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

Babbitt and Catstello Meet Tweety Bird

If there is one thing that defines the Warner Bros. studio it is their “Looney Tunes” cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. These decades produced some of the most memorable cartoons in history along with some of the most iconic and edgy cartoon characters ever to be transmogrified into accordions via a falling anvil. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales, Road-Runner, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil, Wile E. Coyote, Rocky the Gangster, Hippety Hopper, Sam Sheepdog, Witch Hazel, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety, and all the rest have become such a part of our culture it’s difficult to imagine America without them.

Classic characters aside, there were some equally memorable side characters that never made it into more than a few shorts. Pete Puma, the Dover Boys, Michigan J. Frog, Marc Anthony, the Dodo, Frisky, the Three Little Bops, the Scotsman, the forgetful wolf whose name escapes me, and countless others only ever had one or two shots to become a part of the illustrious Warner Bros. cartoon cannon. But they made it!

Often times Hollywood celebrities from the era made it into the act as well. From random gatherings in Have You Got Any Castles? (1938), Hollywood Steps Out (1941) and Book Revue (1946) (directed by Frank Tashlin, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett respectively) to more subversive integrations like when a caveman with the voice and caricatured mannerisms of Jack Benny pursues Daffy Duck while verbally abusing his pet dinosaur in Chuck Jones’ Daffy and the Dinosaur (1939) or when Porky Pig horrifically morphs into Oliver Hardy in the finale of Clampett and Norm McCabe’s Timid Toreador (1940). That Porky Pig morph actually disturbed me as a child. Sometimes the Warner’s cartoons had fun playing with their own formulas such as when Robert McKimson made Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton into mice for The Honey-Mousers (1956). These cartoons also frequently took pot shots at Lon Chaney, Jr.’s performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939)…perhaps funniest in McKimson’s Hoppy-Go-Lucky (1952).

One of the funniest cartoons ever made (in my most humble opinion) is Robert Clampett’s A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). In this cartoon a pair of cats, modeled after the very funny Abbott and Costello comedy team, try and get a little baby bird. It just so happens that this particular cartoon is the first appearance of Tweety Bird. As with most “Looney Tunes” cartoons it’s all just a standard formula setup for imaginative violence. Cats try and get bird, bird hurts them. What makes this cartoon so hilarious is that Babbitt and Catstello are actually funnier than their real life human counterparts.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were very popular comic icons from the 40s, successfully conquering the stage, radio, film, and eventually television. Their infamous “Who’s on first!” bit still plays in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The constant theme was that Costello was almost a baby trapped in a man’s body and Abbott was the oft times far too harsh straight man. Where it makes more sense, despite their differences, why Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel would share beds (Hardy probably knows he’s a big loser and you can tell he really likes Laurel) I could never figure out why the mostly humorless Abbott would ever put up with Costello’s infantile shenanigans. This infant and grouch duo made nearly 40 films together including some comedy classics such as Buck Privates (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Who Done It? (1942), Hit the Ice (1943), The Naughty Nineties (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

With knowledge of the rules and dynamics for an Abbott and Costello routine and a firm grasp on the lawlessness and physics-lacking hyper-violent universe of “Looney Tunes” one can now sit back and enjoy A Tale of Two Kitties.

It opens with a lean Babbitt (voiced by Tedd Pierce) kicking around a rotund Catstello (voiced by the incomparable Mel Blanc). From the get-go you recognize the familiar voices and then you get an even bigger laugh when you see the cat forms of Abbott and Costello. Babbitt almost looks more like a wolf and his long, graceful build is more reminiscent to a Wile E. Coyote than a Sylvester the cat. Catstello has the weak, wrinkled brow and dim, pleading eyes, and exaggerated jowls and is about as hard to recognize as a cat as John Kricfalusi’s Stimpy. Yet the pointed ears and typical color patterns tells us that these hideous mutations are indeed of the feline persuasion. Babbitt is evidently accustomed to harassing Catstello into performing dangerous tasks and so today’s adventure should be no different. Catstello must climb a very high telephone pole and apprehend the baby bird. Several attempts lead to Catstello falling from great heights, being flattened, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, etc. Babbitt all the while waits comfortably on terra firma and slaps Catstello around whenever he returns empty-handed.

It’s well drawn, has brilliant timing, there are puns and anvil gags, but the real big joke is just how exaggerated everything is. Babbitt is not just being impatient like Abbott. He’s being downright sociopathic and barbarically unreasonable. That Catstello takes it like an ashamed idiot puts the real Abbott and Costello in a whole new light. They aren’t friends with the occasional difference. These are two diametrically opposed individuals and their lives play out more like a shockingly abusive relationship than comedy. When Catstello gets crushed several feet into the earth by an anvil, a suddenly concerned Babbitt compassionately screams “Speak to me! Speak to me!” Following a childish whistle from the flattened feline, Babbitt scoldingly bellows “Why do you do these things?” as he pulls his broken friend off the anvil and slaps him across the face. It’s so unreasonable it’s comedy gold!

