'Gerald McBoing Boing': New Life for a Seuss Gem

A classic animated short based on a Dr. Seuss story about a little boy who talks in sound effects is finding a new audience thanks to a new DVD release. Animation critic Charles Solomon offers and appreciation of that film, Gerald McBoing Boing.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In an age of computers and anime, two-dimensional hand-drawn animation may seem old-fashioned. Fifty years ago, though, some of that animation was groundbreaking. Take the cartoon Gerald McBoing Boing, a short film based on a Dr. Seuss story. It's now available on DVD, and animation critic Charles Solomon has this tribute.

(Soundbite of Gerald McBoing Boing)

NARRATOR: This is the story of Gerald McCoy and the strange things that happen to that little boy. Well, when he started talking, you know what he said? He didn't talk words. He went (boing-boing sound) instead.

Mr. CHARLES SOLOMON (Animation Critic): Gerald McBoing Boing began as a poem by Dr. Seuss about a little boy who speaks in sound effects rather than words. Gerald's inability to communicate leads to rejection from his schoolmates and parents.

(Soundbite of Gerald McBoing Boing)

NARRATOR: Then months passed, and Gerald got louder and louder, until one day he went (explosion sound) like a big keg of powder. It was then that his father said, This is enough, he'll drive us both mad with this terrible stuff.

Mr. SOLOMON: The UPA Studio created this cartoon. It won the Oscar for animated short in 1950, and Life Magazine ran a two-page spread on the film. Gerald and the other cartoons by its director, Robert Cannon, introduced sophisticated two-dimensional designs and new styles of movement into animation.

Mr. GENNDY TARTAKOVSKY (Animator, Cartoon Network, Star Wars): I love Gerald McBoing Boing.

Mr. SOLOMON: Genndy Tartakovsky is the animator behind the Cartoon Network's show, Star Wars: Clone Wars. He admires the way Gerald's director let the scenes flow into each other. It was a novel approach to animation at the time, but typical of Robert Cannon's work.

Mr. TARTAKOVSKY: It was so wonderful the way he got it through, it seems, with the characters, like he'd ride his little scooter from the house into the park or something like that, and it was great. It took it, again it took it out of the box. He could have just cut like anything normal, it would have worked fine, but instead they finally created a solution that gave it a signature.

Mr. SOLOMON: That signature look is evident in this scene, where Gerald glides from his house to the playground. He can't join the boys playing marbles or the girls jumping rope because he can't talk to them.

(Soundbite of Gerald McBoing Boing)

NARRATOR: But as little Gerald grew older, he found when a fellow goes (beep-beep sound), no one wants him around.

When a fellow goes (boing-boing sound), he can't have any pals, and his (bell sound) frightens the gals.

Mr. SOLOMON: Instead of conventionally painted scenery, Cannon uses a block of solid ground to suggest the playground, with just a few lines to indicate the trees, the jump rope and the circle of marbles. All the characters are vivid outlined figures appear just long enough to play their parts. Cannon begins each scene where the previous one ended, following a continuous line through the seven-minute film. The continuity of something Tartakovsky appreciates.

Mr. TARTAKOVSKY: It's all about the focusing the eye and guiding the eye, just like a painting. You know, when you make a painting, usually you'll look at one place and it'll guide you through, then it'll bring you back into the painting, and you can stare at it forever. That's the sign of a great painting. And so in animation and in filmmaking, you want to do that.

Mr. SOLOMON: Cannon would have agreed. He was influenced by Picasso, Matisse and the other modern painters. The flattened perspective, stark shapes and bright colors of the film echo the canvasses of those masters.

(Soundbite of Gerald McBoing Boing)

MR. SOLOMON: The cartoon ends with Gerald winning fame and fortune doing sound effects for radio westerns. The story of Robert Cannon and the UPA animators also ends happily. Their innovative approach eventually revolutionized the look of popular cartoons. For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Charles Solomon.

(Soundbite of Gerald McBoing Boing)

NARRATOR: Now Gerald is rich. He has friends, he's well fed. Of course he doesn't speak words. He goes (boing-boing sound) instead.

BRAND: Animation critic, Charles Solomon, lives in Los Angeles.

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