To understand how revolutionary this short film from 1950 was to contemporary viewers, just consider the previous four decades (or so) of animated films. There were talking animals, singing animals, bouncing animals, and in Disney films humans based on rotoscoping live action. From its humble and humorous beginnings, animation was striding towards realism as fast as it could. But in the first minute of this adaptation of a Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel story, you can see that’s all been tossed out the window, a window shaped like a trapezoid.
This animation from the renegade studio United Productions of America (UPA) ushered in the space age look that suited the dynamic post-war American economy. The pace of life was frantic, sleek, modern, and the animated characters and backgrounds follow suit: laws of perspective are gone. Backgrounds are suggested with one or two objects, and color is impressionistic, not realistic. The characters are cute, but drawn with an economy of line.
Which would all suit a story by Dr. Seuss that already existed as a children’s record, told in his familiar rhythmic rhyming style.
The Gerald of the title is a young boy who doesn’t speak in words, but in sound effects. His parents freak out, a doctor can’t help, and his classmates and school reject him. But like many a Dr. Seuss story, Gerald’s problem is actually a gift, and the film concludes in a positive way, celebrating difference. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year, beating out the established studios of Warner Bros., MGM, and Disney. It paved the way for the more minimal animation of Hanna-Barbera (Gerald’s dad has a proto-George Jetson look) and opened the door for more abstract films from the National Film Board of Canada, and influence the Klasky Csupo studio and others in the 1990s animation rebirth.
UPA was formed from the exodus of several top Disney animators after a creators’ strike in 1941. Head among them was John Hubley, a layout artist who bristled against Disney’s realism and wanted to branch out. At first known as Industrial Film and Poster Service, the studio made films for the United Auto Workers and for the Army, making educational films for young privates with the Private Snafu series after Warner Bros stepped aside. Chuck Jones helped direct these shorts. Anti-Communist sentiment put an end to government work, and, so by the late 1940s, UPA decided to take on the big studios with theatrical shorts and after “Gerald McBoing-Boing” was a hit, they continued with the Mr. Magoo series, several McBoingBoing sequels, and a TV version of Dick Tracy.
The studio dried up in the 1960s and instead of animation teamed up with Toho Studios in Japan and helped introduce a generation of American audiences to kaiju (giant monster) films like Godzilla by re-cutting and distributing many of their films.
Along with its Oscar, “Gerald McBoing-Boing” is now part of the Library of Congress’ Film Registry as a significant American Film and often gets voted as one of the greatest animated films of the 20th Century. (It was voted the 9th best animation of all time, by 1,000 animation professionals.)
Lastly, Gerald’s last name lives on as the inspiration for the “happy mutants” zine and website, boingboing.net.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.