Monday, March 17, 2008

Animated Fantasy from the 70s

This generation is growing up with a unique mixture of Schrek on the one side and Princess Mononoke on the other (and, for the very lucky, Spirited Away - a beautiful film). I have been feeling the sting of nostalgia lately. The animated films I remember - I mean the ones that left images in my mind that I could not shake free - were often quite dark, lyrical, equal parts weird and haunting. Weirdest of all, probably, was Ralph Bakshi's Wizards - for years I blocked out the bizarreness of the film (in which a wizard in a radioactive world resurrects the Third Reich for a war of conquest, resulting in a cinematic blend of hallucinatory fairy scenes and raw images of genocide) and remembered only the final scene, the anticlimactic duel between two brother wizards:

See what I mean?

I remain uncertain to this day whether that film was travesty or masterpiece.

I'm less divided in mind about these next clips. The first is from The Last Unicorn, that 70s adaptation of Peter S. Beagle's novel, here depicting the scene at which the aging spinster Molly encounters the unicorn and flies into a rage, demanding to know why the unicorn has come to her in her age when she has no time for unicorns or for nostalgia for lost dreams: "Damn you!" she cries:

Beagle is a remarkable storyteller. What a moment. What would it be like to awaken from the dreariness of life and cooking and struggling to pay the bills and fighting to evict your drunk tenant to glance out the window and see elves dancing in the garden, and to weep because the bills and the tenant leave you no time to dance with them?

This third scene is from Watership Down, based on Richard Adams' novel. This is the closing of the film, with Hazel's beautiful death scene:

I thank you readers for your patience with this vlogging jog down the graylit paths of nostalgia. I have even spared you the very strangest moments - such as the Orcs singing Where There's a Whip, There's a Way! during their march through Mordor in the Rankin/Bass animated musical Return of the King. (Long before I ever read Tolkien's books, I watched that on the television in my father's appliance repair shop, and was haunted for years in my dreams by the red eyes of the stampeding mumakil and by the long fall of Gollum into the burning magma.)

I wish I could define wherein lies the appeal and the uniqueness of the animated fantasy features of the 1970s. Perhaps it is the way that each of these films takes itself deathly seriously and yet not seriously, at the same time. Or maybe it is their bewildering soundtracks. Or the way that in each of these films fantasy and the starkness of what we label the real or the mundane clash in abrupt and sometimes menacing ways. For all their stranger moments, the films and stories of this generation are compelling in their refusal to allow you to take the mundane at face value. And each of them looks at evil without flinching: the evils of genocide and human brutality in Wizards, the evils of obsession and possession in The Last Unicorn, the evils of callousness toward one's neighbors and of the choice of security over liberty in Watership Down. Think of the grandiose failures of several recent and extensively computer-animated fantasy blockbusters (say, The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) which try to glance at evil and then quickly flinch away. It may be my horror at the timidity of these films that makes me a touch nostalgic for darker work.

But then, unlike the film adaptations of Compass and Narnia, the films I have clipped above were not family features. Possibly I am unfairly comparing apples to oranges, dolls to marionettes. I will cheer up and turn to Pan's Labyrinth.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these clips! I think you're right in that some contemporary films want to tell a story of overcoming evil - but only glance at it. I love a "happy" ending. But if it's a hard won or long-earned happy ending - I'm more satisfied.

Anonymous said...

I was just teaching -The Last Unicorn- last quarter and I was struck by Schmendrick's comment that "Haggard and Lir and Drinn and you and I--we are in a fairy tale, and must go where it goes. But she is real. She is real."

Incidentally, most of my students loved the animated movie--since I made them write on it, it was clear that they did--in 2008!

Alexandra H. Olsen

Dante's Heart said...

Thank you for that quote - I had almost forgotten that.

I think the students - and indeed moviegoers in general - are far sharper and more ready to be engaged than film producers assume they are.

Servidores said...
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Melanie said...

Well written article.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! I was doing a search of these films, when I stumbled upon your musings. We often look to these ourselves as priceless treasures, and still watch them. Another one (1982) was "The Flight of Dragons" by Peter Dickinson. Again, thanx!