Animation is bigger then ever nowadays. Disney’s in-house animation department is thriving thanks to recent hits like The Princess and the Frog, Wreck it Ralph and the monster hit Frozen. Their subsidiary Pixar has thus far mined nothing but gold, scoring a home run this year with Inside Out.
For decades, Disney had a virtual monopoly on animated features. Not anymore. DreamWorks Animation, founded by Disney’s former head-of-production Jeffery Katzenberg, has launched such lucrative titles as Shrek, Madagascar, Kung-Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. The Connecticut based Blue Sky Studios has given us Ice Age and Rio while Sony Animation has given us Cloudy with a Change of Meatballs and Hotel Transylvania. From England we get Nick Park’s Ardman Studio, responsible for Wallace and Gromit and the upcoming Shawn the Sheep. Like Ardman, the Oregon based Lika has given us the stop-motion features Coraline and Paranorman. I do hope that Disney will start producing more ink and paint animated films soon, but in the meantime Japan’s Studio Ghibli, founded by the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki still relies on good old traditional cell animation to tell their whimsical stories. And of course there’s plenty of animation for adults and kids on television and the web.
But it wasn’t always like this. In the seventies and throughout much of the eighties, animation, at least on the big screen, was considered dead. Well, dead unless it was a Disney feature, though the quality of their films began to decline after Disney’s death, hitting its nadir with the hopelessly saccharine (though very profitable) The Fox and the Hound in 1981.
Yet even in the darkest of times animators could be found bent over their drafting tables trying to create something unique that can’t exist in our physical world. Ralph Bakshi, the one-time animator for CBS Terrytoons and the Fleischer Studios independently produced Fritz the Cat, the worlds first X-rated cartoon. It’s pretty tame by todays standards, especially when compared to shows like South Park, but it’s also really funny and was a huge hit when it was released. Alas, Mr. Bakshi never came close to having as big a hit, despite directing such ambitious films as Heavy Traffic, The Lord of the Rings and American Pop.
In 1971 Disney animator Don Bluth lead an exodus of animators frustrated over the direction of the studio. He achieved a great deal of critical acclaim thanks to his brilliant 1982 feature The Secret of Nimh and then enjoyed commercial success as well when he paired up with Steven Spielberg for An American Tale (1986). Bluth eventually lost his luster thanks to the resurgence of Disney in the late-eighties, but he still produced an impressive repertoire of animated films that include The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Anastasia and his highly ambitious animated sic-fi movie Titan A.E.
One familiar name that has dipped in and out of the animation industry from time to time has been George Lucas. Ever since the first Star Wars film blazed across the screen in 1977, Lucas has used all sorts of animation techniques to raise the bar in field of special effects through his company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), blurring the lines between live action and animated movies. He’s also from time to time dabbled in fully animated films.
He first experimented with animation while at the University of Southern California, directing a few experimental animated shorts. Later he would lure a young animator named John Lasseter away from Disney to help start-up a computer animation division at Lucasfilm. Soon after he sold the division to Steve Jobs, the co-founder and recently ousted (later to return) CEO of Apple Computers. That company would become Pixar, creators of the worlds first CG short (Luxor Jr.) and feature (Toy Story).
In 2003 Lucas founded his own animation studio – Lucasfilm Animation – in Singapore. It’s been responsible for the Clone Wars TV show and earlier this year produced the little-seen animated musical Strange Magic. The company was acquired by Disney two years ago, along with the entire Lucasfilm empire.
Lucas’ first foray into feature-length animation was as the Executive Producer of an overlooked little gem called Twice Upon a Time. The film was the brainchild of fellow Bay Area filmmaker John Korty, who co-directed the film with Charles Swenson.
Skilled in both animation and live action, Korty’s most widely seen work has probably been the TV mini series The Autobiography of Miss Jane Putnam. Yet Korty has for years also run his own little film studio/animation house in the San Francisco area, some of his animation has shown up on Sesame Street over the years.
Korty’s desire to produce an animated feature drew the attention of Lucas, who would later also hire Korty to direct the TV movie Ewoks: Caravan of Courage. Lucas brokered a deal with Alan Ladd, Jr., the studio executive at Fox who had given Star Wars the green light. Now an independent producer (he left Fox because other executives didn’t like the deal the studio made over distributing the Star Wars sequels), Ladd enjoyed great success with Body Heat, the surprise Oscar winner Chariots of Fire and the first Police Academy movie. He also produced Blade Runner and The Right Stuff, two films that didn’t do well at the box office at the time of their release but have since gained reputations as two of the greatest films of the eighties. With the help of Ladd and Lucas, this truly off-beat animated film managed to see the light.
The film uses a process that Korty named “lumage”, making figures out of felt and lighting them from underneath. While the cut-out style of animation will surly remind you of the animated sequences Terry Gilliam created for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the movie has a look that’s all its own and quite beautiful.
