The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of the early 1980s

 

Okay, time to cover the period I initially skipped, starting with the first half of the 1980s (meaning 1980 to 1984). All in all a quite exciting period. Not only was Don Bluth challenging Disney, Mayazaki was also involved in his first movie production. It is the start of what I dubbed the Multi-Age. And it did start with a bang.

Up for Consideration:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Plague Dogs (1982), Martin Rosen, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Les Maîtres du temps (1982), René Laloux, Traditional

Barefoot Gen (1983), Madhouse, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Yep, that is quite an impressive list, which I have to shorten a little bit. Let’s stat with Les Maîtres du temps. Remember what I said about the last Laloux movie? That it had an interesting concept but a wonky execution? Well, I need to repeat the assessment. I love the idea of a science fiction movie about a crew trying to reach a little boy who is alone on a foreign planet, trying to keep him from danger by communicating with him. But the movie isn’t focussed, the characters change constantly based on what is needed for the story and a very stupid twist is thrown into the mix at the very end.

The second is The Plague Dogs. I have a lot of respect for this movie, especially since it is one of the few cases in which the movie version actually has the more challenging ending compared to the book version. But it lacks the more poetic aspects Watership Down had, the animation as well as the voice acting are worse and the story as a whole is so relentlessly bleak that it kills every bit of investment I might have had in the characters. I don’t mind depressing when it is done well, but an overload it only causes a feeling of numbness in me. I would say that it is even more bleak than Barefoot Gen, and that movie is about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima!

Though I scratched Barefoot Gen off the list, too, not because of its subject matter. I actually think that the movie tells a great story. But I like neither the animation nor the character designs. It is just so odd to see a story like this told with characters in it which might come from a random sport anime. Both aspects really drag this movie down. In another playing field it as well as The Plague Dogs would have made the list, but in thise one, there are four movies which are definitely stronger.Nominees-1980th-early

Nominated:

The Fox and the Hound (1981), Disney, Traditional

The Secret of Nimh (1982), Don Bluth, Traditional

The Last Unicorn (1982), Rankin/Bass, Traditional

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  (1984), Hayao Miyazaki/Topcraft, Traditional

Disney and Miyazaki made the list mostly based on their animation, Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass mostly based on offering strong characters. But what about the stories of those movies?

  • The Story:  So, we have three movies based on books and one based on a Manga – though as far as I understand the Manga was mostly written to make the movie a possibility. The funny thing is that I have read neither of those books, though I do know that The Last Unicorn is the only adaptation which bothers to stick somewhat close to the source text. As far as I know, it basically only cuts out some subplots and leaves out some (arguably important) explanations. But let’s forget the books as well as the Manga and focus on the question if those movies work.The Fox and the Hound is problematic. It starts well and it has a great finale, but some of the steps taken to reach this finale are a little bit wonky. The main problem is that Copper’s turn to suddenly hating Tod doesn’t really make that much sense, especially if you consider that Chief survives. Even if he had died it would have been a hard sell, since Tod isn’t directly responsible for his injury in the first place. Copper swearing to kill him is a really extreme reaction. Also, there is a whole subplot which has nothing to do with anything. As much fun as hunt for caterpillar is occasionally, it is just a giant filler.

    The Secret of Nimh shows Don Bluth’s tendency to episodic storytelling, but in this movie, it works, since everything ties back to the one big goal, rescuing Timothy’s life. It also never looses sight of the main theme of the movie which is not, as one might suspect, questions of humanity or the moral behind experiences on animals but the true nature of bravery. This in mind it is even forgivable that the movie throws in magic into the mix out of nowhere. It doesn’t really fit the story of rats which obtained human intelligence, but it does provide the key (see what I did there?) to the true centre of the story.

    The Last Unicorn is telling a very traditional story while cleverly subverting a lot of fantasy tropes. Here the wizard is not all-powerful, one of the main heroes is a middle-aged woman and the heroic knight doesn’t impress anyone with the killing of a dragon. It is an interesting discussion of myths and the roles they play in our lives.

    Nausicaä (no, I don’t intend to write the whole title every time) feels a little bit overwrought. There are so many characters and storylines compressed in that movie, it feels overly long and rushed at the same time. Granted, the running time of 117 minutes is longer than usual. Most animated movies keep it somewhere around the 90 minutes mark. But this one either needed around 20 minutes more or one turn in the story less. Thematically it is about the relationship between humans and nature. Miyazaki is a little bit obsessed with the theme. Sometimes he handles it exceptionally well, but in this case he falls more on the preachy side of things. Not annoyingly so, but the moral is a little bit too much in your face for my taste.

 

  • The Characters: Well, I already mentioned that the strength of The Secret of Nimh and The Last Unicorn lies in the characters. In fact, Mrs Brisby was the first female character I ever discussed in my other blog, Honoring the Heroine. But I appreciate the other characters, too. Well, with the possible exception of Jeremy. He doesn’t annoy me, but other than bringing Mrs. Brisby to the owl, he is a really useless and distracting character. Also, I think the voice acting in the English version could be better. But the writing for those characters, especially Mrs Brisby, is so strong, that it is only a minor point.I haven’t gotten around yet to write an article about Molly Grue, but she is certainly on the list. I just love the scene in which she asks the Unicorn why she didn’t appear when Molly was still young and innocent. Schmendrick is a  very sympathetic character in his eagerness to please. Everyone else works just fine. Mama Fortuna stands out, I think mostly because she is voiced by Angela Lansbury. But what I like the most is that the movie manages to portray the Unicorn as compassionate but foreign.

