281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

Hugó, a Víziló

“If you accept a strange story told to you as true,

Then a certain enlightenment comes to you.”

Hugo the Hippo theme “It’s Really True” (as sung by Marie Osmond)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bill Feigenbaum, József Gémes

FEATURING: Voices of , Burl Ives, Ronnie Cox, Robert Morley

PLOT: The Sultan of Zanzibar kidnaps a herd of African hippopotami and relocates them to Arabia to defend his harbor from sharks. After the shark menace is ended and the city prospers, the citizens forget about the hippos, until one day the hungry herds’ excursion to eat local farmers’ crops leads the Sultan’s evil Vizier Aban-Khan to organize a slaughter of the beasts. Only the youngest, Hugo, escapes; he flees to Dar es Salaam and makes friends with the local children, but Aban-Khan continues to hunt him out of pure malice.

Still from Hugo the Hippo (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is inspired by an actual hippo nicknamed “Hugo”, who ate farmers’ crops before being adopted by the real Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam.
  • The film was a Hungarian/U.S. co-production. All of the animation was done on the cheap in Hungary. It was released dubbed into both languages.
  • Hugo the Hippo is co-writer/director Bill Feigenbaum’s only film credit. József Gémes went on to direct many Hungarian animated features.
  • Young Marie and Jimmy Osmond perform most of the songs on the soundtrack, along with two songs by Burl Ives and two numbers by jazz/funk session bands.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It has to be something from the wild vegetable hallucination montage: the apple samurai? Jorma and Hugo climbing onto the space butterfly and sailing through the fruity cosmos? We selected the Dalí-esque shot of three massive monolith potatoes triangulating and transfixing our heroes with the magical beams that shoot from their literal eyes as our take-home image.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cigarette-smoking shark; cloud massacre; sliced apple ninja

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hugo the Hippo was released to widespread indifference. Contemporary reviewers were bored and strangely dismissive, failing to catch the undercurrent of weirdness here, but a generation of youngsters scarred by the hippopotamus massacre kept Hugo‘s underground legend alive. The combination of kitschy songs, psychedelic animation, bizarre plotting, tone shifts, hallucinatory episodes, and the inimitable Paul Lynde as an evil hippo-hating vizier blend to create a children’s film gone awry in all the most delightful ways.


Short clip from Hugo the Hippo

COMMENTS: We might adopt the lyrics from the opening theme—“if you accept a strange story as true/Then a certain enlightenment comes to you”—as the unofficial motto for this site. Young Maire Osmond belts out these lines without much regard for rhythm or melody (and pronounces “enlightenment” as “enlight’ment”), and is overly insistent that the story is “true… it’s really true.” (She says it three times in a row, like she’s trying to convince herself). This song, sung over scenes of the Zanzibar harbor and African wildlife, truly starts a strange story off strangely. The story, of course, is not true, unless you believe in sharks who dress like they’re headed to an undersea leather bar, clownish court wizards whose unthinkable arcane powers are accompanied by video game sound effects, and un-PC jungle monkeys who do impressions of the Harlem Globetrotters. But that’s not to say that Hugo doesn’t lead to a certain enlightenment. That enlightenment may be the film’s simplistic moral—people should not use animals (or other people) for their own ends without regard to what’s best for the animal. But a more important lesson may lie in the fact that, like in the most appealing kids’ movies, the children are vindicated: their innocence, imagination and unqualified love triumphs over adult cynicism, perversity and unmotivated hatred.

