This is the story of how humans can exploit animals, both by putting them to work and then by putting the blame on them when things go wrong. Our tale begins in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa where the trade was instrumental in providing great riches for the population, but mostly the Sultan (voiced by Robert Morley), although he didn't do anywhere near as much work as his subjects did. However, one day their whole operation was thrown into jeopardy when a school of sharks showed up and began eating the workers...
It seems even the most obscure cartoon features - and Hugo the Hippo was not a success by any means in its day - can gather a following simply by dint of the fact that somewhere some child will be growing up with a copy they will have recorded off the television or had purchased for them to keep them quiet in front of the box, which one way or another gets watched multiple times. Such was the case with this, a Hungarian-American production designed to take advantage of the East European animation studio, but in effect not making enough of a hippo-sized splash on the international market.
Yet while not too many saw it in its cinema format, it was released on home video and shown occasionally on television, which made for some powerful memories in those who are now grown up, but do remember Hugo and his colourful adventures. In fact, there are those who were mildly traumatised in some cases, not because some of the songs were trilled by Little Jimmy Osmond, but because director Bill Feigenbaum (in his sole film credit) did not skimp on the scenes of the baby hippo getting victimised, and even seeing his whole family and friends slaughtered about halfway through the plot - Disney at their darkest would not have gone that far in their cartoon features.
Before we reached that unhappy event, Hugo and his chums had to be rounded up because the Sultan believes they are precisely what his community needs to get rid of the (biker headgear-wearing) sharks. And it turns out he's right, but not before more trauma which sees the hippopotami turfed out of their lake home and tied up by a giant robot cowboy on horseback (huh?), then dumped in the channel to beat up the rampaging fish. The Sultan and the islanders are delighted, but it's not enough for us to end there on a relatively cheery note as thereafter they don't know what to do with the animals and don't even feed them, leaving them to munch on scraps from the garbage.
If you hadn't noticed, there was an environmental message being put across here, though that was the case with plenty of cartoons from the seventies and beyond, and at least here it's not overly heavy handed. The animation itself was imaginative enough to cope with the fluid style, so if it was not of the highest level it was sufficiently captivating to make it perfectly tolerable. What it was depicting, on the other hand, may not have been so palatable, as the Sultan's right hand man (unmistakably Paul Lynde) sees to it that hungry, hungry hippos are exterminated from Zanzibar and Hugo is the only survivor, ending up on the mainland where he befriends a young boy - and makes enemies of the adults for trying to satisfy his appetite for their fruit and veg. More troubles are on their way for Hugo, and it seems he can't catch a break, though no matter how depressing his story became, it was still colourful and populated with catchy songs also performed by Jimmy's sister Marie Osmond and narrator Burl Ives. The off-kilter quality is not a dead loss, odd enough to be memorable.