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

That Old Timey Magic

A wonderful view.

A wonderful view.

To an entertainer, an empty theater might be the saddest of all things. It is a shame more films are not as beautiful as Sylvain Chomet’s most recent masterwork, The Illusionist (2010). This is a film that is doing more things than most people will ever realize. At once it is a fable for the aging arts and it is also a fitting farewell from a film legend…from beyond the grave. Zombie movie? Like Chomet’s extraordinarily imaginative The Triplets of Belleville (2003), The Illusionist is an affectionate exploration into the world of vagabond vaudevillians and destitute dotards, but its tone is decidedly more somber and poetic.

A theater.

The theater awakens.

Once again, as with Triplets and his short The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1998), The Illusionist showcases Chomet’s brilliant attention to detail, his knack for gorgeously fascinating character design, exquisite control of movement and weight, and uncanny ability to tell a great story without the aid of spoken language. Chomet’s work tends to hearken back to the glory days of pantomime on vaudeville and in early cinema. Perhaps that is what makes The Illusionist so perfect a film for this visionary director to undertake. The story was composed by fellow French auteur, Jacques Tati (Playtime), a man whose sensibilities lie heavily on the side of classic silent comedy.

Tati’s comedies are quiet, satirical studies in shifting environments. To stand back and view Tati’s whole canon one can begin to see two trends: first that Tati’s character of Mr. Hulot seems to be fading into the background while the films themselves become more and more purposely plotless, and secondly that the countryside of Mr. Hulot’s adventures is steadily disappearing and being engulfed by dispassionate concrete modernity. Tati seemed to be the French Charlie Chaplin of the fifties and sixties, doggedly telling taciturn tales of a lost shadow in a labyrinth of encroaching skyscrapers and smoke. If his sensibilities seemed backwards and anachronistic then, just imagine if he were making movies today. Well, I am happy to report that Jacques Tati is alive and well and inhabiting the latest and most bittersweet effort by Sylvain Chomet.

The magician.

The magician.

In The Illusionist an aging magician discovers his audience is diminishing so he travels far, scouring the land for the next venue for his magic act and skittish rabbit. He chances upon an affable drunk in England who takes him to Scotland where he performs at a bar and picks up a stowaway upon his departure. A young girl, dazzled by the strange foreign visitor’s tricks, follows him believing that all of the nice things he has given her were freely snatched out of thin air. She doesn’t seem to understand the money the good magician is throwing away to buy his friend the things she desires, but he never tells her and she always wants more material things that cost money. This habit has the magician taking more and more lowly jobs just to provide for himself and the girl as they live in a tumbledown hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland.  The hotel is also occupied by several other has-beens from better days. There is an alcoholic ventriloquist and a team of out-of-work acrobatic brothers and a suicidal clown living just down the hall. It seems as though no one has use for these creaking relics of the theater. Where is a poor magician to display his craft in this new world? Eventually the girl grows older and begins to fancy a young gentleman and the magician (as well as the other hotel denizens) become older, poorer and more pathetic. The final act is one of the most somber and beautiful finales I have seen and I would not have it any other way.

Far from France.

Far from Paris.

Perhaps it is easier to tell what The Illusionist is rather than what it is about. Some have called it a postcard to the rainy hillsides and winding, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. It may be that, but it is so much more. It is also a heartfelt tribute, as well as a funeral dirge, to the dying arts and artists of this world. Fitting it should be based on a script written by a dead spokesperson for just that, and even more fitting it should be rendered in old-fashioned two-dimensional cel-animation. The film is soft, quiet, pensive, tranquil, thoughtful, and tragic and it retains all of these heavy watermarks while staying humorously buoyant and charming. Despite some of the more melancholy elements of the plot, I could not help but be swept along with the sweet murmurs of mirth that permeated the delicate atmosphere of that darkened theater. I wore a smile the whole time because I was impressed with the gorgeous animation and because I was laughing at the protagonist’s maudlin misfortunes and unflappably gallant manners and I smiled because I was sad.

The Illusionist may be more literally the story of a magician waving good-bye to a declining limelight, but I feel as though I am watching the flesh and blood Jacques Tati blow a farewell kiss to us all, and even though he may not be physically present I would not hesitate to call it the perfect swansong for Tati.

Mass transit.

Mass transit.

Perhaps Tati is present in the film. In addition to a brief scene featuring Mon Oncle playing in an old theater, Chomet has captured Tati/Hulot’s postures, gait, and mannerisms perfectly. The magician carries an umbrella and even wears the same striped socks, bow-tie, and raincoat and, in one scene, even has the hat of Mr. Hulot. The magician has the same awkward second-guess step and toe-tilting rigidity and balance that Mr. Hulot possessed. His hands always find their way to his hips or clasped innocently behind him. The magician is a lovingly molded caricature. Where the characters in Triplets and Old Lady were hilariously grotesque exaggerations, the characters of The Illusionist seem to be sculpted with more compassion. Much like Wall-e, the magician’s relative silence and absence of a wide range of facial expression do not hinder the audience from understanding exactly what is transpiring in that little animated brain. His quiet demeanor only give us more understanding of his plight and give him more sympathy.

