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

Dan’l Webster Examines the Details

devil webster4We folk hear tell of stories of the supernatural; of encounters with vile critters from far beyond this plane. Faust made a deal with Beezlebul, and Tom Walker did too. Charlie Daniels commemorated Mephistopheles’ trip to Georgia in song and Tenacious D challenged the Prince of Darkness to a rock off.

Taking cues from the Faust and Tom Walker legends, there was written yet another tale; the tale of the unfortunate New Hampshireman, Jabez Stone, who departed with his soul for two cents and bestowed it upon cunning Old Scratch himself. Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” reminded the reader of the pride of being a real, red-blooded American and warned of the dangers of taking the easy path. It was a fable as simple, earnest, and true to the spirit of America as the words of Twain or Irving.

What’s up, Doc?

The 1941 RKO adaptation was a special sort of film. Directed by William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and starring Edward Arnold (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Daniel Webster and Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as the devil, The Devil and Daniel Webster was one of those unflinching American movies that celebrated legendary ideals in much the same way John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) did. They hearken back not to the current America we know and picket, but the magic in what it all was supposed to be once upon a very long time ago. There’s a profound sense of patriotism in these movies and so what better foe for a proud American orator like Mr. Webster than the devil himself? If he can beat Satan and save Jabez Stone’s soul then perhaps there is hope for the rest of America.

devil webster2

Get off my back.

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is an unlucky New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s. He dreams of being a lucky man. This is just the kind of thing that Scratch waits for. [Scratch was a regional colloquialism for the devil, which adds such sumptuous local atmosphere to the story, don’t you think?] Scratch (Walter Huston) is as subtle a Satan that ever graced the silver screen. He’s tattered and unassuming, yet somehow diabolical and refined. He seems like just another kooky old coot, but there’s a sinister confidence that broadcasts all too loudly just how much sharper he is than you. He has an oily grace and a malevolent grin full of ingratiating teeth. His tricks and entrances are subtle but subtly disturbing. He accepts Stone’s soul and promises him seven years of good fortune, but as we good folk all know, the devil does not soon forget a deal and he always comes to collect. Jabez Stone loses his humanity and happiness and even pushes away his wife (Anne Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and friends all in favor of the acquisition of wealth. He builds a mansion and bankrupts fellow farmers and spends more and more time with a crafty demon maid (Simone Simon) while his young son becomes increasingly bratty and malicious.

I’m not a witch.

When Jabez Stone’s poor wife can take it no more she gets the only person who can help him: the great senator, statesman, and New Englander, Daniel Webster. Attack of the history!

I enjoyed this movie the whole way through. Up until the final act it’s a splendidly solid film about the trap of greed, but in the homestretch it just gets awesome. Famous historical orator, Daniel Webster, will defend the fallen Jabez Stone against Scratch in a trial in Stone’s barn on the very spot where the deal was initiated and the judge and jury will be a court of the damned. The jury are all famous condemned Americans (pirates, chiefs, traitors, murderers, and madmen) brought back from hell to judge whether or not Jabez Stone and Daniel Webster will keep their souls or be turned into moths and kept in Scratch’s pocket. Them’s some high stakes. How awesome is this? The answer: pretty awesome.

You sicken me.

The great Walter Huston (father to John and grandfather to Angelica) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley. Mr. Huston was full of wonderful characters. Fortunately he did win best supporting actor for Sierra Madre (directed by his son). Huston really is one of the best movie devils. Some movie devils are quietly unnerving like Robert De Niro (Angel Heart) or corporate and bombastic like Al Pacino (Devil’s Advocate). Sometimes they’re more sinister businessmen like Peter Stormare (Constantine) or Billy Crystal (Deconstructing Harry). Other times Chuck Norris can round-house kick the devil in the face (Hellbound). I like ’em best when they’re merely amorally mischievous like Peter Cook (Bedazzled) or Danny Elfman (The Forbidden Zone). Another shout out goes to Tom Waits’ superb portrayal of pure evil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Trey Parker’s gay Satan from South Park is another favorite. F. W. Murnau had a particularly grand representation of the devil for his adaptation of Faust (Svankmajer’s version is a bit weird). And yes, yes, Tim Curry had good makeup in Legend but I like my Lucifer more subtle. The devil is always a fun character in movies and while we might never know who’s is the most accurate depiction, we can all have our opinions of who is the most fun to watch.

devilwebster

You’re next.

It must be said: I love this movie. The Devil and Daniel Webster is fantastic. It’s wonderfully produced with some great photography, lighting, music and many lines of dialogue (particularly those of Scratch and Webster) were taken directly from the short story. As a fellow New Englander (and someone who loves history), I enjoyed much of the feel for the location and the attitudes of the characters. It feels distinctly American, but perhaps moreso the pure America of legend and folklore. It’s as refreshing and pure as a slice of apple pie. Read Benét’s short story and go watch this movie.

http://vitagraphamerican.blogspot.com/2011/04/vital-graph-devil-and-daniel-webster.html

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews10/the_devil_and_daniel_webster_.htm

http://michaeldemeng.blogspot.com/2010/02/deal-with-devil.html