Starting tomorrow, and continuing through New Year’s Day, Film Forum presentes matinee showings of the Fleischer Brothers’ animated feature Hoppity Goes to Town. The L’s Cullen Gallagher discusses the film…
WALL-E isn’t the only dystopic animated feature to tackle humankind’s destruction of the planet. Forty-seven years before Pixar’s social critique, there was brothers Max and Dave Fleischer’s Hoppity Goes to Town (1941), a Capra-esque tale of a young, idealistic grasshopper, Hoppity, who must not only confront the scheming, lecherous C. Bagley Beetle, but also save his bug community from the ever-expanding populace of Manhattan. Rising taxes have caused a once-lush garden to fall into disarray, leaving Hoppity and his insect-pals defenseless against cigar butts, pollution and other signs of human excess which pose daily threats to their way of life — not to mention the unruly children who stampede through their village like some uncontrollable herd of rhinos. And then comes word that a skyscraper is going up on the site of their home (sound familiar, anyone?), leaving them no choice but to find a new home. But where, oh where, in the midst of the asphalt jungle of Manhattan, will they ever find one! Filled with colorful, clever visuals (all the more appealing on Film Forum’s new 35mm print), enchanting characters (including an apocalypse-preaching snail!) and songs by Frank Loesser, Hoppity Goes to Town is one of the Fleischer Brothers’ best-crafted and most lovable films.
Born in 1883 in Krakow, Max Fleischer and his family eventually moved to New York City, where brother Dave was born. After graduating from Copper Union, the brothers began animating films using a revolutionary technique of tracing over footage of live actors, which came to be called "Rotoscoping." Patented by the Fleischers in 1915, the technique is still in use today (in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, for instance), and formed the basis for much of the brothers’ early output. They titled their first series, which featured the reappearing character Koko the Clown, “Out of the Inkwell.” The name, however, was more than just a clever allusion to the act of animating — it was, in fact, the basis for all their narratives, in which the actual act of "drawing" becomes part of the story. While there is something intrinsically meta about these films — we see a pen or brush create the character, which then comes to life — they are completely lacking in pretension. Highlighting the animated conceit gives these early films a sideshow sense of spectacle: the act of creation is just as important as the creation itself.
Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame (1934), which plays alongside Hoppity, stars the Fleischers’ most iconic character: that curvaceous, dimpled, Pre-Code goddess of the animated flesh. Taking its cue from the Out of the Inkwell series, Max Fleischer brings Betty Boop to life in order to speak to a reporter (played by brother Dave). She sings, dances, and pantomimes famous figures of the time, before being chased around by the necessary villain. It’s a giddy nine minutes of Boop’s characteristic, kittenish charm with brief but colorful cameos of bygone era (including Maurice Chevalier and Cab Calloway).
The Fleischers made their reputation through a string of highly successful shorts beginning in the 1910s and continuing for the next twenty years, but by the end of the 1930s, the industry was looking ahead to the future — feature-length animated movies. Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and the Fleischers made Gulliver’s Travels in 1939. Hoppity Goes to Town, made two years later, was to be their last feature effort. Poor box-office returns, combined with a feud between the brothers, marked the beginning of the end for two of cinema’s most important and innovative animators.