A The Illusionist is another beautifully drawn and outstanding comedic yarn about displacement and desperation from the brilliant mind of Sylvain Chomet. The film is very soulful and personal and very well exectued. I chuckled much and felt very wistful throughout The Illusionist. This is a movie for fans of Sylvain Chomet and Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Scotland and vaudeville and antiques and rain and cel animation and magic. It’s utterly sublime.

Goodbye, old friend.

Goodbye, old friend.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 17, 2011.

An Arabian Night All Too Often Forgotten

Minarets.

It is widely understood that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the very first feature length animated movie. This is only half-true. It is still believed to be the first cel-animated feature, but there is another film that predates it by more than a decade. I had the good fortune to stumble upon a lost treasure several years ago. This treasure is Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926).

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's...a flying horse.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s…a flying horse.

This delightful fantasy is exploding with impeccable visuals and imagination and is really a lot of fun. Prince Achmed has some amazing spectacles; monsters, witches, demons, magic, flying horses, wizard battles, romance, genies, sword fights, etc. So why is it so obscure? Could it be that it’s German? Could it be that it’s silent? Could it be because it was directed by a woman? More likely this hidden gem is often overlooked because of the method of animation that was used to make it all happen. When Snow White came out it spawned a whole movement of cel-animated movies (headed by folks like Disney and Fleischer) that lasted for a good six decades plus, but Prince Achmed was not cel-animated and its style was not much mimicked.

Lotte Reiniger achieved the immensely intricate and breathtaking artwork of Prince Achmed by manipulating pieces of cutout cardboard shapes. Prince Achmed is an amazing technical example of a form of art that never really caught on like cel. Like the rest of Reiniger’s canon, this film was made via stop-motion shadow puppet animation (a style that has been most recently recaptured in Michel Ocelot’s Princes and Princesses in 2000 and the 2005 Anthony Lucas short The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello). Every object, character, joint, ruffle of fabric, leaf, and curtain is little more than overlapped two-dimensional silhouettes.

A woman's work is never done.

A woman’s work is never done.

This technique (invented and perfected by Reiniger) is fascinating to watch and creates an atmosphere and energy all its own. When you observe stills from Prince Achmed you can get an idea of the complexity of the images, but until you see it in full motion you do not get the full emotive power of Reingier’s creation. And it’s in color too! It’s so captivating that I forget I’m only watching silhouettes whenever I watch it. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a special treat, not just for animation-enthusiasts, but also for anyone interested in experiencing an epic fantasy adventure in the spirit of The Arabian Nights.

The story is exotic and magical. The evil African Magician deceives the young Prince Achmed and sends him on a harrowing adventure into the heavens on a magic flying horse. The evil Magician is really after Achmed’s sister. Prince Achmed figures out how to maneuver the horse and lands in the Isles of Wak-Wak, where he falls in love with the beautiful Pari-Banu, but the demons of Wak-Wak are very protective of their Princess. Achmed steals the Princess away, but is confounded by the shape-shifting evil Magician (who has escaped from prison). Achmed travels to China, where the Magician has delivered Pari-Banu to the lustful Chinese Emperor. Achmed must rescue his beloved, but again is hindered by the evil Magician’s trickery.

Hero time.

Hero time.

Luckily, Achmed makes powerful allies along his quest. He befriends a wild Witch in the heart of a volcano who is also enemies with the evil Magician. With the help of the Witch, her magic, and her army of monsters he pursues Pari-Banu, but meets an impossible obstacle when the mountains of Wak-Wak close on him, trapping the beautiful Pari-Banu in with the demons.

File created with CoreGraphics

Fortunately for Prince Achmed, he stumbles upon Aladdin—who is in love with Achmed’s sister, the Princess—and together they recruit the Witch to battle the evil Magician and get the magic lamp back so that they may enter the gates of Wak-Wak. A spectacular shape-shifting showdown ensues between the Magician and the Witch (in a scene I suspect Disney ‘borrowed’ for Merlin’s duel with Madame Mim in 1963′s The Sword in the Stone because I don’t recall that event from T. H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King). The lamp is retrieved and together Achmed, Aladdin, the Witch, and all of the genies in the magic lamp wage a fantastic battle against the demons of Wak-Wak to save Pari-Banu and return to the kingdom where Aladdin can marry the Princess and Achmed can marry Pari-Banu. Needless to say, it all ends well for our brave hero. The whole adventure is a dazzling, intoxicating journey that never ceases to amaze or fill with wonder. I loved it from stem to stern.

Wizards' cat's cradle.

Wizards’ cat’s cradle.

As the earliest surviving animated feature, the serious film buff cannot afford to miss this one. Not to slight the movie itself, however, I must add that in addition to being a significant piece of film history, Prince Achmed is also first-class entertainment. It’s a visual pleasure and a fun ride with more charm and adventure than you might suspect. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a beautiful technical marvel that Sheherazade herself would be proud of. It would even make for a great double-feature with 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad. This reviewer strongly recommends.

The DVD release also features a very informative documentary about Lotte Reiniger and the making of this and other stop-motion shadow puppet films from Reiniger.

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 5, 2010