While Hugo the Hippo has a tight and exotic geographical focus in East Africa (Tanzania, to be precise), it’s otherwise all over the map. The up-tempo musical numbers are kiddie-flick standard, kitschy and catchy (you may catch yourself humming, “I love the hippo, H-I-P-P-O” along with Jimmy Osmond) and illustrated with oft-bizarre montages (the song about the absentminded teacher “Mr. M’Bow-Wow” features the title character shaving with a toothbrush, wearing an iguana on his head, and casually electrocuting himself by sticking a fork in a toaster). Then there are moments that descend into pure psychedelia, like the “storm of sharks” (done to a gritty funk number called “Zing-Zong”), which shows off a biker gang of finned killers draped in chains and wearing spiked helmets vaguely reminiscent of Nazi regalia. Their underwater montage features a bare-breasted mermaid and a busy jellyfish freeway. The sharks presumably kill scores of dockworkers, although we only see them chewing and swallowing the remains of the minimum-wage workers. Plot points are macabre as the least forgiving fairy tales. The slaughter of the hippos is at least abstracted, with the maniacal Aban-Khan firing his gun at clouds which dissolve after being struck by lightning, but in the aftermath Hugo still must swim through an ocean floor littered with the corpses of his tribe. Pretty grim stuff for tykes. Paul Lynde dominates the voice work as the green-skinned Aban-Khan; his iconically fey quaver proves as suited to villainy as it was to one-liners. (Of course, his presence adds a level of camp for the in-the-know crowd, but his performance would be powerful even if you’re a kid who’s never heard of Uncle Arthur or “Hollywood Squares”). Supporting characters tend towards the outlandish: the aforementioned Mr. M’Bow-Wow and the clownish but omnipotent wizard. The story moves from adorable to ghoulish, and from the merely exotic to the almost inconceivably strange. Maybe it’s the result of a culture clash between the Hungarian animators and the American producers; whatever the cause, the movie’s multiple personalities make for a more interesting case study in movie madness.

The animation itself has a sort of Saturday morning TV show quality to it, but with an Eastern European edge of strangeness. The frame is always busy. Clouds and African flora form stylized patterns that mimic the elaborate Arabic mosaics in the Sultan’s quarters. Color schemes are bizarre and often inconsistent: the sea is blue or pink or purple, depending on the colorists’ whims; skies may be blue or beige or orange, often changing color during different shots in the same scene. There are many memorably strange visuals: Aban-Khan’s scrawny torso as he stands shivering against an overcast sky after a shark rips off his tunic, or Hugo and the children staring at a burning garden through a sheet of flickering flame. The animators are fond of taking characters and setting them in a colorful void, especially during the musical numbers that allow their imaginations to run wild. The closing musical number gives them a chance to run through Hugo‘s greatest hits: individual scenes play inside tiles formed by a jagged honeycomb, one filled by Hugo’s giant face, another featuring the sword fight between Jorma and the apple-headed ninja. This scene explodes and turns into decorative chickens floating past flowered wallpaper while more scenes from the film play on their tummies. It’s a fittingly ornate and bizarre wrap for a delightfully overstuffed phantasmagoria. Even when the animators aren’t giving us giant cowboy robots or children riding in spaceships made from bubbles, there’s a lot more going on here than the frolicking anthropomorphic hippos you might expect from the cute title.

If you’re on the fence about Hugo‘s weirdness, stay tuned for the film’s major set-piece: a garden of hallucinatory terrors conjured up by the goofball magician as a trip—er, trap—to catch a hippo. As a scheme, we could argue that this method is rather indirect; as a chance for the movie to flip out and show us what it’s got up its sleeves, it’s a major accomplishment. The evoker conjures up a flying watering can to spread magical seeds over the land. The scent of spectral crops wafting through the air lures Hugo into the trap (aided by Jimmy Olson’s hypnotic chanting—“Hey Hugo, you come and get it, fresh fruits and veggies…”—and by a ghostly chef who appears carrying a tray of food). Once he’s there, Hugo is ambushed by an army of mutant vegetables that would make a Monsanto exec blush: Celery stalkers! Grasping raspberry tendrils! Corncob tanks! Young pal Jorma joins Hugo, wielding a kid-sized scythe and taking on most of the melee duties, with (for the most part) Hugo hanging back like a useless sack of blubber. Somehow, they rip through the fabric of time and space in the process of escaping, winding up in a scarlet netherworld where they’re assaulted by even more produce: String bean archers! Cossack asparagus! Samurai apples! After escaping from the belly of an eggplant with hot peppers in its digestive tract, Hugo and friend are rescued by a space butterfly who flies them to a cauliflower planet. But no! It’s a trap! Giant potatoes arise and transfix the pair with paralyzing beams from their eyes! Paul Lynde flies to the planet in a gourd and emerges framed by flashing disco lights. Next thing we know, the powerful deleriants the boy and his hippo were fed wear off, and Hugo is in captivity, awaiting trial.

