(1980s)

Felix the Cat (1988)

Here we go again. Every so often I’ll have a moment where I’ll go “Have I really been blogging about animation for X number of years without covering Y?” and this one’s a doozy.

So, ahem.

Have I really been blogging about animation for nine years without covering Felix the Cat? Because Felix the Cat is a pretty damn big deal in the history of animation.

Not the first cartoon character, but the first cartoon star, the first cartoon character able to draw a crowd on name recognition alone. The character was created in 1919 by Australian animator Pat Sullivan.

Or, as is now accepted by a majority of animation historians, by one of Sullivan’s animators Otto Messmer.

Honestly, researching this post taught me that Pat Sullivan was what people think Walt Disney was; a talentless credit-stealer and a nasty racist to boot. Anyway. Sullivan’s studio produced a rake of silent Felix shorts in the late teens and throughout the twenties and Felix was, for a time, a full on pop culture phenomenon. And you know what? With good cause. While simple, these shorts have a real charm and wit and I honestly think they hold up a lot better than a lot of later cartoons by Disney and Warner Bros from the early talkie era.

These shorts were also hugely influential on the field of animation in general, with the basic precepts of Felix’s design going on to influence American and Japanese animation right up to the present day, setting the template for characters as diverse as Mickey Mouse and Sonic the Hedgehog. And some people didn’t even bother with being “influenced” and just straight up fucking stole it.

Pictured: Julius the Cat, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ TOTALLY ORIGINAL CHARACTER.

But, by the end of the twenties a sinister new threat had emerged to challenge Felix’s place as the world’s preminent cartoon character: SYNCHRONISED SOUND.

Hear my dark melody, Cat. I whistle your doom.

Sullivan resisted the switch to sound for as long as he could, but eventually caved and started producing sound Felix cartoons. Unfortunately, these cartoons did not use synchronised sound and instead were pre-animated with music, dialogue and sound effects being added in post-production, which results in what animation aficionados call “really crap cartoons”. The new series of sound Felix cartoons were cancelled, the studio shuttered and Pat Sullivan spiralled into an alcoholic depression brought on by the death of his wife and died in his forties Jesus Christ that got so bad so fast.

A brief, utterly Disnified run of cartoons by Van Beuren studios in the thirties notwithstanding, Felix was seemingly a defunct property. Having failed to transition to the sound era, Felix disappeared from public view, presumably to a rambling mansion on Sunset Boulevard where he could brood and slip into obsession and madness.

“I know you! You’re Felix the Cat! You used to be big!”
“I am big. It’s the cartoons that got small.”

Fast forward to the 1950s and Joe Oriolo, an animator and artist who’d worked with Otto Messmer on the Felix the Cat comic strip, created the Felix the Cat TV Show. This show was arguably the most influential and famous iteration of the character, introducing a host of concepts and characters that are now inextricably linked to Felix like the magic bag, the Professor and Poindexter. And if you love this cartoon…you do you. Personally I can’t stand it but then I’m pretty non-plussed by mid-century American TV animation as a general rule. But yeah, this series gave Felix his second bite of the super-stardom pie and also launched him to Spinal Tap levels of popularity in Japan.

So why did it take so long for Felix to make the leap to feature length animation? Well Pat Sullivan’s death had left Felix in legal limbo but Joe Oriolo was finally able to get full ownership of the character in 1970, probably because Joe Oriolo was an absolute snack.

“Hey doll, how about you give me the rights to YOUR pussycat?”

Oriolo pére passed away in 1985 but his son Don carried on the Felix legacy, finally bringing a full length Felix the Cat animated feature to movie screen in 1988.

Sorry, sorry, my mistake. The movie was completed in 1988 (using Hungarian animation) but only released in the United States in 1991. Very briefly. Before going straight to video.

Oh, and, fun bit of trivia. Researching for this post I first came across the phrase “abandoned movie”. Felix the Cat has been “abandoned” in the United States. What this means is that Felix the Cat DVDs are no longer sold in America. If you’re in America and you want a DVD of this movie you either have to buy it from overseas or get one of the original run of discs from the nineties which will cost you an arm and a leg.

And I know what you’re thinking!: “Mouse, this film that was animated in a second world totalitarian Communist state whose release was delayed by two years before getting a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run and then being consigned to home video hell before being full on abandoned at the side of the road in the new millenium sounds like a really good movie!”

Which is what I love about you, reader. Your unflagging optimism. But I’m afraid I have to crush your hopes with the greatest violence possible. How bad is this movie?

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“Some of it is very much me. Some of it isn’t.”

