MAX FLEISCHER'S SUPERMAN
Review by Michael Jacobson
Creators: Max and Dave
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 170 Minutes
Release Date: April 7, 2009
Warner has become the undisputed best friend of classic animated short fans everywhere. Sure, they have the classic Looney Tunes cartoons, but in recent years, they’ve also brought us the complete theatrical collection of Droopy shorts and some of the stellar early work of Max and Dave Fleischer, from Betty Boop to the complete Popeye shorts, one volume at a time.
But there was a third character the Fleischers were associated with, and that was none other than Superman. Max Fleischer’s Superman: 1941-1942 is a terrific double disc set that brings all 17 original animated sets together in one package, nicely remastered to boot. For those of us who have been stuck with public domain collections that were incomplete, looked terrible and recorded in EP speed, this set is a revelation.
In 1941, Paramount approached the reluctant Fleischers with the idea of bringing the famed comic superhero and radio show star to the big screen via animation. The brothers, at the time, were focused on their first feature release Gulliver’s Travels, but they agreed to add the Man of Steel to their repertoire.
Their approach was something new for the studios…vibrantly colorful and realistically animated, the figures in the Superman shorts were not the comic caricatures of old, but real human forms with real detail. Their expertise in creating backgrounds and crafting action on all axis of motion helped give the shorts a terrific sense of action and freedom. None of Superman’s nemeses were available, but our hero did well against other formidable foes, futuristic contraptions, strange monsters, and eventually America’s enemies in the second World War as well.
From the first short, which brought us the classic tag line quoted above, the formula was set: Clark Kent would become Superman, save the day, rescue the ever prescient damsel-in-distress Lois Lane, and return as Clark for a wrap up. But the Fleischers understood creating a winning formula and making it work for the long haul…how much plot variation were in the Popeye shorts? We didn’t need any or want any.
Interestingly enough, despite having Max Fleischer’s name on the title of the DVD, the brothers only handled the first half of the run. Problems between them and with the studio’s increasing failure to live up to Disney’s animated feature success would drive Paramount to reclaim Superman. The latter shorts, while still fun, are not quite up to the standard set by the Fleischers, even though they got Superman involved in the war effort. The style was slicker, but not better, and the more mainstream approach lacked the visual wonder of the earlier offerings.
As with many Warner cartoon collections, the box warns that these were never intended to be entertainment for children, and sure enough, as the Man of Steel begins to do battle with the Japanese of the day, one can’t help but cringe a little at the villainous stereotypes. But these shorts were a product of their time, and thankfully, not censored or ‘corrected’ for our modern PC sensibilities.
Though the Fleischers successful run was coming to an end during this period, no cinema fan can discount their incredible contributions to the medium, bringing us some beloved characters that still enthrall us to this day. Superman may not have been their creation, but under their watchful eye, fans first found out just how awesome this superhero could really be.
As mentioned, for many years fans have suffered from shoddy and cheaply made public domain offerings of the Superman shorts, so Warner gets major kudos for their job in restoring these classics to their original glory. Yes, there are some aging artifacts here and there, but the Technicolor presentations look more vibrant and beautiful than I’ve seen before on home video…solid job.
The original mono tracks are clean and clear, and with a bit more dynamic range than you might expect, thanks to the action and the terrifically dramatic musical scores.
The first disc contains a preview of the upcoming Green Lantern short. The second disc has two short documentaries, one on the mythology of Superman, and the other on the Fleischers and their work in bringing him to animated life.
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...one terrific animated offering. Superman made a perfect Fleischer trifecta along with Betty Boop and Popeye, and as a big fan of their early work, I am most pleased to have Max Fleischer’s Superman in my collection. Having all cartoons restored and together in one set is something that should please all animation buffs.