As an obsessive lover of the medium of animation, I have always adored the masterworks of Disney, the modern classics of Pixar and the breathtaking Japanese animated films of Studio Ghibli. Most people are familiar with the films from these three sources but to stop at that is to miss out on whole other worlds of animated brilliance. In the hope of inspiring our readers to seek out some of these lesser-known gems, I’ve compiled a chronological list of 100 animated features from outside the sphere of these three major studios, which I’ve divided into five parts of 20 entries each, in order to allow time to digest each chunk. This is not intended to be a definitive ‘Top 100’ but more of a doorway into the vast, glorious medium of animation but as there are far more than 100 animated features to recommend, I’ve also included some suggestions of further watching for anyone who wants to probe even deeper into this exquisite world.
THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED – 1926
It says a lot about the stranglehold Disney has on most people’s idea of animated feature films that so many people readily accept the oft parroted myth that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first ever animated feature. It is true that Disney’s astonishing achievement reshaped the medium and pushed hand-drawn animation to new heights of artistry whilst firmly establishing a magical storytelling style that was all its studio’s own. But that’s no reason to rewrite history and ignore what came before. There were several animated features released before Disney’s game-changer and their pioneering invention makes them the clear forefathers of the more unusual films that make up this list. To ignore them in favour of a tidier ‘Disney came first’ snapshot of animation history is a crime against the medium. Sadly, the cutout animations of Quirino Cristiani, thought to be the first ever animated features, are all lost films and, while I still hold out hope that they may be found someday, in all likelihood we may never see them. Enter Lotte Reiniger.
Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film in existence. Based on elements of 1001 Arabaian Nights and presented in Reiniger’s trademark silhouette technique, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is not what most audiences have come to expect from an animated feature but this unique, pioneering classic still has the ability to entertain and delight and the characters, though they only appear in silhouette, are as expressive as any fully-visible creation. All serious fans of animation should seek out this film but even casual animation fans will likely find it entertaining in its magical, fast-paced and sometimes bawdy storytelling.
FURTHER WATCHING: Fans of the silhouette animation used here will be delighted to discover Lotte Reiniger’s vast collection of animated shorts in the same style, with 1922’s Cinderella coming highly recommended. French animator Michel Ocelot also revived Reiniger’s style for his 80s and 90s series Cine Si and Tales of the Night, highlights from which were later compiled into a couple of 00s feature films (more on which later). The brilliant, subversive British animator Phil Mulloy also uses silhouette animation in his work, although the results are significantly more visceral and challenging. Those wanting to dip a toe in this water might want to start with the Intolerance series, a trilogy of shorts that give a good glimpse of Mulloy’s deft mixture of crude humour and incisive satire.
THE TALE OF THE FOX – 1937
Several of the earliest animated features used the medium of stop-motion puppets. The earliest to do so was Aleksandr Ptushko’s Soviet stop-motion/live action hybrid The New Gulliver, an amusing early animated film of limited appeal. Germany’s The Seven Ravens was also an early stop-motion feature but clearly the first truly great film using this form of animation was Ladislas Starevich’s The Tale of the Fox. Although the animation for the film was completed as early as 1930, The Tale of the Fox did not get a release until 1937, the same year as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although it still beat Disney’s film to screens by several months.
Based on the famous Reynard the Fox fables, The Tale of the Fox may be hard to stomach for modern audiences used to good triumphing over evil in every narrative. Here, our main hero is in fact an amoral rogue who commits acts of mischievous anarchy, unprovoked brutality and even red-toothed murder. His ultimate fate displays a satirical cynicism rarely seen in films of this era. It’s genuinely wonderful to see these early, scraggly stop-motion puppets come to life and their wirey, slightly grotesque appearances are a clear and acknowledged influence on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox some seventy years down the line.
FURTHER WATCHING: Ladislas Starevich’s catalogue of shorts is well worth exploring further, with the half-hour masterpiece The Mascot being chosen by director Terry Gilliam as one of the ten greatest animated films ever made. Wes Anderson’s extremely successful forays into animation show owe a clear debt to Starevich (more on those later), while fans of the stop motion style and political satire displayed here will find much to enjoy in Marc Paul Chinoy’s comparatively unloved I Go Pogo, a 1980 adaption of Walt Kelly’s revered Pogo comic strips.