One of the most persistent and unkillable myths in the history of comics is the “saving” of Batman by Frank Miller. You’ve probably heard it. The Batman comics were just a giggling campy mess after the sixties TV show and it was only with Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that Batman became dark and gritty again. Cool story, but complete guano (and one I’m pretty sure I helped spread at a much earlier point in my career as a semi-professional nerd rodent). Truth is, the comics had been pushing back hard against the BIF BAM KAPOW image from as early as 1970 in an attempt to bring Batman back to his roots as a grim, brooding nocturnal hero.

What The Dark Knight Returns did do was bring that darker Batman that was already present in the comics to a much wider audience. DKR was published in 1986, the year that also saw the release of Watchmen, and the release of these two comics in the still relatively new graphic novel format made about as big an impact as it is possible for comics to make.

Batman was the first attempt to reframe Batman in the popular consciousness from the Adam West incarnation into something closer to his comic depictions. Did it succeed?

“Yeah. Yeah, just a bit.”

To put it another way, this is by far the single most influential depiction of Batman in any medium in the eighty year history of the character. This movie was where Batman went from “Flagship comic book character and star of a pretty popular TV show” to “Modern Secular God”. In terms of box office, merchandising revenue and pop culture impact it was on the Star Wars tier.  “Fine Mouse”, you say. “But what’s it done for us lately? Does it stand up?”

To which I say, “Yes. It does stand up. And then it flaps its wings, like a pretty, pretty butterfly.”

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Heathers (1988)

“Okay everyone, are we ready to review Don Hertzfeld’s “It’s Such a Beautiful Day?”

“Uh Mouse, we got a problem.”

“Oh, what’s up?”

“Well, it turns out “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” isn’t available on any of the main streaming sites.”

“Well, darn.”

“So you’re going to have to order the DVD instead.”

“Well, darn.”

“And the DVD’s not going to arrive until after the review is due to go up.”

“Well, darn.”

“Because the world’s in the grip of a global pandemic the likes of which has never been seen in living memory, the whole country is in lockdown and western civilization has been brought to its knees.”

“Well, darn.”

“So you’re going to have to review something else.”

“Okay, Heathers is next in the queue, let’s just do that.”

“Wait…what was the last one you said?”

Heeeeeeeeeey so things have been a little more immediately apocalyptic around here than usual, huh?

Hope you all are staying safe and indoors. For obvious reasons, this review is going to be on the short side.

“What reasons? You’ve been at home for the last week, if anything you should have MORE written than usual.”

“Yeah, but I was working from home and you’d be amazed how much work you have to do when you’re not being distracted by office politics.”

Anyway, this is going to be less of a plot point by plot point recap and more…a sort of…movie review if you can imagine such a thing.

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

As a general rule, I don’t watch the “Making Of” features of the movies I review, because:

a) The movie should be able to stand alone as a discrete work without additional media required to appreciate it.

b) I’m hella lazy, y’all.

But after…experiencing the subject of this review, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension, I felt that I might need to read the manual. During the “Making of” there’s a moment where director WD Richter is asked what the movie is about and responds with a deep sigh and a muttered “Oh God…”

It’s that kind of movie.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension is what happens when a lot of very smart, very talented people decide to take twenty million dollars of someone else’s money and have as much fun as it is possible to have legally. This is a cult film. No, scratch that. This is a CULT film, engineered to be so from the atoms making up the film stock upward. You are either in on the joke, or you aren’t. And I have to confess, my first watch through I was very conscious of what I like to call “The Rocky Horror” effect, the sensation that you would really be enjoying the movie you are watching if you weren’t alone and stone cold sober. It’s not a “watch at home alone on a cloudy afternoon” movie. It’s a “crack open a few beers with some rowdy friends” movie. Or possibly a “watch under the influence of hallucinogens and then found a religion” movie.

What’s it about? Oh God.

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Ladyhawke (1985)

Hey everyone, before I introduce you to the wonderful Rutger Haur-blessed world of Ladyhawke, I need to explain why this review is a little on the short side. I don’t discuss my job on this blog because my employer has a fairly, shall we say, broad remit in policing what its staff say about them online and I try to err on the side of caution. That said, I may have hinted over the years that I am…

“A criminal mastermind?”

“Oh for goodness sake, I occupy a MINOR position in the Irish government.”

Currently, work is absolutely crazy owing to the ongoing spectacle of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland going boom boom in its big boy pants. A French minister recently joked that she’d named her cat “Brexit” because it keeps howling to be let out into the garden and then refuses to leave when the door is opened.

I would say that the metaphor is accurate, except that the cat also has a bomb strapped to it and I’m not sure the garden is far enough to be outside the blast radius.

