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When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Adam Abraham’s book on the rise and fall of UPA, the pioneering “limited animation” studio that dominated more adventurous cartoon production in the 1950s and 60s, is both a cautionary tale, and a celebration of the people who founded UPA, mostly as a response to the rigid cookie-cutter approach espoused by the Disney studios. UPA’s founders, Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow set up shop as an alternative way of making cartoons, and soon had a hit with the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald Mc Boing Boing, creating cartoons that pleased both the public and the critics.

As Fred Patten notes in his review of the book in Animation World Network, “Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone.  In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail [. . .] Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education.  The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired.  By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs.  Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.”

Abraham is an excellent writer, and he also created the book’s inviting design, which is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs, drawings, and animation cels, and he doesn’t stint on limning the darker side of the UPA story; how many of the animators who worked there came to untimely ends, how Disney’s continued hostility to the studio (particularly when it began picking up Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Subject) also took a toll, and how the changing marketplace forced UPA to cut the running time of their cartoons to the bone, and eventually move exclusively to television.

I’ve never really been a Mr. Magoo fan — it seems like a one joke premise that quickly wears thin — but Abraham’s book is really more about the studio itself, and its artistic and historic impact, than its most famous character. Behind UPA’s creation was the search for personal and creative freedom, and as Disney himself noted of the rise of UPA, “once a man’s tasted freedom, he will never be content to be a slave.” Working for Disney was doing what the boss wanted, and nothing else; at UPA, a whole new style was forged, which would prove, in the long run, to be a harbinger of the future of animation.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sample of UPA’s work.

Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow, the founders of UPA, at work in the studio.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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