With almost inexplicably trippy psychedelic odysseys like that, one suspects that the film was made with two audiences in mind. Hugo the Hippo is not the first time filmmakers and marketers noticed that the children’s and pothead demographics overlap. Hippies famously flocked to the 1969 revival of Fantasia, and Yellow Submarine‘s reinvention of psychedelic culture as childlike exuberance cast a long shadow over animation to come. Hugo is, however, one of the most shameless in exploiting the connection; the original poster winkingly described the film as “the wildest trip ever animated.” Like a hungry hippo in a vegetable garden, imagination runs rampant through Hugo, unchecked by the taste and logic of sober adults. It’s a sugary 1970s cereal of a film—low nutritional value, but irresistibly childish and charming. The adult at heart need not apply; they’ll miss the weirdness, and the magic.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… among the strangest films ever created… This is such a weird movie. It is too deranged to be horrible, but too peculiar to embrace.”–Phil Hall, Film Threat (bootleg copy)

“…a bizarre children’s movie… Perhaps the genius of ‘Hugo the Hippo’ is that, despite violating any number of rules about how to make an acceptable movie for kids, its surreal delivery is perfectly cater[ed] to them.”–Film Walrus (VHS)

“…the people who made it may very well have come up with a passable movie had it not been for one thing that got in their way early in the game…. Drugs. That’s the first and most likely theory to explain the craziness that you see before your eyes in Hugo The Hippo.”–Keith Bailey, The Unknown Movies (VHS)

IMDB LINK: Hugo the Hippo (1975)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Hugo the Hippo fansite – This site originally hosted a petition to put the film on DVD; now that Hugo‘s been officially released, it’s a blog with news items

Hugo the Hippo – Cult Film Classic – Bill Feigenbaum’s personal site has a short page dedicated to Hugo; it’s more interesting for samples of his “3-D” art, however

Hugo the Hippo: DVD Talk Review of the DVD Video – Randy Miller III’s article on the film includes information supplied by the director, and is really more of a background essay than a review (although it does discuss the Warner Archives release)

The Other Section – Hugo the Hippo – Comedy video review for the movie from “Ron Univideo”

DVD INFO: For years, Hugo the Hippo was unavailable on DVD, until Warner Brothers listened to the film’s small but vocal fanbase and authorized a DVD-R release (buy) on their budget Warner Archives label. The print is not actually restored—some sections show significant damage—but based on screen captures I’ve seen from the old VHS release and bootlegs, the color has been dramatically corrected. The film now looks vibrant rather than muddy. As per usual with Warner Archives, there are no extras. Before the Warner release, Bill Feigenbaum had begun to burn DVDs for fans who contacted him at his website; he claims that his master is cleaner than the one used by Warners. Nonetheless, it’s hard to complain about the presentation of such an old and odd catalog title of specialized appeal when it generally looks so damn good. Hugo is not available on video on-demand at the present time, and if you’re holding out for a Blu-ray, you ‘d better be able to hold your breath for as long as a hippopotamus can. Be thankful for what you’ve got.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Deb” who called it “one of the weirdest and most disturbing animation[s] I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)”

  1. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
    Excellent selection for the list. I only heard of this film recently, and made a blind purchase of the Archive DVD. I was enchanted from beginning to end – such an under-appraised gem! And Lynde is absolutely amazing.

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