Anyway… 

That’s why this review is a little short. As to why I’m only getting around to reviewing it years after the original request…that’s totally Brexit’s fault too. I swear.

***

Ladyhawke is an eighties fantasy movie with a cult following, he said, redundantly, because every eighties fantasy movie has a cult following. Find me a Wikipedia page for one of the breed that doesn’t include the words “cult following”. Can’t be done.

On dark nights, the adherents of Hawk the Slayer can be heard chanting in the woods, every solistice, the Cult of Krull sacrifices a virgin in a moonlit grove and don’t even get me started on what the Willow fans get up to. But Ladyhawke actually earns its cult status for two reasons:

1)      It was a massive flop on release.

2)      It’s actually quite good.

Now, let me qualify that. It’s good. But it’s eighties as fuck. In fact, take a look at the opening credits for me and imagine that it’s actually the start of a cop show about a hawk police officer busting cocaine cartels in Miami beach.

Image result for tubbs miami vice

“Dammit Ladyhawke! I may be your partner, but you crossed the line back there in that warehouse!”

“Until we take down Espinoza and the Marinos cartel, there IS no line!”

You’ll also notice some pretty high calibre talent in those credits. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer and Rutger Haur of course, Richard Donner who famously directed Superman and Stuart Baird, one of the most respected film editors in Hollywood. But then, he also directed Star Trek Nemesis, so fuck that guy.

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Flight of Dragons (1982)

Man, you guys do love your animated fantasies from the late seventies/early eighties don’t you? In fact, I’ve now reviewed enough of these things that they’re starting to run together. Which animated fantasy centring on wizards and a war between science and magic with seriously dodgy gender politics is this again? Nit?

“Yessum?”

“I need some kind of filing system.”

“I have waited many long years to hear you say those words. It was worth it.”

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The Return of the King (1980)

This review was requested by patron Allison. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Way back in the before times I reviewed Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an important step on my journey to realising that Ralph Bakshi is a pretty terrible filmmaker, his importance in the animated canon notwithstanding. Well, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (BLOTR, henceforth) was originally intended as part one of a two part series but United Artists never actually got around to making the sequel, despite the first movie turning quite a tidy profit. So Rankin-Bass, proud purveyors of “good enuff” animation, bought up the rights to Return of the KingRankin-Bass had previously done a made-for-TV version of The Hobbit (which I haven’t seen but have it on good authority is good enuff) and together with that movie and BLOTR they form a kind of loose trilogy, albeit the kind of trilogy with wildly different animation styles, voice actors and plots that only have a tenuous narrative continuity. Still, if you were living in a pre-Peter Jackson world and didn’t want to have to sit through three chapters of Tom Bombadil humble-bragging about how hot his girlfriend is, it did the trick.

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The Toxic Avenger (1984)

A Disney reviewer was asked by his brother to review a movie by the infamous Troma studios, and you won’t believe what happened next!

Actually, you probably will.

It’s garbage and I hated it.

“Ha ha ha aha! At last! I have defeated you!”

“Sigh. Hello, brother mine.”

“I knew requesting this review would finally crush your spirit!”

“Bitch, you haven’t crushed a damn thing.”

“What?! How can this be?!”

“Well firstly, because Anti-Depressants are AMAZING. But secondly, because you have fundamentally misunderstood the difference between different kinds of bad movie.”

So let’s talk about bad movies. Roughly speaking, bad movies can be broken into the following categories.

1)      Bad movies. Pretty simple. A movie that tries to be good but just fails. A comedy that is not funny, a thriller that is boring, a romance where you want all relevant parties to die in a fire. They’re common as muck and less useful.

2)      Good Bad movies. Movies that try to be good but are so bad that they’re entertaining. The Room, Plan 9, Birdemic what have you. Rare enough, but glorious.

3)      Good Good Bad movies. Okay, these are super rare. These are movies that are trying intentionally to ape Good Bad movies and do so in a way that makes them as entertaining as the real thing. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace would be a perfect example if it wasn’t a TV Show.

4)      Bad Bad movies. These are less movies than acts of assault. The makers purposefully tried to make the most offensively awful movie possible just because. Serbian Film, The Human Centipede…if, for some reason you don’t know what those are, don’t google them, trust me.

5)      Good Bad Bad movies. A Bad Bad movies that’s actually so baroquely excessive and ridiculous that you can’t help but be entertained by it.

6)      Bad Bad Bad movies. And here is where they did it and it’s just gross and pointless and really, really boring.