GULLIVER’S TRAVELS – 1939
During the golden age of animated cinematic shorts, Fleischer studios was one of the major players, giving the world Popeye and Betty Boop and regularly trumping its rivals when it came to wild, surreal audacity. Cartoons like the Popeye colour specials and the studios own 1933 take on Snow White live on as classics in a league of their own. Perhaps it was only natural then that Fleischer studios would follow in Disney’s footsteps and create an animated feature. With a smaller budget and timescale, Gulliver’s Travels was never going to rival Disney’s Snow White… for visual beauty. But given that the film has slipped into relative obscurity, it may be surprising to many to find that it’s a classic in its own right. Focusing mainly on a re-imagining of Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput, Gulliver’s Travels features several memorably unusual characters such as town cryer Gabby and villains Sneak, Snoop and Snitch (all of whom were given short-lived spin-off cartoon series), voiced by cartoon legends Pinto ‘Goofy’ Colvig and Jack ‘Popeye’ Mercer. Cartoon writer extraordinaire Tedd Pierce also lends his vocal talents to the production.
One of the most memorable elements of the Fleischers’ Gulliver’s Travels is its beautiful use of rotoscoping. A technique invented by the Fleischers which involves tracing live action footage frame by frame, rotoscoping is an animation technique I usually can’t abide. However, the Fleischers use the technique perfectly to animate the conspicuously human Gulliver, suitably differentiating him from the more cartoony antics of the Lilliputians that surround him. Gulliver’s Travels is a wonderful film. A box office hit at the time, it has become somewhat forgotten in light of Disney’s barrage of early classics. I urge all animation fans to see it and enjoy the significantly different leisurely pacing and the Fleischer gift for the absurd, the grotesque and the blackly comic.
FURTHER WATCHING: The Fleischer canon offers hundreds of hours of animated short-form gems, with the colour specials Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves being classics of enough prestige that certain cinemas afforded them top billing on their release. The classic Nickolodeon series Spongebob Squarepants also has a prominent Fleischer influence which is never more obvious than in the really rather good spin-off film The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.
HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN – 1941
The Fleischers’ second animated feature was sadly also their last. Hoppity Goes to Town plays like a forerunner of the popular Pixar and Dreamworks bug-themed animations of the late 90s, only folksier (hence the Capra-parodying title). With a better-defined story than their previous feature, the Fleischer’s delivered a delightful, colourful and pacey film about an insect community under threat from humans. The characters, particularly the villains, are memorable and the set-pieces numerous and enjoyable. Sadly, personal and professional tensions between the Fleischer brothers caused their studio to be absorbed by Paramount and the commercial failure of Hoppity Goes to Town (significantly affected by the attack on Pearl Harbour two days after its release) was the final nail in the coffin. Consequently, it was forced into the ‘buried treasure’ category, kept alive by numerous television airings and a dedicated cult of animation fans.
FURTHER WATCHING: Insect lovers should proceed directly to the aforementioned Dreamworks film Antz from 1998, which is flawed but adequately enjoyable, much like Pixar’s now slightly dated-looking A Bug’s Life from the same year. The 2006 – 2012 French series Miniscule also offers a whimsically delightful glimpse into the tiny kingdoms beneath our feet and ultimately spawned a surprisingly exceptional big screen spin-off in 2013 (more on which later).
ANIMAL FARM – 1954
John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s adaptation of George Orwell’s allegorical masterpiece became the first British commercial animated feature (an earlier film, Handling Ships, was a Navy training film and therefore not released publicly) and marked a distinctly different tone from the popular Disney films of the time. Though critics noticed some small influences from the mighty American studio (such as the cutesy comic relief duckling), Halas and Batchelor’s film was far darker and more unrelenting. While Disney took flack for killing Bambi’s mother off-screen, Animal Farm necessarily kills off several of its main characters, some with subtle off-screen implications and others far more vividly (Old Major’s lifeless corpse keels over right towards the viewer!).
A masterpiece of child-traumatising brilliance, Animal Farm has also come in for much criticism for its perceived subversion of Orwell’s message. It is now well known that the CIA were involved with funding the film and exerted some influence on its content as part of its Cold War cultural offensive. The film’s alternate ending is the most roundly criticised element, although it is some way off being the happy ending it is sometimes supposed to be and the credits roll on a hauntingly memorable image loaded with potentially negative implications.
FURTHER WATCHING: For those interested in Halas and Batchelor’s diverse catalogue of short films, there’s an excellent DVD and Blu-ray set available, The Halas and Batchelor Short Film Collection, which includes their experimental music video for Kraftwerk’s Autobahn and the much sought-after digital animation Dilemma, which played before the original cinema run of Return of the Jedi.
