Director: John Halas, Joy Batchelor
Screenplay: John Halas, Joy Batchelor
Producers: John Halas, Joy Batchelor
Starring: Ed Bishop, Lionel Murton, Roger Glover, Kraftwerk
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 146 mins
In one of the excellent extras on Network’s new collection of short animations by Halas and Batchelor, the British animation company most famous for their 1954 feature Animal Farm, TV presenter Chris Kelly repeatedly states that the studio was responsible for over two thousand shorts. How, then, would one go about successfully compiling a collection of just eighteen of these shorts? The husband and wife team of John Halas and Joy Batchelor are often considered the most important figures in British animation history and yet their output, Animal Farm aside, is very rarely seen or discussed these days. This can be partly attributed to the fact that a large part of their catalogue is taken up with instructional films, advertisements and wartime propaganda which may not spark as much interest in collectors as straightforward entertainments (although their work in these areas is often exceptional, as several documentary clips included in this collections demonstrate). Therefore, the eighteen short films chosen for The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection mainly concentrate on films made with the intention above all of entertaining audiences, although they range from abstract pieces and literary adaptations to music videos and kid’s TV episodes. Herein is a treasure trove worth discovering and while it may be comparatively short on genuine masterpieces, it builds up into a coherent picture of just how inventive and influential Halas and Batchelor were.
The films are presented in chronological order, beginning with 1948’s The Magic Canvas, an abstract depiction of the contrast between spiritual and creative freedom and imprisonment. This early experiment in abstraction betrays a heavy Disney influence, specifically the Toccata and Fugue in D minor section of Fantasia. But surprisingly Disney's effort sticks more closely to abstraction, while The Magic Canvas combines its swirling, flowing shapes with recognisable images like a flying bird, crashes of lightning and ships. The result is a beautiful abstract creation that makes some concession to storytelling conventions, resulting in a mesmerising but still entertaining film. With only room for eighteen films on this collection, The Magic Canvas was a fine choice but it’s less clear why the subsequent Flying Free, essentially a clipped version of the former film using different music but the same imagery, has also been selected. Its appearance directly after its longer, better counterpart seems largely redundant.
Two adaptations of poems follow, starting with Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat. With this striking short, Halas and Batchelor created a very early example of a 3D animation, for which they essentially had to make the cartoon twice, once for the left eye and once for the right. Accompanied by a slightly grating, whimsical musical reading of the poem, The Owl and the Pussycat is graphically astonishing, with the angular characters shapeshifting and jerking across the screen in a surrealist manner which perfectly complements the original poem. Keep a particular eye out for the pig, who contorts geometrically like no pig ever has before! The Figurehead is a charming stop-motion puppet film from the following year, adapted from Cosbie Garstin’s poem of unrequited love about a mermaid who falls in love with a ship’s figurehead. The Figurehead betrays the influence of George Pal, a puppet animator with whom Halas had worked in his early days in the business. Pal was very good at imbuing rigid-looking puppets with life, as in his masterpiece Tubby the Tuba, and Halas certainly brings a touch of that magic to The Figurehead, though it does look comparatively dated where Pal’s best work feels fresher.
Having touched on abstraction and literature, The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection turns to a mixture of comic satire and whimsy for the bulk of its middle section. The History of the Cinema is a satire on film-making that seems relatively harmless but apparently upset several people in the industry, perhaps because it was chosen for the Royal Command Film Performance, thereby giving it a higher profile. Largely made up of a series of enjoyable blackout gags, The History of Cinema does have some teeth, specifically in its satire on the depiction of Native Americans in film, something that was rarely being touched upon in 1957. Overall, it is reminiscent of the work of Bruno Bozzetto or later comic microcosms such as Michael Mills’ Oscar nominated The History of the World in Three Minutes Flat. Slightly less effective is The Stowaway, an episode of the TV series Foo-Foo. Reminiscent of Marcell Jankovics Hugarian Gustavus shorts which actually emerged several years after Foo-Foo, The Stowaway is a silent comedy about a Chaplin-esque rogue who stows away on a transatlantic liner and causes chaos. It’s an entertaining enough short which favours UPA’s limited animation style that was very much in favour during the 60s. UPA’s influence is even more apparent in The Cultured Ape, one of a short series of six television animations released under the banner Habatales. Like the UPA shorts, the target audience here is adults and the writing is sophisticatedly satirical and the animation wilfully rudimentary. It’s an enjoyable tale which also appears in a colourised version in the DVD extras.