    Nausicaä is a little bit of a controversial character. Since she is practically portrayed as the messiah of her people (and the movie is really not subtle in this regard), she is sometimes seen as a Mary Sue. I disagree with the notion. Now, I do think that she would be a little bit more interesting if she were a little bit more flawed. The one scene in which she does something questionable is when she kills the soldiers who murdered her father in a fit of rage. It is a little bit odd how she suddenly feels guilty and after that the moment is never mentioned again. The other characters, well, let’s put it this way: I think I would really like all of them if the movie would spend more time on them. It feels like they all are getting established and then immediately showed aside until the final confrontation.

    The Fox and the Hound has two strong protagonists in Tod and Copper, two equally strong antagonists in Slade and Chief (plus a terrifying bear) and a lot of characters which only seem to be there to fill time. But then, the heart of this movie is the relationship between Tod and Copper, so the focus is exactly where it should be.

 

  • The Soundtrack: Excuse me while I gush a little bit. I love, love, love the Soundtrack form The Secret of Nimh. That is Jerry Goldsmith at his finest (even though it was the first time he scored an animated feature). It’s magical, scary, oppressive, heart-wrenching, whatever is needed in any given scene. And the main theme (and song) is one of those relentless earworms which I will most likely hum the rest of the week now that I listened to it again.Speaking of earworms: I never really thought about it beforehand, but the soundtrack of Nausicaä might be my favourite of all the Studio Ghibli ones. It is as if it is drawing the world of Nausicaä in music. And the vocal theme song is yet another of  those hard to forget tunes.

    As is the main theme of The Last Unicorn. “I’m alive…I’m aliiiiiiiiive!”  The style might be an strange choice for a fantasy movie, but for this more oddball approach to the genre it is a good fit. Mostly. Here is a fun fact: For the German version of the movie, “Now that I am a woman” was kept in the original language, but it was played more as a background music with a voice-over added which translated the lyrics of the song. The result sounds like a poem, which fits the melancholic mood of the scene perfectly. But in the English version, sung like a pop song, it is a little bit grating.

    The worst one out in this selection is clearly The Fox and the Hound. The only song which really works is “Goodbye  may seem forever”. Otherwise the soundtrack falls somewhere between okay and cringeworthy.  Normally you can trust that even in the worst Disney movies, at least the soundtrack is good. I am not sure what went wrong here. Perhaps Buddy Baker had trouble with the medium?

 

  • The Animation: I feel like a kid in a candy shop! The Fox and the Hound can be considered the first movie in which Disney struggled out of their slump and started to put some real effort (and money) into the animation. The landscapes are beautiful and then there is the bear. Pixar really should take notes. That’s how a truly terrifying bear looks like.The Secret of Nimh is Don Bluth showing off what he can do, and the result is gorgeous, especially when Mrs. Brisby visits the rats. But in a way, I like the dark scenes even better than the colourful and flashy ones. The use of colour to set a certain mood is just spot on in this movie.

    Nausicaä is creativity pure. I guess one of the reasons I wanted this movie to be longer is that I would have loved to just watch this incredible world a little bit more. The character animations are sometimes a little bit too cartoony, but that is really the only (nit-picky) criticism I have.

    I guess The Last Unicorn is the weakest in this category. The smaller budget shows. But I like the basic art and the animation does have its stand-out moments. Especially whenever the Red Bull turns up.

Well, Disney had easily the weakest offering of those four. The Last Unicorn cold have been an impressive movie, if there had been a bigger budget and perhaps one last rewrite of the script to smooth out some minor points. Nausicäa is a very strong movie, especially when it comes to its animation. But in the end, I think The Secret of Nimh beats them all. It has a strong story, an outstanding well-written main character, an unbelievable moving soundtrack and impressive animation. It certainly deserves the title as the best animated movie made in the early 1980s.

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9 responses to “The Swanpride Award: The Best Animated Movie of the early 1980s

  • The Animation Commendation

    Yeah, even though I don’t like it, I’d probably havta give the award to The Secret of NIMH as well.

    The problem I had with The Plague Dogs was that it just couldn’t keep my attention! Half of me wanted to just turn it off and do something else and the other half of me wanted to just continue watching it. It was such a struggle to watch!

  • anii654

    I have not watched The Secret of NIMH, but I have heard good things about it. The Fox and the Hound definitely is not a good film, so I am glad that it did not win.

    • swanpride

      I like The Fox in the Hound but then, it is a very special movie for me. It is the first movie I can remember seeing in theatres. Not the first one I actually saw, but the first I can remember.

  • Nat

    I agree. Even though I’ve only seen NIMH and Fox and the Hound, I would say Secret of NIMH is the stronger of the two. I might see The Last Unicorn, as it’s available on Netflix, and Nausicaa sometime.

  • Nat

    One of those movies I want to look at is The Adventures of Prince Achmed, as I’ve heard it’s the true first animated movie, not Snow White.

    • swanpride

      It’s a great movie, but a typical theatre movie…the best way to watch it is on the big screen and with a live orchestra playing. And you really need to commit to it. It is not the kind of movie you can watch while doing something else.

  • smilingldsgirl

    I agree with you Secret of Nimh by a landslide on this one.

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