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Allow Us to Explain
Though TheMarySue.com says it at least once a week, I'll happily say it again; animation is a MEDIUM and not a GENRE. It seems to bear repeating, since many professional critics, filmmakers, and a vast majority of the cinema-going public still don't see it that way. Thankfully, this opinion has begun to shift in recent years, thanks to foreign productions like
Persepolis, or the Best Picture-nominated Toy Story 3. Still, this cultural attitude has also led to some unusual reviews of animated films (including one about Princess Mononoke suggesting it was for 9-year olds seeking escapism), and (when combined with a number of factors including, but not limited to, Disney's significant dip in quality for most of the '80s leading to some serious competition from other animation studios and the influence of anime finally arriving on American shores), some very, very interesting childhood movie memories for people now in their 20s and 30s.
Many of the films on this list are great movies, and were certainly influential on young geeks-to-be like this author. But nearly all of the films named here earned their place due to what the ever-helpful TvTropes.org has dubbed The Animation Age Ghetto. It's the assumption, incredibly prevalent in America, and made by both executives and parents, alike, that;
a.)anything animated is for children, and children alone
b.) that media produced "for children" has a specific set of content requirements
Both are insulting views, to the creators and lovers of an incredibly versatile medium on the one hand, and to the malleable intelligence of children on the other. Largely because of this bias, the Hollywood industry has historically had difficulty navigating the choppy waters of how to produce and market animation that is not sunshine, rainbows, and Aesop lessons. On the flip side, plenty of video store employees (especially in the pre-DVD days) fell on their own swords when deciding where to shelve the latest animation. Remember when explicit hentai like La Blue Girl (don't look it up if you don’t know; it's no-holds-barred tentacle porn) was put right next to volumes of Rainbow Brite? I do.
Mostly, though, the animation discussed here was actually intended for kids. The directors of these films simply had a more…expansive view of what children could handle, which sometimes landed them in hot water with critics and outraged parents. Sometimes, it left an indelible impression on the young guns that watched it, an impression that they're all too happy to share with others who remember too.
Come walk down memory lane as I recount some of the strangest, most innovative, and (occasionally) most unfortunately categorized animated works that hit the screen and VCR during my young years. This list is only 10 long, and could in no way incapsulate all the great, misguided, and plain odd, films that emerged during animation's dark ages. Feel free to light up the comments box with your own happy (or unhappy) memories of twenty-four (or 12) frames-per-second bewilderment. (This Powergrid is dedicated to the worthwhile runners-up, including Oliver & Company, Rockadoodle, and, yes, Space Jam.)
All Dogs Go to Heaven
Oh, Don Bluth. This Powergrid owes its origin, and a lot of its content, to the films of this one-time Disney animation director turned Disney Studios Public Enemy #1. Without delving too deeply into politics, Bluth has maintained ideological differences from his contemporaries on several fronts throughout his career. And, boy, does it ever show.
The seeds of discord are strewn throughout the Bluth-directed All Dogs Go to Heaven, which chronicles the return to Earth from
Hell of a dead gangster dog who has been murdered by his (also canine) boss, and is seeking revenge. Part of Charlie B. Barkin(didn't make it up)'s revenge involves the manipulation of an orphan child who can talk to animals, and had been a hostage of the big bad dog until the film takes place. In case you were losing track, the dead gangster dog is the good guy.
By the way, this is all without talking about the Big-Lipped Alligator.
Obviously, orphan Anne-Marie melts Charlie's demented zombie dog heart, and he learns some important lessons about love and self-sacrifice. He learns his lessons so well that the film's climax concludes with him drowning to save Anne-Marie. Thankfully, his noble act means he's allowed into Heaven instead of re-embraced by the minions of Hell, giving the movie something of a sweet ending, and narrowly saving every young viewer you know from needing extensive therapy.
The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH was, without a doubt, one of my favorite movies as a little proto-animator. I must have worn out the VHS tape from repeated viewings. But that doesn't mean that, as an adult, I'm not willing to call a spade a spade...or, in this case, a dark movie a dark movie.
