The trick with animation is to make people forget that they are watching a cartoon and make them so invested in the characters that it is just like watching any other movie. People like Brad Bird and Pete Docter are not just great animated fimmakers – they are great filmmakers in general because they present this illusion so seamlessly.
However, some of the most memorable moments in animation history demand a whole other level of suspended disbelief.
The most famous example of what I’m talking about is Who Framed Roger Rabbit. That movie embraced the idea of cartoon characters living in the real world and flipped the focus on what animated movies should do by showing that toons were in on this whole magic trick that people like Walt Disney were trying to create and they were just as cynical and neurotic as every other star in Hollywood.
I’m of course referring to the idea of blending live action and animation, which is virtually as old as animated films themselves but still awe-inspiring to this day.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the most technically sophisticated film to implement this technique, and thirty years after it came out this Disney movie is still unsurpassed, although films like Cool World (1992) and Space Jam (1996) have capitalized on Roger Rabbit’s success to varying degrees of success.
Even though Roger Rabbit remains the pinnacle of live-action/animated films, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some absolutely fantastic uses of the technique in the past.
Note: live-action/animated films do not include movies like King Kong, The Phantom Menace or Disney’s 2016 Jungle Book remake because those movies use animation to create the illusion of reality, unlike Roger Rabbit which features animated characters which are deliberately separate from the conventions of reality. Reportedly, film critic Roger Ebert would agree with me on this differentiation.
My favorites are the following:
Out of the Inkwell
This series of cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer began in 1918 and were some of the most famous shorts of the 1920s and 1930s. Not surprising since all these shorts are charming. They often feature Koko the Clown interacting with the live-action animator in mischievous ways and they were surreal and especially creative for their time. The Fleischers were just getting started with these films because their pioneering use of the rotoscoping technique would bring live action and animation together in even more bizarre ways. One of the most famous examples being one of my favorite Betty Boop cartoons Snow-White (1933), in which Koko is seemingly possessed by the spirit of Cab Calloway.
You Ought to Be in Pictures
This 1940 cartoon directed by Friz Freleng stars Daffy Duck as a selfish star who convinces Porky Pig to leave Warner Bros. so that Daffy can become the studio’s only leading man. Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger starred as himself in this cartoon, which is one of the studio’s best and most highly regarded short films.
Seeing Jerry Mouse dance with Gene Kelly in MGM’s 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh was the gold standard of blending live action and animation for a long time, even surpassing great Disney films like The Three Caballeros (1945), Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1949). Mickey Mouse reportedly had the opportunity to be the one dancing with Kelly, but Disney wouldn’t let their mouse work for another studio.
The dance from Anchors Aweigh was meticulously planned out for perfectionist Gene Kelly, but Disney took back the crown from MGM after the entertaining penguin sequence from Mary Poppins in which Dick Van Dyke mimed an improvisational dance for Disney’s animators. That scene was just one of many highlights from that movie, which should tell you how amazing it was.
While most blends of live action and animation featured live actors in cartoon worlds, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977) featured the first heavy use of an animated character in a live-action background, paving the way for more hybrid movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Disney’s Dinosaur (2000) and The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015).