More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011

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Brace Yourself. It’s “Song of the South”

This ain't exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

This ain’t exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the most inflammatory movie titles one can utter is Song of the South (1946). Am I racist for liking this movie? Some people might think so. I concede that Song of the South is not Roots (1977) nor is it Amistad (1997), but it’s sensibilities are far less prejudiced than say Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s probably more artistically comparable to Birth of a Nation in that it was a surprising technical achievement, but I submit that Song of the South is not quite as racially insensitive as is commonly perceived (or at least, it doesn’t mean to be), rather it is merely uninformed and maybe not that bad of a movie.

Don't do the review, man. It's not worth it.

Don’t do the review, man. It’s not worth it.

It’s been banned in its entirety for years and Disney still hasn’t released it. Frederick Douglass would undoubtedly be appalled by Disney’s apparent lack of understanding of the plight of the American slave showcased in this film. In fact, it is in this department that the film gets the most flak, and perhaps deservedly so.

It depicts the jolly slave affably singing and toiling in the fields for his masseh. No one is discontent with the fact that they are living in human bondage. Naturally, the slave owners themselves are kind-hearted and good people too. Kindly old Uncle Remus is only too happy to oblige his masseh in any task and there are really no consequences for disobedience. I concede all of these things, but I honestly was not expecting a serious look into the harsh realities of this dark hour in American history. I watched it for the cartoons. This is a family Disney film from the 1940’s. Maybe they were ignorant and oblivious to what actually went on, but even had they known and still chosen to water it down it would still be the Disney way. In a children’s fantasy film from the Walt Disney studios you don’t show the bloody stripes on the backs of your jovial protagonists. You have to wait until the 80’s for that.

Shh...be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

Shh…be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.

Song of the South is not attempting to be Johnny Tremain (1957) or Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which may take some liberties but are still trying to represent an historical time. Song of the South was an attempt to bottle some of the magic of Uncle Remus’s tales of Br’er Rabbit and I’d say they succeeded in doing that much. In fact the only real reason to watch Song of the South is for the animated segments and for James Baskett’s charismatic performance as Uncle Remus.

Well, this is a fin how do you do.

Well, this is a fine how do you do.

Some might say that Baskett was playing a stereotype just like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), but they still both crafted lovable, endearing characters that outshone the rest of the respective films they were in. Maybe they didn’t get the complex juicy roles because the prejudices of the times would not give them much more, but they did what they could with the material given to them. It’s a damn shame McDaniel really only ever got to play slaves or maids, but don’t sell her talent short. I think she deserved that Oscar. Baskett also did receive an honorary Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South and Walt Disney himself fought very hard to get him nominated. Ironically (and sadly), Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of his film in Atlanta because of the segregation laws at the time. Let’s not forget how hard it was for ethnic actors back then.

The film itself is your typical uber-saccharine tale of a young boy who learns life lessons. The child performances are nothing to write home about and much of the live-action stuff gets boring whenever Uncle Remus isn’t around, but be patient.

Tell us the story of Django again!

Tell us the story of Django again!

Poor little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is hoodwinked into thinking his little trip to his grandmother’s plantation is a delightful vacation…until he learns that his parents are separating (still not too sure why, but I suppose that’s not important).  This actually might have fed the controversy too. If a kid’s movie is edgy enough to attack the stigma of parental separation on children, might it at least have the guts to depict racism and slavery with a little more accuracy? Instead there is no racism, only bullies, and slavery is just a footnote because the story happens to take place in Georgia in the 19th century. Ah, well.

Back to Johnny. Fortunately for Johnny he makes friends with wise, old Uncle Remus who “edutains” with stories of Br’er Rabbit and how he outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother disapproves of the stories because she feels it has a negative impact on her son and she forbids Uncle Remus from telling him any more. Throughout the movie Johnny finds a puppy, makes friends with a girl, deals with bullies, wrestles with anxiety over his parents, almost gets killed by a bull, and always tries to sneak back to his friend Uncle Remus to hear more. The story is sweet and innocent enough and if it didn’t feature slaves as content watered-down Stepin Fetchits it would probably be another much celebrated film in the Disney canon. Alas, it suffers from controversy…which I think actually makes it much more interesting and more important.

What now?

What now?

The scenes that combine live-action with animation are wonderful. Uncle Remus sings as he strolls down a dirt road and all of the adorable anthropomorphic animals sing along. It has been parodied much, but these sequences are really well done and they were huge technological breakthroughs at the time and although Song of the South might not be Mary Poppins (1964), I’d say it’s a far more stimulating accomplishment than Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The three main animated segments featuring Br’er Rabbit are magical and as finely drawn as anything the Disney studios ever produced. They brim with peril, humor, and wisdom and each tale delivers another important lesson for Johnny (and us all), but they are told with such playfulness and gusto that they are a delight to hear again and again. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit are charming characters and the film develops them quite well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you are probably already familiar with them from the Splash Mountain log-floom ride at Disney theme parks. And almost everyone has heard the songs “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “How Do You Do?”

So what exactly do we have here? A great technological accomplishment, a fine story, some very enjoyable performances, great iconic songs, and splendid animation thrust amidst some blindly optimistic time capsule with extreme naiveté regarding race relations and overwrought with classic Disney sentimentality. All in all, I’d say it’s nothing most people wouldn’t be able to handle with some maturity. Song of the South is guilty of depicting the happy black man who is perfectly content with his subservient status beneath whitey’s thumb. It does show a clean and delusionally optimistic version of life on the southern plantations. It is a product of its times. It was also a huge passion project for Mr. Disney. And you know what? I liked the movie. I found myself being captivated by Uncle Remus’s enchanting yarns and the beautiful animation. I also loved Dumbo (1941) too. People always told me as a kid that the crows were racist. They may portray stereotypical black speech and characteristics, but they’re really the only decent folk in the movie apart from Dumbo’s mom and Timothy Mouse.

Over there! Justin Bieber is doing something!

Over there! Something controversial!

I remember reading the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his adventures when I was a little kid. I enjoyed the stories then and I enjoyed them being retold in the movie. He was way more interesting than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to me. He was smart and savvy, and although his wise-alec attitude got him into trouble, he always could think up a way out. The film stays true to the original characters and its not nearly as racist as the thousand other racially insensitive cartoons and movies from that era and earlier (and I’d still advocate their preservation too). So will watching Song of the South today promote racism? I’d say no. If anything it can give us an insightful glimpse into American history. Not the sad history of American slavery in the 1800’s, but the unfortunate history of 1940’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty good film on its own, but I’d say the controversy and historical context actually enhances it and provides more to discuss. Check it out if you can find it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 15, 2011.