By Simon Paul Augustine
8. Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969).
Long before South Park broke out of DIY cartoon obscurity to become a cultural force, and You Tube allowed every aspiring animator to crawl out of the woodwork, independent animation was represented by things like this two minute national treasure. It was a burst of irreverence and innovation way back in the days when to see this sort of piece you had to set up a Super 8 or 16mm projector in the den to entertain folks for a special occasion - yes, handle actual celluloid (other short films like Hardware Wars, a satire of Star Wars featuring toasters battling other kitchen appliances, fell roughly in this same category). This is the family-oriented (but still edgy) animation equivalent of the stag films guys in the 50s had to play reel to reel for bachelor parties. But now thanks to technology, you can see it without a projector! BvG is a brief, one-joke quickie - but a wonderful one, and then stretched to maximum comic effect as the credits leisurely roll.
7. The Dirdy Birdy (1994).
John Dilworth, an Academy Award-nominated animator famous for the Cartoon Network series Courage The Cowardly Dog, made this highly memorable seven minute short that played at “Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Festival,” a terrific series that plays annually across the country. I saw The Dirdy Birdy about a decade ago at a Spike & Mike screening in Boston, just around the time Dilworth hit the big time on TV, even though he made this piece about four years before. The night I was there, the atmosphere was definitely wild, expectant, and probably drunken - and even before the lewd cartoons began a promoter's friend jumped up on stage and took his pants off (and even handled himself briefly) for benefit of the crowd, who cheered and groaned with delight and disgust. Not too often you get “exposed” to a felony before the start of a bunch of movie shorts, but given the subject of The Dirdy Birdy, in retrospect, it was entirely appropriate and fortuitous.
The film features a wonderfully charming, apparently delirious, ultra-exhibitionist bird (who looks like he was drawn by Salvador Dali) whose main goal in life is baring his fanny to a very perturbed cat who sits perched on a tree limb. Dilworth uses several interesting techniques (mixing photographs with animation), backgrounds reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi, spot-on music, and top-notch timing to make the battle between tush-exposer and exposee hilariously endearing. The bird's motives are mysterious, but the mooning machinations it employs against the victim (and obvious object of affection) are visually inventive and funny, managing to be irreverent but still somehow innocent.
6. Heavy Metal (1981).
Heavy Metal magazine has been a stalwart of sci-fi graphic fiction since the early seventies, featuring some of the finest fantasy writers and artists in the biz - Richard Corben, Harlan Ellison, Bernie Wrightson. Even Stephen King contributed. It was primarily a world made for immersion of the teenage male mindset - filled with dystopian horrors, hot Amazonian babes, robots, improbable weapons, angry satire, and graphic violence. By 1981, the magazine had enough clout to mount what in those days they called with great fanfare a "major motion picture." Like the mag, the film was an anthology of otherworldly stories, tied together by a frame tale concerning a glowing interstellar orb that opens a Pandora's Box of storytelling. Although it drags in places, and the humor is sometimes lackluster, for the most part it's a fun trip - a heady brew of dime-store mysticism, sex, satire, shock, and great rock & roll.
The half exploitation/half feminist tale of a female warrior's rite of passage in a mythic land, and "Den," the filmic version one of the mag's more popular series, are the most memorable vignettes. Famous voices are in there too - can you recognize them without checking out the credits? Music rights tied up a DVD release for years, but luckily now for all you in arrested development, it's readily available again!
5. Yellow Submarine (1968).
When The Beatles released their first feature, A Hard Day's Night, establishment critics were poised to bash it mercilessly and stem the tide of Beatlemania, simply because they resented its youth and ubiquity. They never got their revenge. That film opened to begrudging positive reviews, and in it is present all the elements that characterized it, and the Fab Four's career - charm, wit, sly humor, humanity. One of those gems that truly engages and freaks out - in a wholesome way - both the child and the childlike adult mind, Yellow Submarine, voiced by the lads themselves, is for the most part a success, but also terribly strange: evincing an echoey, disorienting, psychedelic world of Blue Meanies, sea voyages, and the cartoon versions of John, Paul, George and Ringo that is enough to give you a contact high. Oh yeah, the music's pretty good.
4. A Scanner Darkly (2006).
A story based on the writing of Phillip K. Dick, who, along with others at the forefront of psychologically daring science fiction like J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison, has in the past two decades provided a seemingly endless supply of material for screenplays and filmic adaptation. After Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report put him in the cinematic pantheon, Dick has recently been enshrined in the literary canon too, including meriting a prestigious inclusion in the Library of America book series.
In this text, he details a new kind of high-tech suit used by undercover police to nab drug dealers, who have overrun society. The outfit allows the officer to shift outward identity, and the scenes involving different personas morphing across the surface of the device are a great moment in animation. In Richard Linklater's film version, famous voices abound, and even Keanu Reeves doesn't ruin things. A worthwhile mind f*ck abounding in themes familiar to Dick and his colleagues Ballard and Ellison: identity "difficulty," psychological disorientation, oppressive and hypocritical societies hooked on their own stash, and justified existential paranoia. Linklater uses "Rotoscope," a technique in which animation is overlayed film of live actors, also employed to mixed effect before him by Bakshi (see #2). For Rotoscope follies of a more down to earth nature, see also Linklater's Waking Life.
