After Superman became a sensation in comic books, newspaper comic strips, and on the radio, Fleischer Studios, home of cartoons starring Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop, brought his animated adventures to movie theaters. Helping Superman transition to the new medium are the voices of Clayton “Bud” Collyer and Joan Alexander, who reprised their The Adventures of Superman radio show roles as Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
The first cartoon in the set of 17 animated shorts is simply titled “Superman.” Nominated for an Academy Award, it provides a very brief history of the character leaving Krypton for Earth, being taken to an orphanage, and how he poses as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a metropolitan newspaper known as the Daily Planet. It offers the basic template of the series as reporter Lois Lane gets in trouble while working a story, in this case a mad scientist (voiced by Popeye’s Jack Mercer) plans on lashing out at the city with his Electrothanasia-Ray, and needs to be saved by Superman, who always prevails.
Superman’s adventures, which run from nine to ten minutes, find him fighting against robots, birdmen, a mummy, a gorilla, a dinosaur as well as human opponents from gangsters to the Axis powers. Disclaimers appear before some cartoons warning of flashing lights, such as “Terror on the Midway,” or insensitive depictions of minorities, such as “The Japoteurs.”
While the stories are rather simplistic, the animation holds up. The artists made great use of color, light, and shadow. Sammy Timberg delivered a dynamic score that punctuates the action. For a kid in the ‘40s seeing these colorful cartoons on the big screen must have been impressive and unlike anything else they would see. Plus, they were all in on the secret as Clark gives the audience a knowing wink.
The Fleischer Studios worked on the first nine until director Dave Fleischer left his brother Max and then Paramount Pictures took over and produced the remaining eight with their Famous Studios. Two noticeable differences between the studio’s cartoons are Famous’s shorts mostly had Superman involved in the war effort, and for some reason the classic introduction of “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” was inexplicably altered, as in “Showdown,” to the nature-based “Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!”
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer. The press release states “Warner Bros. Discovery’s advanced remastering process began with a 4K, 16-bit scan of Fleischer’s original 35mm successive exposure negative. Staying true to the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37-to-1, the highest quality raw image was then scanned and then entered into the recombine process – utilizing special proprietary software to merge the successive exposure Technicolor negatives into a single RGB color image.”
Unfortunately, the powers that be overused digital noise reduction, stripping away the majority of the film grain. This also led to some of the background textures being scrubbed and borders between light and shadows being adversely affected. With that said, those who haven’t seen these cartoons before may be happy with the visual appearance. The animators’ use of perspective, positioning, and shadows creates depth. Blacks are inky and contribute to a strong contrast. Across the spectrum, the colors shine in a variety of hues and levels of brightness. However, looking at “The Mechanical Monsters” on Blu-ray and a previous DVD, the reds are stronger on the latter. White specks and smudges appear on rare occasion. Clips from the Superman cartoons seen in the Special Feature “Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow” reveal how much work was done in cleaning up the image, for good and for bad.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and plays out the front center channel. Dialogue is clear. At times, particularly the more dramatic moments, the music volume is too loud, distorting and sounding flat. There’s a faint hiss noticeable during quieter moments.
The three special features are:
- Max Fleischer’s Superman: Speeding Toward Tomorrow (HD, 13 min) – This all-new featurette gathers current DC animation filmmakers to sing the praises of the series.
- First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series (SD, 13 min) – Interviews with people like historian Jerry Beck; Richard Fleischer, son of Max; Fleischer Studio animator Myron Waldman; and from Superman: The Animated Series: Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Dan Riba.
- “The Man, The Myth, Superman” (SD, 14 min) – The tradition of heroic storytelling is examined. It’s very interesting for fans of mythology.
Max Fleischer’s Superman (1941-1943) is an outstanding achievement in 20th Century animation that not only set a high bar then, but few projects are able to match it even now, nearly 100 years later. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray’s high-definition presentation doesn’t showcase the impressive artwork as well as it should. It’s also too bad the audio source material limited what could be done with the soundtrack. Whether this release is worth owning will depend on how particular the buyer is: some will be content while others disappointed. There’s enough here to enjoy for the casual fan but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who thought otherwise and wants Warner Brothers to take another pass at it.
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