The Case of Cartoon Saloon

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The late 90’s was an interesting time for animation. Amblimation had folded after its third film (as we talked about last week), Dreamworks SKG was gearing up to release its first animated feature, and Disney Animation was winding down from their 10-year renaissance period. Also, by 1999, PIXAR and Disney had released TWO 3D computer animated films, and Dreamworks produced one as well (as their first release!). The medium was changing, and 3D computer animation was becoming increasingly more popular. Today, it’s considered to be the most popular style of animation. 

But, three artists in Ireland weren’t jumping on the 3D animation bandwagon just yet. They formed their own studio, focusing on 2D animation. In about 10 years, they had produced their first feature film, which was nominated for an oscar alongside the likes of Coraline, The Princess and the Frog, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up. 

Ever since, they have been steadily producing unique and beautiful animated content, from TV shows to major motion pictures. Last year, they released their fourth film, which has already won several Annie Awards. Each film features masterful storytelling heavily influenced and inspired by history and lore, with uniquely beautiful animation that will take your breath away. 

So, this week we are excited to talk about the Irish independent animation studio Cartoon Saloon, as well as their four full-length films!

GETTING STARTED

  • Ireland has had a vibrant animation scene for several decades. Some of our favorite films and shows were animated there, whether in Don Bluth’s animation studio or at Murakami-Wolf, which produced the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  
  • Cartoon Saloon, however, is likely the most well-known independent animation studio in Ireland. Its creators, Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young were animation students attending Ballyfermot College of Further Education in Ireland.  
  • Nora would be the first to graduate, a year before the others. She spent that year working for a studio called Brown Bag Films, which is now known as the studio that creates shows like Doc McStuffins and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. 
  • While in school and after graduating in 1999, Tomm, Paul, and Nora moved together to Kilkenny, Ireland. At this point, they had already started doing small freelance jobs (such as commercials and e-cards) under the name Cartoon Saloon
    • At Ballyfermot, Tomm Moore specifically made sure to take courses made by Don Bluth!
      • Sullivan Bluth opened in Ireland when Moore was a child, and this opened his eyes to the possibility of being an animator. 
      • He was heavily inspired by animator Richard Williams, who believed that animation was an artform. 
      • Tomm Moore later said that starting the studio felt like a way to extend college and continue to work with talented people on animation projects.
    • Moore has directed or co-directed three of Cartoon Saloon’s films. The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers are what he considers to be a spiritual trilogy. All of them are inspired by the mythology of Ireland. 
  • At this time, many were saying that 3D animation would be the new frontier due to the success of Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. The team believed that 2D animation was still very much in style. They were discovering such treasures as “The Thief and the Cobbler” by Richard Williams and “The Hungarian Folktales” which was an animated series from Hungary.  Not long after did they decide on their first movie idea: “Brendan and the Secret of Kells.” This would later be shortened to simply “The Secret of Kells.”
  • The operation began with about 10 artists, a couple of whom had been members of the Young Irish Film Makers which was run by Mike Kelly and based in Kilkenny, Ireland. When the Cartoon Saloon creators first moved to Kilkenny, Mike Kelly helped them earn a small grant and gave them a small space to work in. There was only one computer between the three of them, and the experience taught them how to budget and split tasks.
  • As they began developing The Secret of Kells, they released their first television show called, Skunk Fu! This show would be the first to give them a true spotlight. The studio now has four other TV shows. One of the most popular is Puffin Rock, which is an adorable children’s show available on Netflix and narrated by Chris O’Dowd. We are not going to go into depth with these shows but they are: Anam an Amhrain, Dorg Van Dango, agus Cul an Ti.  

THE MOVIES: 

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  • THE SECRET OF KELLS
    • SYNOPSIS
      • The Secret of Kells takes place during the 9th century and follows Brendan, the young nephew of Abbot Cellach. As they prepare for an attack from the Vikings Brendan works secretly with the reverand illuminator, Aidan, to help complete the ancient book of Kells.
    • PRODUCTION
      • This film was directed by Tomm Moore and Co-directed by Nora Twomey. According to Tomm Moore there were about 200 artists that worked on the film. Ross Stewart was the Art Director, and Paul Young produced the film.
      • As the animators were starting out, they needed to find the money to produce the film. They received help from Screen Ireland, but they also started reaching out to other countries to find producers for the film. 
        • They attended an event called, “Cartoon Movie” in Europe, where they met other producers and pitched their film idea. This is where they met Didier Brunner and Viviane Vanfleteren, producers from France and Hungary that helped produce the film. 
      • The original Story was written by Tomm Moore with the screenplay done by Fabrice Ziolkowski.
        • The story is based on the origin of The Book of Kells. The book is an illuminated manuscript that now sits in Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland. 
        • The film combines Irish history with Catholic tradition and Celtic lore. Some have criticised the historical context of the film, as it places the viking invasions to happen around the time that the book was written. 
      • The beginning of the film was drawn to be very flat-looking in style, to model the look of medieval art.
        • Another key detail is that while the town was done with ink, the studio thought that the forest should be done with pencil because it is much more organic looking.
      • Although Abbot Cellach, young Brendan’s uncle, is not a bad guy, he is much stricter and has lost his way. In order to show the difference between him and other characters, his character and the rooms he inhabits are angular and sharper with a Gothic influence (think of gothic cathedrals and how they often come to a point). For example, there is a scene in which he and Brendan are seen in the window, and since they take up the entire space, it is almost as if it is stained glass. In comparison, Aidan and the Scriptorium have more rounded edges with a Romanesque influence.
    • CAST
      • Evan McGuire as Brendan
        • The character Brendan was actually based on Tomm Moore’s son, Brendan! They went through hundreds of designs though in order to get his design the way they wanted.
      • Christen Mooney as Aisling
        • Aisling’s early concept art and movements were based on Tomm’s sister, whom he claims was a little pest(lol.) She originally had black hair as well as the wolf being black.
      • Brendan Gleeson as Abbot Cellach
        • He is known for things like In Bruges, The Guard, and Calvary.
        • The Abbot’s character evolved from their beginning concepts of him. When they started he was more of a villain but he became more nuanced as they continued to develop the film.
      • Mick Lally as Aidan
        •  Mick has been in Glenroe, Bracken, and The Secret of Roan Inish.
        • Aidan Originally was drawn with spiky red hair and was supposed to look like Paul Young, but he ended up looking more like Willy Nelson they said (unintentionally.)
      • Liam Hourican as Brother Tang/ Leonardo
        • He is also in Song of the Sea, Murder in Successville, and Sanctuary(2012.)  
      • Paul Tylak as Brother Assoua
        • He is known for Skunk Fu!, Informer, and Capital Letters.
      • Michael McGrath as Adult Brendan
        • He has been in The Interpreter, Changing Lanes and Memphis the Musical.
      • Paul Young as Brother Square
      • Nora Twomey did additional voices
      • Pangur Bán (the cat) is the only character that they told kids was real. Out of all the characters in the film there have actually been stories and a poem written about Pangur Bán.
    • MUSIC
      • The music was done by French composer Bruno Coulais, who also wrote the music for Coraline (which was also nominated for an oscar the same year.)
      • The film also features music from the Irish band Kila! 
    • RECEPTION/AWARDS
      • The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards and also for an Annie Award but unfortunately did not win either. It did however win many other awards overseas at several film festivals, one being the Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films. It also won best animation at the Irish Film and Television Awards.
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Song of the Sea