3. Fantastic Planet (1973).
Ok, so it's not even American. It's technically French - and also Czechoslovakian. But I would be remiss in not telling you about this award winning oddity even give our list's American theme. The film is the summum bonum - the veritable apotheosis - of that weird mixture of organic sensuality and creaky artifice that characterized the frontiers of alternative animation in the 1970s. Think Monty Python's animated segments as interpreted by Hieronymus Bosch if he painted extraterrestrials… If the Cat Lady from A Clockwork Orange was watching a cartoon when Alex and his Droogs dropped in, it would probably be this.)
It is the story of a foreign planet characterized by the combative David-and-Goliath relationship between the oppressed Oms, who are humans, and the oppressive Draags - towering blue inhabitants ruling over them. Filled with metaphysical visual puns and the creepiest scenery this side of a Ken Russell film, the film is rendered even more effective by spooky, powerful music and the fact the aliens are speaking French (which they rarely do in animated films). Possessing a beautiful, imperfect, and vibrant kind of animation that is scarce now in the era of CGI and Pixar, the experience of watching Fantastic Planet seems closer to being in an art gallery at times than in a movie theater. A trippy trip you must take.
2. Watership Down (1980).
This version of Richard Adams' wildly successful novel about rabbits on the run from a warren about to perish is one of the great animated films: lyrical, poignant, heart-wrenching, intelligent, and packs a punch to the gut. It has terrific characterization, great voice work, some amazing segments explaining the mythology of the warren, and wondrous spiritual passages about the great rabbit beyond.
However, it is a notable anomaly in that it is ostensibly a film for children that is more for adults, as it happens to be almost unbearably violent, intense, ominous, and sad through much of its length (despite its PG rating) as the rabbits fight off obstacles, snares, and the grotesque sadist General Woundworth. It's a wrenching test for grown-ups, let alone your average kid. For my generation, who were lucky and unlucky enough to see it on the big screen, watching the incredibly bloody fights between our heroes and their foes was more traumatic than the death of Bambi's mother was for our parents.
Hazel and Fiver are best friends who bravely lead some of the rabbits in search of a new home after a Fiver has a vision of impending death. That scene, in which the mystical Fiver sees "blood in the sky," when a particularly red sunset occurs, is one of the most memorable and foreboding; it has always stuck with me. And the tearjerking title song, "Bright Eyes," by Art Garfunkel, is the unusual title song worthy of a stunning work.
1. Fritz the Cat (1968), Wizards (1977) and Ralph Bakshi's Entire Oeuvre
Bakshi is the Walt Disney of underground, bizarre animation. During the 60's counterculture, "comic books," (or "joke books" - as my grandmother used to refer to them - in ultra-antiquated lingo infuriating to my 12 year old sensibilities) were transformed forever by branching off into a sub-genre called "comix." The "x" represented the infusion of all sorts of profane aesthetics heretofore unknown to the world of superheroes and Snoopys and Archies: drugs, lust, dementia, political subversion, existential hand-wringing, explicit violence. Today, the progeny of "comix" exists in the fusion of the mainstream and the underground sensibility - i.e. graphic novels, which garner critical respectability and cultural acceptance - two things comix were initially interested in defying, or at least playfully piquing.
Bakshi pioneered bringing the "comix" mentality to animation. His psychedelic landscapes are full of unsavory characters, questionable motives, ethnic caricatures', and a motley crew in search of truth, sex, rock & roll and spiritual satiation. Bakshi's most famous entrée into filmic animation is Fritz the Cat, taken from the pages of the patron saint of "comix" on the page - Robert. Crumb (see below). Fritz is a feline hipster college boy living in late 60s Greenwich Village, tramping across a NY littered with orgies and weed and ennui and cultural confusion. After a Fritz sequel came Heavy Traffic, which is kind of like Mean Streets if it were filled with anthropomorphized cartoon characters.
Bakshi's moves toward more commercial accessibility were less successful, with fare like American Pop, hitting an artistic low point when he tried to reach a mass audience with Cool World, a watered down version of his usual stuff, starring Brad Pitt. But before the decline, he also produced a wonderfully strange feature length take on Lord of the Rings, and an almost inscrutably convoluted but fascinating sci-fi epic called Wizards, not to mention a foray into TV with the Spider Man series that creeped us all out as kids. And then there is the cocaine subtext of his Mighty Mouse series that got it yanked off the air in a paranoid fit. Looking back at his body of work, it is still amazing that Bakshi was able to deliver animated movies so full of risky, disorienting, offensive, insightful, and raw experimentation (Fritz was rated X upon release) to relatively large American audiences. Animation, and the comic book universe as we know it today, would not be the same without his innovations.
Not animation of course but this documentary about freaky, famous and infamous comic book artist Robert Crumb is one of the most fascinating and disturbing attempts in recent years to explore the roots of a great artist's work. Like Disney, Warhol, Ralph Bakshi, and Charles M. Shulz, the influence on popular graphic art by Crumb cannot be overestimated. After he pioneered the influx of underground comic art into mainstream consciousness, the look, feel, and daring of comics, movies, album covers, bumper stickers, and even advertisements would be forever changed, infused with a new subversive kinkiness, a willingness to acknowledge the power, aesthetic and commercial appeal of the "freaks." The film is an intimate look into Crumb's family history, including his severely troubled brother, and his artistic methods. A nebbishy looking dude with a persuasive inferiority complex and a sensitive. biting sense of humor and pathos, Crumb made his outsider status into a brilliantly, paranoid kaleidoscopic version of reality, in which women were large breasted sex behemoths that could swallow you whole and men were twitching, live wires of neurosis and helpless philosophizing. Riveting and essential.
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