A Toonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

Michael Moore
Michael Moore

Trends come and trends go, but no trend came and went quite so quickly as the one that hit a little over a decade ago, which saw live action films, usually indies, suddenly turning into animation about halfway in. In the early 2000s, short animated vignettes created by such artists as Emily Hubley, Todd McFarlane, and Ben Hillman turned up in the films of noted live action directors John Cameron Mitchell, Peter Care, Spike Lee, even Michael Moore.

Moore’s controversial documentary Bowling for Columbine about America’s gun culture, which centered on a high-school shooting tragedy, was punctuated by a short, very funny cartoon titled A Brief History of the United States of America, created by animator Harold Moss. Upon the film’s release in 2002 I spoke with Michael (ironically, at the height of the Beltway sniper rampage) and asked him why he sandwiched a cartoon into a picture with such a serious subject matter. “I always use humor in my films,” he told me, “even in the most tragic of stories, because I think it’s an important release from the despair one feels from watching the film.” He elaborated:

“It’s important that people don’t leave the theatre filled with depression and despair. I think those responses paralyze people and I need people, when they leave the theatre, to think about acting like citizens. That’s why I think it’s important to put humor in the films. Specifically, though, through animation I wanted to tell the history of the United States as I saw it and how we got to the point where we have so much violence and so much fear, and I first thought of doing it in the traditional way a documentary would show that, with old photographs and drawings, but that’s just not my way. So I thought, ‘What I really love about The Simpsons or South Park and cartoons like that is that they are able to make incredible social commentary in a way that you would otherwise not be able to make it.’ Somehow animation gives you the freedom to say the things that need to be said.”

Moore went on to say that the experience of using the animation, which had been done in Flash by Moss’s New York-based FlickerLab studio, had encouraged him to try for bigger things in animation:

“We got so inspired by this that we, along with cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, who has a cartoon strip in many alternative papers called “This Modern World,” have gone ahead and written a full-length animated feature. It’s a whole new story, a very funny film that would be for teenagers and adults. We’re hoping to find a studio that would like to make this movie.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t find one, meaning that the film, which was to be about a dog in a war zone, has been relegated to the unrealized projects basket. Harold Moss did, however, collaborate with Moore once again for Fahrenheit 9/11 which, having come out in 2004, signaled the end of the world’s briefest animation craze.

You can watch the animated short here:

A Brief History of the United States of America

A Brief History of the United States of America

A Brief History of the United States of America

A Brief History of the United States of America