SYNOPSIS
The story follows a ten-year-old boy named Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. After being removed from their beloved home and father by their well-meaning grandmother, Ben discovers that his sister is in fact a selkie, a being capable of transforming into a seal. Not only that, but Saoirse’s song is the only thing that can save the other fairies of the land as they are all being turned to stone. Ben must find a way to bring his sister back to the sea so she can sing her song before it’s too late.  
  • PRODUCTION
    • The film was directed by Tomm Moore, and produced by Paul Young. Tomm Moore wrote the original story, but the screenplay was written by Will Collins, who would later write the screenplay for Wolfwalkers.
    • Tomm Moore came up with the idea for the story when he was on holiday on the Dingle Peninsula with his family. After arriving, they were saddened to discover that many seals were lying dead on the beach. He spoke to a local woman and tour guide, who told him that the superstitions and stories surrounding the seals would usually protect them from being killed. He said, “She was saying the seals would have been respected – they would have been seen as the Selkies, containing the souls of the dead – the people who were lost at sea.” Moore was inspired by the relationship between folklore and how it shapes and protects the environment surrounding it.
      • He found the Selkies fascinating, because he understood that they are often a way to deal with loss. So, he began developing the story for a film. 
    • The animation surrounding an Irish story is a concept that was inspired by Hayao Miyasaki. He found it incredible that viewers don’t need to understand Japanese folklore to appreciate the films and their universal themes and characters. Moore admires how Miyasaki depicts Japan from an animator’s perspective, and the more you know about the country and its culture, the more you get from the piece. 
    • Each location in the film is inspired by a real place, or a mash-up of places, but most heavily the Dingle peninsula. Moore took his team to the area to get a familiarity with the landscape. They used real landmarks and scenery, like the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin to ground the film firmly in its location. They depicted the landscape from the perspective of a child, and how they would perceive the country. 
    • When asked about why they chose a hand-drawn style for the film, Paul Young commented that when young children see a hand-drawn film, they come out of the theater inspired to draw themselves. 
      • The studio is famous for its hybrid style of computer and traditional animation. For this film, the animators used the computers to imitate animation techniques that would have been impossible with cell animation. For example, Paul Young said, “We were able to make the clouds, the watercolor layers, actually move. That would have been incredibly difficult to do [without a computer]. You couldn’t put watercolor on a cell.”
    • Cartoon Saloon coordinated with studios in five different countries to complete the film. This approach has helped them make films on a tight budget, in contrast to major studios that can afford to spend hundreds of thousands on productions.
  • CAST
    • David Rawle as Ben
      • Moone Boy!
    • Brendan Gleeson as Conor/ Mac Lir
    • Lisa Hannigan as Bronach
    • Fionnula Flanagan as Granny/ Macha
    • Lucy O’Connell as Saoirse
    • Jon Kenny as Ferry Dan/ The Great Seanachaí
    • Pat Shortt as Lug
    • Colm Ó’Snodaigh as Mossy
    • Liam Hourican as Spud/ Bus Driver
    • Paul Young did additional voices
  • MUSIC
    • Bruno Coulais scored this film as well as Secret of Kells, giving the films a unifying sense in their music. This makes sense since Tomm Moor considers Song of the Sea to be a spiritual sequel to The Secret of Kells.
  • RECEPTION/AWARDS
    • Song of the Sea was nominated for an Oscar for best animated film, along with several Annie Awards.
    • Tomm Moore said of the oscar nomination: “With the nomination, I met a lot of people like Pete Docter and Henry Selick, and it really felt like the industry saying, ‘Oh no, this is great. It’s great to see something independent. Keep going. Let’s see more.’ That’s what it felt like. It felt like the industry itself, or our peers in animation, endorsing what we were doing. And that was massive.”
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Ben showing his hand drawn map to the bus driver, in order for him and his sister Saoirse to find the way home to their father.

THE BREADWINNER

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  • SYNOPSIS
    • Based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Ellis, this film takes place in Taliban-controlled Kabul in 2001. It follows 11-year-old Parvanna, a girl that risks her life by posing as a boy so that her family can survive. She is determined to save her father’s life and reunite her family after her father has been taken to prison.  
  • PRODUCTION
    • The film was the first Cartoon Saloon feature directed by Nora Twomey, and it was executively produced by Anjolina Jolie. 
    • The screenplay was written by Anita Doran, based on the novel by Deborah Ellis. When Nora Twomey read the novel, she immediately connected with the character, and loved that the story didn’t talk down to its audience. She knew that it would make a beautiful animated film. 
      • Nora understood that to make this movie the best it could be, she needed input from people who understand Afghan culture, and those that might have had similar life experiences to the characters. She loved the challenge of telling a story that would appeal to younger and older audiences at the same time, and chose an animation style that lent itself to that. 
      • The filmmakers looked at the difference between western and Afghan culture, and wanted to depict universal struggles that would apply to everyone. 
      • Nora was also dedicated to finding as many actors from Afghanistan or with a strong connection to the country and its experiences. She not only wanted authentic voices, but she also wanted people that could draw from the emotion of their own experiences.  
    • The animation team was made up of 100 artists spread across three countries. 
      • To give animators an understanding of how the characters would move in each scene, she acted out every scene of the film as a reference point. 
      • Before the animation started, they made three drawings per scene to show what the characters should do, which gives the animator a better idea of how the character is feeling and how the scene should be approached.
      • Then, they entered the rough animation stage where the animators use quick, rough drawings to bring the characters to life. This is about the general movement of the characters.
      • Those rough drawings are tidied up after they have been approved. This makes sure that they can be painted easily and that the characters are in the correct style for the film. Animators then start adding shadows to put the characters in the real world, before adding color.
      • Every color is specifically chosen for a reason. They used the colors to guide the audience and make every scene as clear as possible. 
    • The film consisted of two separate types of animation. The look and feel of the real world that Parvanna inhabits needed to be naturalistic and based heavily on the specific setting. Animators went for a cinematic feeling, based completely on the main character and what she would need. It was physical and immersive.  
    • The story world needed to be bright and colorful, and essentially as limitless as a child’s imagination. 
      • For the story world, the animators met with a paper artist to understand how light works with paper, and how it feels to animate with paper. They then recreated the paper imagery for the film, using the computer. They added shadows and textures, to give the audience a sense of puppetry. The acting of the characters in the scenes was also as theatrical as possible, with bold movements. 
    • Sound designer JR Fountain wanted the sounds of the real world to feel oppressive and overwhelming. He treated the story world as a sort-of “playground,” not with cartoon effects necessarily, but still bringing joyful and playful sounds to the scene.
    • Much like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, this film weaves the beauty and culture of its setting with a very real world experience. Producer Anthony Leo commented on how much loved that audiences would get to see Afghanistan’s rich culture, art, and storytelling; a contrast to how the country is often portrayed, especially during this time period.
  • CAST
    • Saara Chaudry as Parvana
      • Saara felt that the role was a dream come true, and that her role in the film reminded her that there are people out there trying to improve the lives of people like Parvanna. 
    • Soma Chhaya as Shauzia
    • Noorin Gulamgaus as Idrees/ Sulayman
    • Ali Badshah as Nurullah/ Talib Security Man
      • His wife is from Afganistan, which gave him a strong frame of reference to his character. He said he focused on the loneliness his character must feel, as an educated man that has lost his way of life as well as a child and his leg. 
    • Shaista Latif as Soraya
    • Kanza Feris as Sorceress/ Woman in Courtyard
    • Kawa Ada as Razaq
      • He said of The Breadwinner, “The writing in this film, it speaks to Afgan culture as well as that it’s not sentimental. And, I mean obviously there is great heart in it, and there is such a broad scope of the people and even within the story you have all these other characters who are given their due, which I think is brilliant.”
    • Kane Mahon as Optician/Kiln Owner
    • Ali Kazmi as Darya/ Fruit Juice Vendor/ Jail Warden
  • MUSIC
    • The composers, Jeff and Mychael Danna, used a different approach musically to the real world versus the dream world. 
    • Real world was scored more like a live action film, and it was desolate and serious. In the story world, the music followed what was happening on screen. 
    • The composers knew it was important to honor the afgan traditions so they used afgan artists and instruments, and researched the music of the culture. 
    • The ending music of the film was meant to leave the audience with feelings of hope and beauty, as the story is about love and strength above all else.  
  • RECEPTION/AWARDS
    • Overall, The Breadwinner was nominated for 55 awards, winning 22 of them. It was the third Cartoon Saloon film to be nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature. It was also the first to win the Annie award for the same title!
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WOLFWALKERS