Another of Halas and Batchelor’s long-forgotten TV series Snip and Snap is represented here by the episode Top Dogs. More stylistically inventive that The Stowaway or The Cultured Ape, the Snip and Snap shorts star a group of origami dogs (including the titular Snap) and an ordinary but animated pair of scissors called Snip. The dog creations are wonderfully made and animated by Danish animator Thok. While the dogs’ adventures are clearly aimed at a much younger audience than The Cultured Ape, the set-up is unusual enough to really stick in the mind, pre-empting craft creation-based series Fingerbobs and even showing hints of the dark mind of Jan Svankmajer in the animated scissors. Hamilton the Musical Elephant is one of the most charming shorts on the set, featuring music by English jazz legend Johnny Dankworth who provides the tune that comes out of Hamilton’s trunk. Hamilton is a forgetful, mini-elephant who lives for music but has to battle with the limitations of the circus. His adventure is nothing ground-breaking but is so colourfully rendered and charmingly realised that it’s hard not to get caught up in it more than you might expect. A second short, Hamilton in the Music Festival, was also made but the series ended there, perhaps wise given the limitations of the character.
Automania 2000 is the most famous short on The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection. An Oscar nominee, this satirical take on a public information film examines the history of the car but gradually builds up from whimsical jokes about oddly designed cars to a nightmare vision of a gridlocked world which cannot keep up with public demand. The shift from spot-gags to dystopian hell is achieved powerfully and the final images are indelibly bleak and brutal, making for a chilling but endlessly entertaining watch. The film has been justifiably lauded for its incisive approach, although it ultimately lost the Oscar to Ernest Pintoff and Mel Brooks' very funny short The Critic, which poked fun at the then-vogue for abstract animation the like of which Halas and Batchelor had themselves dabbled in. By contrast with Automania 2000, DoDo – The Kid from Outer-Space looks very dated indeed. Not without its own nostalgic charm, DoDo – The Kid from Outer-Space saw Halas and Batchelor taking an altogether more pedestrian turn to produce a typical Saturday morning cartoon series following the adventure of an alien child with antennae for ears that allow him to see the viewers through the television screen. This central conceit is wonderful and the best moments of the DoDo – The Kid from Outer-Space episode included here (The Kidnapped Kid) are its opening seconds in which we are introduced to DoDo and he looks right back at us through the TV. The subsequent adventure is average at best and the characters irritating tendency to speak in rhymes gets old quickly. It’s not a bad little episode but if this is representative of the series as a whole, it’s easy to see why this DoDo went extinct very quickly.
The final TV cartoon included on the set, The Symphony Orchestra is a musical short from the series Tales of Hoffnung, which brought to live the creations of caricaturist Gerard Hoffnung. Hoffnung’s designs are wonderfully cartoony and the anarchic collapse of a symphony orchestra mid-performance feels subversively satisfying. Along the way there are many great visual gags that make The Symphony Orchestra a delight to watch and leave this viewer wanting to see more of the Hoffnung series. By contrast, Flow Diagram is an enjoyable curio which serves its purpose as an educational film extremely well but does not stand up well to multiple viewings. This four minute short depicts the basic method of programming and analysing data using flow charts. This is done through a simple animated sketch of a man trying to bath his dog, with the relevant flow chart commands appearing next to him. It makes the idea of a flow chart very simple to understand and I would certainly recommend it for explaining the process to someone. However, having seen the animation, the viewer must then sit through a tedious rerun of just the flow chart commands appearing one by one on the screen. It’s interesting to see the method once but the compulsion to press skip after the dog bathing sequence will be strong in most viewers.
