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With: Winsor McCay, George McManus, Thomas A. 'Tad' Dorgan, Roy L. McCardell, Tom Powers
Written by: Winsor McCay
Directed by: Winsor McCay
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 105
Date: 18/03/2013

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Winsor McCay: The Master Edition on DVD

Already one of the year's best releases, this excellent DVD restores cartoonist/animator Winsor McCay to his rightful status alongside Walt Disney, Dave Fleischer and Chuck Jones. It collects all ten of his existing films onto one disc, including three flat-out masterpieces, Little Nemo (1911), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918).

Any cinema buff or animation fan must own this disc. It replaces the out-of-print 1999 "Winsor McCay: Animation Legend" DVD, mostly because Gertie the Dinosaur has been fully restored since then.

Newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay (1867-1934) elevated the comics to an art form with his 1905 "Little Nemo in Slumberland." He certainly believed in his own legend, bringing it to the films and bragging during the title credits: "America's greatest cartoonist" and "the first artist to attempt drawing pictures that will move."

He also opens both Nemo and Gertie with a bet. His friends must buy him a fancy dinner if he can make his drawings move. These live action sequences are followed by scenes of McCay at "work," drawing endless stacks of cartoons, surrounded by crates of drawing paper and barrels of ink. Finally he unleashes his finished project, and we're as blown away as his colleagues must have been.

The beautiful, hand-colored Little Nemo already shows an astonishing understanding of three-dimensional space and character resiliency, as well as dream images. It has no plot, but its very movement is captivating.

One of my all-time favorite films, Gertie the Dinosaur goes one further. It brings McCay into the action. He narrates the cartoon, coaxing Gertie out of a cave and trying to get her to do tricks, even though she has a mind of her own. At one point, McCay enters the picture and rides on Gertie's back. Again, the cartoon has a wonderful sense of space and size, as Gertie picks up a Wooly Mammoth and throws him backwards to the horizon, and as McCay tosses a pumpkin for Gertie to eat. Gertie moves in and readies herself for a large pumpkin, but it appears in the frame the size of a grape.

With The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) McKay attempted a new kind of realism, as well as social commentary. In it, he recreated the tragic event that started World War I, complete with moving waves, explosions and a three-dimensional ship that maneuvers back and forth across the water, not just side-to-side.

Among the DVDs seven other shorts, we have How a Mosquito Operates (1912), a minor work that shows a mosquito devouring a sleeping man's head. Also included are two unfinished fragments, the odd, beautiful The Centaurs, Gertie on Tour and Flip's Circus.

Finally, the disc includes three shorts from McKay's "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" series, all depicting the nightmares of people who ate too much rarebit (Welsh rabbit) for dinner. The titles say it all: Bug Vaudeville, The Pet and The Flying House (all 1921).

In addition, the DVD comes with an 18-minute documentary made in 1976 by John Canemaker, an expert on McKay. Canemaker also provides a commentary track for all ten shorts (which run about 90 minutes viewed together), or the viewer can select the piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau. The disc's only flaw is the stills gallery. The stills are timed to run at their own speed for about 45 minutes, and they're remote control locked so that the viewer can't skip or fast-forward.

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