Garbancito, hero of Europe’s first feature-length animated colour film, to fight again

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Seventy-five years after he first sallied forth to fight giants, dwarves and witches armed only with an unwavering sense of piety, a magic sword and a goat for a sidekick, the young star of Europe’s first feature-length colour animated film could be returned to his original glory.

While most of Europe was convulsed by the second world war, a group of film-makers in Catalonia set about bringing the tale of Garbancito de la Mancha (Little Chickpea of La Mancha) to the screen.

His exploits, which owed a lot to both Don Quixote and the religious strictures of the nascent Franco era, were rendered on to 10 reels of film using a British colouring system called Dufaycolor.

Subsequent copies of the 85-minute film used more modern colour processes intended to improve the texture, and until recently all that was thought to remain of the original version was a single still in Spain’s national film archive, the Filmoteca Española, and two reels at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London.

Late last year, however, the Filmoteca received a call from a private collector in the US, David Bull, who had stumbled on a few reels of Garbancito.

“We told him to take it to a laboratory to find out what he had,” Josetxo Cerdán, the head of the Filmoteca, told the Guardian. “We said we’d definitely be interested if it was a Dufay copy, because that’s obviously the lost original.”

The US collector eventually assembled eight of the 10 Dufay reels, as well as what Cerdán calls “a whole potpourri” of related material, and sold the lot to the Filmoteca for €5,200.

Bull drew parallels between Garbancito and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, often cited as the first full-length, animated feature film with sound. “I know just how important Snow White is to us because it was the first animated film made in the US, so I imagine Garbancito de la Mancha is probably every bit as important to Spain,” he said. “I felt the weight of its meaning and its importance both culturally and historically.”

The Filmoteca has scanned its acquisition and plans to carry out a digital restoration to return Garbancito to as close to its original state as possible. Even if the pair of reels at the BFI were not the missing two, Cerdán said, the Spanish archive still had 80% of the original film and could complete the restoration project using later versions if need be.

“People will probably notice the difference, but we don’t think that’s a bad thing because it’s a matter of historical conservation and … people can see the differences between the versions,” he said. “There’s an educational value in that too.”

According to Cerdán, the film, which proved popular on release in 1945, was lucky in its timing and its source material. “It was made an opportune moment, given that Europe was caught up in the second world war,” he said. “The makers saw an opportunity there and a market, and they made the first feature-length, animated colour film in Europe. That had a commercial value, but the regime also saw the value of the film and it took advantage of that.”

Nor did it hurt that Julián Pemartín, the author of the children’s book on which the film was based, was a falangist who had imbued his young hero with religious devotion. Garbancito might have been on a mission to rescue two friends kidnapped by a giant, but that was no excuse for him to forget his prayers.

Cerdán said Garbancito and his friends deserved their place in the history of Spanish and European cinema. “Above and beyond just being the first film of its kind in Europe, it also sowed the seed for the animation industry in Catalonia at a very difficult time for the country as a whole.”