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Mixed Reviews for Fleischer’s Superman

John McElwee over at the Greenbriar Picture Shows blog has posted a fascinating overview of Paramount’s Superman cartoons. Despite the wide acclaim and Oscar nomination that greeted the first short, McElwee finds quotes from regional theatre managers who just couldn’t take the character – and the idea of dramatic adventure cartoons – seriously. The piece is liberally illustrated with trade ads, pressbook pages and news clippings even I hadn’t seen before. Well worth a look.

  • Cameron

    I’d hate to see how those people would react to Princess Mononoke.

    Actually, strike that. It’d be AWESOME to see them react to Princess Mononoke.

    Long live Fleischer’s Superman!

  • FANTASTIC post/blog !! These cartoons are one of the main reasons I was driven to get into animation. A wonderful addition to the Fleischer Superman saga ! Thanks for this !!

  • Isaac

    “Dramatic adventure” sounds like a misnomer. “Fantasy adventure” is more fitting. I think the most telling quote is “Superman is supposed to be serious.” About as much as fairy tales are serious. Even the supposedly serious The Dark Knight (2008) is unlikely to be called a drama, so the odds are slim for a cartoon about an alien with x-ray vision who saves humanity.

  • Adding to the ignorance of the supposed “appraisal” of the time, saying that these cartoons were “jerky” in the execution of the animation is as if the “critic” never saw them at all. One should consider the actual motive of the person making that remark and whether he was a plant by competitors to undermind the business that the series was generating.

  • I’m so old I actually saw the “Superman” cartoons in the movie theaters when growing up in Santa Barbara.

    All I remember is the audience going wild when these “cartoons” came on screen. Everybody in the theater audience loved these films, and thought they were brilliant.

  • Julius

    The general public has been conditioned by over a century of laughing at animated cartoons. The Fleischer Superman shorts were the first true dramatic action-adventure examples done in the medium, and the audiences of that day had nothing to compare them with. If you watch Winsor McCay’s “The Sinking of the Lusitania” anywhere with an audience, people will actually laugh while the bodies are leaping off the sinking vessel. A great many people apparently don’t know how else to react. This is why Disney had such a breakthrough with the funeral scene in “Snow White” and even then he had to cut the opening shot of Dopey being comforted because it drew unintened laughs at an early screening. Frank Thomas wrote about this. Just sayin’.

  • The last part of that post is particularly interesting. It also underlines the double standard that is still facing cartoons today.

    Animators argue that the animated cartoon is a medium instead of a genre, yet most of the work they prefer can be easily pidgeon-holed in the comedic genre. So every once in a while, a brave one will step forward and try to do something more mature and cerebral. But now you have to get past the “pretension” label coming from an animation community that can’t embrace change, and the “oxymoron” label that comes from the same people labeling cartoons as a kiddie genre.

    While I was never really interested in the Fleischers’ Superman series, I’m not against the idea that they did something serious and ambitious (no less at a time when their own world was falling apart). A lot of animated projects are based from works originating from the medium of comic books, where this originated from, as well as novels, short stories and legitimate theatre, all of which don’t have the same thematic stigma as animation.

  • cliffclaven

    Maybe the whole concept of “realistic” animated humans was just too new and off-putting. For audiences not attuned to the still-evolving visual language of comics, visually stylized Clark Kent and Lois Lane moving and talking in a natural manner may have been too alien to digest — especially in a format whose major appeal had thus far been its distance from reality.

    It might be compared to Polar Express. Other issues aside, those cgi zombies were just hard to look at because we weren’t used to something skirting — but not achieving — persuasive reality. Note that Pixar’s human designs loudly declare themselves as cartoons, even when the characters are deeper and more nuanced than a lot of real performers.

  • Isaac

    Julius, it’s not conditioning, it’s human nature. People can’t take cartoons seriously for the same reason they can’t take hand puppets seriously, they’re too far removed from real people.

    If I saw a hand puppet blow its brains out, I’d laugh. If I saw an actual person blow their brains out, I’d be horrified.

  • Brian

    I disagree on that statement, Isaac. The Uncanny Valley has been mentioned a couple of times, but only one end of it has been argued. As a non-human character begins to look more and more human, we tend to look for differences, and become less emotionally attached to them- hence, the “Polar Express” effect.

    What happens on the other end of the spectrum is that as a character looks less and less human, we look more for similarities, and react more emotionally to it. A perfect example of this would be Wall-E. As a character, he looks nothing like a human- he’s just a fancy trash compacter with binoculars for eyes who beeps and whistles. But because he looks so non-human, audiences look more for similarities, and become incredibly attached to the little ‘bot, as I did when I saw the movie.

    If you’re worried about getting cartoons taken seriously, just look at Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The characters are all talking animals, but the way they are used to narrate the events of the Holocaust, it is emotionally affecting.

  • Doug Drown

    I think most animators would concur that the Fleischer Superman shorts are among the best cartoons ever produced, and IMHO they still stand up, 60-plus years after they were done, as some of the finest fantasy films ever created, period. Yes, there is little character development; yes, Superman always saves the day (could one expect otherwise?); yes, some of the plots are wildly far-fetched. So what? As sheer works of art, they’re brilliant, and were visionary for their time. The Fleischer/Famous team did create some minor masterpieces, and some of these were among them.