Because NIMH is dark, through and through, as well as being a gutsy adherence to source material on a list of odd executive decisions and really bad marketing calls. Don Bluth's 1982 directorial debut is loosely based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brian, and is about mouse action hero/mother Mrs. Brisby (the name change was due to copyright infringement threats from the Frisbee company). Mrs. Brisby is a widowed field mouse with a sick kid and a serious problem; plow season is fast approaching on the farm where they live, and her youngest son, Timothy, can't be moved or he will likely die. Meanwhile, their home is in the path of the farmer's tractor, shown from the mouse perspective of being an enormous, churning, murder machine. So Mrs. Brisby does what any self-respecting anthropomorphized mouse would do, and goes to seek help from the super smart rats of the title, refugees from a lab where humans were testing highly experimental drugs. Think an accidental Super Soldier program, but with rodents.
In other words, NIMH is a children’s animated film featuring almost exclusively dark interiors, a Mad Max-styled sequence atop the moving tractor, the depiction of all humans as anti-environmental monsters, and a dedicated mother's race against time to prevent her children from being either crushed to death or slowly drowned as their home sinks into mud. Also, there's magic.
Just...get it in your Netflix queue already.
Insightful to the desires of kids, and deeply disturbing in its darker moments,
The Rescuers is a lesser-known Disney film that has stood out in the minds of many a now-grown child. Behind both the 1977 original film, and its 1990 sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, is one oddball of a premise; that there's a shadow council to the UN formed entirely of mice and other small creatures, whose sole purpose is the rescuing of abducted children. On deck to rescue kidnapped kiddo Penny are Rescue Aid Society agents Bernard and Miss Bianca, voiced by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor, respectively. They track Penny's letter-in-a-bottle SOS from a pawn shop to Devil's Bayou, where Penny is being held captive on the riverboat of one Madame Medusa, a wicked woman with a penchant for cake makeup who has two pet alligators. It turns out that the ambitious Medusa needs a small-framed kid to squeeze down into a dangerous, tidepool-flooded cave to retrieve a giant pirate diamond, the Devil's Eye. Medusa makes it quite clear that she doesn't care what happens to Penny, including drowning, so long as she gets the diamond.
To re-cap, that's abuse, kidnapping, endangerment and...diamond smuggling. With mice saving a little girl from full-grown adults, and two enormous 'gators in a desolate swamp. Naturally, of course, it also has several musical sequences.
The Rescuers, besides re-spawning the sub-genre of films where endangered children are rescued by mice (or chipmunks, or birds, or dogs), features dazzling show-off perspective animation from some of the then-remaining Nine Old Men, Disney’s original crew. Seen as the beginning of a hand-off between the first generation and the upstart second wave of hires, The Rescuers suffered creatively from being stuck smack in the middle. Still, it did well enough to get a sequel. You know, the one with the Australian poacher who traps a boy in a cage in the back of his truck to discover the Outback location of a preposterously massive Golden Eagle’s nest?
They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
A famous work of classic French literature, adapted by none other than Walt Disney's studio? What could possibly go wrong?
Let's go with…everything! In a notorious case of misappropriated themes colliding with American ideas about what a "children's" film requires, Victor Hugo's epic novel about the social and political climate of 15th-century Paris was turned into a purportedly family-friendly musical. (Which we will get to in a
Hellfire-hot second.) For those who would like the quickie Sparknotes version of the raw material, Hugo's novel features a deformed hero suffering from some of the most manipulative foster care ever put to the page, religious hypocrisy, racial genocide, brutal deaths, unrequited love, and a subtle whiff of necrophilia. Needless to say, it does not have a happy ending.
Sounds perfect for shoehorning into an all-ages family film!
All jokes aside, some of the original managed to poke through Disney's cel-painting. As an animator, I am contractually obligated to mention the infamous Hellfire sequence, in which cartoon baddie Frollo sings of his soul-wrenching lust for dancing Gypsy Esmerelda. He does so accompanied by a full chorus chanting the Confiteor (a Catholic prayer recited as an admission of guilt and wrongdoing), a sinuously writhing flame in the shame of Esmerelda herself, and some of the most gorgeous animation that the Disney studios had produced in years. Hellfire might be one for the history books, and I would recommend looking it up on YouTube if you've never seen it. The rest of the film, however, should be begging our forgiveness for even being considered in the first place.
Remember that 1993 movie produced by Steven Spielberg about dinosaurs? No, the
other one. Based on Hudson Talbott's 1987 children's book of the same name, We're Back! is about a troupe of four dinosaurs given average intelligence who travel to contemporary New York to fulfill the dream of every kid who ever went to the Museum of Natural History; to see real dinosaurs. There, they run into two floppy-haired cartoon kids, a poor boy and a rich girl, who are on their way to join the circus. After causing a considerable amount of public panic, the dinosaurs and kids retreat to the Eccentric Circus that's pitched its tents in Central Park, run by a man named Professor Screweyes.