The Question is one of my favourite shorts on this set, its hippy ideals of love instantly marking it out as being from 1967. A philosophical but comically appealing short about a man who finds a question mark on the floor and sets about finding out the answer to this non-specific question, The Question essentially denounces everything from religion to politics and art to psychiatry, ultimately proffering love as the answer to everything. It may sound somewhat naïve and dated but, even as I’ve grown up and gone through years of cynicism, there’s always been an element of the All You Need is Love philosophy that has remained central to my own beliefs so this short appeals to me on that level but can be enjoyed as a wonderfully realised little think piece whether you agree with its central idea or not. Another of The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection’s greatest films is 1971’s Children and Cars. This clever little short begins with live-action documentary footage of children asked to come up with drawings of how they picture cars will appear in the future. The film then becomes something like a child’s version of Automania 2000, with another gridlocked motorway but this time made up of all the children’s creations, depicted in all their rudimentary glory but brought to life through the magic of animation. It’s a charming, clever and brilliantly realised idea that brings to mind Stefan Fjeldmark and Karsten Kiilerich’s 1997 film When Life Departs, which takes a similar approach to children’s ideas about death.
Music videos now become the order of the day, starting with Butterfly Ball, an accompanying animation for Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover’s single Love is All, taken from his child-friendly concept album The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast, based on Alan Aldridge’s picture book of the same name. Aldridge (the man behind the famous artwork for Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) provides the bright, colourful character designs and the resulting picture-book beauty of this project sets it as far apart from the limited animation of the previous shorts as possible. This is a beautiful music video which calls to mind a psychedelic take on the early Disney Silly Symphonies. The second music video on offer here is somewhat more challenging, unusual and haunting. Autobahn is an abstract visual experiment set to the title track by Kraftwerk, a hit single in its edited form. The version used here last eleven minutes (although this is still an edited take, running half the length of the official album version) incorporating the famous, catchy portion of the song and several minutes of the more experimental noise collage that follows. The visual accompaniment is a cold, dreamlike drift through an otherworldly void, accompanied by a strange green alien creature. Depending on who you are, Autobahn may bore you silly, confuse the hell out of you, transport you to another world, impress you greatly or a combination of all these elements. It’s a remarkable short from an era where music videos were still in their infancy and this bold stab at capturing Kraftwerk on a visual level adds another dimension to this electronic landmark.
Wisely opting not to revert back to whimsy after the headtrip of Autobahn, The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection closes with the hard-hitting computer animation Dilemma. An early example of an entirely digital animation, Dilemma is another philosophical short examining how technology has been used for destructive and murderous purposes rather than for progressing mankind’s development as a peaceful race. At first Dilemma’s point seems elusive but as it becomes clearer Dilemma becomes more fascinating and gut-wrenching. There are some genuinely haunting moments, especially with the emergence of firearms, and the short leaves the viewer rooted to their seat and feeling cold and nervous. Dilemma may be remembered most for having been one of the shorts that played before the original cinema run of Return of the Jedi. It has planted itself firmly in the minds of many Star Wars fans since then but until now Dilemma has not been an easy film to track down. Its appearance here should delight anyone curious enough to have unearthed it once more.
As if this chronological treasure trove of animated shorts wasn’t enough, The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection also offers a wealth of brilliant documentaries as bonus material on its second disc. The chief attraction here is An Animated Utopia: the Life and Achievement of John Halas, Paul Wells’s 2012 documentary feature which covers its topic as thoroughly as it can across 68 minutes. Just as fascinating are the three editions of children’s film show Clapper Board from 1980, which is largely made up of extensive interviews with Halas (some of which are used in Wells’s documentary) and clips from his work. Halas is remembered on a more personal level in the twelve minute John Halas Remembered, while the comparatively overlooked contribution of Joy Batchelor is given a dignified, concise tribute in the three minute mini-doc Ode to Joy: A Life in Animation. These generous extras, along with an image gallery and colourised version of The Cultured Ape, round off a set that could hardly have been more perfectly put together.
This fantastic set is released by Network on June 29th 2015. It is available on both Blu-Ray and DVD at the bargain prices of £12.99 and £9.99 respectively. I’d recommend it highly to any animation obsessives out there.