In many ways this short is spookily prophetic of the serious rift that would eventually break up Abbott and Costello. Unlike Laurel and Hardy who stayed friends to the end, their friendship eventually did deteriorate and their comedy suffered.

Catstello is just as pathetic as Babbitt is unfeeling. Perhaps moreso. Mel Blanc’s explodingly shrill and obnoxious Costello screams are just hilarious. Simple lines like, “Look, Babbitt. Stilts. ♫.” become hysterical in Blanc’s unflattering impersonation. Ted Pierce does a pretty funny Abbott as well. These two ingredients make for the funniest cat duo ever to pursue a Tweety Bird. Sylvester teamed up with a lot of cats over the years, but not one single combo had the elasticity and barbarity of these schmoes. In addition to being crapped on my Babbitt, Catstello is also malevolently manhandled by Tweety Bird. The “this widdle piddy went to market” gag still cracks me up. It’s as much a sick game for Tweety who has no feeling for a would-be predator as it is chastising a small child to Babbitt and poor, dumb Catstello is stuck in the middle. It’s amazing Tweety Bird really took off as a result of this cartoon because he’s more of a plot device to set up evil gags directed at the plump cat (Tweety would largely be handled by director Friz Freleng in the future). Tweety does develop a strong character in this cartoon though and he’s more diabolical and I’d say funnier than he ever would be again. The same can be said of the two cats.

True they were a one hit wonder, but Frank Tashlin directed a pseudo-sequel called A Tale of Two Mice (1945) featuring two mouse versions of Abbott and Costello. The result was not nearly as funny. Clampett would assign another celebrity identity to a cat body in A Gruesome Twosome (1945) where a dopey-eyed cat and a Jimmy Durante styled cat fight over the affections of a female. Tweety Bird gets in the mix again and the Jimmy Durante cat is very funny, but it never reaches the wild and zany brilliance of A Tale of Two Kitties. Everything worked and I suppose it would be hard to top had they done more. Maybe they’re better off as one-shot wonders like Michigan J. Frog. They did manage to make a few cameos and even one more short, but it weren’t as good so we can skip it.

This cartoon is Bob Clampett at the top of his game. It’s zany, violent, screwy, and the characters are stretchy and boneless. It ranks up there alongside Wabbit Twouble (1941), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid (1942), An Itch in Time (1943), Falling Hare (1943), and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946) for sheer baffling comic ludicrosity. Clampett might have been the only one who could have pulled off all the gags in this cartoon. The best “Looney Tunes” were anarchic and screwball and if you’ve ever seen Porky in Egypt (1937)* (yes, even more than Porky in Wackyland) you know Clampett could be wild and inventive. By taking two classic comedians and making them hyper-violent cartoon cats and pitting them against a seemingly innocent naked baby bird you can get one of the funniest cartoons ever made.

A Tale of Two Kitties makes me fall on the floor laughing (generational translation: rofl) every time I see it. And I have seen it a lot. One thing I almost forgot to mention was that this cartoon features some interesting wartime jokes and even a smarmy reference to the Hays Code that history buffs might enjoy. For the birth of Tweety Bird, some truly warped incarnations of classic comedians, or just for a good laugh watch or re-watch A Tale of Two Kitties. Lord knows it’s out there on the internet.

*Porky in Egypt starts as your typical period exploration into the realm of cultural insensitivity. Porky Pig is your standard milquetoast protagonist and he’s not particularly interesting. About halfway through the cartoon the sun punches Porky’s camel square in the face. The camel, named Humpty Bumpty, goes crazy from desert madness and whatever story was being carefully setup completely derails and becomes a nightmarish descent into insanity. It’s almost ironically titled Porky in Egypt because Porky does very little in the cartoon. It is hilarious and totally unpredictable and I can’t help but feel like the yak’s breakdown in the Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksman episode of “Ren and Stimpy” was somewhat modeled after it.

http://johnkstuff.blogspot.com/2006/09/timingpacing-tale-of-two-kitties-1942.html

http://www.sidereel.com/The_Looney_Tunes_Show/season-13/episode-1

http://fan.tcm.com/_A-Tale-of-Two-Kitties-WB-1942-d-Robert-Clampett/photo/8790883/66470.html?createPassive=true

http://www.twynkle.com/movies/33474