On August 17, 1908, French animator Émile Cohl released Fantasmagorie, widely considered by film historians to be the first animated film. Although animation has a history that extends well into pre-film toys and devices like magic lanterns, zoetropes and phenakistiscopes, Fantasmagorie marks an important landmark on the path to what we now think of as animated films.
One of the most fascinating things about Fantasmagorie is how, even from its very beginning, animation was seen as something closer to magic than to reality, a technique where the rules of reality absolutely did not apply. The characters and objects in Cohl’s film are constantly shifting, stretching, skewing, morphing and reassembling themselves into new settings.
Unpolished as it is, it isn’t that long of a road from Fantasmagorie to the surreal rhythms of the Fleischers’ Betty Boop cartoons, the exaggerated sight gags of Warners’ Looney Tunes, or the mischief of early Mickey Mouse. The potential is there right from the start, and 112 years later, there’s no sign of it slowing down.