I don’t know where people got the assumption that animation is a children’s domain. Maybe through further research I could ferret it out. Is it because animation’s ability to violate physical rules appeals especially to children, who may not yet entirely understand them? Or is it because animated characters tend to be especially broad and caricaturish, and this is supposedly geared toward a child’s lack of sophistication? Is it because animation has historically been realized best – for many artistic and industrial reasons – in 5-10 minute shorts, as opposed to the more critically respectable feature length of live-action films?
I don’t yet know, but the assumption couldn’t be more wrong-headed. It’s been mostly within my lifetime, since the emergence of “adult animation” as a distinct category, that magazines have trumpeted (and continue to trumpet), “Cartoons [or, often, comics]: they’re not just for children anymore!” Well, duh. But what’s particularly sad about this sudden realization is the fact that animation was never just for children. From the very first (lost) feature-length animated films of Argentina’s Quirino Cristiani, which were apparently full of complex political commentary, right down through beloved classics like “Red Hot Riding Hood” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, animators have consistently operated at a level of sophistication (and perversion) equal to or even above that of conventional, live-action filmmaking.
Which brings me to Max Fleischer’s 1931 cartoon “Bimbo’s Initiation,” which I was recently introduced to by my friend Jacob. It’s 6 1/2 minutes of mayhem, persecution, and Freudian nightmares. Its visual sensibilities lie somewhere between M.C. Escher and Alice in Wonderland, and its characters’ primary motivations are sheer sadism and uninhibited lust. It dispenses with all but the minimal necessary narrative: Bimbo is dropped through an open manhole out of his mundane surface world and into a violent underground funhouse, where he’s systematically pursued and tortured for the remainder of the cartoon. The only real plot progression occurs as Bimbo’s trials become increasingly dangerous and nonsensical, and when the Mystic Order that’s attempting to initiate him reveals themselves as dozens of Betty Boop prototypes.
I can understand how an anti-realistic story like this, brimming as it is with flagrant absurdism, could be potentially viewed as childish. It’s practically preverbal, as most of the dialogue is a simple chant – “Wanna be a member? Wanna be a member?” – followed by Bimbo’s “No!” The cartoon physics at play, especially in the Rube Goldbergian torture devices, follow their own ridiculous logic, and the anthropomorphic characters include a sword, fire, a skeleton, and a shadow. These aspects of the cartoon’s universe suggest either a child, or else an altered state of consciousness, whether dreamed or drug-induced. These aren’t just infantile fantasies; they’re a baring of the male psyche, reducing Bimbo to his lowest state of vulnerability and victimization. This cartoon has some pretty intense psychoanalytic subtext for it to just be “kids’ stuff.”
And then there’s the afore-mentioned sadism and lust. This isn’t just typical cartoon slapstick as Bimbo tries to reach some concrete goal; he is literally running for his life from a secret society obsessed with killing him, or at least paddling his ass until it burns. (This cartoon really has an unhealthy ass fixation.) And it’s only after Betty’s rubber-bodied dance that Bimbo’s interest in becoming a member is quite visibly aroused. The happy ending seems to imply a forthcoming orgy – is this the transition from nightmare into wet dream? Whatever it is, it’s definitely beyond the sexual reckoning of your typical child. This cartoon takes haunted house clichés and stretches them out through repetition into rituals of torture; it’s as if this underworld were itself conflicted, infinitely punishing and rewarding Bimbo.
I don’t pretend to understand “Bimbo’s Initiation,” but I do enjoy it immensely. Wikipedia claims that comics artist Jim Woodring was heavily inspired by this cartoon, and if you’ve read anything by Woodring (like, say, Frank), the influence is clear both in architecture and in tone. A child could easily find this funny, sure, because it is funny. But there’s so much going on below the surface, and even on the surface, that’s decidedly adult; it strikes you on numerous levels simultaneously. This is a sick cartoon. That’s not a judgment, but more of a declaration: this cartoon has diagnosable psychosexual maladies. It’s sick. This isn’t the only place I could have started when talking about how cartoons, even back in 1931, were never just for kids, but it’s an entertaining place. Disney may get the press and all the money, but Max Fleischer had one hell of a perverse creative vision.