Any claim at a “first” in cinema history is going to be filled with asterisks and provisos. But the narrative, as I understand it, would place the 105-second Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl as the first animated short film in cinema history, by the most intuitive definitions of the words “first,” “animated,” “short,” “film,” and “cinema.”
And Fantasmagorie makes for a wonderfully poetic selection as the first animated movie because it contains within it a mission statement about the philosophy and possibilities of animation as a medium.
What is animation? It is, in essence, a series of non-naturally constructed images presented in sequence to create the illusion of motion and life. The dimension that separates animation from still visual art is the connection between different images generated by our brains. Most typically, this creates a mental projection of continuity that more-or-less resembles what we could see in the natural world. For example, a dinosaur raises its foot, and a shadow is created underneath. That’s a depiction of physical, literal, understandable laws of physical reality, even though none of us are likely to ever see such a thing in real life.
But the unlimited power of animation is that it really doesn’t have to obey the laws of our world. It can be breathtaking when animation figures out how to deliver visual ideas that break our sense of reality. And what I love about Fantasmagorie is that points this out. It effectively says “within animation, the visual world is not bound to the physical world in the way that it is when film is photographed, and here is proof of that.”
Cohl, a politically inflammatory caricaturist and influential early animator, opens the film as essentially a PSA not to wear tall hats in a theater, before descending into abject absurdism. Characters and perspectives change in non-natural ways as the lines on the screen rearrange. A person turns into a pie. A plant turns into an elephant which turns into a door. It feels, in some ways, like the book Harold and the Purple Crayon come to life. It’s a living doodle, one that feels more tightly coupled with the wandering and associative potential of human creativity than most other artforms.
It is, of course, still a little trifle, entirely in black and white, entirely on a single flat plane, and within one scene. It is as primitive as animation could be from a technical perspective. But it was, again, the first, so we’ll cut it at least a little bit of slack in that regard. Innovations would come rapidly, and they would render Fantasmagorie as its medium’s equivalent of a cave painting. It’s unrecognizable to the modern form.
Except, Fantasmagorie still is kind of recognizable because it contains within it that spark of creation that all great animated movies have. When I watch Fantasmagorie, I think of Fantasia and My Neighbor Totoro and Into the Spider-Verse. It’s all there as a tiny nascent seed.