Animated Classics: The Pink Panther Shorts
By Adam James Cuthbert
In response to the sensational animated sequence that accompanied Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther (1963), Friz Freleng and David DePatie were commissioned by United Artists to produce a short film as a vehicle for their feline creation, which personified the eponymous jewel. The result, The Pink Phink (1964), was awarded the 1964 Academy Award for Short Subject, Cartoon.
Following the success of The Pink Phink, United Artists sought to capitalise on Freleng and DePatie’s talents. They subsequently released a series of theatrical six-minute shorts that would catapult the Pink Panther into the mainstream culture. In this article, I want to analyse three shorts: The Pink Phink, Pinkfinger (1965), and Psychedelic Pink (1968).
The Pink Phink
The Pink Phink borrows from the tradition of silent comedy: slapstick and schedenfraude are integral to the film’s narrative and humour. The animation is simplistic. The eye is drawn to the bold and dichotomous colour scheme of blue and pink, and variation in the characters’ movements regarding their brushstrokes ensures that the narrative remains visually and kinetically interesting at all times. Henry Mancini’s ‘Pink Panther’ motif underlines the film’s action, in the fashion of silent comedy, thus immersing the viewer in the content of the film.
The film blurs the lines between hero and villain, revealing a deeper complexity in retrospect. Although the Panther is the protagonist, our sympathy lies with the hardworking ordinary Man, whose efforts to paint the house blue are constantly undermined by the Panther, who, true to his pedigree, is sly and crafty. In the midst of the action, however, the Man’s misfortune is our joy. For the purpose of comedy, the audience must willingly indulge the film’s mockery of the Man’s stupidity.
The audience is charmed by the Panther’s distinctive and suave design. The absence of dialogue necessitates that the Panther’s characterisation be visually and aurally communicated to the audience. He enters the scene to Mancini’s motif, cigarette in mouth, eyes closed, his movements confident yet nonchalant; the feline devil.
Overall Verdict: 8/10
It’s not hard to see why The Pink Phink was held in such esteem back in 1964. Stylistically, the film is striking, not least by basing the film around painting. This allows the animators to incorporate animation techniques into the film itself, as the action unfolds.
While hardly innovative in its animation or storytelling, The Pink Phink succeeds due to its creative choice of protagonist. The Panther’s anthropomorphised sensibilities are filtered through feline traits that at once distance the audience from the character, as we identify with the man, yet beguile us.
At the apogee of cinematic spy fiction (accredited to the popularity of James Bond) Pinkfinger is a tongue-in-cheek pastiche. The short derives its humour from parodies of clichés of the genre. The short is extremely derivative (in terms of its slapstick comedy, the Panther even slips on a banana peel at one point). The audience’s interest is sustained, however, through the mishaps of the protagonist. Unlike The Pink Phink, the Panther is written sympathetically. The character is humanised by the central flaw that he exhibits: his self-confidence in the earlier story becomes his redeeming, even winsome, aspect here.
While not the first Pink Panther short to utilise dialogue (Sink Pink), Pinkfinger distinguishes itself severally. Throughout the short, the Panther interacts with an off-screen and omniscient, upper-class accented Narrator (voiced by Paul Frees). The Panther’s turns towards the camera, facing the Narrator, verge on breaking the fourth wall.
The illusion of the fourth wall breaking dramatizes the action of the narrative, creating conflict between the Panther and the seemingly godlike Narrator. The narrative ultimately subverts the audience’s assumption about the Narrator’s reality (belonging to ‘our world’) by revealing him to be the product of the Panther’s reality.
Pinkfinger is typical of the surrealist, offbeat humour featured in the Pink Panther shorts. In a twist of fate, the Narrator finds himself trapped with a ferocious lion. On the other hand, the comedy can be subtle (the Panther boards the Orient Express).
Overall Verdict: 8/10
Pinkfinger is a fine example of where the Pink Panther shorts excel: parodying the popular culture, in turn immortalising the Pink Panther himself. By uprooting the Panther from his mundane environment presented here (sitting at home, reading spy fiction), the narrative secures our identification with the character, as he is coaxed into adventure by the Narrator.
Psychedelic Pink is the product of its time, a quintessentially 1960s cartoon. As the title implies, the short is influenced by the drug culture trends of the period. The short can thusly be described as a time-capsule into the culture of yesteryear: the message of free love (the Beatnik carries a valise on which ‘Love’ is embossed), and controversial/erotic literature (the Panther attempts to read a book entitled The Love Life of a Panther – Uncensored) are also featured.
The short experiments (apropos of the culture that it parodies) with hallucinogenic visuals: patterns and shapes dissolve out of nothingness. The narrative comprises the lucid hallucination of the Panther, as he is entranced by a mysterious eye in a door that serves as the entrance to the Bizarre Book Shop, advertising Odd Gifts and Weird Books. Therein, he is introduced to the Beatnik, a variant on the Man introduced in The Pink Phink.
The theme of the short effectively meshes with the surrealist humour, more generally, of the Pink Panther shorts. For example: the Beatnik retrieves the book for the Panther, impossibly pulling a ladder out of his valise. He then descends into the valise, replaces the ladder, closes the lid, and emerges from beneath the valise. Later, the Beatnik performs a surgical operation on the damaged book, the Panther queasy, turning green. The Beatnik signals that the book has ‘died’. The strangely solemn tone of his gesture is ironically hilarious.
Another example: the Panther, seeking to replace an extinguished light-bulb, finds a vending machine that deposits a variety of lights, including a lantern and Christmas lights, which he discards. He does allow his cigarette to be lit however.
Sadly, the novelty of the premise falls into the repetitive, formulaic violence of the Pink Panther shorts. This is offset, to some degree, by the creativity of its execution. The Beatnik arms himself with an uppercase F, an impromptu firearm, against the Panther. The two subsequently plunge into a chasm, spinning in a clocklike rotation. This is followed by a dissolve which reveals the narrative’s dreamlike nature.
Overall Verdict: 8/10
Psychedelic Pink would have anticipated a contemporary audience’s reaction to its theme. The story experiments with forms of alternative comedy (connotations of ‘light’; the book’s ‘death’), whilst presenting a reassuring familiarity to the audience.