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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Nobuhiko Obayashi and the Original Monster House

Now, that's encouraging to a fragile girl's image.

Now, that’s encouraging to a fragile girl’s image.

I forget where I heard first of House, but I definitely remember the first time I saw it. It was several years ago that I first saw it and, naturally, I was ecstatic to learn when it had finally come to be available in the US.

Lucy?

Lucy?

What the currently uninitiated do not yet comprehend is that House is unlike any other movie. Beneath the standard guise of your typical haunted house movie plot are the gears and cogs that frenetically pulse like some sort of mad offspring between psychedelic manga, Dario Argento, Ken Russell (in full-on Lisztomania mode), a bad LSD trip, a fifth-grader’s collage for art class, and a fun-house from hell.

Initial knee-jerk reaction to my first acquaintance with House: no one would ever make a movie this way! The second time I watched it: thank God someone made a movie this way!

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

Abandon hope, ye who enter here.

House was the feature film debut of Nobuhiko Obayashi, a seasoned commercial director and experimental filmmaker. It seems as though House was designed to be the anti-movie. It is an assault on the senses. Its cinematic style is unprecedented and wild. Although the story is simple enough—Japanese schoolgirls get eaten by a haunted house—Obayashi found ways to film it in a completely unique way. Obayashi and his film crew employed a manic mixture of archaic and cutting edge special effects to heighten the fakeness and surreality of it all. Brightly colored cartoonish matte paintings glimmer in the background, while people dance in frames within frames in a nonstop barrage of collage effects and then random things will become cartoons themselves. The intent seems to have been to create something totally absurd, but at the same time realizing the immense untapped visual freedom of the film medium. House is the wild and visually experimental sort of film that Georges Melies would have been making had he lived long enough to experience the sixties.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

I want chicken. I want liver. Meow Mix, Meow Mix, please deliver.

As I’ve said, the story is fairly rudimentary (but not unsatisfying on its own per se). Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), your stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl, is excited for summer vacation and looks forward to spending time with her friends and her father. A cruel twist of fate should wriggle its way into her life, however, when Daddy reveals his plans to remarry. Furious, Gorgeous decides to spend the summer with her maternal aunt in the country. She invites six giggly schoolmates along with her; Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Mac (Mieko Sato), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Sweet (Masayo Miyako). You begin to comprehend the saccharine cotton-candy campiness they were going for with character names alone. Everything is rainbows and butterflies. You half expect Hello Kitty to make a cameo appearance in the first act.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie's house we go.

Over the river and through the woods, to Auntie’s house we go.

Well on their way to visit old Auntie, the seven victims *ahem* protagonists titter giddily as they are introduced to Auntie’s sad backstory. Apparently her fiance was killed during the war and she’s been waiting for him ever since. The girls can never know the pains of losing a lover to the horrors of war and may never understand the grim specter of the atomic bomb mushrooming over Japan (as evidenced by their giggling and comparing the cloud to cotton candy), but maybe they will get a taste of supernatural evils. Oh, who am I kidding? They get jacked up by this freaking house!

Auntie dance.

Auntie dance.

Old and wheelchair bound, but strangely ethereal and entrancing, Auntie (Yoko Minamida) welcomes the girls into her home. The film almost seems to be playing a cruel trick on these happy-go-lucky schoolgirl caricatures by trapping them in this dark and sinister spider’s web. If the movie is a light-hearted Disney cartoon before the house, then once within the house it is Scooby-Doo on crack…and the ghosts are real. They certainly get some mileage out of the infectious theme song (which is almost as innocent and catchy as the theme song from Cannibal Holocaust). The music weaves through your head on repeat as a mysterious white cat dances across a keyboard, first forward and then back like the film itself is possessed. Mac (the fat one) is the first to go missing, but her decapitated head is eventually pulled out of a well like a chilled watermelon. It proceeds to float around for a scene and bite a girl on the buttocks. Later on everyone enjoys some watermelon with human eyes in it, and strangely enough Auntie no longer requires her wheelchair (“Mein Führer! I can walk!”).

