Sunday, March 25, 2007

DVD Review - The Little King (R0 US - Thunderbean)

ADDITIONAL (2nd April 2006): Please bear in mind that this review is of a pre-release DVD. Thunderbean's Steve Stanchfield has informed me that there will be a revised version with a "ton of extras" ready for general release. I'll post an updated version of this review in the future, but I've already found some really good things about this preview DVD that may tempt you to consider getting this when it's released. Enjoy!

The Little King was first created by newspaper cartoonist Otto Soglow, which appeared on a New York newspaper in 1931. The comic strip proved to be popular, and it did caught the eye of the Van Beuren studio, who were keen to upgrade their cartoons to compete with other studios. But in order to test out if Soglow’s characters can be transferred smoothly onto the big screen, they made two cartoons using Soglow’s other creation, Sentinel Louey. The cartoons did prove moderately successful, and so the Little King series started with "The Fatal Note" (released 1933). Unfortunately, the series only lasted one year until Burt Gillet arrived, and discarded the series along with the other cartoons/characters in one fell swoop. However, the child-like monarch did reappear in one Betty Boop cartoon, and the comic strip itself lasted right until Soglow’s death in 1975.

I’ve never read any of the Little King comic strips, so I can’t really comment on how successful the Van Beuren studio transferred the characterisations and humour of the comic strip onto the big screen. All I know is that the strips consists of dialogue-free gags, and the cartoons are mostly performed without speech (the main character did speak in two cartoons in this collection). However, the cartoons didn’t leave much of an impression to the viewing public, but they still have the Van Beuren brand of humour, with surrealism aplenty and loads of bizarre gags (watch out for a couple of 'dog-wetting' scenes in "The Fatal Note", like the screenshot below). Also, the animation did start to improve by this point (Jim Tyer’s animation worked well with Soglow’s character design), and a few layouts (including the spiral staircase scenes) are particularly impressive.

If you watched any of the Thunderbean DVD releases, you know that they strive to present these cartoons in the best possible condition, and this release is no exception. According to the on-screen liner notes, they used up to four different source materials per cartoon, and when you take the superior digital transfers of the material into account, you will have a very hard time finding these cartoons in a more superior version than what you will find on this DVD! Thunderbean may not have the luxury of having the same restoration budget as the Disney or Looney Tunes shorts, but the end result is still very impressive – the cartoons look (and sound) sharper and cleaner than what you might expect them to be. However, the Betty Boop cartoon included in this collection has been DVNRed, but I have seen this version on other collections and may be the only best-quality copy available. As always, if any cartoon is only available as a re-titled home-movie version, the original titles are re-created as close as is possible. Oddly enough, the soundtracks of the two Sentinel Louey cartoons and "Sultan Pepper" are presented in a PCM format, while the others are in Dolby Digital, but I can't tell the difference in quality.

What is fascinating to know is that many of the cartoons have been reassembled using the British prints (in which some were edited to remove any gags that may prove tasteless to the British viewers), and in fact one of them had an original Radio Pictures opening ident (it is not known if this was included on domestic prints). This ident appears on the first two Little King cartoons, and a handful of the shorts have their original British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) boards intact (these are more famous worldwide than I thought).

As the cartoons will not be well known to the general public, it will be understandable if this DVD contains hardly any extras. However, we do get fascinating on-screen notes of the recovery & restoration of all the Little King and Sentinel Louey cartoons, and an absorbing essay of Jim Tyer’s animation in these shorts. Excellent stuff!

All in all, Thunderbean has yet again come up with a DVD that will be very hard to beat, and one that is truly essential to any classic animation buff. It is reassuring to know that they (and other similar companies, like Inkwell Images) can produce DVDs of public-domain cartoons with a lot of time & love, rather than treating it as a quick-buck, shoddy product. With every DVD Thunderbean produces, the future of these cruelly-neglected cartoons looks a lot brighter. Recommended.
At the time of writing, no general release date has been confirmed. If you like to find out where or when you can purchase this DVD, I suggest contacting Thunderbean via their website (

On a side note, I been researching the BBFC classifications of these cartoons on their website. Although they don't offer much information, I have discovered that "The Fatal Note" & "A Royal Good Time" had some scenes cut in order to get a U classification (it's easy to spot the cut scenes on the former), while "Sultan Pepper" was rejected (the shooting and bedroom scenes must have been considered too much a strong brew)! The cartoons I couldn't find may have been either submitted under alternative titles, lost records, or were never submitted at all. Below are links to each cartoon on the BBFC website:

A.M. to P.M.
A Dizzy Day
The Fatal Note
On The Pan
Sultan Pepper
A Royal Good Time
Cactus King
Betty Boop & The Little King

Images (C) Thunderbean Animation, LLC
Text (C) Lee Glover. Not to be copied without permission.


Mike Matei said...

when is the actual dvd coming out?

Lee Glover said...

At the moment, I've no idea. It's best to contact Steve Stanchfield via the e-mail address on my post, or a PM on the GAC forums.