Somewhere in Dreamland
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Fleischer Studios is primarily known for creating two of the greatest cartoon characters in the history of animation -- Betty Boop and Popeye. And Fleischer Studios is also known for their excellent adaptations of Superman stories. However, they created many other cartoons.

From 1934 to 1940, Fleischer Studios produced a cartoon series called "Color Classics" -- a series strongly influenced by Disney's success with "Silly Symphonies." This series included a variety of characters, including familiar comic strip characters, such as Felix the Cat and The Little King; classic fairy tale characters reinterpreted in outlandish fashion, as in "Greedy Humpty Dumpty" and "Poor Cinderella"; and one-shot cartoons, such as the Academy Award-nominated shorts "Educated Fish" and "Hunky and Spunky" (the later cartoon was so successful that several additional cartoons were created with the same characters).

The "Color Classics" series does not necessarily represent Fleischer Studios at their consistent best. As described by Leslie Carbaga in The Fleischer Story (the definitive account of Fleischer Studios), the Color Classics series "suffered from maudlin sentiment" and "insufficient development to involve the audience." While maudlin sentiment is definitely a frequent problem of these cartoons, it by no means mars them all, and many times the maudlin moments are undercut by a mischievous sense of humor (as when the gentle flipper pats traded by a pair of honeymooning seals turn rough). Indeed, the series contains many remarkable moments, such as every time the Fleischers used their "stereo-optical process" to mix animation and modelwork. This process predated Disney's similar multi-plane process and mixed animation with live-action, three-dimensional backgrounds. In these sequences, the effect is absolutely magical. These are brilliantly produced cartoon fantasies, with sequences in "Somewhere in Dreamland," "Dancing on the Moon," and "The Little Dutch Mill" standing out. "Somewhere in Dreamland" features rotating platters of candies and a birthday cake that doubles as a merry-go-round. "Dancing on the Moon" features extensive modelwork of a lunar landscape, which honeymooning animal couples stroll past. (My favorite part of "Dancing On the Moon," however, is a wonderful Flash Gordon-inspired rocketship.) And "The Little Dutch Mill" features meticulously-crafted village streets and a windmill with rotating sails. Every time the "stereo-optical process" is used in these cartoons the effect is stunning.

For much too long, the cartoons in this series have been difficult to view. Some have been available in low-quality public domain video releases, but in general, the cartoons were largely forgotten except by aficionados of '30s animation. Even the company that owns the cartoons, Paramount, has neglected to issue them on VHS or DVD, and the company that reportedly still possesses the original master film elements, NTA, refuses to make the elements available. Now VCI Entertainment steps into this void with their DVD compilation of Fleischer's "Color Classics" series, titled Somewhere in Dreamland. This DVD set pulls together all the "Color Classics" still known to exist, drawing upon the resources of Kit Parker Films, which has been collecting prints of the Fleischer cartoons and amassing a near complete collection. That means you'll find a total of 35 cartoons -- of the total 36 "Color Classics" created by Fleischer Studios - on this DVD set. (For the record, the only missing and presumed lost cartoon is named "Tears of an Onion.")

None of the cartoons are in pristine condition. "Poor Cinderella," the very first Color Classic, is in arguably the best condition; however, VCI's video transfer looks artificially sharpened, which has the effect of making the print look grainy, and the DVD compression scheme used by VCI provides an unfortunate abundance of artifacts, which are particularly noticeable around the edges of moving objects. All the cartoon prints in this set suffer from varying degrees of image degradation, but this is still an essential disc for cartoon lovers. Watching this disc is literally the only available way for most cartoons fans to see these films. And these cartoons definitely deserve to be seen by a wide audience.

VCI's programming separates four of the cartoons into a separate section called "Lost Episodes." These cartoons include, for example, a black-and-white version of "Musical Memories" (all color copies are presumed lost) and a delightful version of the "The Old Woman in the Shoe" titled "Kids in the Shoe," which features a rollicking song called "Mama Don't Allow No Music in Here" with vocals by Gene Autry sidekick-to-be Smiley Burnette. ("Kids in the Shoe" is beset by a slightly blurry image, as if the video transfer comes from a magnified 16mm version.) But the segregation of these four "lost episodes" into a special section is a questionable move because several of the non-lost episodes are in nearly as bad shape (if not worse). In addition, this arrangement makes it difficult to locate the four episodes that get this special attention: they don't receive chapter stops.

VCI is to be commended for releasing this DVD, but the set contains a glaring problem: on disc one, the program goes into a loop after "The Little Stranger" and doesn't continue to the next chapter. Instead it repeats "The Little Stranger" over and over. You must return to the main menu (hitting the skip button won't get you out of the loop) and then manually select the next chapter. That's the only way to see the rest of the cartoons on disc one. (We tried this disc on several DVD players and found the same results in every case.) Original pressings of the Somewhere in Dreamland DVDs had numerous audio problems, but VCI Entertainment thankfully repressed the discs; however, this unforgivable sequencing mistake persists.

In addition to the aforementioned "Lost Episodes" section, which features four complete cartoons as well as a short lesson on the history of Fleischer Studios, the disc includes audio commentaries on six cartoons. These commentaries are provided by animation historian Jerry Beck and animation expert Mike Cazala. The commentators help shed light on a much neglected and overlooked chapter of animation history, pointing out the different color processes that were used by the Fleischers and the restricted color range (two-color Technicolor used only red and green) used by several of the earliest cartoons in this set.

If you care about the history of animation, this is a must-have DVD, even with its flaws. With any luck, the original master film elements in NTA's vaults will eventually be unearthed and made available for video transfers. But until then, VCI's DVD set fills a gaping hole in animation history.
 


Somewhere in Dreamland is now available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. This two-disc set includes 31 "Color Classics" cartoons from Fleischer Studios. In addition, a "Lost Episodes" chapter includes commentary on the history of Fleischer Studios and four additional "Color Classics." Additional special features: audio commentary by animation historian Jerry Beck and animation expert Mike Cazala and an art gallery that contains rare animation artwork. Suggested retail price: $29.99 each. For more information, check out VCI Entertainment Web site.