Cuphead doesn’t ignore realities of senescent media it’s lauding; Cuphead merely engages with it on different terms. Depression era animation, a pioneering era for the medium, too often employed appalling racial stereotypes and garish war propaganda, butting against the litany of creativity. The Fleischer’s Betty Boop, Popeye, and Gabby series; Ub Iwerks’ Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper; the list continues. Disconnected shorts and one-off experiments drew eyes in primitive movie houses. Most of them inevitably utilized dated stigmas.
For Cuphead, it’s a complex dodge. Part of this pays reverence to a historical period of paper artistry. Another is reconciling that form with throwback videogames. Sometimes, the two parts work.
A battle with a honeybee hive features a screechy, overbearing queen. The worker males wander the hive. They slouch from the weight of their briefcases. Their ties pull them down, much like the menial jobs they perform. Bees just want to clock out, getting away from their female overlord. The battle of the sexes circa 1930, with all that entails.
Later, a battle with a German tank commander, using a new weapon of war, spitting flamethrowers (later, a literal bird of war stays on this post-WWI line). This tank commanding wolf’s liberal use of cigars recalls marketing of old. Cartoons gave tobacco a socially acceptable legitimacy. Said cartoons also softened wartime opposition with the ol’ stretch and squash.
The rest of Cuphead is relatively placid. It’s covered by fantasy: Dragons, living candy stores, blobs of blue gunk, skeletons, and a pirate – awfully near that of Bluto from Popeye. A bar brawl with two pugilist frogs is a dandy. All of it is hand-drawn, even utilizing lost techniques like the Rotograph when taking up arms against a genie.
The level of ambition for a small studio out of Canada, MHDR, is startling. Even in the means of its creation, Cuphead throws back. By the ’30s, small studios rifled off shorts and animated skits from small downtown businesses. Maybe, like Disney, they were farm boys who took to the big city looking for an idea. MDHR started with two brothers. They mortgaged their house to make Cuphead. That sounds about right.
This all fits with Cuphead. It’s a wiry, manic example of a videogame. The anything-can-happen approach to interactive media mixes organically with the animation, often lawlessly crafted. The squiggly bodies with rubber hose arms and fallacious anthropomorphic designs allow for any (and all) lapses in logic. There’s an excess of personality here, experimental even as Cuphead pays beautiful homage. To think this was all done with pencil and paper is almost unfathomable.
In the era Cuphead looks back toward, patrons comfortably watched cartoons on silver screens. Betty Boop’s inherent sexism and shapely figure were passive elements. Cuphead is not that. Instead of appreciation, it’s aggravation. Cuphead is decidedly retro, and less so in its look than its design. When it works, Cuphead is an alluring image of perfection, a ballet of always and eccentrically moving parts, seemingly in unison with one another even though heroes Cuphead and Mugman are not automatically moving participants.
For often being locked to a single screen, draped by gorgeous watercolor backdrops, Cuphead feels unnaturally cramped and reclusive. A child can enjoy Popeye. A child likely cannot enjoy Cuphead.
Rather than appreciate artistry, spending time with Cuphead means battling endless irritation from an antagonistic challenge. Part of animation’s appeal – if not its greatest asset – is being forever cross-generational. Grandfathers watch their childhood cartoons with their granchildren. Racial or sexist stereotypes aside, there’s a timelessness to pre-Hays code, depression era animation. The design was meant as maximum escapism, a place away from the outside’s destitution. Cuphead, meanwhile, unrelentingly seeks to be divisive and insular. What it constructs is not escapism, but a barrier. So much of what happens, so much of the creativity, is lost in a swell of ever growing frustration. Cuphead offers no reprieve. It doesn’t want to either.
Settling down goes against the nature of early animation itself. Cuphead plays on. It’s like an old codger, speaking of the old days, how they were better, how those darn kids don’t know how good they’ve got it. They did have it better, some ways. Cuphead knows and understands the headstrong 8 and 16-bit classics, Contra specifically. That pace, that push, that relentless fire.
But, now we have it pretty good too, is the response. We have Cuphead, this achievement in interactive animation, spread across a widescreen TV, with more beauty and color than was possible on single lamp projectors. It’s enjoyable today without the erroneous caricatures of Walter Lantz’s Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat or characters who go goo-goo eyed at a sassy blonde down the street.
Also, today, we can watch just watch Cuphead play out in the hands of someone else, anywhere we wish, and do so with an internet connection to only the air. In some ways, that’s preferable. It’s often not worth playing. But gosh, Cuphead is beautiful.