It is around this point that the movie jumps from a plausibly pitched kid's flick right into psychologically-scarring nightmare territory. The first thing the kids do in order to join the circus is to sign a contract in their own blood, always a promising start to any mentor-student relationship. The Professor has plenty of hobbies to keep him busy, including getting into children's dreams to see what their nightmares are about, using his Brain Drain machine to de-volve the two child protagonists into chimpanzees, reversing the dinosaurs to their vicious base natures, and keeping large amounts of birds around because they scare him. The voice cast, including the likes of John Goodman, Jay Leno, Martin Short, Julia Child, Walter Cronkite, Larry King, and Yeardley Smith (better known as Lisa Simpson), just adds to the head-scratching over how this got past any executives at Spielberg's Amblimation Studio.
Thankfully, the generation that viewed this horror was uplifted by the blissful happy ending, in which the dinosaurs are saved by the kid's love for them, and the evil Professor is...eaten by vicious crows.
The fact that the movie tacitly and boldly presents the reality of the theory of evolution may have also had a hand in its poor reception by a US audience (it was not released internationally). Can’t have the kiddies wondering whether Rex made it onto Noah’s ark! It wasn’t even released on DVD until 2009.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
(Fun fact: there's no question mark in the title, due to marketing concerns in the late 1980s that titles with question marks make less money. Say what.)
The trope namer for anything mixing live action and animation,
Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a one-of-a-kind film. In the world of Roger Rabbit, the Toons of 1947 Hollywood co-exist with humans, but not with equal rights or privileges. Bob Hoskins plays Eddie Valiant, an alcoholic detective still mourning his brother's violent death at the hands of a Toon, who is reluctantly called back into action when popular star Toon Roger Rabbit is accused of murder. The movie serves up homages to film noir, Los Angeles, Tex Avery, and early Disney, and marks a high point in the careers of Robert Zemeckis, animation director Richard Williams, as well as actors Bob Hoskins and the indomitably daffy Christopher Lloyd (not to mention, audio-lush Kathleen Turner as Roger's smoking-hot wife, Jessica Rabbit). Despite the volumes of controversy that came out of the production (a worthwhile piece of film history, for anyone interested), Roger Rabbit is almost single-handedly credited with kick-starting the renaissance of animation at Disney, and in the US in general.
Arguably, one of the reasons it became a classic is because the original cut, and the tie-in short cartoons that were spooled out with it, are full of enough visual and verbal innuendo that teenagers could enjoy it without feeling embarrassed. If you're wondering what I'm talking about, or if you've missed something, chances are you have; the network television edit of Roger Rabbit puts the snip on a lot of the more obvious jokes. In fact, rumor has it one of the reasons that the film is not “PG-13” (it’s PG) is because the rating had just been invented in 1984, and was still largely undefined, and the MPAA felt an "R" was to harsh to slap on a, well, cartoon. (It is on record that the studio and director had disagreements over how risque some of the material appeared.)
Conclusion? Roger Rabbit's not really bad, Mr. Eisner. It's just drawn that way.
If you've ever seen
Cool World, you might be wondering what it's doing on a list of childhood cartoons. That would be because it's a prime example of what Ghettoization can do to a non-conventional piece of animation. It can land your very adult movie in the kids section. As you may have already guessed, Cool World might be animated (it's even accused of being a Roger Rabbit ripoff by some), but it's definitely not for kids.
In case the smoldering look ink-and-paint Kim Bassinger is giving us on the cover wasn't a clue, Cool World is directed by Ralph Bakshi, a man whose animated, R-rated (and, in some cases, X-rated) filmography could easily dominate this list. The plot centers around a live-action cartoonist recently released from a prison sentence (he was incarcerated for murdering his wife's lover…charming) who is zapped into his own comic-book creation. This cartoonist was more the Eightball cult variety than a Marvel lackey, and the animated world he ends up in is as dark, demented, and chaotic as they come. Central to this high court of cuckoo is queen bee Holli Would, a Tex Avery wet dream in white lingerie whose only wish is to become a 'Noid - that is, a flesh-and-blood human being. How is she to achieve such a miraculous transformation? By tricking our cartoonist anti-hero (played by Gabriel Byrne, by the way) into having sex with her. A young Brad Pitt completes the ensemble as a WWII vet turned cop stuck in the Cool World limbo for decades, whose job consists of making sure that 'Noids don't have sex with Doodles. Besides being plain strange, their crossing over could effectively trigger a multi-dimensional apocalypse.