The story, such as it is, deals with two imaginary worlds. One is called Frivoli, where a fellow named Greensleeves sends “figments of imagination” – little grape like creatures – to earth in order to give people good dreams. The other place is a forbidden, industrial world with the unbecoming name of Muckworks. It’s ruled by the comically evil Synonamess Botch, who sends his vulture like creatures called “rushers” to earth where they drop bombs on our planets slumbering populace, thus giving them nightmares.
On the surface, this might sound like the plot for a something like the Care Bear movie. Thankfully, gooey sentiment is not the goal here. Everything is handled with a tong-and-cheek style of humor and has more of a Rocky and Bullwinkle sense of humor then your typical Disney film, with jokes and puns flying at you fast and furious. Botch himself is more in the tradition of utterly incompetent bad guys like Boris Badenov and Dick Dastardly, rather than the purely evil wicked step mothers or Cruella DeVill from the Disney films. In fact, one of the voice actors in this movie is Paul Frees, the veteran performer who provided the voice of Boris Badenov.
Botch’s plan is to permanently botch everyone in the world from ever having a good night sleep by stopping time and dropping his bad dreams on everyone. The first part of his plan is to kidnap Greensleeves, thus preventing him from sending any pleasant nocturnal fantasies out. The second is to trick a couple of dupes into capturing the “mainspring”.
And what is the “mainspring?” It’s a spring from the cosmic clock, which seems to be just an ordinary wall-clock hanging in an ordinary old hardware store somewhere on Earth. His dupes are Ralph and Mumford, a pair of misfits living in Din, a world located between Frivoli and Muckworks.
Mumford is a human and a mime. Ralph is an “all-purpose animal.” In other words he’s a shape shifter who can change into a lion, an elephant, a kangaroo, whatever the situation calls for. Ralph is voiced by veteran voice-actor Lorenzo Music. You may not recall the name but you’ve certainly heard his voice. He was the never seen voice of the doorman filtered through the intercom on Rhoda. He also provided the voice of Garfield in a number of TV specials, Peter Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters, the voice of one of the crash-test dummies in a series of very popular seat-belt PSA’s in the late eighties, plus numerous other credits.
Ralph and Mumford (nicknamed Mum) are put on trail for incompetence. To prove their worth they are given the job of taking out Din’s garbage. While performing their sanitation duties they meet Flora Fauna, a ditzy aspiring actress and the niece of Greensleeves. She tells Ralph and Mum about her uncles abduction and the two of them decide to rescue Greensleeves, that’ll surely prove their usefulness. Alas, Synonymous Botch botches their plans by tricking our unlikely heroes into getting the mainspring for him!
Ralph and Mum are then sent to the real world, which is depicted via black and white photographs of New York and other cities. This was done partly to save money, of course, but it also gives the film a very unique visual style. Admittedly the story is a bit uneven and even a little confusing at times. There’s also a pretty generic sounding 80’s pop soundtrack that I could do without. But the characters are all rather delightful and the visual style is wonderful from beginning to end.
Many people probably think that Robin Williams was the first voice-over actor allowed to go off script and improvise his lines. Well, there was apparently quite a bit of improvisation on Twice Upon A Time. Today almost every movie boasts a cast of celebrity voices. Sometimes they are inspired, other times their names are above the title simply to get grown ups to watch them. No one famous provides a voice in Twice Upon a Time, though at the end the voice over artists are shown a rare sign of respect, with both their picture and their name appearing with their corresponding character. The film also shows a photo montage of all the people who worked on the film. Among the contributors were special effects artist David Fincher, who would go on to direct Se7en, Fight Club and Gone Girl , animator Henry Selick, the future director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, and Harley Jessup, the future production designer on Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille (ironically, in the movie Synonamess Botch has a strange, rat like pet named Ratatouille).
While I don’t claim that Twice Upon a Time is a great animated feature, it is certainly entertaining, unique and worthy of your time. Unfortunately it’s also notoriously hard to find. It took years for it to be released on VHS. When it was broadcast on HBO they apparently used a cut that John Korty didn’t approve of. After he threatened legal action, HBO stopped airing the film. The Korty approved version did later appear on Showtime.
Thus far Twice Upon a Time has not appeared on DVD or Blu-Ray. It was shown on TCM a few weeks ago and last winter was screened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where John Korty announced that it was finally getting a DVD release. Of course, DVD releases are notorious for being held back. None the less, keep checking for the films availability on Netflix. It’s a hidden gem that predates and I have no doubt helped influence the too clever-by-half TV animation of The Simpsons, Animaniacs, Spongebob Square-Pants and any other cartoon that’s sophisticated enough for adults but can still tickle the funny bone of the the small fry.