THE SNOW QUEEN – 1957
Lev Atamanov’s lovely animated feature of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, produced by legendary Russian animation studio Soyuzmultfilm, is one of the most respected and influential Russian animations of its era. It famously influenced Hayao Miyazaki to go into animation, a fact that has seen it preserved and brought to many more audiences than it would otherwise have reached. For all its importance, The Snow Queen is an attractive but fairly straightforward telling of a fairy tale, much in keeping with the conservatism of most Russian animation of the era. It is, however, bursting with energy and Atamanov has clearly put his own personal stamp on the film, with the Queen herself proving a particular mesmerising figure.
As is often the case with foreign animation, The Snow Queen is available in many different versions for English language speakers, including subtitled and dubbed, but also several which cut out portions and one infamous one that adds a corny live action Christmas introduction with Art Linkletter. It’s something of a minefield tracking down a decent copy on DVD but they can be found and it is worth the effort to appreciate a lesser-known gem from the early years of the animated feature.
FURTHER WATCHING: Those curious about the output of Soyuzmultfilm should check out their debut feature, 1945’s The Lost Letter. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol and directed by the Brumberg Sisters and Lamis Bredis, The Lost Letter has a uniquely Russian flavour with its story of Cossacks and a journey into the depths of Hell itself. For something a little more akin to The Snow Queen’s colourful fairy tale style, Soyuzmultfilm also produced Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s 1947 feature The Humpbacked Horse, the tale of a boy and his flying pony. This lovely picture-book-come-to-life is especially notable as, when the original film’s quality degenerated beyond the restorative abilities of the era, Ivanov-Vano completely remade the film. The updated 1975 version is similar but runs 15 minutes longer. Both versions have their strengths and weaknesses and, for animation fans, watching them is one of the more fascinating experiences associated with 20th century animated films.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – 1959
Brilliant Czech puppet animator Jiri Trnka made several animated features alongside his famous shorts (the most famous of these shorts being 1965’s subversive masterpiece The Hand). The most readily available of these in the Western world is his largely faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Told with the deliberate pacing that characterises all Trnka’s films and which viewers used to faster paced animations may find testing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream captures all the magic that is so vital to Shakespeare’s tale through Trnka’s masterful manipulation of his expressionless yet astonishingly expressive puppets. Bottom and Puck are particularly magnificent in bufoonish beauty and impish grace respectively. An affection for Shakespeare’s tale itself is probably necessary to fully appreciate Trnka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but few could deny the delicate artistry on show here.
FURTHER WATCHING: Recommending related films is particularly difficult in this case as there really is nothing that quite resembles Trnka’s unique approach. Trnka made several other feature length animation but as of the time of writing they are mostly extremely hard to find. I have seen only 1949’s The Emperor’s Nightingale which is a rather stiff, ponderous affair in comparison with his lush Shakespeare adaptation. This being the case, I can do no better than to recommend Trnka’s exceptional catalogue of shorts. The aforementioned The Hand from 1965 is an obvious starting point, its satirical bite and subsequent ban ensuring its legacy as one of the most respected animated shorts of all time. Also check out 1949’s Story of the Bass Cello and the same year’s wonderful Western spoof Song of the Prairie.
HAVOC IN HEAVEN – 1964
Havoc in Heaven, also known as The Monkey King and Uproar in Heaven, is considered one of the pinnacles of Chinese animation. Made by all four of the Wan brothers, the pioneering Chinese animators who also made China’s first animated feature Princess Iron Fan, Havoc in Heaven is a sumptuous visual experience filled with humour, action and a free-flowing animation style that makes many of its contemporaries seem stiff by comparison. Based on the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West, this gorgeous film tells the story of Sun Wukong, aka Monkey. This seemingly indestructible simian king lives an idyllic life on the Flower and Fruit Mountain but his arrogant, self-aggrandizing ways anger the Gods who first try to control him and then to destroy him. Split into two separate parts, Havoc in Heaven essentially repeats itself, twice showing Sun being invited to Heaven, causing chaos and then having to fight those he has offended. But the story is certainly not the main attraction of Havoc in Heaven. What makes it such a remarkable film is its beautifully loose, vibrantly colourful animation and its extended, balletic fight scenes set to a thunderous percussion soundtrack.
FURTHER WATCHING: Those interested in early Chinese animation may want to seek out the Wan brothers’ Princess Iron Fan, China’s first animated feature and another film that focuses on the Monkey King as its subject. Released in 1941, Princess Iron Fan is obviously not as sumptuous as Havoc in Heaven but its historical significance helps carry viewers through what can at times feel like an overstretched short subject. In turn, Princess Iron Fan inspired the Japanese navy to commission Japan’s own debut animated feature, the propaganda piece Momataro’s Divine Sea Warriors, another film of greater historical significance than enduring entertainment value.