  • SYNOPSIS
    • In a time of superstition and magic, when wolves are seen as demonic in nature and an evil to be tamed, a young apprentice huntress, Robyn, comes to Ireland with her father to wipe out a pack of troublesome wolves. But when Robyn saves a wild girl, Mebh, their friendship leads her to discover the world of the Wolfwalkers and transforms her into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.Production
  • PRODUCTION
    • With “Wolfwalkers,” the final installment in the trilogy, the studio made a conscious decision to create a larger action adventure. Artistically and narratively, it’s their most ambitious undertaking to date. Initially, Cartoon Saloon shopped the project to Netflix, but when the streaming goliath passed, Apple stepped in.
    • Written by Will Collins, Wolfwalkers has roots in the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland (Lord Protector is based on Oliver Cromwell) and Irish folklore about the Wolves of Ossory, a tribe of beings who could transform themselves into wolves.
    • Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart developed the film’s visual style to show a contrast between period Kilkenny, with its blocky look to convey its oppressive nature, and the more fluid, free look of the forest. Both were inspired by 17th century woodcuts. Stewart said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “[Robyn’s home in Kilkenny] is a cage, and the visuals reinforce that. The linework is very harsh and very black-and-white. There’s high contrast and there’s a lot of geometric patterning, like a kind of a warped perspective.”
    • Maria Pareja, a production designer on Wolfwalkers, notes that for period Kilkenny, they took creative license but also relied on extensive research, including stops at Kilkenny’s Rothe House, one of the oldest houses in Ireland. 
      • The Rothe House was built between 1594 and 1610 and is now a must see museum and garden dedicated to the life and times of 17th century Ireland. 
      • The film’s signature look is hand-drawn with the help of computers to augment the process. Every frame is still drawn by hand, but with a computer screen and stylus. Moore explains, “We use special digital brushes to look as much like the pencil line that we want. Backgrounds on the other hand, are painted with watercolors and the linework is also done on paper with pencils and pens. They’re combined and photoshopped to make the final background.”
        • The artists were also heavily encouraged to leave the pencil lines to give it a very two dimensional feel!
      • Screenwriter Collins’ early research focused intensely on hunters’ lives in and out of Kilkenny during the era of the Cromwellian War. He said that it was important to fill the audience in on it, but not get bogged down by it. For Stewart, the story was the most important thing. There is a time and a place for historical stories and being truthful to the original tale. But that doesn’t mean that everything has to stick to that. Stories have to adapt to the way they’re being told in this century, and they will be different in the next century.
  • CAST
    • Honor Kneafsey as Robyn Goodfellowe
      • She has made small appearances in the BBC Sherlock, as well as the Netflix original “A Christmas Prince” film series.
    • Eva Whittaker as  Mebh Óg MacTíre
      • This is her first full length feature roll (way to start out strong!)
    • Sean Bean as Bill Goodfellowe, Robyn’s father and town wolf hunter
      • A well known actor famous for many fantasy roles including Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings and the most recent Snowpiercer. 
    • Simon McBurney as Lord Protector
      • He has been in many films including the 2007 version of the Golden Compass, the 2010 Robin Hood, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    • Tommy Tiernan as the farmer who is put in the stockade, Seán Óg
      • Known for his roles in many Irish shows such as Derry Girls, Small Potatoes, and Little Crackers
    • Maria Doyle Kennedy as Mebh’s Mother, Moll MacTíre
      • An actress known for her roles in Outlander, Orphan Black, and Dexter
    • Reception/Awards
      • Released by GKids on 500 screens across the United States and on Apple TV+, the movie has received glowing reviews and has earned the studio another Oscar nomination.
  • David Ehrlich of Indie Wire said in his review “Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon may not be able to match the impact or consistency of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, but the outfit has gradually emerged as one of the world’s last and most valuable assets against the crude and sometimes soulless nature that has defined the post-“Shrek” era of mainstream animated movies. With Wolfwalkers, we have an animated film that finds new beauty in ancient traditions; a film that fights back against the temptation to surrender what little magic this world still has left.”

They have also done animated shorts and tv series.

We eagerly await their next film in 2022 entitled My Father’s Dragon.

Last week, we mentioned how it can be difficult to succeed in animation without a lot of name recognition. There are so many studios out there, with talented artists, making incredible stories come to life with animation. Cartoon Saloon is just one of them! It’s a studio that has stayed true to itself, and has had remarkable success. Its films are absolutely breathtaking, with refreshing animation styles that are, quite frankly, a balm for the eyes. Cartoon Saloon takes its time with their work, using what they believe to be the best techniques for each particular story. These films are the kind that we watch not just because they are entertaining and beautiful, but because we can see how passionate the animators are about their work. 

We wanted to close animation April with Cartoon Saloon because this is a studio that everyone should know. It often seems that in order to be successful, you have to have the most money or be the most popular, or that you need to make certain kinds of films using specific techniques. But in this case, Cartoon Saloon’s success comes strictly from passion, hard work, and a whole lot of talent. They’re an inspiring group of masterful storytellers, and we cannot wait to see what they will do next. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


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The Case of Amblimation

So we all know Steven Spielberg as a groundbreaking director that brought us classics like Jaws and Jurassic Park. But even though his live-action achievements are well-known, his contributions to the animation world might be overlooked from time to time. 

Spielberg’s love of animation drove him to collaborate with Don Bluth on movies like The Land Before Time and An American Tail, beloved classics that are likely still enjoyed at grandparents’ houses all over America. But the director wanted to do more with the medium. So, he teamed up with Universal Pictures to create his own animation studio: Amblimation. 

This week, we’re taking a look at the short-lived history of this defunct studio, and its three films. Amblimation may not have lasted long, but its movies will live forever in the hearts of viewers everywhere. 

  • In 1981, only 6 years after Jaws took a huge bite out of box office numbers, Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall launched their own film production company, Amblin. Its logo would later become the iconic image of Elliot flying with ET over the full moon. 
  • Under Amblin, Spielberg teamed up with Don Bluth to create the highest grossing non-Disney animated film of the time: An American Tail. The movie even beat Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective in box office numbers, and proved that Spielberg could be successful in animation as well as live action. 
    • An American Tail tells the story of Fievel Mousekewitz and his family as they emigrate from the Imperial Russian territory of Ukraine to the United States for freedom.
  • Amblin continued to work with Bluth, creating the childhood classic The Land Before Time. This film was also a major success, prompting many sequels. If these two films weren’t enough of an indication that Spielberg could succeed as an animation producer, it was the wildly successful Who Framed Roger Rabbit that really sealed the deal. The hybrid animation/live-action film drew in massive crowds, beating out the box office numbers for the previously mentioned films. 
  • Spielberg wanted to continue to work with Bluth, and had ideas for An American Tail sequel. Bluth reportedly turned him down, as he didn’t like the lack of creative control he had had with the other two films. So in 1989, Spielberg made his own animation studio with Universal Pictures. He based the studio in the UK, and sought out animators outside the United States. Walt Disney Animation essentially had a monopoly on all the best animators at the time, except of course the team at Don Bluth (which Spielberg wasn’t about to try and poach). It would be difficult to convince someone with a job at the most historically successful animation studio to jump on a new and uncertain venture. 
  • Once Spielberg had his team, they set to work on their first feature film, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.

AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST (NOVEMBER 22, 1991)

Don Bluth has a unique animation style that can be imitated, but not replicated. He was noticeably absent from the second installment of the “American Tail” franchise, so Fievel Goes West had a different tone and animation style from its predecessor. 

When asked about it in an interview, director Phil Nibbelink said, “Don Bluth made a beautiful movie with American Tail. We tried to live up to it and go beyond it. We would never be able to match Don Bluth’s style. He had such a distinct style. We had a completely different set of artists. It forced us to go in a different direction.”

SYNOPSIS

  • Fievel is up to his old tricks as the family moves out west for a better life, as New York is not the catless dream they expected it to be. They are once again deceived by a smooth talking cat, that plans on exploiting the labor of the mice and eventually turning them into “mouse burgers.” (Ew.) But, luckily their old cat pal Tiger has followed them to Green River, and will help them face off against the evil Cat R Wahl. 

PRODUCTION

  • This film was directed by Simon Wells and former Disney animator Phil Nibbelink.
  • Like we said before, Spielberg had to go to Europe to find more animators to fill his team. He built a production crew of 280 people, 120 of them were animators. The rest were ink and paint, background artists, layout artists, etc.
  • All voices for the film were recorded before animation, which is a common film practice. Usually, voices are recorded after the storyboard process, but before the animation. This ensures that animators don’t draw extra scenes that end up not working, and they can hear exactly how the characters will speak as they draw. 
  • Spielberg wanted the movie to have a live-action cinematic quality to it. He pushed for the animation to not have very many cuts. He wanted the animators to save that for building tension. For most of it he wanted a moving camera, and this meant that animators had to draw really long backgrounds so they could keep the shots moving. The movie relies heavily on its western setting, and this technique helped establish that. 
    • The background was watercolor underneath, and artists used pastel, crayon, and a little bit of airbrush to create depth! 
  • Animators also worked with a variety of angles, which was not common in animation.

MUSIC

  • The music was composed by James Horner but the film does feature the song Rawhide from the movie “The Blues Brothers” in which Spielberg cameoed in! 

STARRING

  • Phillip Glasser returned to lend his voice as Fievel
    • He is an actor and producer known for The Illusionist and Agent Cody Banks.
  • Veteran film actor James Stewart plays the heroic Wylie Burp! 
    • He is known for Anatomy of a Murder, Vertigo, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and fittingly, How the West Was Won
    • This was his final film credit before his death in 1992.
  • Erica Yohn as Mama
    • She has been in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, The Godfather: Part II, and Corrina Corrina.
  • Cathy Cavadini as Tanya
    • She is best known as Blossom in the Powerpuff Girls.
  • Nehemiah as Persoff
    • He has been in Some Like It Hot, Twins, and The Wrong Man.
  • Dom Deluise as Tiger
    • He is known for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Blazing Saddles, and The Secret of NIMH.
  • Amy Irving as Miss Kitty
    • She has been in Traffic, Adam, Carrie, and Crossing Delancey.
  • John Cleese as Cat R. Waul 
    • John Cleese is known for Monty Python and A Fish Called Wanda.
    • Fun fact- He turned down Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast for this role! Which is especially interesting because the two movies released the same day.
  • Jon Lovitz as Chula
    • He has been in A League of Their Own, Happiness, Rat Race, and Loaded Weapon 1.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • Although it did not win anything it was nominated at the 1992 Golden Globes for Best Original Song for “Dreams to Dream.” The music was by James Horner with lyrics by Will Jennings.
  • It grossed about $40,766,041 worldwide. Alternatively, Beauty and the Beast, which released on the same day, was the first animated movie to reach 100 million dollars in its first run.

In order to maintain a consistent release schedule with their movies, Amblimation worked on all three of its projects simultaneously. Originally, the next feature planned was an animated version of the musical Cats. But as that ran into problems, the studio focused on releasing another film, based on Hudson Talbott’s book, “We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story.”

WE’RE BACK! A DINOSAUR’S STORY (NOVEMBER 24, 1993)

SYNOPSIS

  • Captain Neweyes travels back in time and feeds dinosaurs his Brain Grain cereal, which makes them intelligent and nonviolent. They agree to go to the future in order to grant the wishes of children in New York city. Their plan is to meet Dr. Bleeb of the Museum of Natural History, but they get side-tracked with some new friends and later run into the Captain’s evil brother, Professor Screweyes, who has other plans for the dinosaurs.

PRODUCTION

  • Hanna-Barbera was the first company to contact Hudson Talbott about obtaining rights to his book We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story (1987), only months after its release. It may sound funny to hear of the “Scooby Doo” animators making full-length films, but they produced some great animation, like the 1973 version of “Charlotte’s Web.” Universal Pictures then paid off Hanna-Barbera and purchased the rights for Spielberg to produce the film.
  • The film was directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells, who also directed Fievel Goes West!
  • Although Talbott had little involvement, he had many encounters with the creators of the film during production, including Spielberg who would make several calls to the author. 
  • Storyboarding of We’re Back started in 1990 during the production of Fievel Goes West. The first screenplay draft was written by Flint Dille and the film’s director Simon Wells. But, the initial script was not well received by Spielberg, and he hired John Patrick Shanley to write another draft, which was done quickly and ultimately used. 
  • The book was only 20 pages and lacked any antagonist or any major plot points, making it difficult to adapt. Talbott felt the film had none of the tongue-in-cheek humor that he wrote in his book, so the voice actors changed a few lines while recording. However, this was not approved by Shanley, so his original lines were used in the final film. 
    • And funny side note; John Goodman started recording his part just shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed!
  • While Amblimation was working on the film, Spielberg secured the rights to Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park. The animators knew that even though they had been working on the animation for years, the films would likely release around the same time. When Nibbelink saw the ILM’s computer work for Jurassic Park, he said he knew that the film would be a game-changer. There’s no doubt it overshadowed “We’re Back” as the best Dinosaur film of the year, probably decade, maybe even century?

MUSIC

  • The music for all the Amblimation films was done by James Horner. His work is the emotional cornerstone of “We’re Back,” as the movie can be quite silly. 
  • Horner wrote the melody to, “Roll Back the Rock,” with lyrics by Thomas Dolby. Horner proved time and time again that he was a talented songwriter, and Spielberg utilized that to great effect. 

