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Danish-Canadian animator and former Sheridan College professor Kaj Pindal is seen in his backyard in Oakville, Ont., in this undated photo. A lover of model trains, Mr. Pindal built and maintained a replica of Copenhagen’s electric tram system, which can be seen behind him.

Kaj Pindal’s cartoon self-portrait shows a man with an eggplant-shaped nose, a Mr. Magoo squint and, most strikingly, an ear-to-ear smirk beaming with mischief and fun.

There was plenty of fun in the pioneering Danish-Canadian animator’s work, from his zany I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, to his Emmy Award-winning tale of a saucer-eyed baby chick, Peep and the Big Wide World. And there was mischief, too. While still in his teens, Mr. Pindal was already showing a satirical bent, risking his neck to draw cartoons mocking Hitler in Nazi-occupied Denmark during the Second World War.

Years later, he would find a more congenial place to practise his satire, at Canada’s National Film Board. There, his witty skewering of car culture, What on Earth!, would earn an Oscar nomination, while his other animated short films delivered anti-smoking, anti-pollution and street-safety messages with wry humour and unfettered visual imagination.

“He had that magical ability to take educational information and make it entirely entertaining, so that you don’t even know that you’re being taught something,” said Ellen Besen, author of Animation Unleashed and a long-time friend of Mr. Pindal.

Entertainment was paramount to Mr. Pindal throughout a career that spanned more than six decades. He died of heart failure, at the age of 91, on June 27 at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ont.

In Laugh Lines, an NFB profile of Mr. Pindal made in 1979, not long after he’d begun teaching animation at Ontario’s Sheridan College, he explained his crowd-pleasing credo. “I often say to my students that in order to be a good animator, one must really be an actor,” he said. “You have to act through your drawings. And when the audience is there and the lights are turned out, you’d better put on a good show!”

Kaj Gotzsche Pindal was born on Dec. 1, 1927, in Copenhagen. His early life was marked by turmoil. His father, Carl William, was a footloose artist who did not get along with his wife Betzsy, née Gotzsche, the daughter of a prominent Copenhagen family. At one point, Carl pulled young Kaj out of school and took him on a long trip across Europe, visiting art galleries. Upon their return, Carl quarrelled with Betzsy and tried to take the child away a second time, only to be charged with abduction. “The court was hard on my father,” Mr. Pindal later recalled. “It ordered him not to appear in our neighbourhood again. But he turned up in disguises and he would watch me pass by on my way from school. It was a very strange situation.”

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Mr. Pindal won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Animated Program in 2004 for Peep and the Big Wide World, an educational program geared toward preschoolers.Supplied

Raised by his mother and her sisters, young Kaj was raised without a paternal presence, which he would later regret. He did, however, fulfill Carl’s desire to make him an artist – although the boy found his inspiration, not in galleries, but in the cinema. There, he eagerly devoured the compilations of early Walt Disney cartoons that screened in Copenhagen at Christmastime, going back to watch them again and again.

He began cartooning himself, at first with dangerous consequences. The Nazis had invaded Denmark in 1940 and by the age of 16, Kaj had become part of the resistance, contributing lampoons of Hitler to an underground newsletter. When the publisher’s home was raided and he was thrown in prison, Kaj and a fellow contributor went into hiding, fleeing to the countryside and living on farms.

Later, in postwar Europe, the self-trained Mr. Pindal began to establish himself as a cartoonist and animator. He created a short-lived comic strip, Professor Phidus, and his first animated cartoon, Mr. Pindal’s Inkwell Phantasy, while doing commissioned work in Denmark, Sweden and Germany. His animation of a ship’s diesel engine caught the attention of the NFB, which in 1957 invited him to Montreal to work on an instructional film about turbo jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

By then, Mr. Pindal had married. He’d met his future wife, Annie Nielsen, a piano student, in 1954. “It was at a New Year’s party and, as the saying goes, he picked up somebody else’s chick,” she recalled, laughing. The two hit it off immediately and tied the knot in 1955.

At the NFB, Mr. Pindal found the ideal environment for his talent to blossom. The board already had a reputation for groundbreaking experimental animation, thanks to the legendary Norman McLaren, but was doing little in the way of cartoons. Mr. Pindal first made his mark with a string of witty public-service spots to encourage road safety and the like, which aired on CBC. Their stripped-down approach reflected the influence of UPA, Hollywood’s trend-setting postwar animation studio, but also revealed Mr. Pindal’s gift for getting the maximum effect with the minimum amount of ink.

Mr. Pindal said he found his own style while animating 1964’s Derek Lamb-directed I Know an Old Lady…, an exuberantly nutty cartoon set to the popular nursery rhyme as sung by Burl Ives. Spinning away from the song’s lyrics, Mr. Pindal created a bouncy slapstick ballet for its parade of animals. “I was able to apply the freedom of early Disney animation to my own work,” he said. “Animation became fun!”