YELLOW SUBMARINE – 1968
Made as an attempt to fulfil The Beatles’ contractual obligation to provide United Artists with a third film (following the classic A Hard Day’s Night and the underrated fun of Help) that they wouldn’t actually have to appear in, the animated Beatles adventure Yellow Submarine actually emerged as an animation classic. Initially hoping to distance themselves from what they assumed would be an inferior product, the band ultimately loved the result so much that they requested to make a cameo appearance at the end (easily the cheesiest, weakest part of the movie!). Rendered in a psychedelic style which provides a perfect aesthetic match for the music and the sensibilities of the times, Yellow Submarine benefits enormously from a witty script crammed full of puns, non-sequiturs and references to Beatles songs. The plot, in which the band travels to Pepperland in order to battle the Blue Meanies who are destroying the land with negativity, makes room for several fluid changes of animation style and incorporates many brilliant music video style asides for pre-existing and purpose-written Beatles songs. With brilliant music, stunning, unusual animation, a fun plot and excellent voice acting, Yellow Submarine exceeded all expectations to become one of the best loved animated features of its era.
FURTHER WATCHING: For something else slightly trippy with a liberal dose of dry British humour, seek out Dougal and the Blue Cat. A feature-length spin-off from TV’s The Magic Roundabout, like that series Dougal and the Blue Cat uses original French animation but adds self-penned narration by Eric Thompson who, rather than translate the original dialogue, simply watched the pictures and created his own interpretation. Originally released in France in 1970 as Pollux et le Chat Bleu, Dougal and the Blue Cat’s British version emerged in 1972 and has famously become a firm favourite of film critic Mark Kermode. For something even more unusual, the super-curious might want to have a crack at painter/animator Gyorgy Kovasznai’s Foam Bath, a production by Hungary’s Pannonia Studio (more on which later). A contemporary adult musical which largely takes place in one small room, Foam Bath tells the story of a nervous wreck of a bridegroom who visits the roommate of his would-be-bride in an attempt to get her to call off his wedding because he can’t stand his betrothed’s family. Their overwrought dialogue is punctuated by strange, upbeat little songs and all sorts of loopy animation techniques which make for a fascinating and somewhat unsettling experience, even as the film takes a surprisingly sharp turn into farce. Unlike any animated feature you’ll have ever seen, Foam Bath is certainly an acquired taste but animation enthusiasts should find much to enjoy in its bold design and absurd combination of slim plot and tongue-in-cheek musical accompaniment.
THE SUPERVIPS – 1968
Bruno Bozzetto’s second full-length animated film was a great improvement on his fine but uneven debut West and Soda. The SuperVips, (aka VIP: Mr Brother Superman) is a hilarious superhero parody full of great jokes and a satirical bite that was missing from West and Soda but which characterises most of Bozzetto’s better shorts. The story follows the adventures of two descendants of superheroes (know as Vips), the powerful hero SuperVip and his beloved but ineffectual little brother MiniVip, as they find themselves having to team up to take on an evil tycoon and her plans to rule the world through an unusually aggressive form of advertising. The visuals have all the simple charm and energy of a Bozzetto production and the terrific sequences in which Happy Betty explains her methods for maintaining an efficient, happy workforce are worth the price alone and could easily have been removed from the film and released as separate shorts in themselves.
FURTHER WATCHING: Bruno Bozzetto’s catalogue is well worth probing into further. The aforementioned Western spoof West and Soda is a flawed but solidly enjoyable feature, while the feature-length Mr. Rossi adventures, which were presented on TV as sliced-up mini-series, provide a child-friendly alternative to the original Mr. Rossi shorts which are significantly darker and more satirically-charged.
A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN – 1969
After a series of brilliant TV specials, including the immortal A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Peanuts gang made the transition to the big screen with the first and by far the best of their four features, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Following the story of Charlie Brown’s surprise success in a series of spelling bees, A Boy Named Charlie Brown makes plenty of room in its episodic structure for all the comic strips best-loved features (Lucy’s psychiatry booth and deceptive football trickery, Linus’s attachment to his blanket, the kite eating tree, the Little League games). However, alongside these comfortingly familiar asides, A Boy Named Charlie Brown also distinguishes itself with a series of more unusual artistic moments. There are pop-art backgrounds, classical music recitals and a stylish, rotoscoped skating sequence starring the inimitable Snoopy. Also distinguishing the film from its lesser follow-ups are some enjoyable songs, a cracking jazz score from Vince Guaraldi (whose music enlivened all the early Peanuts cartoons) and the fact that the irritating bird Woodstock doesn’t appear, allowing Snoopy’s pantomime antics to reach their exquisite peak without an unnecessary sidekick. While it may often be considered as just another in a long line of Peanuts adaptations, anyone who takes the time to actually sit down and watch A Boy Named Charlie Brown will surely discover that it is much, much more.