STARRING

  • John Goodman as Rex
    • He is known for things like Roseanne, The Big Lebowski, and Monsters Inc.
  • Blaze Berdahl as Buster
    • She has been in the 1989 Pet Sematary and the show Ghostwriter.
  • Rhea Perlman as Mother Bird
    • She is most known for being in Matilda, and the shows Cheers and Taxi.
  • Jay Leno as Vorb
    • He is of course known for being a big tv personality for The Jay Leno Show and The Tonight Show.
  • René Le Vant as Woog
    • He has been in Rocky II and the 1977 The Incredible Hulk.
  • Felicity Kendal as Elsa
    • She has been in things like Good Neighbors, Valentino, and Parting Shots.
  • Charles Fleischer as Dweeb
    • He is known for movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zodiac, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
  • Walter Cronkite as Captain Naweyes
    • He was a news reporter and journalist who lended his voice to just a few movies and shows. 
  • Julia Child as Dr. Bleeb
    • This movie was her only acting role as she is most known for her cooking and cook books.
  • Kenneth Mars as Professor Screweyes
    • He is known for Young Frankenstein, The Producers (1967), and The Little Mermaid.
  • Yeardley Smith as Cecilia 
    • She is Lisa and other characters in The Simpsons. She was also in Maximum Overdrive and As Good As It Gets.
  • Martin Short as Stubbs the Clown
    • He has been in Father of the Bride, Three Amigos!, and Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story released during the start of an economic downturn for animated features in the early 1990s. It opened during the Thanksgiving holiday with other new entries including Mrs. Doubtfire, A Perfect World, and a film adaptation of The Nutcracker. It grossed $3.7 million on its opening weekend and ended with a total gross of $9 million in the United States. The film was generally considered to be a poor performer, and it was the highest grossing children’s film of its opening weekend only because it was a poor weekend for the genre.

By the mid 1990’s, animation wasn’t lucrative for anyone except Disney. Other studios were struggling to make films that competed with what would be later known as The Disney Renaissance. In an LA Times article dated January, 1994, an anonymous Disney animator was quoted saying, “Animation–even bad animation–is a lot of work, and if you do that much work, you want people to see it, but the reality of the situation is that people won’t go see it unless it’s a Disney film.”

We’re Back was considered a flop, and certainly had its problems. But, after its video release, more fans were drawn to the wacky storyline, mysterious villain, and John Goodman’s stellar performance as Rex. The components of a good animated film were there. In 1990, producer David Kirschner expressed concern that studios would start releasing films that weren’t quite ready for consumers, in an attempt to push forward with an animation renaissance. His worries proved valid, as more animated projects seemed to flounder throughout the 90’s. 

After Amblimation’s second flop, it pushed forward to release its third, and ultimately final film, “Balto.” If you grew up in the 90’s, you might think of Balto as a success, as it seemed to constantly air on TV and in waiting rooms at the pediatrician’s office. Unfortunately, the popularity of the film didn’t manifest until after it was in theaters. 

BALTO (DECEMBER 22, 1995)

SYNOPSIS

The film is loosely based on the true story about a sled dog team that helped save children infected with diphtheria in 1925, by performing a serum run to Nome, Alaska. The movie focuses on a dynamic main protagonist, Balto, who is part wolf and Siberian Husky. Despite the challenges that Balto faces as a social outcast, he ends up taking charge and leading the team on the treacherous journey to Nome, saving the children in the process. https://www.youtube.com/embed/ucfHDO4k9gM?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

PRODUCTION

  • It is a 1995 animated adventure film directed by Simon Wells, produced by Amblimation and distributed by Universal Pictures. 
  • Writer Elana Lesser recollected being told the story of Balto by her grandfather when she was younger and as an adult thought it would be a beautiful animated feature. She and writer, Cliff Ruby, pitched the idea to Amblin with their screenplay in tow. It was then relayed to Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells.
  • Director Simon Wells had to heavily persuade Steven Spielberg to make this story. It was close to his heart and he felt it needed to be told. It was a tough sell as Spielberg was apprehensive of a movie that he felt would not be colorful enough. In order to quell these fears Wells showed him dozens of small color studies done by the production designer Hans Bacher. They proved that the movie would not be solely black and white dogs on a desolate background. It ended up being Simon Wells’ first solo directed movie, as Nibbelink would leave the project to return to working on We’re Back. David Cohen and Roger Schulman would fine tune the story into the final screenplay that would be accepted.
  • Since the budget was tight, a lot of tough decisions had to be made. An example of this would be that they would have to choose between either shadows or footprints in the snow. In the typical shot they could not afford both so they would try to figure out what they could get away with not having or showing.
  • In order for the voice actors to get a sense of the characters they were portraying, several model sheets were drawn up for the actors to look at. These sheets were done in the early years of development and would show different aspects of the character-like facial expressions, movement, and size comparisons.
    • The team brought in 7 siberian huskies to study! They were used among many other references in order to get look and character movement correct.
  • When asked about the decision not to reveal the identity of the white wolf, Wells said “We wanted to keep it mystical and vague – is this a real event or is it some kind of hallucination that Balto is experiencing? All of these were reasons to not have the White Wolf speak or in any way explain himself. Perhaps the Wolf is a manifestation of Balto’s inner voice, telling him to take ownership and use that part of him that he has always been ashamed of – certainly that is the message Balto takes from the encounter, real or not.”
  • Unfortunately the morse code used within the movie is just gibberish with no hidden easter eggs.

MUSIC

  • The music was once again composed by James Horner. Wells said that, “James preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product…”
    • This process made sense because Horner was in California while the rest of the cast and crew was in the United Kingdom
    • Balto is considered to be Horner’s best Amblimation score, with beautiful and enchanting music that remains one of the best features of the film. 

CASTING

  • Kevin Bacon as Balto 
    • He is known for Footloose, Tremors, and Mystic River.
  • Bob Hoskins as Boris
    • He was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Long Good Friday, and Unleashed.
  • Bridget Fonda as Jenna
    • She is in A Simple Plan, Point of No Return, and Single White Female.
  • Jim Cummings as Steele
    • He has been in Princess and the Frog, Aladdin, and the 2018 Christopher Robin.
  • Phil Collins as Muk and Luk
    • He is a music composer, that we all know. Tarzan, etc.
  • Juliette Brewer as Rosy
    • She was also in The Little Rascals and Vegas Vacation.

RECEPTION/IMPACT/AWARDS

  • The film earned over $11 million at the domestic box office.
  • It was forced to compete with classics like Jumanji and Toy Story, which absolutely destroyed Balto in terms of numbers. 
  • It was nominated for the Young Artists Award for Best Family Feature – Musical or Comedy and three different Annie Awards. Unfortunately it did not take any wins home.

WHAT HAPPENED TO AMBLIMATION? 

