Up for consideration:
Fritz the Cat (1972), Ralph Bakshi, Traditional
Charlotte’s Web (1973), Hanna-Barbera, Traditional
Fantastic Planet (1973), René Laloux/ Jiří Trnka Studio, Cutout
Robin Hood (1973), Disney, Traditional
The Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (1974), Karel Zeman, Traditional
Mattie the Goose Boy (1976), Pannonia Film Studio, Traditional
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), Disney, Traditional
The Rescuers (1977), Disney, Traditional
Watership Down (1978), Martin Rosen, Traditional
I also got an nomination for The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), but upon examining the movie, I felt that it will be better served if I put it on the list of movies which mix animation with live-action (yes, I will discuss those one day, too). There are not that many to begin with, after all.
I admit, I had kind of a hard time to sort through those. There are some really well known movies on this list, but I had to narrow it down and kick at least four movies off the list. And since I didn’t want more than two Disney movies on it, Robin Hood was the first one to go. Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie to bits. But if someone would ask me which one of Disneys traditionally animated movies has the worst animation, I would point to this one in a heartbeat.
The next one I kicked off the list is Fritz the Cat. I am sorry Bakshi fans, but I don’t really see that much merit in his work. The only thing which made this movie famous is that it happened to show some shockingly sex-heavy and violent scenes. And I want more from my movies.
Fantastic Planet was the next to go. Some really interesting designs (which in fact reminded me of Yellow Submarine), a really great basic idea for a story (it is about humans which are treated like pets on an alien planet) but the execution and the eventual ending was a giant let-down.
The Adventures of Sindbad the Sailor was certainly worth the watch, but it is one of those movies which consists of beautiful animation paired with a relentless and unnecessary narrator. How do I know that the narration is mostly pointless? Well, I was forced to watch the movie in Spanish and while I did learn the basics of this language way, way back, I have forgotten enough that I should have missed some important plot points. Instead the movie turned out to be a great refreshment of my language skills, since the visuals more or less confirmed that I interpreted the text correctly. As I said before, if the narrator isn’t needed, he should simply shut up.
Either Way this leaves us with this:
Charlotte’s Web (1973)
Mattie the Goose Boy (1976)
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
The Rescuers (1977)
Watership Down (1978)
I think this is the most diverse group I had so far. This should be fun. But before I start, a few words about Mattie the Goose Boy, since I think that is the movie most people won’t be familiar with. I am really glad that I could put it on the nomination list because it is the one example of Hungarian animation I can comment on, mostly because I actually own the movie – on Betamax. I have been searching for years for a proper DVD copy of it (In German and Hungarian, naturally), but without success. What I was able to see from the other Hungarian productions made me suspect that they are somewhere in the ballpark of Mattie the Goose Boy quality wise. And I would really love to see them all. Do you hear me, Hungary? I want a nice little collection of those movies! Now!
But let’s see how the one movie I do know holds up against other productions.
- Story: Mattie the Goose Boy happens to be the movie which sticks out the most story-wise, since it is the only one not based on a book or book series. Instead it is based on a poem by Mihály Fazekas. What it does have in common with the other movies, though, is the slightly episodic nature of the story. It is about a Goose Boy which gets unfairly punished by a tyrannical Lord with a beating and swears to take revenge three times. Years later, after having studied abroad, he comes back and does exactly that, tricking the Lord three times. It is a simple, but very satisfying story, which was originally designed to advice the noble to not treat the peasants poorly, but still works in a more general context as a message about not misusing your power and never underestimate the people you deal with.Charlotte’s Web is naturally based on the book of the same name and tells the story of Wilbur, a young pig. The movie basically has a very boring and a very strong half. The boring part is the beginning with Fern taking care of him as a piglet, the strong part starts as soon as he is taken away from her and he encounters Charlotte, a spider who does everything in her power to rescue his life.The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh more or less a Package movie, but one done right. It tells three stories about Winnie the Pooh which are then rounded up with a really good conclusion. It is straight from the book, and I really appreciate the Disney didn’t change it despite being a somewhat sad but also very thoughtful moment.The Rescuers is based on a book series I never read, but as far as I can tell, Disney mostly lifted the basic principle and some characters from the books and then wrote their own story. It nevertheless feels sometimes as if the writers had ideas for scenes which they then shoehorned into the story. For example the scene in the zoo feels like a detour, as does the one when they try to hide in Medusa’s luggage and the scene with the organ doesn’t really bring the story forward either. But in a strange twist, those detours serve the movie really well, since it is a detective story. An investigation shouldn’t be straightforward, it should be a struggle. Plus, those scenes are some of the best in the movie. The luggage scene is very action-laden, the one with the organ is one of the funniest things Disney has ever done and the scene in the cave (which only happens in the first place because a message gets delayed) is one of the most suspenseful Disney has ever done.
