DIRECTED BY: John Korty, Charles Swenson, Bill Couturié (“adult” version)
FEATURING: Voices of Lorenzo Music, Marshall Efron, Judith Kahan, James Cranna, Julie Payne, Hamilton Camp, Paul Frees
PLOT: With the help of a fairy godmother and a blundering superhero, two dreamland misfits try to stop the wicked Synonamess Botch from detonating nightmare bombs.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The mix of a crazy dream/fairytale plot with luminous cutout animation that often evokes surrealist collage landscapes—the cartoon characters might find themselves inside a clock that looks like a Leonardo da Vinci notebook page, on a frozen beach with body parts sticking out of the sand, or attacked by office supplies—makes Twice Upon a Time a one-of-a-kind oddball adventure. The legendary backstory involving the film’s longtime unavailability, kid-unfriendly profanity, competing versions, and accusations of censorship (which turned out to be reverse censorship) doesn’t hurt Time‘s cult credentials, either.
COMMENTS: Coming out during Disney’s nadir, when cartoon features were out-of-fashion, Twice Upon a Time was simultaneously a throwback and an innovation. The movie was painstakingly animated through the never before (or since) used process of “Lumage,” where plastic cutouts are placed on a light table and filmed. The process makes the cutouts seem to glow at times, as well as creating planes that impart a weird three-dimensionality to the images. The effect has been compared to stained glass, although the movie’s soft palettes are more reminiscent of gently glowing pastel watercolors. Besides the immensely detailed painted backdrops, the cartoon characters of dreamland also frequently tromp on top of black and white stills representing the “real” world. The resulting work comprises shots of extreme beauty (the shadowy, tiered towers of Murkworks, contrasted with the construction-paper chaos of Frivoili) and wit (the camera pulls back to reveal that the hedges the villains are trotting through form a skull and crossbones, and the submersible tottering on top of a pile of junk is surely a tribute to stylistic precursor Yellow Submarine).
Structurally, the narrative can be charitably described as anarchic, with archetypal characters who are as two-dimensional as the plastic cels they’re made from. Our misfit heroes, a shape-shifting “all-purpose animal” and a mute Chaplinesque Tramp, are joined by a Jewish fairy godmother (“FGM” for short), an aspiring actress, a superhero with a learner’s permit, and other jokey stock characters. Opposing them is nightmare tycoon Synonamess Botch (with “Nixon & Agnew ’68” tattooed on his chest), his fleet of vulture bombers, a pet rat (presciently named “Ratatouille”), and “head scream writer” Scuzzbopper. Together, the opposing sides war for dominance in the minds of the monochrome denizens of our world, know to them as the “Rushers of Din” (as accurate a three-word summary of modern humans as I can imagine).
Many find the plot, which involves the necessity of stopping time by stealing a piece of a cosmic clock, confusing; but although the setup may be rushed, it falls far short of being truly baffling. Some very bad, rejected-for-a-Rocky-sequel 80s pop music over the credits detracts from the project’s artistic credibility, but helps fix it in its era. Despite minor reservations, Twice Upon a Time is a great, overlooked, imaginative oddity that is well worth rediscovering. It’s so strange that it’s hard to believe executive producer George Lucas ever gave the project his blessing (although it’s easy to see why Mr. Blockbuster didn’t champion it after it breezed through theaters, making barely a ripple in the public consciousness).
Twice Upon a Time‘s “censorship” flap merits an explanation. Per director John Korty, the story is that after the movie bombed, producer/screenwriter Bill Couturié re-recorded some of Marshall Efron’s dialogue with “dirty” jokes (what today would amount to PG-13 rated scatology, mostly), with the studio’s blessing but without Korty’s knowledge or approval. The intent, apparently, was to re-position the flop as a cult movie for high school and college-aged kids. This “dirty” cut of the film originally played on HBO; when Korty discovered the fact, he supplied the network with the “clean” masters, which they then started airing. Angry viewers assumed that HBO had re-edited the film to remove the profanity and make it kid-friendly. Actually, it was a case of reverse-censorship: the racy material was inserted into the original to spice it up, not removed to appease the bluenoses. (And there was some mild profanity in the “clean” version, too). I prefer Korty’s cut (I don’t find fart noises all that funny), but they are not very different (the two versions are more than 95% identical). Still, the idea of a “blue” variation of an animated children’s movie is titillating. Wouldn’t it be a treat if studios went back and re-recorded a profane version of every flop kids’ movie?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…in all honesty, it is never boring. Strange, confusing and color-convulsing, yes. Dull, never.”–Mike Watt, “Fervid Filmmaking“