  • When Balto opened, it only earned 1.5 million dollars opening weekend. It was in 15th place, and even though it seems to be the most well-known and successful of Amblimation’s films, its failure to draw in crowds seemed to be the nail in the coffin for the studio. 
  • Originally, the plan was to release a new film every year. The fourth feature in the making was an animated version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” 
    • The film was to be set during the London blitz, with traditionally animated characters set against 3D miniature sets. The art style was inspired by German expressionism. Animator Hans Bacher said he roamed the “ugliest” parts of London to take reference photos, and the team had been working on the project since they had wrapped “Fievel Goes West.” 
    • Of course, this version of “Cats” never came to be. There were disagreements about the screenplay, and production stopped after 6 months. The studio moved on to the other two films that it produced. When Spielberg relocated the studio to California, a new team started work on the project. But, it eventually stopped and Amblimation folded in 1997. 
    • Since Amblimation was gone, Universal bought the rights to the play. And well…we know how that story ends. Imagine if Amblimation had held on for just a few more years, we would have an entirely different version of cats than the monstrosity that clawed its way into our collective psyche in 2019. 
  • Now, you could say that Amblimation never REALLY disappeared. After the devastating box office loss for Balto, Spielberg saw the writing on the wall, and shifted his attention to a new venture. 
  • Throughout the early and mid-90’s, Amblimation was attempting to compete against the Disney machine. Like we said before, this was the Disney Renaissance. Fievel Goes West was overshadowed by Beauty and the Beast. By 1994, audiences were only gambling their movie money on Disney animation. And when Balto hit theaters, it stood against the first ever full-length computer animated film. 
    • Things didn’t seem to be slowing down for the animation giant, but in 1994, the company lost its president, Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash. The death sent shock waves through the institution, and prompted the resignation of one of the architects of the Disney Renaissance: Jeffrey Katzenburg. 
    • Katzenburg had struggled with Disney’s CEO Michael Eisner for years. We talk about this a little more in our episode on The Disney Exodus from last year. 
    • So, what’s one of the most successful animation producers to do when he finds himself out of a job? 
    • Well, luckily for Katzenburg, another producer and director had already rounded up some of the best talent in animation outside of the US. Katzenburg, Spielberg, and businessman David Geffin created Dreamworks SKG, and named Katzenburg as the head of the animation division. 
    • Of course, as Spielberg focused more on the new venture, Amblimation fell to the wayside. Many sources report that all the animators currently employed at the studio moved to Dreamworks Animation by 1995, and Amblimation was defunct by 1997. 

Amblimation might not have lasted long, but its legacy will live on in our hearts forever. It didn’t make the most groundbreaking or popular films, sure, but it wasn’t afraid to try new things. Looking at the box office, it’s easy to say they were an undisputed failure. But, that’s okay. Amblimation wasn’t afraid to fail, and success isn’t always measured in dollars. They made three perfectly respectable films that entertained millions of kids, just not in the theater. They learned from their mistakes, and they moved on to make more films at one of the most successful animation studios today. Without Amblimation, we would not only be missing these movies, but we might’ve missed out on films like The Prince of Egypt and How to Train Your Dragon. There’s something to be said for the lesson that Amblimation taught us. Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful and respected filmmakers of all time; and if he’s not afraid to fail, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


SOURCES: 

https://www.slashfilm.com/the-short-but-animated-legacy-of-amblimation/

IMDB

We’re Back:

https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/roll-back-the-rock-an-oral-history-of-were-back-a-dinosaurs-story-for-its-25th-birthday

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-01-04-ca-8386-story.html

Fievel Goes West:

Balto:

The Case of the Animated Hidden Gems

Happy Animation April! Last year, we packed this month with several historical episodes about the beautiful artform of animation. This year, we’re starting the month with something a little different. 

The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, and Toy Story are all beloved animated classics that have stood the test of time. But today, we won’t be talking about any of them. Every once in a while, a beautiful animated movie will hit theaters, and do…okay. They can have great stories, wonderful performances, and innovative design, but people just won’t go to see it. Sometimes it’s because the studio doesn’t have enough name recognition. Other times it’s because of marketing, or because the movie looks strange and took risks, and people like the familiar. Why do you think Disney still makes princess movies? Because it’s what the people want. Why are all the Marvel movies the same; allow me to answer by directing you to my previous sentence.

So today, we each picked a movie that we felt deserved a little more exposure. These are films we love, that if you haven’t seen, we recommend you give them a chance. Here are our animated hidden gems!  

ADAM- SURF’S UP (2007)

SYNOPSIS

  • Surfing means everything to teenage penguin Cody Maverick. Followed by a documentary film crew, he leaves his home in Shiverpool, Antarctica for PenGu Island, site of the Big Z Memorial Surf Off. Cody wants to be respected and admired, and he believes that only winning the competition will bring him that. However, an encounter with washed-up surfer Geek, teaches Cody about what is truly important.

PRODUCTION

  • Surf’s Up is a mockumentary comedy film directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. Starting production in 2002, it was Sony Pictures Animation’s second theatrical feature film after Open Season. It is a parody of surfing documentaries, such as The Endless Summer and Riding Giants. 
  • Early on in production, one of the first things they did was take the entire crew and actors to the beach to take surfing lessons. It was to get a sense of the characters’ lifestyle as well as to take in the majesty of the ocean and waves. They were looking for a balance between the fun and flair of surfing, with the danger and power of the ocean. 
    • The animators even designed a unique rig just for the waves, so they could be properly realized. 
  • For this movie, the directors wanted to nail the documentary feel. Most documentaries have someone with a camera trying to capture spontaneous moments and it’s often rough and jittery. To obtain the desired hand-held organic feel, the film’s animation team used, an at the time, groundbreaking motion-capture technology that utilized a physical camera and a live operator’s movements. It was a camera that filmed a digital environment through the viewfinder, with another small camera on top that senses the outside room. This allows the camera operation to move around in the virtual space while the digital images stay in their place. 
  • In another unusual move, the directors decided to have voice recording sessions done live in person with multiple actors together. Usually voice acting is done in a small booth with one actor being fed lines to say in various ways. But for Surf’s up they didn’t want the dialogue to sound like it was planned out or being read from a page. This was crucial to creating the documentary, “this is happening right in front of us” feel. 
    • Ash Brannon said in a behind the scenes interview talking about creating real chemistry, “We encouraged them to overlap each other and just be themselves. People recognize real conversation. It just has a different sound to it than a scripted movie. Everything about the way you talk changes when you are talking face to face.” 
    • Shia LaBeouf also recalled being told that they were willing to do three hours of ad libbing for a five second moment on screen. Many of Cody’s (the main character) lines were in fact adlibs. 
  • Real-life surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado make appearances as their penguin surfer counterparts along with Sal Masekela, the announcer for the X-Games. They were originally brought on as consultants for the film, but the directors got the idea to create an in universe sports network to add to the feeling of authenticity, and they were the perfect voices for the job. 

VOICES

  • Shia LaBeouf as Cody Maverick
    • Known for many movies including Holes, Transformers and Disturbia. 
  • Jeff Bridges as Zeke “Big Z/Geek” 
    • Also a well known actor from films like Tron: Legacy, The Big Lebowski and True Grit.
  • Zooey Deschanel as Lani
    • She is in many things such as 500 Days of Summer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but may be most currently known for her role in New Girl.
  • Jon Heder as Chicken Joe
    • Most famous for playing Napoleon Dynamite he is also in Blades of Glory, and provided a voice in Monster House. 
  • Mario Cantone as Mikey
    • He is an actor that is know mainly for his part in Sex and the City (both the show and movies.)
  • James Woods as Reggie Belafonte
    • A famous voice that we all know from Hercules. But he was also in things like  Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and the 2006 version of E.R.
  • Diedrich Bader as Tank Evans
    • A voice actor for numerous cartoons and games, he was also in Office Space and Napoleon Dynamite.
  • Kelly Slater as the penguin version of himself
    • Known for an unprecedented 11 world surfing championship wins and is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional surfers of all time.
  • Rob Machado as the penguin version of himself
    • Machado has won the Hawaii’s Pipeline Masters (which is called the Triple Crown of Surfing), and the U.S. Open of Surfing, the largest surfing event held on the U.S. mainland.
    • He also hosts and participates in an annual event held at his home reef called the “Rob Machado Surf Classic and Beach Fair” which is an amateur competition for the locals of all ages.
  • Selema “Sal” Mabena Masekela as himself (sports tv announcer)
    • He is an American television host, sports commentator, actor and singer. He was also the voice of the X-games for 13 years, including the time this movie came out.

