Okay, so there I am watching the Image Entertainment DVD of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr, and I don't stop it immediately after it ends—then this starts. I had no idea it was included, I had no idea what it WAS… I thought maybe it was just a piece of film attached to the print of Vampyr they had, and it got transferred along with everything else—I've seen this happen before. So you can imagine my shock and astonishment when this turned out to be one of the most fascinating, creative, astonishing pieces of animation I've ever seen.
We open with this woman sewing together a stuffed dog. She looks behind her at her child tossing in bed—the kid is sick. The mother cries, and one of her tears falls on the stuffing of the animal. The tear takes the shape of a heart, beats a few times, then burrows in to the stuffing. The dog as a whole wakes up, looks around, then calms down again and let's the mother stitch up its body. So me, having no clue whatsoever what this movie was about, sat up saying "Wow, that's stop-motion animation! And it's incredibly fluid and detailed for such an early film! WHEN was this released?"
It was released in 1934, which is one year after King Kong, and if you compare the stop-motion in both, this is clearly in a separate category, in movement, detail and creativity and imagination. I remember listening to a commentary on King Kong, where they were ooohing and ahhing over the animation, but it is in no way the same category as this. So at first we have a sort of Toy Story-type thing where the toys come to life while humans look the other way. First there is a box where a female dancer doll stands in the arms of a mime doll, with a thug-type doll standing nearby, bottle of liquor at his feet. A human hand reaches in and takes the mime doll, whereupon the dancer runs over to the arms of the thug. He's taken next, and notice the little detail of how he grabs his liquor bottle as he's being removed.
The feats of animation continue as the dog and other toys that were caught break out of a moving truck, involving much integration of real film and stop-motion. The dog s caught, put in a shop window, bought, then hung in the rear window of a car, employing still more integration of film photography and animation.
Then we switch, rather abruptly, to the major sequence of the film, which is the Devil's Ball. A man [real human man] drops a bottle of booze, and part of it spills out, then is formed into the devil. There is a churchyard—we see newspapers blowing through, and lightning, and this is where I about lost my shit over how amazingly creative this stuff is. I couldn't figure out how they did the lightning, so I went frame by frame, and it turns out—you know those pictures where they leave the frame open and someone draws in the air with a flashlight, and it appears as a line of light on the exposure? They did several of those and put it together to simulate lightning. At that point, I was in love.
Okay, aside from technical genius, this thing is also pretty darn weird, content-wise. First a bunch of scraps of paper and straw land at the devils feet, then get up, cut into vaguely human shapes, and walk into the ball. Then this potato-looking thing comes in and starts playing a squeezebox—it's bizarre and unsettling, like a Bosch or Bruegel painting—and it gets weirder. First this bird skeleton assembles from a pile of bones, then walks a little bit, and lays an egg. The egg hatches into this eggshell-creature with a bird head sticking out the top! By the time we see the devil and other demons flying in a ladle, I couldn't believe what was unfolding in front of me.
So the dog ventures into the devil's world with his beloved orange—I forgot to tell you, but this dog REALLY wanted an orange. We see a guy made up of a painted balloon play a saxophone as the balloon inflates—I was blown away by the intricacy of his moving fingers. Then we see an ape force a drink down the mouth of the dancer doll from earlier, and forcefully try to kiss her! She is rescued for a moment, then more monkey rape material happens.
The dog finally escapes the mob of toys and demons that want his orange, and returns it to the sleeping girl. She opens her mouth, and he tosses pieces in. The mother wakes from her dream in the morning, and her child is recovered!
So aside from the many technical achievements I've described, you have this fairly advanced story. A mother is worried about her child, and puts her tears into the stuffed dog she makes for the girl. As she sleeps, the mother has a dream that the dog—this emblem of the mother's love, searches for something that will make the daughter feel better. The illness happening inside the girl is visualized as a party of demons making mischief, but the stalwart dog protects the orange and escapes, bringing it back to the girl, and this is what cures her of her illness.
Ladislas Starewicz was the first filmmaker to use stop-motion animation to tell consistently coherent stories, and is one of the most important innovators in the history of stop-motion. He produced over fifty films during his lifetime, and this is considered among the long list of his highlights. Aside from the simple wonder of the technical mastery and intriguing subject matter and sights it brings to life, is just the sense of excitement that pervades the film, as it is obvious that Starewicz is constantly thinking of exciting new ways to show off his art and tricks to put before the camera. While watching this, it was clear that bits of the Toy Story films and the Wallace and Gromit films were highly influenced by it.
You can see the film on the Image Vampyr disc, or search YouTube under "The Mascot," [the showstopper Devil's Ball sequence begins about 10 minutes in], or you can watch the entire film online here. Pretty much everyone should watch at least a little bit of it, and if you're into animation in general or stop-motion in particular, you really owe it to yourself.