After the Second World War, animated film centers developed in Czechoslovakia, Canada, and America. Not long after, the then-Yugoslavian city of Zagreb joined these ranks. Initially, two groups creating animations were founded in Zagreb. One mostly focused on creating animations for marketing and advertising, even attracting foreign customers like BMW. The other team created animated cartoons for domestic audiences. In 1956, these two entities decided to unite, forming the Zagreb Cartoon School.
The golden period of the Zagreb Cartoon School lasted only seven years, but during that time, they won a whole series of prestigious film awards, including the coveted Oscar. Yes, you read that right. The Croatian animated film “The Substitute” (“Surogat” in Croatian) not only won an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Fim” in 1962, but it was also the first non-American film ever to win in that category.
Keeping it short but sweet
Dušan Vukotić directed the short animation, which has a run-time of just under 10 minutes. At the time, it was revolutionary because it demonstrated that animated movies could send powerful messages. The premise is based on the film’s protagonist, who comes to the beach and inflates everything he needs (balloon-style). This even includes his partner, who he later deflates in revenge because she goes to another “inflated” character. The main character dies at the film’s end as he runs into a sharp nail, accidentally deflating himself.
Still relatable today, the short was ultimately a critique of consumerism, showing how humans increasingly surround themselves with disposable or surrogate “things” in the search for happiness and fulfillment. In the end, even the protagonist becomes a substitute object.
A lasting legacy
Thirty years after winning the Oscar, “The Substitute” inspired the creators of “The Simpsons” for their memorable show-within-a-show, “The Worker and Parasite Show,” in the episode “Krusty Gets Cancelled.” “Worker and Parasite” was depicted as the Eastern European version of the “Itchy and Scratchy Show” and features a cat and a mouse as a worker and a parasite, symbolizing labor relations in Eastern Europe. Most importantly, though, it followed the animation style which originated from the Zagreb Cartoon school and was used in “The Substitute.” How did those 19 seconds become so popular? Well, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening claims that it is one of his favorite parts of the entire series.
It is unquestionable that “The Substitute” achieved a success that no other Croatian film has repeated. Still, it also sent a strong message to the world in terms of the excessive pursuit of materiality. The Substitute” could be ridiculed for the simplicity of the characters and animation, but it is an integral part of the history of animated film in Croatia and the world, with numerous influences on other schools of animated film.