Don't lose your head.

Don’t lose your head.

If the crazy style did not turn you off by the 30 minute mark then be prepared. The severed watermelon head nonsense is peanuts to what happens to some of the other girls. Mattresses attack, girls are trapped inside bleeding grandfather clocks, a ceiling lamp bites a girl in half and her severed legs fly through the air in classic kung fu pose to dropkick an evil blood-spewing painting, and more. Most famous of all perhaps, is the scene where the piano eats one of the girls, but I digress. It is not the way people die in this movie that is so weird, it is how it is all filmed. House is a film without rules. The colors are brighter, the deaths crazier, and grown men can transform into cartoon skeletons or piles of bananas without explanation. The piano scene is truly an incredible moment in the annals of horror. Everything seems to be juxtaposed onto something else. Chunks of the human body float and spin in place while other pieces claw and flail out of the piano and said piano flashes different colors and a multicolored lightning border circles every ludicrous frame…also a skeleton waves its arms like a disgruntled marionette in the background. It is noisy, raucous, wild, inventive, cheesy, silly, macabre, horrific, and funny. This actually describes most of the film. House mixes comedy and horror to such innovative effect that even at its most quiet it conjures mixed feelings of both dread and delight.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

At least you can still play the kazoo.

More than a horror film and more than a comedy, House is an arty and extremely experimental addition to cinema psychedelica and a vibrant exploration of what the medium of film is ultimately capable of. I look at it like this; most movies I can imagine experiencing (albeit somewhat differently) in book form, but so much of House is so purely cinematic that it defies written description…begging the question, why write a review, bonehead? Well, I wanted to. So there.

Bwahahaha!

Bwahahaha!

Back to the plot or something. Gorgeous becomes possessed with the soul of her Auntie who is really already a spirit or whatever and more weird stuff happens. The girls are bumped off one by one in increasingly cartoonish and trippy ways. The teacher Fantasy is in love with tries to rescue them or whatever. There’s an evil cat doing stuff. The floors fall apart revealing pools of acidic blood stuff. Auntie gets younger. There’s occasional nudity (pretty sure no one’s over 18 so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that) and there’s tons of googly special effects. The stepmom from the beginning shows up later and more stuff happens. Basically the film is crazy. The traditional mechanisms that hold the plot together and the characters in their place are wholly secondary to the wild inventiveness of Obayashi’s camera.

I love lamp.

I love lamp.

Next Halloween I’m going to have to watch this with The House On Haunted Hill, Hold That Ghost, and Monster House. In many ways House is the ultimate haunted house movie, because just as ghosts do not have to abide by the laws of the real world, so House refuses to abide by the laws of the normal movie world. Ghosts don’t make sense to us and House doesn’t make sense if you’ve seen other movies. Anything goes. It is bedlam, mayhem, pandemonium and it knows it and revels in it and I loved it. For a psychedelic movie about a haunted house that eats a bunch of Japanese schoolgirls, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House is everything it needs to be and so much more. Thank you, Criterion, for releasing this insane Halloween treat.

Taz spin.

Taz spin.

Top 10 Reasons to Watch “House”

1. It’s definitely unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

2. Although it is a horror movie it is never too proud to incorporate happy upbeat songs (performed by GODIEGO).

3. It’s like Pringles. Once it starts the fun don’t stop.

4. Even the obligatory expository non-horror bits are directed with pizazz and zany rhythm.

5. It’s pretty much an all girl cast and maybe you like that.

6. Many of the ideas for the story and wild things that occur therein were developed by Obayashi’s young daughter.

7. Although the story is formulaic and derivative of other haunted house movies, I would argue that never before has a film had this much fun with formula.

8. Not that there’s a huge list of films in this category, but it is grade A horror-fantasy-comedy.

9. It might even be weirder than Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris. Maybe.

10. It’s finally available on home video in the United States so you’re out of excuses.

Well...The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Well…The 5 fingers of Dr. T. anyway.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 3, 2010.