animation is as extreme as its creators’ imaginations, the technology available to them as animators and the mores of Western and US society in 1930, coming out of the Prohibition era, allow it to be. Starring Bimbo, the pet dog of famous 1930s US animators Max and Dave Fleischer’s creation Betty Boop, the cartoon is a commentary on a dissipated life. Bimbo has spent his days stealing chickens, evading the law and generally being disrespectful to authority … until one fateful night when a police officer chases him into a cemetery and Bimbo finds himself trapped in a place that locks itself up and swallows the key, and ghosts, spirits and demons gleefully emerge from graves and underground to torment him. Many sight gags that would have been familiar to 1930s audiences abound, including a stereotype of an evil Jewish fellow.

After being chased all over the graveyard by various ghoulies, and tripped up by gravestones that come alive and dance around him, Bimbo tries to escape them all by going into a barn, only to meet more creepy beings that try to kill him with knives and nooses. He jumps out of the barn but the building comes alive and pursues him to the ends of the Earth. Bimbo has no choice but to fall into Hell and everlasting agony.

There is very little story and the plot is synchronised with the jazz ragtime music soundtrack which features some quite disturbing lyrics. The cartoon moves at a very brisk pace with characters morphing from one grotesque thing into another at alarming speed and Bimbo forced to keep galloping for his life faster and faster. The animation becomes ever more deliciously deranged and intense with teams of spooks persecuting Bimbo in ways that might recall the pursuit of black people by hordes of Ku Klux Klan members of the period.

While there’s no hope of redemption for poor Bimbo, and his punishments are extreme, the cartoon itself is a fun ride through highly imaginative animation that throws all the rule books out the window and follows its own deviant path. It is this creativity that keeps the cartoon fresh and startling, even to those who have seen it many times.

Forward, Comrades! – an animated short on the downfall of the Soviet Union

Wang Liyin, “Forward, Comrades!” (2013)

This animated Chinese short, made by a student at the Beijing Film Academy, focuses on the twilight days of the Soviet Union from the viewpoint of a young girl. She lives with her parents in a shabby wooden bungalow and spends her days playing with toy construction bricks and talking to her pets while her schoolteacher mother is at work. The pets are a cat called Comrade Vladimir (as in Vladimir Lenin), a chicken called Comrade Felix (as in Felix Dzerzhinsky) and a duck called Comrade Beriya (as in Lavrenty Beria). The animals aren’t always well behaved: one day Comrade Beriya is naughty and the unnamed girl punishes him for “crimes” against socialism, while giving the instructions for a final knock-out blow against capitalist enemies to Comrade Felix.

One day a Russian-language TV broadcast informs viewers of a coup carried out by reactionary forces against the Soviet Union and from then on, things change dramatically for the girl and her pets. Comrades Vladimir and Felix die, Comrade Beriya is despatched by the girl’s mother to a restaurant, and the toy construction bricks and other belongings of the girl are also sold off. The family moves into an apartment block in a grey city, and the girl is given new American toys – various dolls and Disney character soft toys – to play with. On overhearing her mother discussing fashions and cosmetics with other adults, the child decides to run away back to her old home. At that very moment, there is a nuclear explosion in the sky and the girl is transported back to a world where her pets are very much alive and have formed a tank regiment.

The animation is quite crude and the story is very selective in its history. An entire episode of Soviet history, in which the Soviet Union transforms itself into an industrial power twice over (in the 1930s and then after the Second World War) under Joseph Stalin, followed by a long period of stagnation and corrupt rule under a series of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-allied politicians from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, is skipped over in the cartoon’s portrayal of the disintegration and collapse of the USSR. The girl’s decision to break away from her parents represents China’s decision to strike out on its own socialist path – though in reality, this involved zigzagging through the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, and later leader Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of economic flexibility combining elements of capitalism and socialism, to the current situation in which China is now wealthy enough to bring economic development to its more impoverished regions and to Third World countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

There are some interesting ideas about how capitalism can influence people to conform to labels and categories. On the whole though, the film shows a very sketchy and poor understanding of Soviet and Chinese history. It’s mainly of interest to people curious about the current state of Chinese animated film.

Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster): Masha and kasha aren’t a good mix

Oleg Uzhinov, “Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster)” (2009)

Despite its title, this charming little short turned out to be the animated children’s series’ recipe for success, its Russian-language version gaining more than 3.4 billion views on Youtube and as a result becoming the most viewed non-music video on that platform. The story is simple and straightforward but contains a little lesson about how one should accept responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that accrue from them.

Bear is trying to teach himself how to play checkers using a guidebook but gets stuck over a game in which he plays both sides and now White is out-pointing Black by 5 to 1 literally. Bear doesn’t quite get the hang of checkers being a strictly competitive game where the object is to win, and not a game where the competition is in striving to be the best you can be and everyone gets to win. His little human charge Masha doesn’t help by stealing the black piece and trying to play hockey with it. Bear pops her outside the cottage with a real hockey puck and forces Hare, caught stealing carrots from the garden (again!), to play goalie. After a while of hitting goals, Masha and Hare demand lunch so Bear puts Masha in charge of cooking kasha (buckwheat porridge) and goes off into the woods to concentrate on his checkers game. Masha ends up raiding all the cupboards for kasha and pouring it all into the pot, mixing water and milk into it; the resulting boiling mix threatens to over-pour everywhere so she dumps as much as she can into as many pots and pans as she can, and takes them all out to the forest animals to feed them all. Even the wolves resident in the abandoned ambulance van up on the hill get overfed on kasha.

Meanwhile, Bear finally reconciles himself to the fact that Black has lost the game so he packs up and returns to the cottage just in time for the inevitable explosion …

The CGI animation emphasises bright colours and sharp lighting contrasts which give a sunny mood to the cartoon. The action is quick and zippy which allows a lot of story to be packed into a 7-minute cartoon. All the animals featured in the story are mute which make Bear’s patiently stoic and forbearing attitude and the other animals’ surprise all the more funny. The story brings out Masha’s mischievous yet lovable character as she is forced to face up to the mess she creates.

One hopes that Bear has learned not to leave Masha by herself in the kitchen again, but given that this episode has been the most popular of the entire series, perhaps the creators can’t resist having Bear forget what happened when he left Masha at home alone … maybe that’ll be another lesson to be reinforced.