Animated movies can be great movies. Still, the classic animated shorts that movie studios put out in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s don’t get enough recognition for the influence they had on some more adventurous strains of cinema. I teach a college class on film language, and in a session on self-consciousness in cinema, I usually begin by pointing out the gags in the Tex Avery 1946 short “Northwest Hounded Police,” among them, the pursuit of a wolf by the sardonic, slow-moving but indefatigable basset Droopy (a hugely popular character in the ’40s). The wolf runs so fast that he skips out of the film frame and ends up hiding out in a movie theater where, to his chagrin, the first picture is a Droopy cartoon.
Then I move to the live-action iterations of similar gags in the 1956 jukebox musical “The Girl Can’t Help It,” directed by Frank Tashlin, a former contemporary of Avery.
Next I show the synthesis of such outlandish visuals with New Wave realism in “A Woman Is a Woman” (1961), directed by Jean-Luc Godard (who corresponded with Tashlin when Godard was a critic in the 1950s). The lowbrow metamorphoses into the highbrow, proving that art and fun aren’t mutually exclusive. This blows the minds of my students (I think).
Boomerang is a new streaming service (an offshoot of the cable channel) that features only cartoons, and because it’s a partnership between Turner Broadcasting and Warner Bros., it’s a reliable purveyor of Looney Tunes — the Warner cartoon shingle that gave us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd and other heroes of postmodernism — and the MGM shorts featuring the likes of Tom and Jerry, Droopy and other characters, many of the best of them overseen by the same directors (Avery, Chuck Jones). Christina Miller, the president of Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang, told me that the streaming site, which is available as an iOS or Android phone and tablet app and on the internet (and will be expanding to Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and Chromecast this year), is for “kids, families and animation enthusiasts.” (A monthly subscription is $4.99, while an annual one is $39.99, which breaks down to $3.33 a month.) The emphasis on children and families is pretty heavy, as is the prominence of television programming. Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, Atom Ant — these are the big stars, arguably bigger than Bugs and Daffy, on Boomerang.
The best way for the animation enthusiast to get access to the great vintage stuff is through Boomerang’s playlists. When it started up in April, Boomerang had 1,000 “episodes” (shorts, actual television episodes, movies) at hand; that’s about one-fifth of what the larger library contains. The “Bugs vs. Daffy” playlist feels almost definitive: “Show Biz Bugs” casts the two as vaudeville rivals; “Rabbit Fire” is the first of the duo’s “Rabbit season/Duck season” duels, featuring the immortal line “how a person could get so despicable in one lifetime is beyond me;” and the immortal “Duck Amuck” finds an unseen animation artist tormenting Daffy with a brush and eraser.
A “Best of Droopy” playlist doesn’t feature “Northwest Hounded Police,” but it does have its 1943 precursor “Dumb-Hounded,” which features the running-out-of-the-frame gag and also has much more sumptuous animation and background art than “Northwest.” Other amusements include the 1946 Tom and Jerry short “Solid Serenade,” in which Tom, who spent most of his cartoon career silent save for mewls and hisses, sings “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” in the style of Fats Waller. And the cartoons all look great on the app — a lot of this material is frequently bootlegged onto YouTube in inferior-looking versions.
Anime, as the Japanese-produced form of animation has come to be known, has also been a substantial force in moving cinema forward both in terms of visuals and ideas. Consider “The Matrix,” which owes almost as much to something like the 1988 anime “Akira” as it does to Hong Kong action pictures, or take a look at the recent controversy over the live-action Hollywood adaptation of the manga/anime film “Ghost in the Shell.” Crunchyroll, available as a phone app and on Roku, Apple TV and a large number of gaming/video consoles, offers an eyeball-melting array of anime, but it’s mostly in the form of Japanese television series episodes licensed to the site, and web simulcasts, which allow access to contemporary television shows as they are screened in Japan.