Watership down is a very condensed version of a very, very thick book (yep, I read it). But the writers managed to pick the most important elements perfectly. Thematically, it is easily the most sophisticated of the five, since it is basically comparing different political structures with each other, with some strong religious commentary thrown in. It also has some very shocking scenes in it which parents wouldn’t expect of a movie with cute, fluffy rabbits in it. But they never feel overdone, more like reminders that this isn’t some sort of fairy tale world in which a happy end is a given. Which raises the stakes quite nicely.
- Characters: As good as the themes and the plot of Watership down are, it’s characters are more on the okay scale. Most of them archetypes. There is the old leader who dooms his people through inaction, there is the decadent one, the tyrannical one and finally the good one who has enough vision to solve problems before they become too dire. You have the prophet, the comic relief aso. None of those characters are boring or unlikable, but they are also not exactly sticking out either, with the exception of Bigwig. Since he is the “doubter” as well as the protector of the group, he is the one which experiences the most character development. I am also not sure what I should think about the voice cast overall. Perhaps it is because they are constantly whispering (which really underlines the constant danger the protagonists are in), but they come off as a little bit flat.Voice acting is also a problem with Mattie the Goose-boy, at least if you try to watch the English version (which apparently exist, I once saw a few snippets of it). Don’t. Watch the original with subtitles (the German version is quite good, too). It is another movies filled with archetypes, but with less characters overall. There is the stupid tyrant, his right hand, a lazy soldier which turns up as comic relief and Mattie himself with his goose. He is portrayed as a smart character, but he is mostly smart because everyone else just acts so unbelievable stupid. And yet, there is something likable about him. I think mostly he conducts his revenge so calmly, while still having fun doing it. It never feels as if he is ruled by anger, he just feels that doing what he does is right. And while he is enjoying himself, he never comes off as cruel.Speaking of stupid characters, The many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is full of them. Not a bad stupid, just a “that’s how a child might think” stupid. Many characters are the embodiment of a character trait, which then gets immediately undermined by the story. For example, Eeyore is portrayed as gloomy but even though he usually sees the negative in everything, he spends a whole segment searching for a new house for Owlet. Owlet is supposed to be the smart one, but his advices are never helpful in the slightest. Rabbit is a control freak and considers himself the grown up one the other characters, but he is actually the most narrow-minded of them and often acts very childish as a result of his desire for control. Tigger always claims to be able to do everything and yet he constantly fails in more or less everything other than being able to find the way home. Piglet is afraid of everything and nevertheless the bravest character of them all. The most important character of all, though, is not Pooh, not even Christopher Robin, it’s the narrator. What makes this movie really stick out is the way it is constantly breaking the fourth wall. Pooh is talking with the narrator, walking through book pages, at one point Tigger even ask the narrator to help him out.The Rescuers mostly shine because of the main characters. I already honoured Bianca once in my other blog, and explained why her relationship with Bernard works that well. The other characters are less memorable, but they work. Medusa and Snoops will never be named as belonging to the big Disney villains, but their interaction is half of the fun in the movie.
