Good Grief! It’s Christmas, DaffyDoc!

Good Grief! It’s Christmas, DaffyDoc!

I just love Christmas, and not the hype or commercialism, but the nostalgia, the lights and decorations that bring forth a feeling of hope and happiness… And of course, I love the Christmas specials. Nowadays, the producers of every cartoon series or animated feature are persuaded to create a Christmas special; some are funny and sweet, others not really worth the effort. I wonder how many will become Christmas classics that stand the test of time. Venture back with me, if you will, to the days of old… television animated specials, that is.

The very first animated Christmas special aired on NBC-TV December 18, 1962 and was based on Dicken’s classic, starring the bumbling and nearly-blind Mr. Magoo as Scrooge in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

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This hour-long animated special produced by Abe Levitow at United Productions of America (UPA) has the honor of being the very first of its kind – the animated Christmas special. The Dickens’ story is retold as if it were a Broadway musical, with a score provided by Funny Girl’s Jule Styne and Bob Merrill with  Jim Backus (mostly remembered as Mr. Howell from Gilligan’s Island) voicing Quincy Magoo.

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The moral, like most Christmas Carol adaptations, blatantly expresses the repercussions of greed and selfishness and shows the importance of good will towards men. Although various adaptations of A Christmas Carol are broadcast throughout December, rarely does the landmark (and gem of an animation) air anymore.

NBC also broadcast the second TV animated Christmas special: on December 6, 1964 Rankin and Bass’s retelling of the Johnny Marks Christmas song, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer premiered.

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Romeo Muller expanded the short holiday song into a one-hour script, to which Rankin and Bass worked their “Animagic”, their special brand of stop-motion animation. In this telling, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer travels with Hermey, an elf who would rather be a dentist. The two venture to the Island of Misfit Toys, meet prospector Yukon Cornelius and the Abominable Snowman and, of course, save Christmas. Then-famous actor Burl Ives voiced the narration through Sam the Snowman, and his two songs (“Silver and Gold” and “Holly Jolly Christmas”) play each year on the radio.

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The animation may seem a bit stilted to those who prefer modern techniques, but the heart and the work that went into this and other Rankin/Bass stop-motion classics make them worth the viewing. Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass created some of the most memorable animation specials, usually with stop-motion characters but occasionally with traditional cel animation.

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For the next 20 years, Muller, Rankin and Bass continued to collaborate on other Christmas specials: The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977) and Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980). Other than Frosty the Snowman, the other specials are rarely shown on television today, which is a shame: kids today miss out on the Snow Miser & Heat Miser’s song from 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus! (But you can watch it here: Snow Miser/Heat Miser song)

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And then along came Charlie Brown…

In the 1950s, Bill Melendez created commercials for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, during which time the Ford Motor Company was looking for a spokesperson for their forth-coming car, the Ford Falcon. Over dinner one night, the ad agency president, Norman Straus, and Melendez were discussing options, when Straus’s granddaughter suggested using Peanuts. (Watch the original 1960 ad here: Peanuts’ Ford Falcon commercial) Although at the time Straus has no idea who or what ‘Peanuts’ was, this was the beginning of two things: the animation of Peanuts characters and Peanuts on television.

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Melendez wrote:

Sparky’s [Charles Schulz’s] characters in those early days — the late ’50s — were definitely two-dimensional. I therefore could animate the characters in a very stylized way. I would try to give the impression of “full” animation in a limited way; create the illusion of complete mobility with a minimum of drawings. [. . .] The first commercial we did was a minute spot, about 58 seconds long and in 35mm footage about eighty-seven feet long or about two thousand drawings.