In case you were curious, the cut available in most video stores in the 90s just barely squeaked by with a PG-13 rating. Sounds like just the thing to keep young charges busy for an afternoon, doesn't it? Besides, if they finish up too early for you, you could always pop in the video game adaptation. Talk about your mixed marketing messages.
Chances are, at some point, you were left alone to watch
Watership Down, the 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams' groundbreaking fantasy novel about rabbits. You read right. Rabbits. It is precisely because the protagonists are animated rabbits that your caretakers, whether they were babysitters or busy parents, left you, possibly you and your siblings, or even yourself and other neighborhood children, all alone to watch their on-screen antics.
As anyone not familiar with the film may have already guessed, this was a huge mistake. Welcome to the wonder of the Animation Age Ghetto.
From it’s stylish opening to its solid main components, Watership Down is a beautifully animated, beautifully portrayed film. It is, as discussed, about rabbits. It also contains harrowing representations of lives lived in constant fear, brutal warfare between animals (effectively, mass bunny genocide), large groups of sentient characters dying by suffocation, traumatic flashbacks, traumatic prophetic visions, and more than one upsetting principle's death. Adams’ original book depicted a wholly believable group of beings with their own involving character dynamics, and an intricate creation mythology that nicely underscores key plot moments, right up to the end. The film version is a worthy and faithful companion, in every respect, and that includes the book’s unflinching story content. Add in the detailed, highly concentrated animation style, and you have a classic. Like so many great classics, however, it’s just not one I’d leave kids to watch alone.
The Last Unicorn
Another case of awkward literary adaptation turned childhood movie memory,
The Last Unicorn is based on Peter S. Beagle's 1968, era-echoing fantasy novel about a unicorn informed that she is the last of her kind. Naturally, questing ensues. For anyone turned off by the placement of "Unicorn" in the title, they might want to reserve judgement, as, befitting its source, The Last Unicorn is one of the darker children's films to emerge from the 1980s. Amalthea, the titular unicorn, is imprisoned by a carnival of supposed mythological wonders, befriends one of the more bumbling magicians in the genre, Schmendrick, and fights a fire elemental, among other trials, all to attempt to free the rest of the unicorns, who have been imprisoned in the sea by an evil king.
For those who remain unconvinced, The Last Unicorn strongly portrays themes of harrowing regret, the cruelty of humankind, and traumatic emotional shock, all in addition to on-screen death. That fire elemental, the Red Bull, is a demonic cross somewhere between the Merrill-Lynch Bull lit aflame and Tolkein's Balrog on the "oh crap" scale of foes. Subjugation and imprisonment (to say nothing of threatened extinction) of a species is hefty fare for a kid's film, and the weight of its subject matter has more than merited its cult film status. The Last Unicorn is still a subversion of the fluffier reputation that unicorns (and films containing them) have come to embody.
My Little Pony is only just starting to catch up.
We're glad someone else remembers this bizarre 1994 box-office dud, because we were beginning to think we'd invented it in a bout of childhood fever-dreaming.
The Pagemaster is one of those perpetually confounding animated films that is bookended by a barely-there live action framing device. It follows the adventures of Richard (played by a Macaulay Culkin at the height of his early-90s powers), a young geek forced to ride to the hardware store to pick up more nails for the treehouse his father is building. True to ludicrous form, he ends up riding, on his bike, through a cinematically torrential rainstorm, and taking shelter in the haunted house equivalent of a library. In this dark and strange place (tended by non other than our recurrent current Powergrid cameo, Christopher Lloyd), Richard is transformed into a cartoon version of himself, and told that he must face the genres of Horror, Adventure, and Fantasy in order to win his freedom.
Putting aside the episodic, unusual plot, The Pagemaster is memorable for its remarkable stunt 90s casting (Whoopi Goldberg, Leonard Nemoy, and Patrick Stewart all make voice acting appearances). More than that, it might have struck a cord with all the bicycle-riding bookworms out there who wouldn't have minded escaping into a cartoon world where literary references run amok and books are your friends.
Not that anyone who writes for The Mary Sue could speak from personal experience or anything. No siree.
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