Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Most Influential Animations You Never Heard Of (Part 3)

This is final part of the blogathon about significant animations that most people are unaware of, but should recognize. The following are all films from around the world, except for one anime series.

11. Horus: Prince of the Sun (1968): The First Modern Anime

Hilda, one of the most complex (and troubled) animated characters ever to grace the screen.  

Why is anime so different from American animation? This film is one of the primary reasons. Similar to how Osamu Tezuka's The Vampires changed the face of manga, Horus: Prince of the Sun forever altered anime. Horus has been dubbed by some as The Citizen Cane of animated films. It was directed Isao Takahada, and had a huge influence on Hayao Miyazaki who was one of the primary artists working on the film (under the guidance of Yasuji Mori). Both Miyazaki and Takahada would become some of the most respected figures in animation history and later established Studio Ghibli.

All major anime films made at the time were being released by Toei Doga, a company that aimed to be as successful as Disney in the Asian hemisphere. Toei Doga movies tended to be 'Disney-like' in formula, with cute animal sidekicks and musical numbers (The Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon being somewhat of an exception). The company's earlier efforts were mostly based off of traditional Asian folktales or Japanese mythology, but it later began producing films based off of Western fairytales (such as Puss in Boots) and cheaply adapting low-grade manga (like The Flying Phantom Ship) to try and appeal to wider audiences and save money.

However, the animators were beginning to become restless. They wanted new material to work with and were growing weary of making the same type of films. Many of them were also angry with the authoritarian manner in which Toei Doga was run, upset with the Vietnam War, and were involved with unions. Thus, Horus: The Prince of the Sun was born out of the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

The movie was a huge undertaking. Horus spent over three years in troubled production. Some of its scenes were so complexity animated / large scale, that they were never fully completed. Takahada originally wanted Horus to be two hours long and be based off of a play about Japan's ingenious Ainu. But the Toei staff refused believing that the film would never sell. So its time was cropped down to a mere ninety minutes and the story's setting was moved to Iron Age Scandinavia. The Toei staff also insisted that the film must have stereotypical 'cute' animal sidekicks.

Takahada and his staff were not deterred. Horus dealt with several social issues in the film under the guise of a children's fantasy film. For instance, Horus's mad pursuit of the silver wolf may, in fact, be no more than a projection of his own mind. Horus is also betrayed by the town that takes him in and must win back their trust. By far the most well defined character in the movie is Hilda, a girl who acts a lot like a shell-shocked war survivor. It is often unclear whether she wants to help the protagonist and be re -welcomed into society or to completely reject him. She is constantly tormented by her opposing views of humanity, unsure whether she wants to belong or distance herself as far away from it as possible.

Upon release, the film bombed at the Japanese box office. This was due to the fact that Toei had removed Horus from theaters after only a week, angered that the movie took so long to complete and declared the film was too dark for the studio's standards. Takahada was forbidden ever to direct a film at the studio again. But all this did not matter in the end. Horus: Prince of the Sun began to garner the attention of other young artists and college students. People had began to realize that animation could be used to cover a wider array of subjects. Thus, anime began to address more adult topics and continue to break away from the Disney mold. If Horus had not been made, it is unlikely anime would have ever given us films such as Belladonna, Grave of Fireflies, Akira, Princess Mononoke, or Perfect Blue.

Original trailer for the movie with (poorly translated) english subs.

12. Yuri Norstein: Master of Short Films

Tale of Tales conveys loneliness (and hope) like no other film does.

Yuri Norstein's work is profoundly beautiful. Each of his films are painstakingly created with paper cut-outs, layered over several sheets of glass to create a sense of depth. Yuri is one of the most celebrated Russian animators who ever lived and was a major contributor to the studio Soyuzmultfilm. Since 1981, he has been working on feature length film, The Overcoat, but it has yet to be finished due to budget problems arising after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of Norstein's most acclaimed short movies are The Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and The Tale of Tales (1979). Both of them were voted as the best two animations ever created at the 2003 Laputa Animation Film Festival. His unique sense of style, attention to detail, and emotionally charged storylines exhibit how small, independently produced films can sometimes be more memorable (and heartfelt) then what larger studios put out.