During this time Lee Mendelson produced a documentary, A Man Named Mays, about baseball great Willie Mays. Mendelson decided to next create a documentary about the worst ball player of all time, Charlie Brown and his creator, Charles M. Schulz. The two met and began production on a thirty-minute production, complete with two-minutes of animation for A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

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Schulz suggested Melendez for the animated segments based on a few of Schulz’s comic strips. Mendelson suggested Vince Guaraldi compose Jazz music for the background, and Guaraldi agreed, being an avid Peanuts fan; it was for this documentary that Guaraldi penned his most famous composition, “Linus and Lucy” which would become the theme music for Charlie Brown from then on. The completed documentary was shown to the San Francisco Advertising Club to rave reviews; Mendelson was sure he could find a network buyer: “But in true Charlie Brown fashion, no one was interested.

Seven years later, only slightly modified, the documentary won an Emmy.  Mendelson continued pitching the show for more than one and a half years to no avail, until April 1965, when Time Magazine published a cover story about the Peanuts gang and 
Schulz.

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Then the phone rang, John Allen from the McCann Erickson Agency expressed interest, but not in the documentary. Instead he asked, “Have you and Mr. Schulz ever considered doing a Christmas special?” Mendelson hastily answered yes! The catch: the sponsor, Coca-Cola wanted an outline in 5 days. Then he called Schulz: “‘I think I may have just sold a Charlie Brown Christmas show,’ I said. ‘And what show might that be?’ Sparky asked. ‘The one you need to make an outline for tomorrow,’ I replied. Without missing a beat, he calmly said, ‘Okay. Come on up.'” Schulz only had a few demands: “If it’s to be a Christmas special, I want to certainly deal with the true meaning of Christmas.” Schulz wanted to include scenes with snow and skating, a reminiscence of his childhood in Minnesota, and he suggested they include jazz music mixed with traditional holiday songs. Schulz also insisted that children be hired to do the voices instead of the usual adults-as-children, and he refused to allow a laugh track. The end result would hardly vary from the outline Schulz and Mendelson created that day.

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The approval came with the condition the program be ready to air that December, giving the group only a few months of production. Besides the very-religious outline and Schulz’s other demands, there was one thing left that could break the deal:

Because there was precious little time left, it was agreed a half-hour special would be completed in the three months remaining before the Christmas air date. The carbonated beverage giant had thrown in with the round headed kid; television had rarely seen a more unlikely trio. [. . .] At the time the standard network specials (or “spectaculars”, as they were immodestly known) ran for 60, 90, or 120 minutes. CBS was understandably hesitant about such a radical departure from tradition. After all, the network had never aired such a short animated special, and the public might, God forbid, be taken by surprise. [. . .] Siding with the producers, Coke approved the half-hour format.

The show’s budget was set at $75,000 – the same amount used for one-half hour of animation from Hanna-Barbera – and because of Melendez’s insistence of higher quality, the show ran over budget, to $96,000.

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The completed program was screened one week before air date by Coca-Cola and McCann-Erickson to favorable reviews, however CBS was not impressed by the final product. The disappointed network executives described the program as “a little flat” and “slow.” With the air date so soon, the program would have to air, however, they quickly canceled their option for another program: “But maybe Peanuts are better suited to the comic page.”

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Richard Burgheim, a Time Magazine writer, stood waiting for his own screening. Although CBS wanted to cancel his screening, Mendelson insisted it would be worse to NOT show him. Burgheim watched the program then left without saying a word. A few days later, Burgheim’s review appeared in the TV section of Time Magazine:

December is the gruelingest month, the time when there seem to be more seasonal “specials” than regular shows on TV. But this Thursday . . . CBS will carry a special that is really special. For one thing, the program is unpretentious; for another, it is unprolonged (30 minutes). Finally, it represents the overdue TV debut of the comic strip Peanuts.  A Charlie Brown Christmas is one children’s special this season that bears repeating.

TV Guide ran a two-page spread with a “Close-Up” of the program. A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on December 9, 1965 and ranked second in the Nielson ratings, and CBS called and ordered four more specials.

