Michael N. Salda
Arthurian Animation: A Study Of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Television
(McFarland, 2013) 220pp. $45.00
After spending about two-hundred pages discussing (in often exhaustive fashion) around 170 different animated representations of the Arthurian myth cycle from around the world (including related stories such as Tristan and Isolde, Hollywood misfires like The Sword In The Stone and Quest For Camelot, obscure Hungarian cartoons and Japanese anime to animated shorts starting in the 1930’s and progressing to the present-day) Michael Salda offers historical investigators an invitation into areas of Arthurian animation that he has not studied in detail, discussing the fact that clay and stop-motion animation of the myths of King Arthur have yet to be systematically investigated, before providing numerous examples of material for future researchers to investigate including Gumby and Bob the Builder’s and the Robot Chicken’s forays into the world of the Knights Of The Round Table (175-176). Far from the final word on Arthurian animation, which the author discusses under the word “arthurianimation”, the author closes the main body of the work with an invitation to future study, by saying: “Arthurian Animation aims to provide some road signs for pilgrims as they explore the many different animated paths to Camelot.” (176)
This conclusion provides a fair description both of the scholarly and accessible discussion of various animations beginning in the 1930’s and continuing in a chronological fashion, showing various cycles of boom and bust, and demonstrating the immense fertility of the Arthurian myths as providing a touchstone for entertainment, education, and social criticism. The author himself engages in intriguing criticism of the works themselves, of the studio politics that produced these works, and of the misfires that led many of the higher profile animated Camelot tales to wind-up in disaster or at least disappointment. One sees a blend of cartoons where Camelot or the names of characters from the medieval story cycles are merely used as a reference point, as a content-free context for those audiences who are able to pick up on the joke, to those where the Arthurian myths and their sometimes dark themes are examined with a great deal of understanding and seriousness. Given that animation is typically considered in the contemporary world as being focused on children, and that the themes of the Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory and the other presentations of these stories, including the feminist politics of Mists Of Avalon, to give but one example, are often dark in nature, dealing with themes of death, loss, incest, and betrayal, many presentations of the Arthurian myths have found a great tension between showing a respect of the stories and a desire to present their focus on heroism and honor while not painting too dark of a picture to be acceptable to one’s desired audiences.
In light of this tension, Salda is considerably broad-minded both in the praise and criticism given for the choices of various animators of the Arthurian myths. He wonders aloud at why Warner Brothers studios optioned a novel based on Chapman’s The King’s Damosel that deals with themes of “betrayal, rape, torture, revenge, forgiveness, personal redemption through love, and spiritual regeneration through a Grail quest” (141) for a G-rated children’s animated film that portrays the budding love between a blind wannabe knight of the Round Table and a young woman who wishes to become a knight herself but finds herself relegated to the role of a wife. Yet while criticizing the strategic misfires and difficulties of Warner’s studio division, he simultaneously praises the incisive and critical attitude of the Warner television show the Anamaniacs for their pointed and biting portrayals of the mainstream animated heroines of the 1990’s, who are spunky and tomboyish but ultimately short of fully heroic, repeating over and over again the same tropes, whether one looks at Quest For Camelot or Pocahantes or Mulan. As the author consistently notes, the animated portrayals of Camelot have often suffered from a tension between a desire to receive broad commercial success with a desire to deal with the serious themes of the stories, a tension that leads to many muddled works.
Among the most muddled of those representations was the Disney film The Sword In The Stone, which serves as the centerpiece of one of the book’s ten chapters, and which shows a high level of muddled efforts to present differing views of education, and explicit morals that are contradicted both by the way the stories that are supposed to model these morals go as well as the basic unimportance of the stories at all in the larger dramatic arc of the movie. One aspect that makes this book enjoyable is the fact that not only does it examine the various presentations of Arthurian animation from a source-critical approach, by how they manage to deal with the historical and literary texts they claim an inspiration from, but also how well they work on an internal film criticism level. Those readers who not only have an interest in the Arthurian myths, but also have an interest in film and cultural criticism as well will find much to appreciate in this book.
In terms of its contents, the book takes ten chapters to chronologically cover the scope of animation about the Arthurian myths from its beginnings in the 1930’s to the period of the 2000’s with movies like Shrek the Third. The book opens with two chapters on very obscure beginnings of Arthurian animation in the animated short “Bosko’s Knight-Mare” and other animated shorts about Camelot from that forgotten film franchise whose existence remains relatively unknown because of the racial politics of Bosko as a film character, which became problematic in his guise as a stereotypical black boy, and in the abortive effort by Hugh Harman to make King Arthur’s Knights into an animated film in the early 1940’s. After these two in-depth analyses of early works that have not been released on DVD, or at all, the author spends the rest of the book examining Arthurian animation in terms of its postwar rise, the variety of presentations in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the decline of Arthurian animation after the failure of Disney’s The Sword In The Stone, the comeback Arthurian animation made after the success of Monty Python’s Search For The Holy Grail, the proliferation of Arthurian representations in the 1980’s, the burgeoning short animation portrayals in the 1990’s, the four simultaneous movies in 1997-1998 that were a high-water mark for animation of the Arthur tales, and Arthurian animation since 2000.
The in-depth focus that the author provides to animated films that deal with King Arthur makes this book of interest to a variety of readers. As an associate professor of medieval literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, Salda writes in such a way that demonstrates his knowledge of and interest in the Arthurian myths as a whole from their original texts in the Middle Ages. He also shows himself highly sensitive to matters of cultural presentation, not only in terms of the cultural and organizational politics of filmmakers themselves, but also the politics of the regions of the British Isles where the Arthurian myths, in various forms, find their origin. Additionally, the author shows himself an adept critic of the film and short animation source material of the book, with a sense of humor and wit along with scholarly depth. In reading this book, the reader becomes aware of and appreciative of the fact that animated films of King Arthur are often a lagging indicator of interest in the stories and themes of the Arthur cycle within the larger society, and demonstrate the global reach of the themes and characters of these stories over the past century, serving as a timeless source of material for people to go to in order to present everything from vague and tangential medieval context to a rich content of material dealing with themes of heroism and darker themes about the evil that lurks within the hearts of people and within our societies and within our leadership. This book richly repays a close study, and ought to encourage further scholarly interest within historical animation as a whole, both of the Arthurian myths and other related historical material.