MUSIC

  • Surf’s Up: Original Ocean Picture Score was composed for the film by Mychael Danna.
    • He also did the recent Onward with his brother Jeff Danna as well as the new Addams Family and The Good Dinosaur.
  • The soundtrack for this film is made up of many popular rock, punk rock, and alternative rock bands from all around North America and The UK. 
    • Ex: Green Day, Pearl Jam, Incubus, Sugar Ray.
    • According to the film’s end credits, the version of “Wipe Out” heard in the film is actually performed by The Queers. The official soundtrack includes this version under the pseudonym “Big Nose”, for marketing purposes. It is to this day, the only song under that name. 

RECEPTION

  • The film was released on June 8, 2007, and received generally positive reviews from critics, with praise for the animation and humor. However, the film didn’t break any sales records, grossing $149 million against a budget of $100 million. 
  • But it was also nominated at the 80th Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature! Ratatouille was the winner that year. 
  • A straight to dvd sequel was made in 2017 called “Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania” as a cameo tie in with the WWE.
    • Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader were the only two to reprise their roles. 
    • We don’t talk about this one…

WHY THIS MOVIE IS A HIDDEN GEM

  • With so many CGI animated feature films starring cute animals pouring in year after year, it can be tough to sort through them all and figure out which ones are worth looking at. Surf’s Up belongs in the pile with the good ones. This mockumentary film has a unique humor to it that spins the same old underdog storyline into something fresh that everyone can enjoy. It is one of Surf’s Up’s most admirable traits. There’s enough for the adults without too much material going over kids’ heads and there’s plenty of physical humor that kids will enjoy. The mockumentary style provides a fresh perspective, and there’s also plenty of good values that one would expect from an animated movie focused on a sport: never give up, winning isn’t everything, and the value of friendship.
  • Additionally, the animation is strong. Most interesting is the way the animation is meant to reflect real life as if it were being shot like a live-action documentary. So, it’s very cool in terms of filmmaking, not just a mere concept. It’s unique, sweet and fun to watch. This movie keeps the plot simple but shows it in a new and very interesting way.

ROBIN- THE LAST UNICORN (1982)

Sometimes a hidden gem can garner a cult following, but still somehow avoid the radar of mainstream audiences. The film I chose is certainly popular in some circles, and is still regarded as one of the best and lasting animated films of the 1980’s. But, I personally know a lot of people who haven’t seen it, and some who are unwilling to give it a chance. So, I am bringing it up today in the hopes that at least one person listening has not seen it, and will seek it out with an open mind. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Enq2pFpBz1s?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1

We all know Rankin and Bass as the team that brought Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman to life. But in the fall of 1982, they produced a full-length feature film that was worlds away from their happy holiday specials. It was based on a popular novel by Peter S. Beagle, and starred Mia Farrow as the titular character: a unicorn who has just discovered that she may be the last of her kind. 

The Last Unicorn is a heartfelt and imaginative story. It is weird, dark, and wonderful. It entertained and horrified an entire generation of children, and aged well with them as it contains messages that only adults will likely understand. 

SYNOPSIS

  • From a riddle-speaking butterfly, a unicorn learns that she is the last of her kind, all of the others having been herded away by a terrifying force known as the Red Bull. The unicorn sets out to find others like her. She is eventually joined on her quest by Schmendrick, a hapless magician, and Molly Grue, a middle-aged woman. Their journey leads them to the castle of the tragic King Haggard, a man who has never known happiness. In order to shield the unicorn from the red bull, Schmendrick transforms her into a human. The three of them stay at Haggard’s castle as they try to find where the rest of the unicorns have gone, and how to save them. They don’t have much time, because the unicorn becomes more and more human each day, as she falls in love with the King’s son. If she forgets her true form, all hope of saving the unicorns may be gone forever. 

PRODUCTION

  • Peter S. Beagle is one of the world’s most celebrated fantasy authors. In 1968, he published The Last Unicorn, a book listed in Time Magazine’s “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time in October of 2020. The list was curated by a panel of authors, including Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin. 
  • Beagle himself never really imagined the story becoming a film, but it was so popular that filmmakers started approaching early on. Beagle knew he would be devastated if another writer touched and changed his work, so he insisted on writing the screenplay if this were to ever happen. Now, we all know that just because someone is a good writer, it doesn’t mean they are a good screenwriter. But, because Beagle had written the screenplay for the 1978 animated “Lord of the Rings,” the studio allowed him to write The Last Unicorn as well. 
    • Beagle has said that he didn’t have any input other than his screenplay, but that the film stayed remarkably close to what he had written. 
  • According to Beagle, Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez (the creators of the Charlie Brown specials) were interested in making the film. But, one of the partners’ wives pulled Beagle aside and reportedly said, “Don’t let us do it, we aren’t good enough.” Beagle didn’t know what possessed her to do that, but Mendelson and Melendez ended up not taking on the job. 
  • Producer Michael Chase Walker bought the rights to the book from Beagle, and optioned it to different animation studios. Finally, Rankin/Bass’s offer was the one they went with, which concerned Beagle. 
    • Like I said before, these were the Rudolph guys. You can forgive Beagle for being a little apprehensive as they tackled this epic fantasy film. 
    •  “I do remember being horrified when he told me that Rankin & Bass had made the deal with him, and screaming ‘Why the hell didn’t you just go to Hanna-Barbera!’ To which he replied ‘They were next on the list.’ That was going to be it.”
  • As we mentioned in our Rank(ing) and Bass episode, the studio always outsourced their animation to Japan, with great success. The Last Unicorn was no different, as Rankin and Bass acted as directors, and employed the Japanese studio Topcraft to bring the movie to life under the production management of Masaki Izuka. A few years later, Topcraft folded and was bought by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, along with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. They built the studio into the magnificent powerhouse that is Studio Ghibli

STARRING

  • When Rankin and Bass set out to cast the film, the animators were able to secure every voice actor they wanted. No one turned down a part, which meant the film had a stellar cast. 
    • Legendary screen and stage actress Mia Farrow plays The Unicorn/Lady Amalthea. 
      • She’s known for many things, including Rosemary’s Baby, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and Alice. 
    • Jeff Bridges plays Prince Lir
      • After hearing that a friend of his was cast in the film, Bridges called Jules Bass and asked for a role, offering to work for free. Bass hired him immediately to play Prince Lir. 
    • Alan Arkin plays Shmendrick the magician
      • Peter Beagle has praised the performances of the actors in the film, all except for Arkin. He thought his version of Schmendrick was a little flat. Arkin brought an every-man quality to the character, though, as he wasn’t meant to really steal the show. 
    • Tammy Grimes plays Molly Gru
      • While Beagle was critical of Arkin, he seemed impressed with Tammy Grimes’ version of Molly Gru. He said in an interview that Grimes brought something to the character that he himself didn’t add. 
    • Christopher Lee plays King Haggard
      • Lee was a huge fan of the book, and brought his own annotated copy to his recording sessions. When he saw Beagle, he asked for his approval of his vocal performance and offered to do it again if it was unsatisfactory. 
      • Lee was also fluent in German, and loved playing King Haggard so much, he recorded the lines for German version of the film as well. 
    • Angela Lansbury plays Mommy Fortuna
    • Robert Klein plays the butterfly
    • Rene Auberjonois plays the talking skull.
    • And Rankin/Bass regulars Paul Frees and Keenan Wynn played various voices as well

MUSIC

  • Songwriter and composer Jimmy Webb created the music for The Last Unicorn. He’s had many popular songs for artists like Donna Summer, Art Garfunkel, and Glen Campbell. 
  • The songs for the movie were performed by the actors, and the folk rock band, America. 
    • The modern sound of the music, mixed with the medieval imagery adds a timeless element to the film. It’s never specified when the story takes place, and there are modern references throughout. 