The characters in Charlotte’s Web are a mixed bag. Charlotte herself, Templeton, the Goose, they work fine. The others are more forgettable. And Wilbur, well, he is a little bit self-absorbed. Understandably so to a certain degree, especially since he is still growing up and learning, but characters which are nice but naïve are dime to dozen and never make the most compelling of protagonists.
- Music: Hanna-Barbera snatched up the Sherman Brothers. Do I need to say more? This said, this is not exactly their best work. I love “Deep in the Dark” as well as “Mother Earth and Father Time”. But I can certainly do without songs like “Zuckerman’s famous Pig” which do nothing but add some running time.Speaking of which, they also worked on the soundtrack for Winnie the Pooh. Overall not their best work either (well, their best work is Mary Poppins), but here the songs are better placed, they are all at the very least serviceable, and the title song is a relentless earworm.None of the other movies are musicals, not even The Rescuers. Oh, there is a lot of singing, but with one exception (which is justified), all the songs are sung from the off. They are also a little bit unusual for Disney. Instead of expressing feelings or dreams, those are songs full of sentiments, good wishes and prayers. I especially like “Someone’s waiting for you”.But it is hard to beat the talent which came together for Watership Down. The instrumental Music is from Angela Morley and Malcom Williamson (yes, THE Malcom Williamson, and yes, he already was Master of the Queen’s Music at this point), the one song of the movie is from Simon and Garfunkel. “Bright eyes” was written specifically to for the movie and became a very successful hit single. And for a good reason. Just listen:
The only movie without any song is Mattie the Goose-Boy. It also didn’t have the budget to hire highly prolific musicians. But it had a smart director who decided to go for something already existing and fitting: Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. To be specific, it is mostly Dance 15 which is used to great effect.
- Animation: We have basically three categories of animation quality. Disney thankfully decided to make an effort again after Robin Hood and brought not exactly their A game but the best which was possible on a reasonable budget. Though that doesn’t keep them from reusing old animation, especially in The Many Adventure of Winnie the Pooh. More or less the entire Heffalumps and Woozles sequence is lifted from Dumbo. But overall, I really like the style of the movie. It is directly inspired by the book, which gives it a very laid back feeling.In The Rescuers, the backgrounds are sometimes a little bit sketchy, but I do dig the character animation, even though their designs are not terrible original.Charlotte’s Web and Mattie the Goose-Boy are both movies which allowed themselves some short-cuts for their animation. To be fair, Charlotte’s Web might contain some of the best animation Hanna-Barbera ever put on film. But that isn’t saying much. The backgrounds often lack detail, character designs are mostly very run-off-the-mill, some scenes on the farm look likes they have been directly lifted from Mary Poppins and the movements are just fluent enough that you can’t call them limited anymore.In the case of Mattie the Goose-Boy it is obvious that the budget was not that high, but it is also obvious that the animators used what they had to great effect by concentrating on the important details and repeating animation in a context in which it doesn’t look unnatural.
Watership Down is somewhere in-between. On the one hand it always bothered me that even though the background shows a lot of nature, there is barely any movement in it. What should feel like an living environment often feels a little bit stale. On the other hand though when the animation goes creative, it goes really creative. You could show me any scene from the mythological sequences and I would recognize them immediately, because they are so distinctive.
Okay, I take it back, this isn’t fun. This selection leaves in quite a fix, because all those movies are really good in their own way. But the ones which offer the little bit more in terms of creativity and art are The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Watership Down. And honestly, I think they are equally good. Watership Down may be a little bit less polished, but it is also more challenging. But then The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh might be the best children (not family) movie ever made.
I admit, I might make this decision for the wrong reason, but here it goes: In the end, I always admire ambition. And while both of those movies are deserve all the admiration in the world, The many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh isn’t particularly ambitious. This is Disney playing it safe, so safe that they released the segments of the movies before putting them together in one movie. I therefore declare Watership Down to be the winner.