The Toxic Avenger belongs in that final category. If it was just a little more competent I’d probably be doing an epic all caps takedown and trying out some of my most ingenious, Rube-Goldberg like profanity. But here’s the thing. You ever see Little Shop of Horrors? You know the bit where Steve Martin’s a sadistic dentist and Bill Murray is the patient who gets off on tooth extractions? It’s just no fun if the movie’s into it. I’m watching the movie and the movie is yelling “LOOK AT ME! I SUCK! DON’T I SUCK?! LOOK AT HOW BAD I SUCK!” and I’m just there half watching while scrolling through my Facebook feed muttering “Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah. You sure do suck.”. I mean, why am I even here? The movie critiques itself.

Alright, so who are Troma? They were founded in 1974 by Lloyd Kaufman, Michael Herz and Satan (he’s a silent partner). Since their founding they’ve dedicated themselves to making independent films outside of the restrictions of the studio system, executive meddling, corporate pandering, technical competency, artistic talent and human decency. Troma have a reputation amongst their fans as plucky underdogs striking a blow against the bland corporatized studio system. A reputation that is utterly bullshit, by the bye. Firstly, Troma is a frickin’ merchandizing machine. For fruck’s sale, the Toxic Avenger had a Saturday morning cartoon with its own toyline!

I wish I was joking. God in heaven, I do.

Secondly, Troma is not the Anti-Hollywood, it’s Hollywood without any of its redeeming features. Like the very worst Hollywood fare Troma’s films traffic in senseless violence, casual misogyny, homphobia and racism. They just do it worse. If Hollywood is a McDonald’s, Troma isn’t a friendly little local Mom and Pop artisanal burger joint, it’s a cheap knockoff McDonald’s where the burgers are even worse for you and chef won’t stop taking a dump in a the deep fat fryer. That said, much like Roger Corman, Troma has been responsible for giving many screen talents their first break, with folks like James Gunn, Vincent D’Onofrio and Samuel L. Jackson all making their bones with the studio. Y’know, kinda like how WW2 was terrible but at least it gave us computers and space travel. The Toxic Avenger is by far Troma’s biggest hit and the face of their brand.

Truth in advertising, folks.

How bad is it? Let’s take a look.

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The Last Unicorn (1982)

Animation history is full of odd twists and turns and weird connections but one of the weirdest is that you can trace a direct line between this:

And this:

Rankin Bass is most famous for its stop motion Christmas specials but from the late sixties onwards they dabbled in feature length traditional animation. The Rankin Bass filmography is like an unfinished rollercoaster, a madcap frenzy of highs and lows before it all ends in the bloody, limb mangling, fiery catastrophe of 1999’s The King and I.

Ugh. Yeah. Probably. Some day.

But they did produce what is, by fairly solid consensus, a true classic with 1982’s The Last Unicorn, based on Peter S. Beagle’s book of the same name. While Rankin/Bass produced the film, the grunt work was actually farmed out to a Japanese company called Topcraft who’d later be hired by Hayao Miyazaki to animate Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the rest is history.

I get the feeling this movie was a much bigger deal in the States than it was in Ireland. I never saw it growing up, and I don’t remember anyone talking about it. But that pedigree alone was enough to make me curious.

Let’s take a look.

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The Adventures of André and Wally B. (1984)

In their book The Illusion of Life (still the Bible of animation 35 years after it was written), Disney legends Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas set out 12 principles of animation. The first and most important of these is called “Squash and Stretch”. Basically, it boils down to this: In animation, a form can change shape, but never volume. Observing this rule gives characters weight and solidity, and allows your brain to forget that you’re just watching a flat two dimensional image. As long as the character observes the same rules as an object in the physical universe, the brain perceives it as an object in the physical universe. In essence, it becomes real.

This rule was, for a long time, a hard barrier for computer animation. Early CGI could create solid three dimensional looking objects no problem, but they were always static. Rigid. To give the illusion of a living thing, an image has to not only be able to move but to change its shape while keeping its volume consistent and trying to do that with CGI in the early days would invariably cause any computer to throw up its hands in frustration and get back to plotting the enslavement of all mankind.  All that changed in 1984. Well, not the plotting enslavement thing. They’re still doing that.

"Sooooon..."

“Sooooon…”

So in 1984, Lucasfilm had a subdivison called The Graphics Group, a group of computer scientists who had been recruited out of NYIT by George Lucas, who had decided that computer generated imagery might be useful in creating special effects.

As sentences laden with prophetic doom go, that's right up there with "That night, Alois Hitler decided not to bother with a condom."

As sentences laden with prophetic doom go, that’s right up there with “That night, Alois Hitler decided not to bother with a condom.”

The Graphics Group decided to create a short to demonstrate that CGI could compete with traditional animation. And when I say “short”, I mean “short“. This thing clocks in at a whopping 86 seconds.

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