RECEPTION

  • Despite the film’s cult following, producers had a difficult time finding a distribution company. Eventually, the now-defunct Jensen Farley Pictures released the film on less than 700 screens across the country. It was rated G, despite scary imagery that would plague children’s nightmares for years to come. According to IMDB, the film’s budget was $3,500,000, and made $6,455,330. But, these numbers are misleading. Fans of the film and internet sleuths have claimed that reporting on the box office numbers stopped after 17 days. If this is true, it would mean that the actual amount earned will likely never be known. They believed that this was because Jensen Farley reported bankruptcy while distributing the film, but according to court documents, this happened later. 
  • Although the film made money, it wasn’t considered a huge success. Some sources claim that the producers didn’t see profits from the film. Peter S. Beagle has said that he thought the film was better than expected, and loves the animation. 
  • The film received favorable reviews. Janet Maslin of the NYT said, ”’THE Last Unicorn’ is an unusual children’s film in many respects, the chief one being that it is unusually good. This animated fable also features a cast that would do any live-action film proud, a visual style noticeably different from that of other children’s fare, and a story filled with genuine sweetness and mystery. Children, except perhaps for very small ones, ought to be intrigued by it; adults won’t be bored. And no one of any age will be immune to the sentiment of the film’s final moments, which really are unexpectedly touching and memorable.”

WHY IS THIS A HIDDEN GEM?

The Last Unicorn is a wonderful movie that showcases the best that 1980’s animation had to offer. It’s not Disney or Don Bluth, and it had an uphill battle all through its creation. It’s a movie that most of us have heard about, but maybe only saw once as a kid or never at all. At times, the story seems like a standard hero’s quest for children, and then it throws the audience a curveball. One moment, you think you’re watching a cute film about a unicorn, the next, you’re watching the comic relief almost get smothered by the breasts of a lovestruck tree. 

The film has sharp edges, and presents truths that will have the adult audience nodding its head in agreement. We watch as an immortal, magnificent creature must seek help from humble, fragile humans. And in time, she’s burdened by the lessons of humanity like love and regret. 

MARCI- THE WIZARD OF OZ (1982)

SYNOPSIS

  • Dorothy is left to tend to the farm alone as her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry go off to run some errands. When a tornado comes she frantically tries to get herself and her dog, Toto, into the cellar. When Toto runs from her because he gets scared Dorothy gets knocked out as she is thrown to the floor of the cabin. When she wakes up it is in The Land of Oz where she meets many characters and tries to find her way home to Kansas. (You know the basic plot of The Wizard of Oz.. lol)

PRODUCTION

  • This little gem was based on L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz and directed by Fumihiko Takayama. The screenplay was written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Akira Miyazaki.
  • It was produced by Banno and Katsumi Ueno for Toho Co., Ltd.  This movie was also made with cooperation from Topcraft Animation!
  • English version came first
    • Although this movie was animated in Japan it was not dubbed for Japanese release until 1986! The English version surprisingly came first. 

MUSIC

  • The music was done by Joe Hisaishi and Yuichiro Oda. Joe would later go on to write music for many of the Studio Ghibli movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky. There were three songs and the English lyrics were written by Sammy Cahn and Allen Byrns. The three songs were all performed in English by Aileen Quinn and are; “It’s Strictly Up to You,” “I Dream of Home,” and “A Wizard of a Day.” 

THE BOOK, THE 1939 MOVIE AND THIS MOVIE

  • Everyone of course knows Dorothy as this lovely young girl portrayed by the brown haired and pigtailed Judy Garland in the 1939 live action. It is hard for most to see her any other way. L. Frank Baum himself did not give her specific physical descriptors in the first book; instead saying things like how she was an orphan, innocent, and harmless little girl.  In this animated version, however, she had blonde hair tied up into a single ponytail with a simple red ribbon. 
  • Overall this movie is much more similar to the original book than the 1939 version but the one key difference that it kept was the red slippers.
    • One of the closer similarities to the book was that the first witch that Dorothy stumbles upon is the Good Witch of the North and she is not Glinda. Glinda, just like the book, is the Good Witch of the South.
    •  The second similarity would be that each of the characters is shown a different version of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.
      • Dorothy is shown a gigantic green head.
      • The Scare-crow is shown a beautiful angel.
      • Tin-Man sees him as a scary rhino. (In the book it was said to be a great beast, not necessarily a rhino.)
      • Finally the Lion sees the wizard as a great big ball of fire.
    • The final similarity to mention is the appearance of the Kalidahs. Kalidahs are vicious large creatures that appear within Oz.

VOICES

  • American
    • Aileen Quinn as Dorothy
      • She was also Annie in the 1982 Annie.
    • Lorne Greene – The Wizard
      • He is known for Bonanza, Battlestar Galactica, and the movie Earthquake.
    • Billy Van – Scarecrow
      • He was in things like The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Law and Order.
    • John Stocker – Tin Man
      • He has done for things like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and a couple of the Care Bear movies.
    • Thick Wilson – Cowardly Lion
      • He has done voices for the animated Alf series and he was also in Tommy Boy and The Dark Crystal.
    • Elizabeth Hanna – The Good Witch of the North, Jellia Jamb, The Wicked Witch of the West
      • She has done voices for many different things including Babaar, Little Bear, and Care Bears.
    • Wendy Thatcher – Glinda, the Good Witch of the South
      • She is known for Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend, Threshold, and High-Ballin’.
  • Japanese Voices
    • Mari Okamoto – Dorothy Gale
    • Kotobuki Hizuru – Scarecrow
    • Jōji Yanami – Tin Man
    • Masashi Amenomori – Cowardly Lion
    • Naoki Tatsuta – Uncle Henry
    • Taeko Nakanishi – Aunt Em and Jellia Jamb
    • Miyoko Asō – The Good Witch of the North
    • Kaori Kishi – The Wicked Witch of the West
    • Kazuo Kumakura – The Wizard
    • Kumiko Takizawa – Glinda, the Good Witch of the South
    • Shohei Matsubara – Toto
    • Motomu Kiyokawa – Soldier
    • Toshiyuki Yamamoto – Monkey King

WHY THIS MOVIE IS A HIDDEN GEM

  • This movie is not well known, and to be honest there was not a lot of information floating around about it either. It’s beautiful that this movie is able to follow the story of the book just a bit closer and show us some lovely animation. I think what is most charming about it is that they are able to show that each of the characters Dorothy meets essentially already have what they are asking the wizard for. The Tin Man becomes sad over killing a bug which shows he cares and has heart. The Lion distracts the vicious Kalidah, showing he has courage. Finally, the Scarecrow makes plans and has good ideas like cutting a tree to create a bridge which demonstrates that he can think.
  • This is a charming version of The Wizard of Oz and a hidden gem you just might want to check out. 

The best thing about animation is that there is so much of it. Some of it might be a little rough, but some of it is spectacular. For every movie like “The Lion King,” there’s a beautiful hidden gem that deserves a little love. So don’t be afraid to go see the animated movies that you haven’t heard as much about. Worst case scenario, it will be an adventure. The best case scenario, you will find a movie that you might end up loving for years to come. 

So go give these films a watch if you haven’t already, and tell us what you think! Do you have any hidden gems that you would like us to watch or talk about? Let us know! 

Before we go, we’d like to thank our Patrons! Joel, John, Jacob, Jacklyn, JD, Anthony, Shelli, and Linda.


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