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Animated Anxieties: From the Era of the Creepiest Cartoons

  Cartoon features and shorts alike had scared their target audience before, you just had to look at Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in the nineteen-thirties to acknowledge that, but something happened as the seventies turned into the eighties and the material for family audiences grew darker in tone, as if the express purpose was to frighten the younglings and indeed some of the older generation as well. Watership Down in 1978 is often held up as the pinnacle of inappropriate animation with its death and violence, judging by the degree of complaints showings on British television began to receive in the twenty-first century at any rate, but arguably it was one man working in America who should be shouldering the blame, for Ralph Bakshi was a director who saw the potential of the medium to tell adult stories. Certainly, his adaptation of R. Crumb's comic Fritz the Cat set out to force the style to grow up.

Of course, simply by including sexual references and musings over such mature topics as gender politics and racism was not necessarily going to make your movie regarded in the same breath as one of the more respectable efforts from live action filmmakers, Bakshi's still-controversial Coonskin was enough to illustrate that, but after he created his fantasy Wizards he thought he would like to try a series of books that he was a huge fan of, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Envisioning a pair of lengthy cartoons, in effect he was only able to make one before the money ran out, but his ambitious for its budget version signalled family cartoons were no longer going to footle around with Disney-level tales - of course, animation in Eastern Europe and Japan had long since recognised this as an artistic choice. But in the West, something that aimed as high as Bakshi did was unusual, and as it turned out, destined for failure.

It has, naturally, become a cult movie, and there are those who feel it was more sympathetic to Tolkien than Peter Jackson's pair of blockbusting trilogies ever were; you could certainly see the respect Bakshi had for this story, even as you couldn't help but notice the funds were running dry on the production as the amount of cost-cutting increased with each passing minute. He achieved his effects with rotoscoping, a method where the animation was overlaid on live action footage and there were shots where the animation was barely there, but more intriguing for this era was his willingness to try for creepy, even scary sequences, such as the Hobbits' hiding from the Black Rider early on, or later any time the orcs caught up with our heroes on their quest to destroy the "one ring". Resembling a prog rocker's idea of what a Middle Earth toon should look like, this and later Bakshi projects made it clear his philosophy was bleeding into other animators' ideas.

1982 proved a banner year for this sort of unsettling cartooning, as Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH demonstrated. The story behind its inception was well told, but essentially he and some colleagues from Disney had grown disenchanted with the practices at The House of Mouse and decided to set up on their own to craft what they felt the studio should be making. Which turned out to be this, a relentlessly gloomy affair focusing on a little mouse called Mrs Brisby, who before the action began became a widow when her husband Jonathan died in mysterious circumstances. When we catch up with her, more tragedy is impending as her youngest (of four) child has fallen sick with pneumonia, and she needs a cure pronto, so Bluth's vow to make something distinct from what his old bosses were churning out was assured, for you could not imagine the company then or now taking a chance on something this downbeat.

For that reason there are many who recall The Secret of NIMH with a kind of benign unease thanks to its stark visuals and atmosphere of a funeral that Mrs Brisby does her best to lift - only not by being cheerful. Indeed, she remained fearful and delicate from the beginning to almost the finale, a highly unusual lead for a cartoon as she was a mother when you might have expected the material to follow the adventures of one of her children for audience identification purposes. The small furry animal was voiced by Elizabeth Hartman, which renders the overall effect even more morose since the actress was plagued with mental health difficulties until her eventual suicide a few years after completing this; the melancholy in being aware of that information and her reading of the protagonist in the softest and most vulnerable tones is one of the reasons the film contains a perhaps unintended air of fairy tale emotional desolation.

Mrs Brisby had lost her husband, after all, and all the way through Bluth and his team piled on imagery that, while not explicitly Gothic, was often close to horror movie visuals. That the ultimate enemy proved to be NIMH itself was particularly ironic as those were initials that stood for The National Institute for Mental Health which we learn in flashback have been conducting vivisection on animals which were set free by Jonathan, more evidence that this project had an uncertain grasp on what was wholly suitable for a young audience. To add to the woes, Mrs Brisby's house will soon be destroyed by the tractor at the nearby farm for it is harvest time, and she must persuade the local rats, who were given increased intelligence by the experimentation, to help her or it is strongly implied all of her children will die. This weight of the world was reminiscent of the fifties classic Night of the Hunter in tone, a curious choice in a work full of them.

Cruelty to animals may have been a running theme with these, as the same year's The Plague Dogs had many of the same concerns as The Secret of NIMH, featuring as it did as main characters a pair of dogs escaping from vivisection in a government laboratory on the Yorkshire Dales. This was brought to you by producer and sometimes director Martin Rosen whose most famous work was, as with this, an adaptation of a Richard Adams novel: Watership Down. Although animated, this pair of movies were not necessarily for the very young, and while the former gained a reputation when it was initially released as something you just had to cry at (presumably depending on how moved you were by Art Garfunkel's ethereal trilling of Mike Batt's theme song Bright Eyes), as the years went by it became notorious as being unsuitable for the little darlings of the new millennium, who apparently screamed the place down when confronted with warring bunnies.

Imagine how they would react after a few minutes of Rosen's follow-up, which if anything was even bleaker than his previous endeavour, leaving out the happier conclusion of Adams' book in favour of the original ending he had planned: not to spoil anything, but it was unforgiving on the humans in the story and the people reading the text. Before that, we were introduced to Rowf (voiced by Christopher Benjamin, best known for a classic turn on seventies Doctor Who) who is a black Labrador being drowned in an experimental tank of water; although the hound is revived, it doesn't get much more optimistic after that, in spite of his pal Snitter (John Hurt was his voice, becoming a mainstay of disturbing cartoons) discovering not only is the door to their cage accidentally unlocked but also they can escape via the incinerator where the dead animals are disposed of. The trouble is, in their freedom bid they may have come in contact with bubonic plague.

