Every year since 1989, the National Film Preservation Board declares a selection of movies to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant," and therefore worthy of being recognized as national treasures. This National Film Registry boasts movies like Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, but there are also 32 animated films that have been deemed significant. Here's a sampling of the stories behind 13 of these amazing examples of America's animated heritage.
Little Nemo (1911) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
Winsor McCay was a revolutionary newspaper comic strip creator, but was also a pioneer in animation, creating techniques and methods that are still in use 100 years later. His first production, Little Nemo, has an impressive two minutes of color animation featuring characters from his Little Nemo comic strip that were set in motion by 4,000 drawings created over a span of 30 days. The artwork is notable for being more refined than earlier animated films, which starred little more than stick figures, setting a new standard for animation that is extraordinary even today.
McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur introduces what many consider to be the first cartoon character. Before Gertie, an ornery Brontosaurus, early animated characters didn't have much in the way of personality.
In contrast, Gertie danced and even scuffled with a mastodon, but McCay also made her part of an expertly timed interactive performance. Standing next to the movie screen, McCay would talk to Gertie, who would react according to his commands. Then, at the end of their schtick, McCay would walk behind the screen, an animated version of him would appear in the film, and the two would ride off into the sunset together. Later versions of the film had McCay's dialog placed onto title cards and featured additional live-action scenes so the film could tour without being a live show, but it was still as effective for audiences who marveled at the "living" dinosaur on the screen.
Steamboat Willie (1928)
Although most people know Steamboat Willie as the debut film of Mickey Mouse, it's also notable for being the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound. There had been earlier attempts at synchronized sound cartoons before, but the audio never quite stayed on track with the animation. In fact, the first recording of the audio for Willie didn't stay perfectly synchronized either, but Walt sold his beloved roadster to fund a re-recording. His sacrifice was worth it – the film became a huge hit and helped kick start the Disney animated empire.
The film has also gained notoriety for never lapsing into the public domain. Oddly, every time Steamboat Willie's copyright is about to expire – in 1956, in 1976, and in 1998 – Congress has changed copyright laws to grant extensions for historical works. Whether this is just coincidence or the result of lobbying by Disney is up for debate. Either way, some opponents called the 1998 extension the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act." Unless another extension is granted, Steamboat Willie will finally pass into the public domain in 2023, nearly 100 years after its debut.
Snow White (1933)
Although Disney's version of the classic fairytale is also on the Film Registry for being the first American animated feature-length film, this cartoon, starring squeaky-voiced flapper Betty Boop, is included because of its extensive use of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a technique where the cartoon images are drawn over individual frames of film from a human actor's recorded performance, making the animation very fluid and realistic. In this case, a character named Koko the Clown was animated using dance footage of jazz great Cab Calloway, who also provided the voice. The film is also unusual because it's the work of a single animator, Roland Crandall, who was given the opportunity to make his own movie by Fleischer Studios as a reward for many years of loyal service.
Rotoscoping went on to be used for films like 1978's The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which use computer rotoscoping to surreal effect. Of course, rotoscoping is also the precursor to today's motion-capture technology that helped bring the simian stars of Rise of the Planet of the Apes to life.
Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
United Productions of America (UPA) was a little-known but very influential studio in the 1950s and '60s. Their Oscar-winning short film, Gerald McBoing-Boing, a Dr. Seuss story about a boy who can speak only in sound effects, introduced "limited animation," a process that uses fewer drawings, simpler character designs, and repetitive, sparse background art. UPA employed limited animation to artistically distance itself from the more realistic style of Disney. However, the technique was widely adopted by television animation studios in the 1960s, most notably Hanna-Barbera for shows like The Flintstones and other cartoon staples, because it was much cheaper to produce than traditional cartoons.
Before The Tell-Tale Heart, based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story of the same name, theatrical cartoons were strictly kid's stuff. But this 8-minute short, produced by UPA and narrated by James Mason, was deemed so disturbing that it became the first cartoon to be rated X by the British Board of Film Censors. That didn't prevent the Academy from nominating the film for Best Animated Short, though it lost to Disney's music education short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, which, oddly enough, uses very sparse and stylized background art like the type typically found in limited animation productions.
