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)


  • 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.


  • 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. 


  • 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.


  • 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. 


  • 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…


  • 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.


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.

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. 


  • 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. 


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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. 


  • 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.”


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. 



  • 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)


  • 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. 


  • 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.” 


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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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