FURTHER WATCHING: Having grown up with the Peanuts films, I’d recommend all of them from the TV shorts to the other three features and the TV series The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. Elsewhere, another excellent comic strip to film transition can be found in the TV movie Garfield: His 9 Lives. Unlike the charming but largely straightforward Garfield TV shorts, Garfield: His 9 Lives takes an experimental approach by presenting all 9 of Garfield’s lives using a range of different animation styles and tones both comedic and dramatic. For another great TV movie presented from the point of view of children, you might also want to check out Phineas and Ferb: Across the 2nd Dimension, a rather ace feature-length spin-off from the relentlessly charming Disney Channel TV series Phineas and Ferb.
THE POINT – 1971
Based on an original fable written by musician Harry Nilsson, who provides the idiosyncratic soundtrack, The Point is a fantastic animated TV movie about a little boy named Oblio who is born with a round head into a world where everything is pointed. Directed by Fred Wolf, who had recently won an Oscar for his animated short The Box, The Point is endearingly scrappy in its charming animation style which brings its storybook world to life. The satire on prejudice is, aptly enough, quite sharp, underscored by a lingering 60s idealism, while Nilsson’s soundtrack is sweet and memorable, particularly the gentle earworm ‘Me and My Arrow’. Due to contractual reasons, the film has been revoiced several times, with narrators ranging from Dustin Hoffman to Ringo Starr!
FURTHER WATCHING: If underrated TV animation is your thing, go directly to Cosgrove Hall’s excellent 1983 TV movie The Wind in the Willows. Using intricate stop motion puppets and beautiful sets to bring to life Kenneth Grahame’s popular novel, The Wind in the Willows spawned a 52 episode series which was every bit as wonderful as the original film and even filled in some of the gaps in the story that budgetary concerns obviously did not allow for (for instance, the majority of Mr. Toad’s daring escape is missing from the narrative but was given a whole episode in the subsequent series, in which Toad retrospectively recounted the events to revellers at Toad Hall).
JOHNNY CORNCOB – 1973
The first animated feature made by the critically acclaimed Pannonia Film Studio, a prolific Hungarian studio that is an amazing treasure trove to uncover for animation fans, Johnny Corncob is one of those films that you can’t believe you never heard of before when you first see it. A work of visual magnificence, Johnny Corncob is the debut feature of Marcell Jankovics, the great animator best known to English-speaking audiences for his Oscar nominated short Sisyphus. In sharp contrast to that great short’s visceral sketchiness, Johnny Corncob is a film bursting with colour and kaleidoscopic undulations. A simple tale of two lovers torn apart by forces beyond their control, Johnny Corncob takes its titular hero from his home on a fantastical journey in which he encounters brutal robbers, rival army battalions, towering giants and an ever-present malevolent witch-faced moon. The story meanders but it is merely a hook on which to hang the incredible animation, which owes an obvious debt to Yellow Submarine but which Jankovics takes to glorious extremes. Johnny Corncob is a glittering gem just waiting to be unearthed by curious animation fans, and a more accessible doorway into Jankovics’ work than his even more remarkable second feature, Son of White Mare.
FURTHER WATCHING: Marcell Jankovics would go on to make several more animated features including the aforementioned Son of White Mare (more on which later), the animated history lesson Song of the Miraculous Hind and the epic The Tragedy of Man, a film 23 years in the making. I have not yet managed to see either of the latter two films, although I can heartily recommend Jankovics’ ingenious 2 minutes short Sisyphus, an Oscar-nominated recreation of the titular figure’s eternal struggle which is delightfully painful to watch in its uncanny representation of agonising futility.
FANTASTIC PLANET – 1973
French animator Rene Laloux’s debut feature Fantastic Planet is an adaption of Stefan Wul’s 1950s sci-fi novel Oms en Serie which uses a combination of low-budget cut-out animation and astonishingly beautiful artwork by illustrator Roland Topor. In its tale of human beings living on a strange planet inhabited by giant blue aliens who treat them as pets and playthings, Fantastic Planet has been interpreted as an allegory about both animal rights and human rights and the film is fluid enough that any of these interpretations, as well as a host of others, can be comfortably projected onto it. If this can be seen as both a pro and a con, with many finding the story a tad too thin for comfort, it matters little when the viewing experience is predominantly about the sumptuous, unique visuals and the eerie atmosphere, significantly enhanced by Alain Goraguer’s prog-rock-tinged score which should date Fantastic Planet badly but instead ties it to the atmosphere of another world rather than the musical trends of a bygone era. Running at a suitably scant 71 minutes, Fantastic Planet is careful not to outstay its welcome and its indelible style proved to be highly influential and enduring, maintaining a cult following for decades to come.
