The bold, expressive animated shorts produced by United Productions of America (UPA) made them the toast of the industry at their 1950s peak. While Disney was all about the technically proficient naturalism and mawkish cuteness, and Warner Bros. specialized in crazy rapid-fire gags, the more progressive UPA got its mojo from beautifully animated, strikingly modern pieces. It was an idea that struck a blow against the rounded style prevalent at other studios, making them the trendsetters for a brief time (1950-54). UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection, a three disc set sold exclusively at the Turner Classic Movies website as part of their Vault Collection, generously brings 38 of their best cartoons back into circulation.
In its time, UPA's output was celebrated for memorable characters (Mr. Magoo!) and its risk-taking aesthetics (the Oscar-winning Gerald McBoing Boing) that changed radically with each new cartoon - and yet this amazing stuff has largely gone unseen in recent years. Although treasured by animation historians and other artistic types, the current stewardship at Columbia/Sony just didn't know how to handle them (or perhaps they didn't care?). When a handful of them showed up as hidden extras on a 2004 Hellboy special edition, cartoon fans rejoiced. Those same fans have since had to make due with YouTube copies, but the lovingly restored content on the Jolly Frolics Collection more than makes up the difference.
Looking through these cartoons, presented in chronological order of release, one gets a good feel for how UPA developed and honed its craft, then went into decline as studio theatrical cartoons were effectively phased out of existence in the late '50s and '60s. Disc 1 in the set begins with a couple of cartoons starring Fox and Crow, who were Columbia Pictures' main characters when UPA (who already had been independently doing industrial films and the like) signed a deal to become the second-tier movie studio's animation house. The UPA Fox and Crow cartoons - Robin Hoodlum (1948), The Magic Fluke (1949), and Punchy de Leon (1950) - look and feel like typical gag-oriented cartoons of the period, but one can see signs of something different in the modern styling in the backgrounds and the more economical animation. This is also evident in The Ragtime Bear (1949), a camping and ski frolic starring a jazz-crazy bear and a blind old coot named Mr. Magoo (this is the only Magoo cartoon on the set, since a comprehensive UPA Magoo box is scheduled for release by Shout! Factory in June 2012).
By the time we arrive at the loopy Dr. Seuss adaptation Gerald McBoing Boing and the wild musical fable Rooty Toot Toot (both 1951), the signature UPA style is in full flower - exaggerated, almost rubbery movement, eye-popping colors, and characters that are rendered in outlines or boldly colored to match the flat, near-minimalist backgrounds. The best UPA cartoons were mostly the results of two brilliant men, animation pioneer John Hubley and the versatile Robert "Bobe" Cannon. Although the UPA cartoons basically stuck with human-oriented, contemporary stories, the overwhelming sense is that each cartoon is its own unique, free-standing piece - which must have been liberating to the people working on them. That philosophy resulted in gems like the fanciful James Thurber adaptation The Unicorn in the Garden (1953) and my own personal fave, the James Mason-narrated take on Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell Tale Heart (1953). With its striking use of still imagery and escalating tension, that cartoon stands with icons like Steamboat Willie, Bimbo's Initiation, and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs among the all-time greatest cartoons.
As fantastic as it is to see these cartoons again (and they do look as if they've been meticulously restored), it's disconcerting to find that many of the Jolly Frolics lack quite a bit in the scripting department. Many have surprisingly limp stories that don't match up with their striking visual sense. Although UPA hit paydirt with the Mr. Magoo cartoons, their attempts to generate other franchise hits resulted in such intriguing but decidedly lesser characters as Christopher Crumpet and Pete Hothead (whose design seems to have directly inspired Pixar in creating the short-fused boss in The Incredibles). There was also the matter of the increasingly inferior Gerald McBoing Boing sequels, although 1958's Gerald McBoing! Boing! On Planet Moo is a wonder of atomic design in anamorphic widescreen. Despite those stumbles, there are still quite a few lesser-known treasures in UPA's later period such as Baby Boogie (1955), drawn entirely in the style of a child's art project, and Robert "Bobe" Cannon's last hurrah at the studio, the jazzy and energetic The Jaywalker (1956). Since this modern, reductive style of animation so easily translated to TV production, it really wound up making the UPA cartoons redundant. This set closes out with a quartet of the studio's stranger cartoons consisting of musical vignettes with the otherwise unrelated characters of Ham (a master of disguise) and Hattie (a little girl). Although cute, they look a whole lot like the very TV product that was making them obsolete. Perhaps it was time to move on.
The three discs in UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection contain the following cartoons from UPA's 1948-59 peak:
Video and Audio:
Turner Classic Movies' review copy of UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection was a set of pre-release screener discs that may not reflect the audio and video on the retail version. Per DVD Talk policy, this review will be updated should that edition be available to us.
Sony and Turner Classic Movies have assembled some great extras for this set, most of which are on Disc 1:
Excellent, long overdue and a treat for vintage animation fans, UPA: The Jolly Frolics Collection is a lovingly assembled tribute to this most visually daring of cartoon studios. The beautifully restored cartoons themselves vary a lot story-wise, but the highlights are delightful examples of '50s modern design in motion. It beats pixelated YouTube clips any day. Highly Recommended.