The Hedgehog in the Fog is about a small hedgehog who must gather his courage and travel through a foggy forest to visit his friend, Bear. Along the way Hedgehog, meets several other animals, some friendly and others not so friendly. Although he is frightened, Hedgehog's curiosity and appreciation for the natural world keep him motivated to find Bear. The short's contemplative nature allows the audience to remain engrossed the entire time. The Hedgehog in the Fog provokes a sense of wonder and innocence that is often associated with childhood.

Norstein's other short, Tale of Tales, is more abstract in nature. Its plot is more complex and it is full of symbolism. The main character is a small grey wolf from a traditional Russian lullaby. The wolf is said to kidnap naughty childern. However in this film, he is portrayed more sympathetically. He is a lonely figure who is actually attempting protect babies from the harmful outside world. The wolf acts as our guide into the world of Tale of Tales, which plays out as many interconnected memories of a dream. The film then proceeds to show many events in Russia's past. It makes references to the Civil War, the Stalinist Regime, and contemporary times. All of this is represented by images such as decaying Soviet-era buildings, impoverished families, and lives lost in battle. Yet the film is not completely bleak, it shows how people try to make the best of difficult situations and how we all strive to live the best we can. The child-like innocence of the little wolf and childern in the film suggest that we can continue to work towards a better future.

The Hedgehog in the Fog in its entirety. Well worth your time.

13. Watership Down (1978): The Opposite of Disney

What's this? An animated movie that is actually loyal to its source material?

As mentioned earlier, the 1970s was a time for experimentation in the animation field. The studio system associated with large companies such as Disney was crumbling. Smaller producers, artists, and film makers began to create movies in a wide variety of unorthodox styles, reflecting the social change of the era. In particular, a growing number of animated films were beginning to be made for more adult audiences. Thus, in 1978 John Hubley set out to create a film based off of Richard Adam's acclaimed novel, Watership Down. Unfortunately, Hubley died during production, although some of his original work can still be seen in the finished film (such as the stylized animation in the opening). The movie was then taken over by a British team lead by Martin Rosen.

Like Animal FarmWatership Down is a fairly loyal adaptation meaning that it deals with darker subject matter than the typical American animated feature. If this film were made by Disney, it would likely be nothing more than a fun romp with fluffy bunnies. Watership Down is the story of a band of rabbits who must journey to a new home when their warren is gassed to make room for human development. They eventually decide to settle on the hills of Watership Down, after a long and perilous journey. However, they soon realize that they have very few members of their warren left, especially does. After being informed by Holly, the sole survivor of their previous home, the rabbits hear about General Woundwort's warren and become determined to save its inhabitants.

Woundwort's tyrannical regime is reminiscent to that of Nazi Germany. His warren is tightly regulated and any distention is quickly put down. Several of the main characters were also based off of people Richard Adams fought alongside with in WWII. Watership Down is an allegorical tale in the tradition of the heroic epic. The movie does not shy away from the violence in the original novel. Characters bleed, die, and the film contains scary imagery. Watership Down is a better film for older children and adults. The risks it took payed off though, it is know considered one of the greatest animated films ever made. (And thus, we will forgive it for the inclusion of that horrendously dated song, "Bright Eyes".)

I would love to know how many ignorant parents took their kids to this movie thinking it was children's film.

14. Future Boy Conan (1978): Miyazaki makes his Debut

A TV show popular worldwide! Except in English speaking countries...

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the most famous animators alive today. His impressive resume includes films such as Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away (which he won an Academy Award for). After years of working at Toei Doga and in television, Miyazaki directed his first sole project Future Boy Conan, a 26 episode TV series. It was a huge success not only in Japan, but several other countries including France, Italy, Spain, and (surprisingly) the Middle East. Future Boy Conan was never translated into English and never aired in the USA, which is truly a shame considering that it is one of the greatest anime series ever made.