FURTHER WATCHING: Rene Laloux would go on to direct two further features, Time Masters (more on which later) and Gandahar, the latter of which should appeal to fans of Fantastic Planet’s surreal scenery and occasionally convoluted sci-fi conceits. Gandahar takes a more traditional animation style which perhaps makes it less notable than Fantastic Planet, if no less beautiful. If it is the cut-out style that most appeals then viewers are encouraged to seek out the films of Karel Zeman which combine live action (thereby sadly precluding them from inclusion in my main list) with fantastical cut-out animations to create an astonishgly magical effect. 1961’s terrific The Fabulous Baron Munchausen is perhaps the best starting place for newcomers to Zeman’s work. Finally, the anarchic creations of Terry Gilliam for the TV sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus add a large dollop of bawdy, sometimes violent humour to the cut-out style, with belly-laughs galore and occasional gasps to boot. His short 70s animations Miracle of Flight and Storytime are both worth seeking out if you’re not interested in the live-action sketches amongst which Gilliam’s Python work is interspersed.
PINCHCLIFFE GRAND PRIX – 1975
As an animation enthusiast, the discovery of Ivo Caprino’s Norwegian stop-motion animated film Pinchcliffe Grand Prix was a dream come true. Although it is largely unknown in Britain, Pinchcliffe Grand Prix remains the biggest box office hit of all time in Norway, where it sold 5.5 million tickets in a country with a population of 4.9 million! It is also shown on TV every Christmas in Norway in the same way that Wallace and Gromit make annual festive airings over here. The plot of Pinchcliffe Grand Prix is simple, even if some elements sound a tad bizarre. Bicycle repair man Theodore Rimspoke lives at the top of very large mountain, the irony being that no-one would go that far to get their bike fixed, especially since they couldn’t ride it! Consequently, Theodore spends most of his time tinkering with amateur inventions. Theodore lives with his two animal companions, Sonny Duckworth, an optimistic bird, and Lambert, a melancholy, nervous hedgehog. Seeing in the news that Theodore’s former assistant, Rudolph Gore-Slimey, has stolen the plans for his racing car engine and subsequently become Formula One World Champion, the trio set about building a rival car called Il Tempo Gigante, with which to challenge Gore-Slimey’s ill-gotten World Champion title.
Pinchcliffe Grand Prix will be of special interest to car lovers and especially Formula One fans. I am neither but the joy I got from the animation and incredible action sequences I can well imagine being mirrored in Grand Prix lovers by the exquisitely realised atmosphere of a race day and the fetishistic focus on the building of the car. After its slow start, the film begins to pick up pace with the construction of Il Tempo Gigante, a midnight sabotage scene and a chaotic, superbly inventive and exhilaratingly unnecessary musical interlude! But the real draw for most viewers will be the race itself. After the lovably gentle opening hour, the Grand Prix of the title takes up the entire final third of the film and is every bit as exciting as you might hope. A surprising and delightful treat for those watching the British dub is that the voiceover duties for the last half hour are almost entirely taken over by none other than Formula One legend Murray Walker, who provides a running commentary on the race.
FURTHER WATCHING: As well as Ivo Caprino’s excellent short films, the obvious reference point here is Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit shorts. Fans of full-length features might want to check out the 85 minute Curse of the Were-Rabbit but I’ve always felt Wallace and Gromit worked best in their half-hour adventures. All four of these fantastic films are essential but special mention must go to The Wrong Trousers, one of the greatest animated shorts ever made which really raised the bar for what could be achieved with stop-motion.
HUGO THE HIPPO – 1975
An early entry into the wonderful canon of Pannonia Studios, this bonkers psychedelic trip of a film has become the subject of many ‘did-I-really-see-that?’ childhood memories and has acquired a cult following due to its bizarre content. The wandering narrative follows the adventures of Hugo, the only hippo spared in a large hippo cull. He is adopted by a group of children but the adults disapprove and set about removing the troublesome hippo from their distracted offsprings’ lives. I never saw Hugo the Hippo as a youngster and was well aware of its reputation by the time I saw it as an adult so I had some idea of what to expect (although the hallucinatory vegetable army did take me by surprise!). It’s true, this is a weird film but its unusualness is actually a plus, making it one of the most unique animated features on the list. It’s unfair to focus only on Hugo the Hippo‘s trippiness as so many reviews do. Although the story isn’t especially gripping, it goes in enough directions to keep the viewer entertained and is solidly supported by some great songs and vivid, colourful artwork which make watching it a real pleasure. It’s reminiscent of some of those brilliant animated inserts on Sesame Street (but minus the educational value), all strung together to make an unforgettable and underrated feature film.
