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By Phil Hall | February 6, 2004

Most people are probably not familiar with the works of the Scottish-born, Canadian-based Norman McLaren.  From the 1940s through the 1960s, McLaren was the most famous Canadian filmmaker thanks to an innovative series of animated shorts which challenged the genre through unusual experiments in the production process.

“Norman McLaren: The Collector’s Edition” presents 14 of his most intriguing and celebrated films.  McLaren’s main claim to fame was the creation of animated films without using a camera: visuals (and in a few cases, the musical soundtrack) was applied directly on to the celluloid in a painstaking process of painting and inking the film frame by frame.  The result of such work is often astonishing: “Boogie Doodle” (1940) is a  surrealist playground of wild and frequently zany shapes and lines swinging to a jazzy beat, “Blinkity Blank” (1955) presents off-beat humor with a umbrella that turns into an accident-prone bird, while “Lines-Horizontal” (1962) presents an intricate series of rising and falling horizontal lines that multiply and move in unison to a haunting folk music score created and performed by (then-blacklisted) Pete Seeger.

McLaren also experimented with live action films that mixed stop motion trickery with actors to create bizarre sequences.  “Neighbours” (1952) is a surprisingly gruesome dark comedy in which a pair of suburban neighbors get into an increasingly violent fight over who owns a delicate flower that appears on the border of their respective properties. “A Chairy Tale” (1957) has a man in a strangely exasperating relationship with a chair that refuses to accommodate his backside.  “Pas de Deux” (1967) reconfigures a ballet performance with eerie visuals of the dancers in multiple imagery.

In regards to the history of animation in general, McLaren’s work is important for consideration.  McLaren was working at a time when animation was merely considered frivolous entertainment and his ability to challenge the limits of the genre were significant.  McLaren’s career is also a triumph for the National Film Board of Canada, which financed most of his work and which, in the process, helped to raise the importance of that institution to global importance as a major source of non-traditional film production.

But truth be told, a lot of McLaren’s work is an acquired taste and I have yet to acquire it.  As I view his films, I am under the impression that his films do not hold up very well today.  McLaren’s genius in bringing new approaches to the filmmaking process seems like experimenting for the sake of experimentation (few filmmakers ever bothered to follow his lead).  And truth be told, his films often feel too long, which is peculiar given they are all short subjects, and after a while it gets monotonous to see film after film with bouncing lines and abstract imagery in lieu of an involving and memorable story. 

For anyone who cherishes the animated shorts of Disney, Warner Bros., Walter Lantz or any of the classic cartoon fun factories, “Norman McLaren: The Collector’s Edition” is the wrong film to visit.  For those who’ve seen McLaren’s name in a reference book and wondered what his work was like, this is a fine way to experience his unique style.

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