Arts Desk

Library of Congress’ “Molto Animato!” Exhibit Is Hardly Vivace

"Molto Animato! Music and Animation," a small exhibit in the Library of Congress' Madison building, attempts to show how "moving images have always appeared more fluid and expressive when accompanied by music." To continue quoting from its Web site, "Molto Animato ('very animated'), juxtaposes music scores, lyrics, and drawings with film clips and sound recordings to provide a glimpse into the intricate wedding of art forms that bring drawings to life." This sounds like a fine idea for an exhibit—a similar impulse drives a recent book, Mindy Aloff''s Hippo in a Tutu (2009), and a film festival in New York, but it doesn't quite succeed here.

Part of the problem is the space—the exhibit is squeezed into the lobby of the Performing Arts Reading Room. Curator Loras John Schissel opens the display with Walt Disney, the man who married sound and cartoons in the Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie (1928), and then forever linked music and animation in Fantasia. Unfortunately, for some reason the poster for Fantasia is a reproduction, as is the Mickey Mouse cel supposedly from the movie. (One would hope not to find reproductions of something so basic as a Fantasia poster in the Library of Congress. Did they not save the copyright deposit?) The Disney section is rounded out by record album covers from Fantasia and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (the Mickey Mouse segment in Fantasia), as well as conductor Leopold Stokowski's score for "Night on Bald Mountain" and his caricature by the great Miguel Covarrubias.

The exhibit moves on to sheet music from Krazy Kat (1922), based on George Herriman's immortal and incomprehensible strip, but that's a facsimile as well. As you turn the corner, and we've only traveled about four feet by this point, the focus returns to Disney with sheet music, concept drawings, and record albums from Bambi. A minor adaptation of James Thurber's The Unicorn and the Garden is also on view. We turn the corner again, rounding into the final leg of the U-shaped exhibit, where some monitors have animation playing on tiny screens with speaker cones. The highpoint of the exhibit is here though—the "Howard Ashman Collection." Ashman almost single-handedly saved Disney by writing lyrics during the great animation revival of the 1980s, including for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Ashman appears to either have been a pack rat or had his eye on history, because he kept a lot of cool items like size-comparison charts for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin characters, the first draft of the Mermaid strip, and a 1990 Christmas card from his Beauty and the Beast co-workers. It's this section that makes the exhibit worth seeing.

It's open for three more weeks, through March 28th.

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  • Mindy Aloff

    Thank you very much for mentioning "Hippo in a Tutu." This is an interesting (and informed) review.
    Just a note about music and sound in animation: Russian animators were setting stop-action animation to music in the first years of the 20th century; and there were other distinguished examples of it elsewhere in Europe through the 1920s. In the U.S., for hand-drawn animation, Max Fleischer, with his "Follow the Bouncing Ball" singalong cartoons of the mid-1920s, got a slight jump on Walt Disney in the coordination of sight and sound. This takes nothing away from Disney's stupendous achievements, or the early Mickey Mouse of the great animator Ubbe Iwerks. But in those days, Max Fleischer and his brother Dave were good, too. (The Fleischer studio went on to create animated films of Betty Boop, Superman, and many other wonderful characters.)

  • http://comicsdc.blogspot.com Mike Rhode

    Thanks for the comment and information. Animation is the type of comic art I know the least about. Did any silent animation shorts have scores that musicians in the theater would play?

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