Winsor McCaydinosaurs
Gertie the Dinosaur
Medium: short film
Year: 1914
Writer/director: Winsor McCay
Keywords: silent, animation, dinosaurs
Country: USA
Actor: Winsor McCay, George McManus, Roy L. McCardell
Format: 12 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 13 December 2012
It's another Winsor McCay animation from the early days of cinema. It's fun.
What's interesting about watching these old films is that Winsor McCay is his era's Industrial Light & Magic. Movie technology wasn't very sophisticated in 1914. They couldn't do sound. They couldn't do colour... well, unless someone hand-coloured the individual frames and McCay was known to do that too. They certainly couldn't do CGI, but McCay's animations weren't a bad substitute. This was a age when people didn't spend much time in museums, there were no such things as nature documentaries and P.T. Barnum's elephant "Jumbo" could cause a sensation. McCay though could create impossible things and indeed made that his speciality.
This is the first film with a dinosaur, although that said D.W. Griffiths put one in Brute Force later the same year. I don't know what Griffiths's one looked like, but it's worth noting that the stop-motion dinosaurs of O'Brien and Harryhausen from King Kong onwards are essentially following in McCay's footsteps. Those were animated too.
The film starts by announcing that it's by "America's greatest cartoonist". We're shown a "dinosaurus" skeleton in a museum, showing the film's semi-educational nature. As usual, McCay pads out his animation by making it the second half of a film that starts out as a live-action documentary about the making of itself. This is kind of fun, but the McCay we see in the film is implausibly careless about his drawings. We're told it took six months. We're shown massive stacks of paper. (In fact he drew 10,000 pictures.) We get the idea. However McCay asks a boy to carry away a stack of drawings as high as himself, which of course leads to the poor lad falling down a flight of stairs. Someone's going to have fun getting all those back in order, even if they're numbered.
What's important, though, is Gertie. She's cool, but you wouldn't want her wandering up your garden path.
Firstly, she eats everything. McCay chose a herbivorous dinosaur, thank goodness, but she'll still snap a tree in two to get at the leaves, then later pull up the stump and swallow that too. When she drinks, she drains a lake.
Secondly, she's trouble. "You're a bad girl, Gertie! Shame on you!" Endearingly she responds to this by bursting into tears, but a few minutes later she's hurling a passing mammoth (eh?) into the lake for laughs.
Our viewpoint stays fixed, largely because cels hadn't been invented and McCay was redrawing every single picture from scratch. Keeping it the same (and fairly simple) at least meant that he was copying instead of having to recalculate angles and lines of sight every time. That said, though, there's something inherently more vital and alive about his cell-free style, despite the animation loops, while you'd have to be insane to call McCay a slacker. Look at the detail in that tree's constantly churning leaves, or in its roots when Gertie pulls up its stump. That sea serpent popping out of the water is a lovely bit of work too.
All this raises a contradiction. An animated film needs movement to animate, yet Gertie's staying on one spot for that fixed viewpoint I mentioned. Thus she dances. We have a dancing dinosaur. The (legal) copy of this film I downloaded has bouncy music for this.
Overall, I liked it. I've watched it more than once, in fact. The early live-action stuff I've been skipping over on subsequent viewings, but Gertie always entertains me. She has a clear personality, she can be childish and she's a dinosaur. These are all good things. This film came sixth on a list of The 50 Greatest Cartoons in a 1994 survey of animators and cartoon historians, even though I imagine that owed a lot to this film's historical importance. That doesn't mean it's not good, though. It's still entertaining today, when we've got cartoons coming out of our ears and we've all grown up on Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Back in the day, no one had ever done anything like it.
"Gertie loves music. Play for her and she'll dance."