The Centaurs (1921)
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The half-human, half-horse centaur is one of the most popular of the fantastic creatures from mythology, and McCay's depiction of them works almost as well as any computer- generated image could. The two parts of the creatures fit together well, with the human part giving them personality and the horse part giving them a stylish appearance. The woods, hills, and meadows are also drawn very nicely.
What exists of the movie doesn't last very long, but it tells enough of a story to show what the whole might have been like and to make it worth seeing.
This Winsor McCay short is certainly worth watching if you're a fan of his work but sadly it's only available in fragments as some of the footage has been lost over time. What we basically have are some examples of a centaurs family (half human, half horse creatures) as they walk around in the woods. Again, since the film is incomplete it's hard to know exactly what McCay was going for but there's enough footage here to at least get a good idea of what the animation was like. I thought all of the creatures looked extremely good and I thought McCay did a nice job with the style of their bodies and how the human aspect of them were added in. I also thought the background work was pretty impressive and especially early on when we see one of the creatures walking through the woods. With that said, the one thing I thought was lacking was the quality of bringing the creatures to life and making you feel as if they're real. This is something shown in McCay's earlier work but it is missing here.
Although McCay was a prolific print artist, he made very few animated films. This was largely because McCay drew all the frames himself, without the help of 'in-betweeners'. For McCay's earliest cartoons (including the legendary 'Gertie the Dinosaur'), he drew the background and characters in each frame as a single drawing on paper: a time-consuming technique which required McCay to re-draw the entire background in each frame, even when it remained unchanged. By the time he began 'The Centaurs', McCay was using acetate cels to avoid this necessity.
Like some other McCay animations, 'The Centaurs' was a project that he never finished: the existing footage is almost certainly all that was ever completed. There is no plot here: McCay depicts a youthful adult pair of centaurs chaperoned by an older pair of centaurs, apparently the young she-centaur's parents. The relationship between the young couple is unclear: they appear to be courting, yet we also encounter a pesky boy-centaur who is apparently their child. Or is this brat the she-centaur's kid brother?
These centaurs gambol in an idyllic forest background which McCay draws very realistically. That's actually a drawback, no pun intended: I think that this footage would have looked far more interesting -- and McCay certainly could have completed it much faster -- if the centaur drawings on acetate cels had been superimposed against photographs of actual forest scenery.
I am deeply impressed with much of McCay's work, but 'The Centaurs' -- such as it is -- is hardly McCay at his best. We get none of those breathtaking perspectives which McCay used elsewhere. The animation of the centaur figures is not convincing: their equine portions don't move like real horses, and their human portions move only slightly more realistically. It's a shame that McCay didn't have access to a rotoscope. Admittedly, centaurs are very implausible creatures anyway: a horse reaches maturity much sooner than a human, so the lower end of the boy-centaur should be an adult already.
'The Centaurs' was a strange project for McCay to have undertaken. Centaurs are lusty, sensual creatures, yet McCay has chosen to bowdlerise his figures. The she-centaur's breasts are only briefly suggested, and have no nipples. The males have no nipples either, and the crop of the he-centaur is not seen. If McCay was too much of a prude to give his centaurs sexual characteristics (or if he was drawing for an audience who felt that way), then why did he choose this particular theme?
The older she-centaur (the sour-faced chaperone) wears pince-nez spectacles, leaving us to wonder if centaurs have access to opticians. At one point, the virile centaur shies a stone at a bird, bringing a bit of male violence to this idyl. Perhaps 'The Centaurs' might have been more impressive if McCay had completed it, but I doubt that this is the case. All of McCay's animation is impressive, but 'The Centaurs' is not the best introduction to his work. I'll rate this only 5 out of 10.
Sadly, almost none of McCay's original artwork survives. In 1982, I interviewed American comic-book artist Leonard B Cole, who worked alongside artist Robert McCay (Winsor's son) in the 1940s. Cole told me that McCay once brought a large quantity of his father's artwork to the studio where they worked, and offered to give it away to any artist who would take it. There were no takers, so McCay simply threw out the lot! (Cole, needless to say, long since regretted his refusal of the offer.) Today, those illustration boards would be priceless. Got a time machine handy?