Unlike some of Miyazaki's more contemporary work, Future Boy Conan contains a lot of exaggerated and slapstick humor, in a similar vein to his work on Lupin the Third (1971) and Sherlock Hound (1980). However, despite being a family program, Conan never disregards its audience's intelligence and addresses several contemporary issues about human nature. Many of the themes that would come to dominate Miyazaki's later work can be seen for the first time here. This includes his love for flight / aircraft, feminist and pacifist values, respect towards nature, and avoidance of stereotypical, one-sided villains.

Future Boy Conan is about a young boy named, (unsurprisingly) Conan, who has lived alone on a deserted island for years with his grandfather after the advent of WWIII wiped out much of humanity and drastically altered the rest of society, making technology limited to very few people. When a mysterious young girl named Lana washes up on shore one day, she and Conan must hide from the militarized army of Industria. Industria is a city ruled over by Lepka, who aims to reunite Earth's remaining inhabitants under a totalitarian regime. Lana's grandfather, who disappeared years ago, was a scientist studying solar technology. Lepka desperately wants to utilize this technology and plans to hold Lana hostage. Lana and Conan must find a way to evade capture and strive to find a way which people in the future can live peacefully. 

It's interesting to see the wacky humor in Miyazaki's earlier work.

15. The Secret of NIMH (1982): Reviving the Art of Animation

Don Bluth's dark family film is his best.

The Disney Renaissance was part of many people's childhood, but what if it had never happened? If it wasn't for Don Bluth and a few other factors (such as the filming of The Thief and the Cobbler and the contributions of animator Glen Keane), it is quite likely it wouldn't have. The 1970s was the Dark Age of American Animation. Walt had died and his studio was adrift, causing it to make very few films that often met little success. To make matters worse, other companies were making cheaply produced cartoons that lacked the artistic sophistication of those made during the Golden Age of Animation. In 1979, Don Bluth and several other animators, including John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman, left Disney. They were upset with the studio for the lack of credit they received and felt ignored for their efforts on the short films The Small One and Banjo the Woodpile Cat.

Don Bluth and his colleges wanted to make a film that would help revive interest in restoring animation to its former glory and encourage better movies to be made. So he boldly chose to adapt the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH into a feature length picture, which Disney had considered filming, but later rejected for being 'too dark'. Bluth wanted to make NIMH in the style of animated films made in the 1940s-50s but with more mature plot elements and more modern sensibilities. When he and his crew left Disney, it delayed the production of The Fox and the Hound by seven months.

The Secret of NIMH is about a timid mouse, Mrs. Brisby, who must overcome her fears of the dangerous world around her in order to find a cure for her son's pneumonia. Brisby was widowed when her husband was killed by the farmer's cat. She seeks help from her husband's friend, Mr. Ages, and even goes to see the Great Owl. She later uncovers the secret of the Rats of NIMH and how her husband and Mr. Ages were involved. NIMH is a beautifully animated film. Its visual style is based off of the classic Hollywood style, but also uniquely its own. NIMH's utilization of different color pallets, backlighting, and multi-plane camera are astounding even though the film was made on a very tight budget (and Don Bluth would continue to face finical problems for the rest of his career). Even though the film is perfectly appropriate for children, it addresses several complicated issues including animal testing and the questioning of human nature. Mrs. Brisby is also a very relatable character. She isn't born brave, but must become strong in order to protect her family. Don Bluth has always had the philosophy that childern can handle certain mature themes or onscreen death as long as the story ends happily or with some aspect of hope.

Even though NIMH underperformed at the box office, the critics loved it. NIMH even caught the attention of Steven Spielberg who helped fund Bluth's next two films, An American Tale (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988). Both films were critically and commercially successful. So much in fact, that they earned more money than the two Disney films released at the same time (The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company)! Disney then realized it had to shape up and began to strive towards producing better films. They were successful when The Little Mermaid was released in 1989. The Little Mermaid squashed Bluth's All Dogs to Heaven, and led Disney into its successful period of the 1990s. So Bluth was successful in reviving the art of animation, at a price. Disney ultimately came back and killed off the rest of his career. Bluth produced several duds during most of the 1990s, except for Anastasia (1997), which while a decent film, came off as a bit of a Disney clone. Bluth threw in the towel in 2000, after his Titan AE failed miserably at the box office. 

The iconic scene were Brisby Meets the Great Owl.