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The reviews were glowing, and the critics raved:

If you missed Charlie’s debut on TV, I’m sorry for you. Write CBS and say all you want for Christmas is a repeat. (Harriet Van Horne, NY World Telegram)

The Peanuts characters last night staked out a claim to a major television future. . . (Rick DuBrow, U.P.I.)

Natural-born loser, Charlie Brown finally turned up a real winner last night. . . excellent animation. . . fine job of matching voices to characters. (Lawrence Laurent, Washington Post)

Charm and good taste marked the animated Charlie Brown show. . . it appealed to grownups as well as the moppet set. (Ben Gross, New York Daily News)

A Charlie Brown Christmas, the little show that almost didn’t air, won an Emmy Award in 1966 for Best Network Animated Special, and a Peabody Award for the outstanding children’s and youth’s program for the year 1965. A Charlie Brown Christmas has been rebroadcast every year on network television since, and is considered by many to be the best of all the Christmas specials, animated or otherwise.

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PHEW! That’s a lot of info about Charlie Brown, but I just love the program and the story behind it. I hope you do too.

Maybe I’ll tackle the Grinch next week. Do you think he’ll mind that he missed Christmas?

Daffy Doc

 

 

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Gargoyles and Bats and Authors, oh my!

After a rather long hiatus, Daffy Doc is back. Well, sort of. This time, we’re having a guest blogger, novelist Jay Mims, creator of the clever and debonair detective Dan Landis (The Five Santas, The Cult of Koo-Kway and the soon-to-be-released The Gray Ghost Inn).

So Jay, since this is an animation blog, what animation do you like? Tell us about it:

JM: I have always been a fan of two very different TV series in particular. The first is Batman: The Animated Series because it’s just got one of the best casts ever. Seriously, it’s Batman but with a cornucopia of heroes, villains, and supporting cast. It’s also gorgeously drawn, action packed, and had some of the best storytelling in TV for its time.

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DD: I agree! The design of the whole show was terrific, and I loved the villains! And the other?

JM: The other show I really loved was Gargoyles. Like Batman, it was a serialized cartoon series, but like Batman it emphasized story and character over all. I’m always a fan of stuff like that. I even blogged about what an amazing show Gargoyles was.

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DD: Gargoyles was so much fun, and so very different from, well anything, Disney has ever done. Do you know the shows’ heritages?

JM: I’m familiar with the basics of each show. With Batman: The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm, fresh off success working on Tiny Toons, was asked to do a show about Batman. Because that is fried gold right there. They decided to really emphasize the quality, and with the help of legendary animation writer Paul Dini, and the amazing casting prowess of Andrea Romano, it became a force to be reckoned with. Of course, having Shirley Walker score the episodes didn’t hurt either.

DD: I don’t know about you, but lately I tend to follow certain animators versus the studios – that way I have a sense of the quality of the stories. Tell us about the history.

JM: Gargoyles came about, oddly enough, thanks to the success of another Disney series Gummi Bears, which had been worked on by Greg Weisman. Thanks to the success of Gummi Bears, Weisman had the opportunity to pitch Disney an action-adventure series. The rest, as they say, is history.

DD: Jay, thanks so much for joining me this time around. I look forward to talking with you in person about our mutual love of animation. (I’m certainly glad I have unlimited minutes!)

Next posting, I’ll be discussing a certain man and his brilliant dog. (Hint: they’re British, and he likes cheese…)

Thanks for stopping by!

Daffy Doc

Beauty, The Apostle and The Prince

A happy surprise today when the Disney Channel ran Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). This film was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This threat of a non-live action film potentially winning the Best Picture forced the Oscars to create a new category the next year, Best Animated Feature. (Now a new debate: what makes something animated? Is Avatar considered animated with the use of “motion capture”? How much animation pushes a film from live action to animation, such as Lord of the Rings? But that’s an argument for a different day…)

Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise directed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, which boasted fabulous musical numbers written by Howard Ashman and composed by Alan Menken, comparable to any Broadway show (which followed shortly thereafter); songs included “Be Our Guest,” “Something There,” “Gaston,” and of course the theme song “Beauty and the Beast.” A brilliant voice cast brought the story to life, including Robby Benson (the Beast), Paige O’Hara (Belle), Jerry Orbach (Lumiere), David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth), Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts) and Richard White (Gaston). The primarily hand-drawn animation is quite good, led by new Disney legends Glen Keane (Beast), Mark Henn and James Baxter (Belle), and Andreas Deja (Gaston). The backgrounds are beautiful (layout supervisors Ed Ghertner and Robert Walker). I especially love the opening sequence presented with stained-glass images, beautiful and creepy music and David Ogen Stiers narrating. (Here is a clip for you to enjoy: “You like the girl, don’t you?”)

Obviously not Disney’s FIRST first, however, as Disney is credited as creating the first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Many considered the creation of a feature-length cartoon to be “Disney’s Folly,” and most assumed it would be a travesty; they showed up to the premiere in droves, and all were overwhelmed by the stunning design, animation and fun music wrapped up in Disney’s Folly. The Academy of Motion Pictures awarded Walt Disney an honorary award: “For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field;” Walt Disney received one Oscar and seven miniature Oscars.  (Here’s “The Washing Song.”)

Disney did NOT, however, create the first feature-length animation. South America wins that race with a cut-out animation, El Apostol (1917) followed quickly by Sin Dejar Rastros (1918). Quirino Cristiani directed both films, and sadly a fire destroyed Cristiani’s studio, and both films are considered lost. For the record, Cristiani is credited with creating the 4th feature as well Peludopolis (1931).

Here’s a big first for you, especially with the knowledge the Walt Disney did not encourage women to work in animation other than painting cels: the third feature-length animation, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) was designed and animated entirely by one woman! (Okay, well there were a few others that helped, including Walter Ruttmann, Berthold Bartosch, and Carl Koch, but she designed the characters and animated the bulk of the film.) Lotte Reiniger cut out all the characters, hinged them, created the backgrounds and produced a beautiful film of cut-out animation, complete with color tinting. Thankfully, it is available on DVD and on the web: (click here: The Adventures of Prince Achmed.)

So the big firsts: Quirino Cristiani created the first feature-length animation. And the second and fourth. Lotte Reiniger created the first color-tinted, feature-length animation. And Walt Disney created the first traditional, hand-drawn animated feature, and the first in America, and he started the notion that people WILL sit for more than seven minutes to watch a cartoon.

I love animation history!

Daffy Doc

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Frame…

Although artists experimented with animation tricks earlier, one might say animation is 100 years old this year. Traditional animation – hand drawn on paper – began with the work of Winsor McCay (1867-1934).

This amazing man (syndicated comic strip artist – Look here for some examples of McCay’s fine artwork – and sometimes vaudeville performer) was fascinated by film and the early experiments into animation. His first effort brought his own comic strip character Nemo (no, not a fish) to life in a squash-and-stretch scenario in “Little Nemo” (1911). He drew every one of the 4000 frames himself! Take a look – the quality is quite good. “Little Nemo” animation.

In the midst of his multiple comic strips and other projects (including a Broadway version of his Little Nemo), McCay decided animation was worthy of pursuit, so he created “How a Mosquito Operates” (1912) and drew each of the 6000 drawings alone! SPOILER ALERT: Unless you’re from Minnesota or Texas, you probably haven’t seen a mosquito this big!

Legend has it that on a bet, McCay began work on his next masterpiece. When he and some colleagues visited a museum, McCay supposedly commented that he knew how dinosaurs walked, and he could demonstrate this. And “Gertie the Dinosaur” (1914) became the first dinosaur to perform in Vaudeville. “Gertie” was an animated dinosaur who “performed” with McCay on stage. He would call her out of her animated cave and interact with her, even throwing her an apple with some sleight of hand. Gertie and McCay were very popular. (The Walt Disney Company even paid tribute to Gertie by putting a statue of her in Echo Lake at their Hollywood Studios theme park.)

