Cinema Arthuriana has, in the wake of Kevin J. Harty’s pioneering work, become a flourishing research area, within which Michael N. Salda has established himself over the last decade as the leading authority on Arthurian cartoons. With the present volume, he has now produced the definitive account of the genre.
Arthurian Animation is clearly a labor of love, and written in a pleasantly witty jargon-free style, but Salda’s scholarship is deep, and wide-ranging. While his initial approach is historical and factual, with full details of creators, companies, dates, and plot summaries, he also provides critical evaluations. His book is mainly concerned with cartoons in the United States, but includes, too, material from Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia, China, Japan, and Australia.
Arthurianimation (to use Salda’s phrase) began in 1933 with Bosco’s Knight-Mare, a short cartoon that has faint Arthurian allusions, and was probably prompted by the release of Warner’s A Connecticut Yankee (1933). A far more ambitious feature-length cartoon, King Arthur’s Knights, was projected in the early 1940s by Hugh Harman, its quasi-Malorian martial ethos promoting a timely patriotic message. Sadly, this was never produced, but Salda supplies a close analysis of the evolving storyline and reproduces five character drawings that he deduces were done by Robert Stokes.
When post-war film makers launched more ‘historical’ subjects, animators followed suit with a host of short cartoons, incorporating even Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and Huckleberry Hound within comic Arthurian settings. The Broadway success of Camelot then inspired Disney to create a long awaited full-length Arthurian cartoon, [End Page 122] The Sword in the Stone (1963), but this proved to be a sanitized version that earned only moderate commercial and critical success. During the next decade a mass of shorter works appeared, but Arthurian legend received only frivolous attention therein, such as a section of Daffy Duck & Porky Pig Meet the Groovy Goolies (1972), which Salda concedes ‘is painful to watch’ (75).
Despite the proliferation of major Arthurian features between 1975 (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and 1981 (Excalibur), their improved quality was mirrored only fleetingly in cartoons, with the honorable exception of the Japanese anime series King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1981), a thirty-part TV serialization that strove to impose coherence on diverse Arthurian traditions. As Salda guides us through the increasingly exotic material of the 1980s, what caught my eye was a DIC short, Paws of the Round Table (1987), wherein Hello Kitty characters take on Arthurian roles in a stage production they mount.
The 1990s proved a boom era for Arthurian serials, The Legend of Prince Valiant (1991–94) being the finest in quality. Extending over sixty-one episodes, it redefines for young adults many of the traditional Arthurian characters, and, as in Hal Foster’s original newspaper series, ‘eschews magic in favor of realism’ (101). Worthy of special mention also is a Shanghai studio short, Merlin and the Dragons (1990), based squarely on Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nennius.
The popularity of such TV shorts prompted the creation of four full-length cartoons in 1997–98 all bearing Camelot in their title. Two were made for VHS tape, one for DVD, and one for cinema, the last being the intended blockbuster Quest for Camelot. This wildly distorted version of Vera Chapman’s The King’s Damosel deservedly proved an immense commercial and critical flop.
Since then cartoons have not matched the continuing growth of Arthurian live-action films and television in the US. Elsewhere the legend has contrived to inspire occasionally engaging treatments (Fernee’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ), often fused with ever more diverse material. Finally, Salda points to the need for a comparable study of clay and puppet animation.
Surprisingly, the book ends perfunctorily without an adequate conclusion. I would have welcomed some acknowledgment of the relative shortcomings of Arthurianimation. None of it achieves the aesthetic integrity of, say, Chomet’s Belleville...