The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of 1985 and 1986

Taken into consideration:

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

When the Wind Blows (1986), Jimmy Murakami, Traditional/Stop motion

Valhalla (1986), Peter Madson, Traditional

Honestly, what is the deal with animated movies during that period? Why are so many of them designed to depress the audience? Especially the English ones. I thought that Plague Dogs is bleak, but that is nothing against When the Wind Blows. Which I mostly put on the consideration list because it mixes different animation techniques, and I am always interested in movies which do that. This one doesn’t do it well at all, btw. I like neither the animation nor the voice acting nor the pacing. The story…well, if you ever really wanted to watch the consequences a Third World War would have, here is your chance. But I certainly won’t discuss this one in detail.

Valhalla is a Danish movie about Norse Mythology. It is one of those middling productions. There is nothing really bad about it, but also nothing really good either. It made me hope, though, that someone else will decide to tackle Norse Mythology at one point. Perhaps now might be the right time for it. Everyone is watching the comic book version of it, Vikings is a reasonable successful show, I think an animated movies based on some of the better myths might resonate with the audience.

In any case, I ended up with four movies.




The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985), Will Vinton, Claymation

Laputa Castle in the Sky (1986), Ghibli, Traditional

An American Tail (1986), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Disney, Traditional

The Adventures of Mark Twain is kind of the wild card in this line-up. The movie isn’t that well known, but it was for a long time (until Laika entered the frame) considered the best claymation movie. The other three, well, they are from three masters of animation. But I will discuss The Great Mouse Detective only very briefly. Mostly because I already did. If you want a detailed analysis of every aspect of the movie, you can read that article. Here I will only mention it briefly in relation to the other movies.

  • The Story: I would describe most of those movies as an adventure, with the exception of the one which has actually the word in its title. The Adventures of Mark Twain is more an experience. It’s a homage to the famous author. And as such, it only works if you already know about him and his works. Otherwise you will feel totally lost in the countless references. Actually, even if you do know it is better to not try to think too much about it. It’s the kind of story-telling you either get immersed in or you wonder why you are wasting time with this nonsense.

    Laputa on the other hand is adventure pure. The movie starts in medias res and moves from one action scene to the next. Perhaps it is a little bit too much adventure. There is a point at which the constant pattern of Sheeta escapes/is nearly captured/ escapes/ is captured by Musca/ escapes again/ is captured again/ escapes again becomes a little bit too repetitive. But otherwise it is a fun watch.

    Speaking of repetitiveness, ever noticed how often Feivel just misses encountering his family? An American Tail really goes out of its way to play with the emotion of the audience. When Feivel finally finds his family, it is really difficult not to bawl with them. But the emotional aspect  is just one side of the movie. You can watch it like a child and just enjoy the journey. But once you have acquired some knowledge about the history of America, you develop a new understanding for the movie. It shows a glimpse of the process of immigration without being too into the face about it. The reasons why a family might risk it, the hopes which get dashed by reality, how the plight of the needy is used by scrupulous people and the struggle to find a place in the new society. If I have one point of criticism, it is the way characters phase in and out of the movie. Take Tony. He encounters Feivel in one scene, turns totally randomly up again a few scenes later for a short romantic subplot and then more or less phases into the background.

    I think I like the story of The Great Mouse Detective the best, even though it does require to ignore some oddities.  But it has the most variety, offering a number of different settings and scenarios. And the best climax.


  • The Characters: Mark Twain is a fascinating personality, even when he is made out of clay. All the other characters in this movie are just there. They are just references to Mark Twain stories, otherwise they are as interesting as, well, a clump of clay. Whatever potential those characters have, it was never formed.

    Sheeta is a surprisingly engaging main character, considering that she mainly gets kidnapped. As is Pazu. But my favourite is Captain Dora. I just love the idea to turn a pirate captain into an old woman. Though she might be the nicest pirate ever put on screen. Honestly, she doesn’t even care that all her efforts are nearly for nothing in the end because she likes Sheeta and Pazu so much. This alliance is kind of odd, but since I enjoy every moment the movie spends on Captain Dora, and don’t mind too much.

    As much as I complained about the mass of characters in Feivel, none of them are forgettable. Even Bridget is kind of interesting in her engagement against the cats. But the heart of the movie is the relationship between Feivel and his father. If those character don’t work, the whole movie fails. Spoiler alert: they do. Feivel is exactly the right mixture of the wide-eyed innocence you would expect in a child, cleverness and determination. It is mostly the optimism which makes his father likable in the beginning. Seeing him sad and broken when he believes that Feivel died, breaks my heart every time.

    The Great Mouse Detective has it really easy in this regard. You really have to try to make Sherlock Holmes a boring character. But Basil is one of the most entertaining depiction of him and Rattigan is one of the best versions of Moriarty.


  • The Music: Usually I am listening to the soundtrack of the various movies while I write this segment. This proofed to be difficult for The Adventures of Mark Twain, though. Apparently the movie doesn’t have a soundtrack? Well, it naturally has a score, but it was never released independent form the movie. And trying to remember the score, I can neither say that I particularly liked or disliked it.

    The score of Laputa makes me want to fly, though. And I have a slight fear out of highs. But just listening to it I feel the wind on my face and a sense of freedom.

    But the true earworm in this selection is “Somewhere out there”. While I hate the was it is sung in the movie itself, it is a wonderful tune in general. So wonderful that I tend to forget that there are actually a number of other songs, too. Or maybe I don’t want to remember. There was a time when I could hum them all, but this is a rare case of me falling out of love with a soundtrack with each passing year. Not the score though, just the majority of the songs.

    The Great Mouse Detective on the other hand shows that Disney has recovered from its lapse in judgement in the previous movies. This is an expertly scored movie, which uses the few songs in it very deliberately.


  • The Animation: Claymation isn’t exactly my favourite method of animation, especially not when it is still very visible what material was used. And frankly, some of the designs in The Adventures of Mark Twain are really disturbing, and not always intentionally so. The level of skill displayed here is impressive, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a pleasing to watch.

    I guess you know what will come now: I have to discuss a Studio Ghibli movie, so it is time to praise the creativity and the quality of the world-building. Consider it done. Great animations, great designs, nothing to complain about and a lot to love.

    An American Tail is Don Bluth at his finest. I especially like it whenever the movie allows us a glimpse of the human world showing the mouse equivalent. That is really cleverly done.

    The animation of the Great Mouse Detective on the other hand is good, but it is not the best Disney can do.


I admit freely: Whenever I make one of those consideration list, there is usually one movie which is the “expected winner” in the back of my mind. A movie which is so well known and so beloved, that it is hard to imagine that it will be knocked from the top spot, unless it encounters another movie which is just as beloved. But I also always try to keep an open mind when I examine the strength and weaknesses of said movies, and sometimes the result surprises myself. For example, I did expect The Lion King to make it to the final round.

In this case, An American Tail seemed to be the obvious pick for the win, unless there was a surprise gem between the movies I hadn’t watched before. It was, after all, the highest grossing animated movie not made by Disney during the time of its release – and one of those movies I obsessed over after I saw it. I must have watched it dozens of times in the first year I owned it. And yet, it wasn’t my choice in the end. First Laputa turned out to be a very positive surprise. And then I re-examine The Great Mouse Detective and realized how strong this movie truly is. So I ended up with another of those “I might pick something else on another day” situations. The deciding factor was the script of The Great Mouse Detective. This is a really well-written movie with equally well-written characters which never moves in circles like the other two movie do. Therefore it is my pick for today.



6 responses to “The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of 1985 and 1986

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