McCay was outraged by the German submarine attack on the Lusitania in 1915, and he animated a pro-war cartoon based on “The Sinking of the Lusitania” (1918). An amazing piece of propaganda, this animation came out the year the war ended, so it probably didn’t have the impact McCay would have liked.

Sadly, bad contract decisions relegated McCay to working for William Randolph Hearst, creating pen drawings for Hearst’s political agenda. Hearst kept his comic strip artist on a tight leash, and McCay lost heart and hope; he died a very unhappy man. But his animations live on, including the first color animation, the first squash-and-stretch animation, the tradition of one-frame-at-a-time animation hand-drawn animation, the first examples of animation cycles (repeating the same series of frames to create a movement cycle, i.e. walking, dancing, waves) and the first performing dinosaur. Thank you Winsor McCay for showing us how dinosaurs walk. And dance.

DaffyDoc

Winnie the Pooh

Recently, I had the pleasure of viewing Disney’s new animated feature “Winnie the Pooh” (2011).  In the current world of screen-popping 3D special effects, this gentle traditional animation is a breath of fresh air. Although the story is definitely aimed at the youngest of theatre-goers, the writers included enough puns and fun moments that adults can enjoy it as well – if they are able to release their inner-child. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, this film pays homage to the Winnie the Pooh films created at the end of Walt Disney’s life. I think this animation would make Walt and his original animation team, the Nine Old Men, very proud – with great work by supervising animators Mark Henn (Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin), Dale Baer (Owl). Bruce W. Smith (Kanga, Roo and Piglet), Andreas Deja (Tigger), Eric Goldberg (Rabbit), and Randy Haycock (Eeyore).

For me, the film worked. The animation is stellar, and seeing quality traditional animation on the big screen is a rare treat these days. Most of the voice-casting is spot-on. With the realization that most of the original voices (Sebastian Cabot as the narrator; Sterling Holloway as Pooh; Paul Winchell as Tigger; John Fiedler as Piglet; Junius Matthews as Rabbit; Ralph Wright as Eeyore; and Barbara Luddy as Kanga) have passed away, and the young actors who played Christopher Robin and Roo are somewhat beyond the age to play these characters again, Disney had to recast the entire crew. Most of the voices are terrific: Jim Cummings as both Winnie the Pooh and Tigger proves once again why he is in such demand for voice work; Cummings is truly the modern-day Mel Blanc. John Cleese does an exceptional job as the gentle narrator taking us through the 100-Acre Wood, and Craig Ferguson as Owl nearly steals the show. Bud Luckey as Eeyore and Travis Oates as Piglet are quite good, and Tom Kenny (better known for his work as Spongebob Squarepants) provided a nice voice as Rabbit, although I much prefer Junius Matthews’ version.

My biggest complaint about our modern Pooh film lies in the music, primarily provided by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. The songs do not seem to fit the original Disney Pooh style, created by the irreplaceable Richard and Robert Sherman in their songs and music. (Anderson-Lopez also voiced Kanga and ended up sounding more like a teen mom than a wise, motherly kangaroo.) Worse yet was the wonderful opening song which was written by the Sherman Brothers for the first 1966 Winnie the Pooh film but was sung in a jazzy, lounge-act style by Zooey Deschanel – very out of place and time. Indeed, the producers had Deschanel sing a total of 3 songs for the film. These may be fine for radio, but not for this film.

Our lovable. hungry bear first graced the world in a novel written by A.A. Milne in “Winnie-the-Pooh” in 1926 with a sequel “The House at Pooh Corner” in 1928. Disney released three short films “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” (1966), “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” (1968) and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974) – the first two directed by Old Man Wolfgang Reitherman and the third by Old Man John Lounsbery. Three years later, Disney combined the three shorts into one feature film “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” (1977); this Pooh was my childhood friend. (Christopher Robin was gracious enough to share his bear with many of us.) The new “Winnie the Pooh” film fits nicely into the Disney collection of Pooh films and will no doubt be a classic one day.

