Attempts to make the rock music equivalent of Fantasia (1940) never really worked out, from Ivan Reitman’s risible Heavy Metal (1981) to Nelvana Films’ curious Rock & Rule (1983). First off the bat were Sanrio, whose Hello Kitty merchandise netted them a small fortune across Asia and fuelled their ambitions to become the Disney of the 1980s. Based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and originally titled as such), this musical romp through Greek myths and legends was the first animated film produced in 70mm and featured songs by Joan Baez, Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones and The Pointer Sisters.
Unfortunately, the music and images didn’t match and the dialogue-free action left audiences completely baffled. At great cost, Sanrio re-edited the movie (released as Orpheus of the Stars in Japan and Winds of Change everywhere else) adding a new, disco score by Alex Costandinos and wry narration courtesy of Peter Ustinov. Opening credits scroll across the vastness of space just like Star Wars, while Ustinov (whose vocal talents also graced Sanrio’s The Mouse and His Child (1977)) waxes lyrical about the grandeur of Greek mythology. Stars swirl, oceans boil and continents take shape as stony giants and strange beasts. A rock forms into pint-sized, wide-eyed Wondermaker who plays each hero throughout five episodes, beginning with Perseus. “You wouldn’t expect Laurence Olivier to play just one part, would you?” says our narrator.
Seemingly as bemused by onscreen events as we are, Peter Ustinov occasionally interjects with an amusing remark and frankly, sounds like he’s taking the piss. “Take this sword, compliments of the house”, says the king, and sends Perseus to slay the fearsome Medusa, whose gaze turns men into stone. Alex Costandinos’ score goes into boogie overdrive (“Where are you going, G-O-I-N-G, PERSEUS!!”) prompting would-be Travoltas to do the hipster shuffle. The god Mercury (voiced by Ustinov to resemble a camp hairdresser) gives Perseus a makeover that somehow enables him to fly. Clash of the Titans (1981) fans will feel nostalgic, as Perseus then steals a magic eye belonging to three, blind witches, for whom Ustinov shows more compassion (“Poor creatures. How would you feel if some boy snatched the only eye you had?”). After facing an eerie, bare-breasted Medusa and her gorgon sisters, Perseus and his (oddly reptilian) flying horse Pegasus soar away to be immortalised in the stars. If you’re wondering why a hero who already flies needs a flying horse - your guess is as good as mine.
Wondermaker is swiftly reincarnated as Actaeon the hunter. Whilst wandering the woods he stumbles across a fountain spouting fairies (“What a marvellous feat of engineering!”). The naked, frolicking fairies recall the classic Harman-Ising cartoon Blue Danube (1940), and when Actaeon spies the goddess Diana bathing in a stream… well, as Mr. Ustinov says: “Hell hath no fury like a goddess being peeped at.” Of course the downside of having Ustinov do all the voices is that supposedly sexy female characters all sound like Margaret Rutherford. Transformed into a cute deer, Actaeon is mauled to death by his own hounds. Which is faithful to the myth, but surely traumatised a few children.
Next up, our hero descends in a shower of stars as the god Mercury. Does that mean he spent the first story talking to himself? Mercury falls in love with a kindly, blonde priestess (“Blonde? That’s very rare in Greece”, chuckles our Pete), whose naughty sister Aglaurus falls foul of the goddess Athena. Athena summons the monstrous witch Envy who curses Aglaurus so she shatters like a mirror. “Moral: if you’ve nothing but envy in your heart, you’re bound to crack up sooner or later.”
In the most celebrated sequence, Orpheus the bard marries Eurydice. They frolic in the fields until a giant serpent appears and spirits Eurydice away to the underworld. Accompanied by a groovy ballad that sounds suspiciously like the work of Earth, Wind & Fire, Orpheus journeys to the underworld where he encounters Cerebus the two-headed dog (who is supposed to have three heads - maybe the budget ran out?) and a parade of surreal wonders: children imprisoned in a birdcage, giant parrots, exploding bubbles and a room full of enormous cupcakes and candy. Orpheus strums his magic lyre and charms King Pluto himself. The giant, horned demon gets a big, goofy grin on his face and allows Eurydice to go free, but this being Greek mythology - tragedy awaits. Afterwards, the concluding story winds things up on a bit of an anti-climax. Wondermaker becomes Phaeton, son of Helius the Sun God, who takes his father’s chariot for a joyride with predictably unfortunate results.
Winds of Change is the kind of cartoon a well-meaning history professor might use to get his students into Greek mythology. No wonder youngsters stayed way, since the film is often rambling and incoherent. The downbeat stories ill-suit the playful tone and are padded out with tedious slapstick (Actaeon wrestles with a boar carcass for an ungodly age), while the various heroes are either self-serving or just plain dumb. Mystery surrounds the identity of credited director “Takashi”. Animators Gerry Eisenberg, Richard Hubner, Sadao Miyamoto and Masami Hata were all involved in this international co-production, six years in the making and at 2.6 billion yen, Sanrio’s most expensive ever. In his autobiography, veteran animator Yasuo Otsuka claimed Hata was “Takashi”, but his precise duties remain unconfirmed. Cherubic characters (Wondermaker resembles Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938)). mingle with surprisingly scary designs, with one triumph being King Hades - a wonderfully expressive fusion of Beauty & the Beast (1991) and Fantasia’s famous demon, rendered in towering 70mm.
At the time, Sanrio producers were proud to reject the traditional Japanese aesthetic and ape American animation, and declared: “Japanese characters have no appeal to foreigners in terms of beauty.” How ironic then that today’s American/European youngsters can’t get enough anime, while Wings of Change is long-forgotten. For the ultimate anime excursion into Greek myths, try the amazing Arion (1986).