Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Lasting Legacy: Post-Modern Examples of Rubber Hose

Despite being largely abandoned by the late 1930s, rubber hose animation remains commonly tributed and occasionally even employed.  

Why does rubber hose style animation continue to be used once in a while? It certainly has not been the norm since the mid-1930s. But there is something appealing about the free form movements, exaggerated expressions, fluid simplicity, and bizarre plotlines of early American cartoons. Some of the longest running cartoon series and most famous characters originated over 70 years ago, and still continue to influence pop culture today (i.e: Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Popeye, Mickey Mouse). Animators John K and Michael Sporn, although having differing tastes, have often praised the early innovations (and boundless creativity) of old cartoons, on their blogs. Likewise, these older cartoons are becoming more commonly seen again, after being taken off of TV airings for many years, thanks to video sharing sites on the internet, such as Youtube and Blip. Rubber hose may be outdated or be deemed primitive, but when used creatively it can still prove entertaining. For this reason, animation today continues to make references to the style, and certain modern TV series and movies draw great influence from it as well.

Of course, most modern examples of rubber hose are done purposely to invoke nostalgia and for appealing to animation junkies. Recent episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama have parodied the style. The lead characters in The Animaniacs (1993-1998), were 1930s cartoon stars who had been locked away in the Warner water tower for many years, and were initially created to replace WB's bland character, Buddy. Foxy, Roxy, Bosko, Honey, and Goopy Geer were also featured in another Warner Brothers cartoon, Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-1995), in the episodes "Two-Tone Town'' and "Fields of Honey." Reboots of long lasting cartoon characters, utilizing a more retro rubber hose style and modern sensibilities, have also been made. The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1995-1997) was certainly a far wilder take on the franchise than the more kiddy '60s cartoons. Disney has recently produced two productions based off of the classic version of Mickey Mouse: "Get a Horse" (a short in the vein of the character's original cartoons), and a new TV series, blending rubber hose with newer styles, set to premie on Disney Channel.

The Animaniacs's lead characters were inspired by early cartoon characters, and the show combined classic conventions with modern humor. 

Recently, Disney announced that it will be releasing new Mickey Mouse shorts more in vein of the character's original interpretation.

Not all studio output consists of simply tributes or reboots of old theatrical shorts, however. Sometimes rubber hose animation may be used for humorous effects. Elastigirl from The Incredibles (2004), has the superpower of being extremely stretchy and is able to contort her body in a wide variety of odd ways. While being based on comic book characters such as Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four and Plastic Man, Elastigirl certainly owes some of her movements to the tradition of the loose limbed animation from yesteryear (as does the anime character, Monkey D. Luffy, from One Piece). Spongebob Squarepants, being a well...sponge can also sometimes move his body in weird ways and has noodly arms and legs. Perhaps the best known of example of 'modern rubber hose', would be Adventure Time. All of the show's characters possess tube-like limbs and are simply drawn. Adventure Time's frequently bizarre, sometimes rather unsettling storylines also seem to be heavily influenced by the works of the Fleisher Brothers and Ub Iwerks. Due to Adventure Time's popularity (and perhaps as a way to make animation fluid enough for TV but keep the budget under control), several other recent series have adopted the usage of rubbery physics, including Regular Show, Sanjay and Craig, and the upcoming Wonder Over Yonder.

Strange and loose limbed, Adventure Time is clearly influenced by the physics of rubber hose. 

In the independent film making crowd, rubber hose has also been utilized by many different people. Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville (France, 2003), featured a memorable sequence in its beginning were the titular characters and certain period singers and stars are drawn in an old fashioned black and white style, which is perfectly appropriate given that the triplets were music hall singers from the 1930s. The ska band Squirrel Nut Zippers made an excellent homage to the Fleisher Brothers in their music video for the song, "Ghost of Stephan Foster" (1999). A short by animator Fernando Miller, "Flea and Fly in City Troubles" (2012), was made to look like an old, worn print of a theatrical cartoon for a rather different purpose. It is used to boldly portray the real world issues of poverty and homeless childern living in the streets of Brazil. Nina Paley also seems to like rubber hose animation. The lead of her film, Sita Sings the Blues (2008), seems to be modeled off of Betty Boop. Sita also sings Annette Hanshaw jazz numbers in a similar way to how many 1930s characters incorporated popular songs into their plots.

If the above don't scream retro, nothing does.

Rubber hose animation hugely impacted the development of anime, particularly through Osamu Tezuka ('the God of Manga'), who brought us such classics as Astro Boy, Jungle Emperor Leo, Princess Knight, Black Jack, and Phoenix. Tezuka had a fondness of creating young characters with large eyes and small noses, and sometimes wrote rather strange or wacky storylines to counterbalance his more dramatic and serious ones. These elements remain fairly common in modern anime today. Tezuka even outright tributes rubber hose and plays with the audience's perception of film reality in his experimental short, "Broken Down Film" (1980). The influence of American cartoons on Japanese animation can be seen from very early on. For instance, the anime shorts "Ugokie Ko Ri No Tatehiki" (1933) and "The Routing of the Tengu"(1934), show a unique glimpse at the blending of Western and Eastern artistic styles. The video game character Sonic the Hedgehog seems to be heavily based on Western funny animals, having arms and legs that move with little regard to articulation, large conjoined eyes, white gloves, and shoes. Even Hayao Miyazaki acknowledges his love for Fleshier Studios and considers its existence one of his inspirations for becoming an animator. Miyazaki distributed the company's last film, Mr. Bug Goes To Town (1942), through the Studio Ghibli Museum library and his Laputa robot owes a lot to the Superman short, "The Mechanical Monsters" (1941). In Porco Rosso (1992), Miyazaki makes a tribute to Fleshier's rubber hose fare, when Porco is watching a cartoon in a theater that could easily be mistaken for a 1930s short.

Osamu Tezuka was clearly influenced by the style of early American cartoons.

Miyazaki is a huge Fleischer Brothers fan. Here, he tributes them in a clip from Porco Rosso