I must mention one more Winnie the Pooh series: “Vinnie Pukh” (1969), “Vinni Pukh Goes Visiting” (1971) and “Vinni Pukh and the Day of Concern” (1972) created by Russian animator Fyodor Khitruk. Eventually these three were combined into “Vinni Pukh and His Friends.” These colorful renditions of Milne’s stories provide bright colors and fresh laughs for modern audiences as well. Legend has it that Walt Disney complimented Khitruk on his fine animation. Fortunately for animation lovers, Khitruk’s Winnie the Pooh can be viewed on the internet along with his other wonderful animations. You’ll probably want to turn on the closed captioning – (click the CC at the bottom): “Vinni Pukh” – Enjoy!

Kung Fu Panda 2 in 3D!

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a great follow up to the original with moments of wondrous beauty and style  – such as the opening credits done as a nod to shadow puppets, and the dream sequences done in 2D and looking a bit like Chinese watercolor art. The animators continue to amaze with the subtle movements in faces and fur, and the backgrounds are exquisite. For those with an interest in Chinese culture, many things can be seen in the background – but you have to look quick (or wait for the DVD to freeze frame and analyze it).

SPOILER ALERT: The story follows Po (Jack Black) as he searches for the mystery of his birth and his real parents; although somewhat predicable, it’s handled well. The continuing roller-coaster of Po almost winning then being beat back eventually begins to wear thin after awhile, but the resolution is worth the ride.

The Furious Five characters have more to do this time around; the character of Tigress (Angelina Jolie) is better developed, and we are finally able to recognize Jackie Chan as Monkey. James Hong as Po’s foster father is brilliant as ever. As expected, the action is impressive, and there is even a credit for fight choreography. One of the better bits is Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) working on teaching Po how to find inner peace.  And a tip of the hat to whomever thought of making the bad guy an angst-ridden peacock. Perhaps someone from network television?

Now about the 3D; there is a beautiful scene as the characters leave the town to save China: the camera pulls up and back, and the village spreads out with wonderful lighting. With the 3D, the village takes on a reality that if seen flat would be a ho-hum visual. There also seems to be a thought process that film 3D should be like theme-park 3D, that is “poke the audience in the eye with a stick”. Those are the moments that break the story and say “Look you’re watching something in 3D!”. Why is it that a balance can be struck between story, music, sound, lighting, acting, and set design to create a good film, but when 3D is put in the mix somebody always thinks that stuff flying off the screen is necessary? Didn’t they go to film school? Kung Fu Panda 2‘s 3D is not as bad as some but is definitely guilty of gimmicks throughout much of the film. It’s like having the sound drop in and out – the audience would bail on surround sound if that happened, right? So why do the producers create eye-poking drop-outs in 3D?

The Po character is starting to flatten (bit of a pun) and needs to grow: the belly gags and constant eating have their limit for humor. Having the Furious Five pick-up the slack is a wise move, and we can hope to see more in the next one. It looks like Po’s real father will make more of an appearance in the next one, which could be interesting. The price might be higher for a 3D film but it is really worth it – especially when they’re done well, like How to Train Your Dragon – brilliant. Kung Fu Panda 2 3D has moments that are wonderful, and the 3D gives the story a visual depth worth the price and the effort.

Daffy Doc

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Animation!

“Why write a blog on animation?” you might ask. “Well,” I might answer, “I’ve taught college courses on The History of Animation for about the last decade, and it might be a while before I get to do so again. And frankly, I miss talking about animation to folks that also like to talk and learn about animation.”

So there you have it. This blog will be a discussion about animation, animators and the industry (which means PLEASE feel free to comment, correct or otherwise “chat” about the postings…)  I can’t wait to get started!

Daffy Doc