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What on Earth, Mr. Pindal's witty skewering of car culture, earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1967.

There was more fun, along with biting irony, in 1966’s What on Earth!, which Mr. Pindal co-directed with Les Drew. A spoof space documentary, it has Martians orbiting Earth and misidentifying cars as the planet’s intelligent life, while human beings are assumed to be their pesky parasites. Its satire was inspired by Mr. Pindal’s anger at seeing parts of old Copenhagen torn down to accommodate highways. “To me, that’s his masterpiece,” Ms. Besen said. “It’s really a protest film about how we were allowing this one machine to completely dominate how we build our cities. It’s almost more relevant now that we’re paying the price for it.”

Mr. Pindal was equally prescient in his wickedly clever anti-smoking cartoons. They include 1968’s King Size, in which a small boy finds himself trapped in a tobacco-mad tyranny ruled by a nasty, yellow-toothed Marlboro Man. Those films, released decades before today’s widespread smoking bans, also reflected Mr. Pindal’s personal views. A heavy smoker, he quit cold turkey in 1961 after reading about smoking’s long-term health effects.

If Mr. Pindal had an unshakable addiction, it was for model trains. Big model trains. First in Montreal and then later at his home in Oakville, southwest of Toronto, Mr. Pindal built and maintained a rideable replica of Copenhagen’s electric tram system in the backyard. The three Pindal children and their friends rode it during the day; in the evenings, it carried adult guests. After Mr. Pindal began teaching at Sheridan College in Oakville, he and Annie hosted garden parties for his students, where riding the tram’s circuit, which took in adjacent city woodland, was de rigueur.

One of those students was veteran CBC animator Philip Street, who attended Sheridan’s international summer school in the early 1990s. Mr. Street said the tram was emblematic of Mr. Pindal’s personality: “He had a child-like enthusiasm for things. He never lost his sense of play.”

The child-like quality was most exquisitely expressed in Mr. Pindal’s Peep films, about a newborn chick discovering how the world works. They began in 1962 with The Peep Show, a super simple black-and-white short that Mr. Pindal said was made partly as a response to Mr. McLaren’s experiments drawing directly onto 35mm film. “I thought, ‘What about drawing on adding-machine tape?’ ” He created the film in “four weeks flat” on a 20-metre roll of adding-machine paper. Annie Pindal provided the musical score, played on toy instruments.

Mr. Pindal would revisit the character and concept in 1988, with Peep and the Big Wide World, a clutch of three colour episodes narrated by Peter Ustinov. Later, in 2004, it was expanded into an educational series for preschoolers, narrated by Joan Cusack and airing on public TV in Canada and the United States. It won Mr. Pindal a Daytime Emmy for outstanding children’s animated program.

During the 1990s, Mr. Pindal turned his hand to much more hard-hitting educational fare. He and Mr. Lamb were approached by the charity Street Kids International to make cartoons that would raise awareness among poor children about AIDS, sexual predators and substance abuse. For research, Mr. Pindal and Mr. Lamb travelled to the poorest parts of South America, then came back and created the award-winning Karate Kids and Goldtooth, a pair of simple but effective movies that combined the funny, loose-limbed charm of Mr. Pindal’s animation with no-guff narratives about the risks of life on the streets.

Mr. Pindal’s other gigs included working for Richard Williams of Who Framed Roger Rabbit fame in London during the 1970s, and for George Lucas on the 1983 animated film Twice Upon a Time. From 1977 onward, he also taught classical (i.e. hand-drawn) animation at Sheridan, where he was much loved. “He was a wonderful teacher,” Mr. Street said. “He was a very approachable guy, but also a top-notch craftsman that you respected.” Another former student, cartoonist Tina Seemann, remembered him as “100-per-cent whimsy” and fond of cracking up the class with visual gags. “I never knew him to be downhearted. He was always upbeat, involved, curious.”

Mr. Pindal retired from Sheridan in 2016 at the age of 88. His later years saw various honours and retrospectives. They included a lifetime achievement award from the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International (TAAFI) in 2012 and an 80th-birthday tribute at the NFB’s Toronto headquarters in 2007 that drew a standing-room-only industry crowd.

Maury Whyte, a close colleague at Sheridan, repeats a story Mr. Pindal liked to tell about meeting an old classmate from Copenhagen, who boasted about being a bridge builder and dismissed cartooning as a silly profession. Mr. Pindal’s response was to reel off the long list of public-awareness campaigns he had made films for, from fire safety to TB vaccinations. “Kaj said, ‘To me, that’s just as important as building a bridge.’”

Not that Mr. Pindal’s imaginative work ever required justification. In the words of Mr. Street: “It’s so self-evidently joyful that it needs no defence.”

Mr. Pindal leaves his wife, Annie, and his children: Lars, Kristina and Jens Pindal.

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