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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Off the Cobbled Path

Some folks might remember an odd, little animated film that was swept under the carpet back in the 1990s. It was labeled a knockoff of Disney’s Aladdin (1992), but in fact, quite the opposite was true. I am of course referring to Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler (1993). Richard Williams was and is widely considered one of the greatest animators and with such works as The Little Island (1958) and A Christmas Carol (1971) as well as several TV shows and commercials under his belt in addition to directing the animated sequences for Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), who could argue?

The version of this film that was released by in 1993 is not what the film was meant to be at all (I believe they called Arabian Knight when it went to theaters). Director/writer/producer/animator Richard Williams had been working on this passion project for over twenty-six years, but when it was at long last nearing completion another studio had the rights to it and made several alterations to make it “more accessible.” They deleted several sequences and put their own animators to work to fill in the incomplete portions and if you have an eye for animation it won’t be hard figuring out who animated what in the theatrical cut. They also threw in a few forgettable songs to make it a musical. If this didn’t drastically alter the tone already, to make matters worse the studio rejected Williams’ original idea of having the two title characters be mute and gave them voices (the Thief being voiced by comedian Jonathan Winters). When it came out in 1993 many people did not appreciate the sloppy mix of highly stylized Williams art combined unevenly with the slapdash bits and songs. Furthermore, many people compared it unfairly to Aladdin which came out the year before because they had many things in common. The truth is that Disney, who had owned the rights to the unfinished film for a time, swiped many of The Thief and the Cobbler‘s ideas, characters, and glimmers of the character designs and incorporated them into Aladdin. Both films are set in the Middle East and feature magic, a romance between a lowly peasant and a beautiful Princess, an evil Grand Vizier with a bird sidekick, and a plot to get the throne from the oblivious but kind-hearted short, bearded Sultan. Now I like Aladdin just as much as the next fellow (Robin Williams is hilarious in it and the whole film a lot of fun), but let us give credit where it is due.

For years the only piece to the puzzle that could be seen by the public was the Miramax cut with the songs. The good news is that we live in an age of computers and The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled cut can be found on the internet. The re-cobbled version restores what it can of what was to be Richard Williams’ magnum opus. It cobbles together all of the footage that Williams completed and institutes pencil tests and storyboards for the missing pieces. It also removes the songs and unwanted voiceovers and attempts to recover Williams’ lost vision. The end result may not be your typical animated film, but it is not hard to see the genius at work behind it. Indeed the most frustrating element of the whole thing is that you can see how The Thief and the Cobbler could have been easily one of the greatest animated films of all time. It remains one of the singularly most impressive personal works from an animator I have ever seen. Incorporating elements from classic Arabian art, silent cinema, M. C. Escher, and western cartoons (to name but a few), Williams fashioned a world that could only exist in the realm of cel-animation.

The story takes place in the mythical Golden City. It follows your basic plot of malevolent malfeasance and diabolical deception. The evil Grand Vizier, Zigzag (voiced by the great Vincent Price) desires to marry Princess Yum Yum and has made an illicit alliance with the Wicked One-Eyes (an army of, what else but green, grotesque one-eyed monster-like people). Zigzag (who speaks entirely in rhymes and recites them all as only Vincent Price could) intends to snatch up the throne of the drowsy King Nod, but things go awry when a mute shoe Cobbler named Tack bumps into a scruffy Thief and he enters the realm of royals due to a mislaid tack which finds its way into Zigzag’s shoe. Sentenced to death, Tack is saved by the beautiful Princess Yum Yum who breaks one of her shoes on purpose and insists he fix it. Unbeknownst to the palace inhabitants, a dreadful prophecy is about to come true. The Golden City is only safe as long as the three golden balls are secure atop the highest minaret, and the clownish Thief (with a persistent halo of flies about his head) has snuck into the palace with Tack. A constant stubborn opportunist and filcher of many a fine prize throughout the film, the Thief cannot resist and so undertakes the nearly impossible task of thieving the three golden balls. He succeeds at last, but Zigzag’s minions snatch them and Zigzag uses them to bribe the One-eyes to let him take control after they destroy the Golden City.

Tack, Princess Yum Yum, and her nanny, fearing the impending doom of the city at the hands of the vicious One-eyes, go on a quest to get help from the Mad and Holy Old Witch. The Thief also tags along. Along the way they pick up a ragtag militia of slovenly brigands who help them on their journey. When they at long last find the Witch she answers them with a riddle (as witches are oft times wont to do). “It’s what you do with what you got,” she says to Tack. When they return to the Golden City they discover that the One-eyes’ war machine and army are ominously advancing. Tack shoots a single tack at the encroaching mass and what happens next can only be described as one of the most epically impressive Rube Goldbergian orgies of chaotic mayhem and comedy ever conceived. As the impossible war machine unravels from within, amidst the chaos the Thief, spotting the three golden balls within it, casually meanders through the disaster narrowly missing arrows, gears, canons, explosions, elephants, and more in a desperate effort to appease his greed. Somehow the single-minded Thief escapes the carnage unscathed. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it all ends well for Tack and the Princess and that the forces of evil get their just desserts.

The Thief and the Cobbler: Re-Cobbled is a treasure to behold. It is an incredible achievement with nonstop kinetic power and seemingly effortless Looney Tunes-esque comic panache. The scene where the Cobbler pursues the Thief through the palace is fantastic and the scenes where the Thief steals the balls and when we wanders through the collapsing war machine are hilarious. It is hard for me to watch this movie without erupting in laughter or my jaw hanging agape. The animation is vibrant, stylized, and colorful. I’m always impressed by Richard Williams’ ability to capture the essence of weight—easily one of the most difficult things to do in animation. The movie is a constant delight and dazzlement and with the Re-Cobbled cut I think people may finally see the crowning achievement this film was supposed to be. I find no difficulty in saying that Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler, even unfinished, is a masterpiece.

And I have included it for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.

(This particular “re-cobbled” cut does feature a few shots from the Fred Calvert version, although his animation does not measure up to Williams’ it does provide greater context for much of the scene progression).

picture references:

imageshack.us

tankadillo.com

movierapture.com

photobucket.com

thephoenix.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 25, 2010.

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