Duck Amuck (1953), One Froggy Evening (1956), and What's Opera, Doc? (1957)
With three famous Warner Bros. cartoons, director Chuck Jones is the most represented single animator in the National Film Registry. The selected shorts aren't necessarily technically innovative, but there's no doubt they're culturally significant.
Duck Amuck is a surreal, Fourth Wall-breaking cartoon of Daffy Duck being agitated by an unseen animator (SPOILER: It's Daffy's rival, Bugs bunny). Over the course of the short, his voice changes, the scenery changes, and his physical form becomes everything from a duck to a cowboy to a strange flower-headed creature with a screwball flag for a tail. Jones has said that the film was meant to show audiences how a cartoon can instill a character with personality, changing Daffy in drastic physical measures but never altering the cantankerous wit that he is best known for.
One Froggy Evening tells the story of a frog found inside the cornerstone of a building that is being torn down. The construction worker that discovers him is astonished to learn that the frog is a top hat-wearing, one-amphibian Broadway act... but only when no one else is looking. The cartoon is most likely based on the story of Ol' Rip, a lizard that was allegedly buried in the cornerstone of a Texas courthouse in 1897, only to be found alive and well when the building was demolished in 1928. (There's no indication Rip could carry a tune, though.) In the original cartoon, the frog has no name, and the man who provides his "Hello! Ma Baby" singing voice goes uncredited. However, in the years since, Jones named the frog Michigan J. Frog, and the singer is now credited on DVD releases as Bill Roberts, an obscure nightclub singer from the 1950s.
Most people mistakenly think this famous cartoon is called Kill the Wabbit, but its title is actually What's Opera, Doc? Based upon the works of composer Richard Wagner, the cartoon features Elmer as a Viking and Bugs Bunny disguised as the Valkyrie he is trying to woo. The short didn't offer much in the way of innovation, but it's so funny and creative that it's clearly the work of a director at the top of his game. It's no surprise this was ranked the best cartoon of all time in 1994 by 1,000 professional animators.
Tin Toy (1988)
Today, Pixar is a household name, but in 1988, only a few animation studios had heard of them. In an effort to sell its new PhotoRealistic RenderMan software, which later became the first computer program to win an Oscar, director John Lasseter created Tin Toy, a short film about a wind-up one-man band trying desperately to hide from its new owner, a destructive baby. In 1989, it became the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short, helping put Pixar on the map. After the win, a half-hour TV Christmas special sequel was considered but, at the urging of Disney, Pixar decided to focus on developing a feature length spin-off idea instead. That idea became Toy Story, which was inducted into the Film Registry in 2005.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Aside from being a fan favorite, Beauty and the Beast received six Oscar nominations in 1992, including the first animated film up for Best Picture. That honor wasn't bestowed on another animated film again until the Academy expanded the field from five to ten nominees in 2010, when Pixar's Up received a nod. Beauty and the Beast didn't win the Best Picture that year – 2011 Film Registry inductee The Silence of the Lambs did – but it didn't go home empty-handed either, winning for Best Original Score and Best Original Song.
Bambi (1942) and A computer Animated Hand (1972)
2011 saw the induction of two more animated films, both significant in their own right.
At the behest of Walt, Bambi was a major shift away from the cartoony artwork Disney Studios was known for to a much more realistic style. This was accomplished by having the animators draw using live animals as models, which were shipped to a temporary zoo at Disney Studios. Unfortunately, it was this realism that hurt the film among critics, who preferred the more fantastic style they were used to. The movie was also a financial flop upon its initial release, most likely because the European markets were closed off due to World War II. it would make its money back with subsequent re-releases, of course, and the critics came around as well, eventually making it one of the most beloved of all of Disney's films.
The one-minute film A Computer Animated Hand might not seem impressive, but when you consider the technological movement this short clip has spawned, it could be one of the most influential animated films in history. In 1972, two University of Utah students, Edwin Catmull and Fred Parke, made a digital model of Catmull's left hand, which they were able to manipulate on the screen, creating one of the world's first 3-D computer animated sequences. Catmull and Parke also later animated a human face using the same techniques to creepy, but similarly groundbreaking, results. After college, Parke became a professor at Texas A&M, while Catmull went on to change computer animation forever by founding a little company called Pixar.