By Phil Hall | June 30, 2004

American animated films literally began with Winsor McCay, whose inventive short cartoons were rich with fey humor and often stunning artistry. The DVD anthology “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” collects all of McCay’s surviving films in a newly remastered collection, and this is a must-have for anyone who loves animation.

McCay is best known for Gertie the Dinosaur, the wonderfully lumbering brontosaur who somehow found her way into modern society. The 1914 “Gertie the Dinosaur” can still charm with its gentle humor and McCay’s wonderfully sincere depiction of the oversized yet playful creature. An animal of a very different nature is “The Pet” (1921), a strange little mammal adopted by a well-meaning housewife. The creature’s absorption of food is mirrored with sudden spurts of growth, to the point that it towers over skyscrapers and brings out a military response to its destructive rampage.

McCay was also a master of progressively sick humor, most notably in “How a Mosquito Operates” (1912), which depicts an oversized ghastly insect happily gorging itself on the blood of a sleeping man. But he could also be very serious in his craft, as witnessed in the still-stunning propaganda short “The Sinking of the Lusitania” (1918), which recreates the attack on the ocean liner with grisly realism.

Several of McCay’s films only exist in fragments, most notably “The Centaurs” (1918-21), a curious depiction of lyrical life among the half-human/half-equine crowd. There is also the fascinating fantasy “The Flying House” (1921), in which a private residence is literally transformed into an aircraft for a round-the-world odyssey.

Ironically, the film which established McCay’s reputation, “Little Nemo” (1911), is the least interesting of the shorts in this anthology. Based on the comic strip characters created by McCay, it is basically a plotless and humorless exercise in mild slapstick and physical distortion surrealism. Yet its presence here is historically important, especially since the DVD mastered the only known surviving 35mm hand-colored print of this title.

Chuck Jones was once quoted that the two most important people in animation were Winsor McCay and Walt Disney. Everyone knows who Uncle Walt is and what he brought forth. “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” gives Uncle Winsor a chance to shine, and watching this DVD is a wonderful experience.

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