FURTHER WATCHING: Animation director József Gémes who worked on Hugo the Hippo went on to direct several more animated features for Pannonia, none of which I have actually seen but which seem to offer an incredibly interesting mixed-bag of styles. 1984’s Heroic Times is an adaptation of a 19th-Century epic poem rendered in the style of oil-paintings, Willy the Sparrow is a widely-respected cautionary tale of a boy who likes shooting his BB gun at sparrows and subsequently finds himself turned into one, while The Princess and the Goblin is a fairy tale musical which was very poorly received and significantly overshadowed by the release of Disney’s The Lion King. I’d love to see all of these films so if anyone out there already has, let me know what you thought.
ALLEGRO NON TROPPO – 1977
I grew up watching brilliant Italian animator Bruno Bozzetto’s Mr. Rossi cartoons but it was only as an adult that I discovered his classic animated feature Allegro non Troppo. This astonishing work of brilliance is both a parody of and homage to Disney’s Fantasia, the feature length anthology film of animated pieces inspired by and set to classical music. Disney’s film has gone down in history as a masterpiece and it does feature some of the most beautiful animation of all time. But it also features abominably kitschy sequences and interminably dull ones too. It is simultaneously admirably ambitious, breathtakingly wonderful and mind-numbingly pompous and overwrought.
While Disney must be congratulated for boundary pushing and for inspirational capacity, I ultimately much prefer Bozzetto’s film. Although his animation style may at first seem primitive in comparison to Disney’s, the film reaches epic heights in such sequences as Ravel’s Bolero, in which some slime in the bottom of a cola bottle evolves steadily into a marching army of dinosaurs. Also widely celebrated is Sibelius’s Valse triste, a sequence in which a cat wanders through the ruins of a destroyed house and remembers happier times through a series of ghostly images. In a film of primarily comic sequences it strikes a disarmingly tragic note, although the film’s opening sequence involving an ageing satyr coming to terms with his diminishing sexual capabilities also shares a sense of bittersweet pathos. Between the animated sequences there are live action segments which are nowhere near as effective, relying on slightly over-the-top grotesqueness but this matters little when the animated sequences are so superb. Plus one of these live action sequences features a cameo by Bozzetto’s most famous creation, Mr. Rossi, whom he callously burns to death!
FURTHER READING: The anthology structure and smattering of adult content in Allegro Non Troppo puts my in mind of Masaaki Yuasa’s bizarre, stylistically diverse Mind Game. The story in Mind Game leaps about all over the place and it is impossible to guess where it will go next. To say too much about the plot would be to ruin the experience of seeing where it goes but it is not too much of a giveaway to say this is a film that deals with multiple potential timelines, shapeshifting supreme beings, awkward long-term loves and dysfunctional families, all while employing constantly changing animation styles, sometimes shifting with mind-boggling abruptness. Mind Game starts out with some rather unpleasant scenes of violence and juvenile humour but viewers who are not put off by this will find that this quickly wanes in favour of a less in-your-face, sometimes even cerebral tone. Fans of strong narratives may be disappointed but fans of the experimental will find much to enjoy here and what initially seems like an incoherent splurge in places becomes clearer with subsequent viewings. There’s much to unlock in the climactic montage, which has a hypnotic beauty that is worth watching Mind Game for alone.
MATTIE THE GOOSE-BOY – 1977
Part of the exceptional early run of films from Hungarian studio Panonia, Mattie the Goose-Boy was the debut feature from Attila Dargay and remains largely overlooked in favour of his later, weaker feature Vuk. Mattie the Goose-boy tells the story of a tyrannical Lord who holds a community in his powerful grip. When the Lord tries to hunt Mattie’s precious goose and Mattie stands in the way, the Lord responds by having Mattie whipped, a crime which Mattie swears he will pay back threefold. The remainder of the story follows the ways in which Mattie goes about paying back this debt. A simple tale of retribution, Mattie the Goose-boy is a hugely satisfying story made even better by the cheerfully simplistic but instantly and consistently attractive animation and the strong, focused storytelling.