The message of animal rights was clear, particularly when the secret base is revealed as conducting research into germ warfare and therefore it is true to say the animals were unnecessarily mistreated for the sake of mankind's harshness and callous attitude to the planet, if you wanted to take the themes to their ultimate reading. But in the main this was an adventure tale with a tragic tone, so as with Watership Down there was blood, some of it human (Snitter sets off a rifle in one man's face by mistake, killing him), and some of it sheep's as guided by a fox with the voice of James Bolam, the two canine heroes worry, then savage the farmers' flocks in their hunger. There was no sentimentalising here, unless you counted the automatic emotion brought out by pets in peril and hand drawn at that, but you would be forgiven for feeling upset by what The Plague Dogs depicted, if not disquieted by its implications as well as its stark visuals.

The Last Unicorn, also in '82, has a connection to Bakshi's Lord of the Rings in that it was made by, among others, Rankin Bass, who were the studio who completed his movie with The Return of the King, a television special (they adapted The Hobbit as well). They teamed up with British mogul Lew Grade's ITC brand, who spent quite a bit of cash trying and largely failing to break into the film business, and some Japanese animators to adapt Peter S. Beagle's well-liked fantasy novel and created a work that has not gone down in the annals of history as an all-time classic, but nevertheless has been nurtured as a fan favourite among those who caught it as a child. For newcomers now, or those who did not watch it at a tender age, it appeal can be something of a mystery, with its technique more often applied to the small screen than the silver, and an overall appearance of being slightly underfunded.

So do not expect Disney achievements, nor Don Bluth for that matter, but despite the relatively basic animation there were those who were touched by this tale, a fairy tale in effect, of a unicorn who believes herself to be the last of her kind and sets out from her woodland glade to discover if this really is true, or whether she can find more like her. On her journey she meets up with a wizard who when she is attacked by a huge red bull demon which has wiped out her fellow unicorns, transforms her into a womanly form (she retains a star motif in the middle of her forehead) whereupon a Prince falls in love with her, which sounds like this is going to be all misty-eyed and head in the clouds. To an extent it was, but the tone of the piece was relentlessly depressive, forming one of the most morose family fantasy movies ever, a style this shared with a number of its contemporaries as the decade wore on.

There was a curiously starry cast voicing this, with Mia Farrow as the title character, though who persuaded her to sing (it was a sort of musical with tunes penned by Jimmy Webb and mostly performed by seventies band America) must have regretted that decision when her grasp of the high notes was shaky to say the least. Jeff Bridges apparently worked for free, as a fan of the source, and playing the Prince, while Christopher Lee was the evil King Haggard, and Alan Arkin essayed the wizard role, which would come across as any old fantasy tale hankering after the days of The Brothers Grimm, but then there were those bizarre elements, such as a tree that turns into a woman who smothers the wizard in its cavernous cleavage, or the skeleton that demands wine as a method of finding the key to uncovering those unicorns, that confirmed we were in the realm of creepy eighties toons; the dejected conclusion would have been enough to finish off the sensitive.

Disney were evidently closely observing the rise of fantasy films in the eighties, and the late seventies as well for The Black Cauldron had been in production for ten years before it was eventually released in 1985. It was notorious even before the public could see it as a picture the company were curiously embarrassed about thanks to the reaction it generated when it played at test screenings: stories of kids being pulled screaming from the auditoriums became infamous and the question arose if the studio had gone too far in depicting scenes designed to creep the audience out. This had been partly animator-led (Tim Burton worked on it as a conceptual designer, tellingly), but also in the spirit of the times when, say, Jim Henson was making his grotesque The Dark Crystal, not a million miles away from what was going on here, and The Wizard of Oz won a sequel with the child-scaringly weird Return to Oz.

If the thought of a Disney horror movie appealed, then this was the era for you as they had been toying with chiller notions and scenes since the likes of The Watcher in the Woods or The Black Hole nearer the start of the decade, though those were live action. Seeing such sequences in a supposedly anodyne family cartoon was not what the public were prepared for, in spite of the studio being no stranger to frightening animated pieces in their fantasies ever since the aforementioned Snow White - who could forget seeing Pinocchio and chums transformed into donkeys, for example? But with The Black Cauldron, they were employing more overt horror genre imagery, particularly in the climax where you more or less were offered a Disney zombie toon as the Horned King (voiced by that man again, John Hurt) revived his undead army and they emerged from the gunk to advance from his lofty castle.

It all began so innocuously as well, as if they were remaking The Sword in the Stone with its more traditional Celtic legends and fables, as the young pig keeper's apprentice Taran (voiced by Grant Bardsley) discovers his charge, Henwen, has magical powers that can locate the mystical cauldron of the title. But that object is precisely what the evil Horned King wants to lend him infinite power, and Taran is despatched to keep the swine safe, which naturally he fails to do or else there would be no story, that drawn from Welsh myths adapted into children's books by Lloyd Alexander. Along the way he undergoes a traditional hero's quest, though interestingly after his adventure decides he prefers the quiet life rather than pursuing the wicked with his enchanted sword. After seeing the footage that did make it to the final cut, many would sympathise, and so the era of unsettling cartoons adapted into the more wholesome fare we have decades later, the occasional When the Wind Blows or Coraline aside, not counting the more out there Asian efforts for families: Spirited Away frightened a few. Some truly miss the days of Western animations taking these chances with the audience's fears.
Author: Graeme Clark

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006