FURTHER WATCHING: Director Attila Dargay made several more well-respected animated features for Pannonia, of which I have seen two. The aforementioned Vuk, though widely praised, is a film I never really understood the love for. Its tale of a little fox who turns the tables on a hunter and his dogs after they wipe out his entire family naturally appeals to me but I found the telling of the story choppy and the animation cheap-looking even by the modest standards set by Mattie the Goose-Boy. Much better is 1984’s Szaffi, a lively adaptation of Mor Jokai’s 1885 novel The Gypsy Baron which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Mattie the Goose-Boy’s freewheeling charm.
WATERSHIP DOWN – 1978
Originally slated to be directed by brilliantly innovative animator John Hubley, this adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down was handed over to producer Michael Rosen who did a phenomenal job in his directorial debut. Staying true to the dark, violent nature of the source text, Rosen’s film is an unforgettable classic which has frightened and upset but also mesmerised generation after generation of children. For years a reliable staple of UK Easter television schedules (because, y’know, it’s got rabbits in… and snares… and veiled allusions to the Holocaust), Watership Down is enduring proof that children don’t all just want cuddly animals going on non-threatening adventures. The realistic rabbits are just barely anthropomorphic and their personalities are given great depth by a veritable hall of fame of British thespians including John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern. Brilliantly providing the film’s only comic relief is Zero Mostel as German seagull Keehar, who also introduced many children to the phrase ‘Piss off’! Watership Down is magical precisely because of its realism, offering an experience like few other animated films before it.
FURTHER WATCHING: If Watership Down is not traumatising enough for you, Martin Rosen’s follow-up The Plague Dogs should finish the job! Based on another Richard Adams book, The Plague Dogs is an unbelievably depressing film squarely aimed at adults with little concession to children and it’s all the better for it. While it may not be as regularly rewatchable as Watership Down, The Plague Dogs has much to say about man’s capacity for animal cruelty and it doesn’t fudge the message with any cutesy comic asides. Death hangs even heavier in the air with five prominent deaths throughout the film (including an unforgettably grim moment in which a man is accidentally shot in the face), and the swearing that was restricted to ‘Piss off’ in Watership Down is stronger here too. In an unprecedented move, the film version also alters the compromised happy ending of the novel to instead append a bleak finale which is far more in keeping with the story, even if it is one of the most downbeat final notes ever to grace a film, animated or otherwise.
RINGING BELL OF CHIRIN – 1978
Speaking of upsetting animated films, Ringing Bell of Chirin must be one of the most relentlessly downbeat on the list. Lasting a barely feature length 47 minutes, Ringing Bell of Chirin uses every moment of its short runtime to create a sense of melancholic foreboding. You’d never know from looking at its cutesy-poo DVD cover but Ringing Bell of Chirin quickly forsakes its apparently fluffy opening scenes in favour of a matriarchal murder that makes Bambi’s mum seem like a heart-warming moment by comparison! Ringing Bell of Chirin doesn’t stop at that though. Having lost his mother to a wolf attack, little lamb Chirin decides that in order to survive he must learn the ways of the wolf and choose as his teacher none other than his own mother’s assassin. Where the film goes with this concept is unexpected (as is so much of Ringing Bell of Chirin) and the ending will stay with you once the credits roll. An excellent if somewhat gruelling little film, Ringing Bell of Chirin has been subjected to numerous interpretations but even without an obvious moral it is worth seeking out for its atmospheric animation and sheer uniqueness.
FURTHER WATCHING: Ringing Bell of Chirin was released as a double feature with another film from the Sanrio studio, The Mouse and his Child, which is a film I am particularly keen to see but have not got round to as of yet. I have, however, seen another Sanrio production, the cult film The Fantastic Adventures of Unico, which has something in common with Ringing Bell of Chirin in that it is aimed at children but dwells on incredibly sad themes. Based on a manga character created by the legendary Ozamu Tezuka, The Fantastic Adventures of Unico follows the story of a cute little unicorn who has the ability to bring happiness to everyone he meets. This ability angers the Gods who jealously send the West Wind to banish Unico to the Hill of Oblivion forever. Taking pity on the little unicorn, the West Wind defies the Gods who furiously send out the Night Wind to capture Unico. So the gist of Unico’s story is that he continuously meets new friends and, just as he is getting settled into his new life and friendships, is whisked away by the West Wind yet again to a new hiding place. Unico’s final tearful goodbyes will break the hearts of just about anyone watching.
That’s it for Part 1. I hope you’ll join me for Part 2 where we’ll be looking at the fertile period between 1979 and 1987 and unearthing some more cult classics and hidden gems. Until then, get watching!