Tag Archives: Children’s Film

311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

AKA Santa Claus vs. the Devil

“Be off, my reindeer, and fly through the heavens as fast as you can go. May my palace of gold and crystal enjoy peace, and Jesus, the Son of God, join us on Earth so that we can all have joy and goodwill.” – Santa Claus

“This is weird theology.” Crow T. Robot,Mystery Science Theater 3000, Episode 521″

DIRECTED BY: René Cardona,  [as Ken Smith]

FEATURING: José Elias Moreno, José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’, Lupita Quezadas

PLOT: From his outpost on a cloud high above the North Pole, Santa Claus attempts to fend off the demon Pitch’s schemes to poison the minds of the world’s children against him. Santa spends Christmas Eve sidestepping Pitch’s attempts to derail his rounds. With the help of the wizard Merlin, a collection of child laborers from around the world, and a team of nightmare-inducing wind-up papier-mâché reindeer, he fights to win back the soul of a poor little girl who badly wants a doll.

Still from Santa Claus (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Cardona’s remarkably prolific career (he helmed more than 100 films) ranged from literary adaptations to genre classics such as Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy.
  • Produced in Mexico, the film was purchased by American K. Gordon Murray, the so-called “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” who found financial success re-editing and dubbing foreign children’s films into English and releasing them to an American public starved for something to do with their kids.
  • Murray turned a profit through a careful schedule of limited releases, which artificially manipulated the supply and demand, turning screenings into scarce opportunities. The high density of holiday television broadcasts also added to the film’s coffers.
  • Featured in season 5 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Years later, Rifftrax–featuring Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy from the MST3K installment––took its own shot at the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: So many to choose from (as you will see in a moment), but the vision I find most difficult to shake is Father Christmas monitoring his acolytes on Earth through the phantasmagoria of eavesdropping devices that make up his Magic Observatory, including an ear attached to an oscillating fan, an eye on an accordion tube, and a pair of very disturbing giant lips.

THREE WEIRD THINGS  Parade of child nations; Santa’s lip machine; cackling clockwork caribou

FIVE MORE WEIRD THINGS (to make 8 for Hanukkah): Interpretive dance from Hell; boxed parents; dream doll ballet; Santa’s rearguard assault; the Cocktail of Remembrance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Santa Claus seems the results of a cross-border game of telephone: the basics of Santa’s mythology are all there, but the end product is something wholly different and unusual. The attempt to infuse an essentially commercial construct with deeply held moral codes produces a strange sort of alchemy, generating earnest feelings within a deeply unsettling presentation.


English-language trailer for Santa Claus (1959)

COMMENTS: Look, Santa Claus is weird. The guy, I mean. A preternaturally jolly man with a fortress hidden away in the farthest Continue reading 311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

CAPSULE: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Kappei Yamaguchi; , , Matthew Lawrence (Disney English dub)

PLOT: As a rite of passage, a friendly 13-year old witch sets up a delivery service in a village.

Still from Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t have quite the mania or kiddie surrealism of Miyazaki’s wilder works like Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. We’re covering this one for the sake of Miyazki completeness.

COMMENTS: Kiki’s Delivery Service takes place in Anywhere, Europe—it might be in France, or Italy, or Austria—at a nonspecific time in the 20th century (there are automobiles, dirigibles, telephones, and black and white televisions, but no airplanes). In this alternate world, witches are real, and carry over some of the iconography of folklore, like flying broomsticks and black cat familiars. However, in Kiki, witches are accepted with none of the negative connotations of Häxan—they aren’t suspected of eating children by the light of the full moon. Rather “resident witches” act as public servants, one per town. According to the rules of witchcraft, smartly delivered in the film’s first twenty minutes or so, when a witch turns thirteen she leaves home and serves an apprenticeship. She has to find her own unique eldritch talent, which might be fortune telling, or potion brewing. Kiki’s quest to find out where she fits in this odd society is the engine of this coming-of-age tale (with a chaste, comical boyfriend subplot serving as bonus content).

Miyazaki, the son of an airplane manufacturing magnate whose extensive aviation-themed back catalog suggests he’s a frustrated pilot, creates some of his greatest flying scenes here. The freedom of the highly maneuverable broomstick allows him to “film” not only soaring green vistas, but vertigo-inducing shots from below and scenes of Kiki racing through traffic, levitating just inches above the pavement. The climax is a thrilling rescue as Kiki attempts to pilot an uncooperative broomstick, which keeps plunging when it’s supposed to hover. The excitement of the flying sequences helps win over boys who might be skeptical of a story revolving around a girl who sets up a small business.

I usually like, or am at least neutral about, Disney’s choice of dub actors, but I confess Kirsten Dunst’s voiceover was a little too bubble-gummy for me this time out. At least VO vet Phil Hartman, as the gently sarcastic cat Jiji (with just a touch of in his delivery), is excellent, stealing his scenes. Dunst’s performance is a minuscule nitpick anyway, and certainly nothing to overshadow Kiki‘s achievements as superior children’s entertainment. It’s not a transcendent example of its genre like Spirited Away, but Miyazaki’s craft and imagination never disappoint. Kiki delivers.

In 2017 Gkids got the rights to Disney’s Studio Ghibli catalog and began re-releasing the features on Blu-ray. This edition is almost identical to Disney’s 2014 Blu, right down to the extra features—but the one improvement that devoted anime fans will appreciate is the inclusion of an optional set of literal English subtitles, as opposed to Disney’s “dubtitles” (which often changed the original meaning slightly to make the story more accessible to Western audiences).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… top-drawer kiddie fare both for fans of the exotic and for mainstream family auds.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

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 Continue reading 281. HUGO THE HIPPO (1975)

LIST CANDIDATE: GRENDEL GRENDEL GRENDEL (1981)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Stitt

FEATURING: Voices of Peter Ustinov, Arthur Dignam, Ed Rosser, Ric Stone

PLOT: Baffled by the rise of little men who fear him, Grendel chews over his strange life experiences while talking to his silent mother, questioning the nature of his existence until his purpose is made obliquely clear when he visits a nearby dragon.

Still from Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: After fruitless efforts to find reasons why it shouldn’t make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, I realized that Grendel Grendel Grendel must deserve a slot. There’s marvelously unrealistic animation, witty soliloquies, and even a few musical numbers—none better than when a singing Grendel interrupts a ballad with, “Who’s the beast that looks so swell? G-R-E-N-D-E-L. What’s his purpose, can’t you guess? N-E-M-E-S-I-S!” Yes, this little monster ‘toon from Australia has what it takes.

COMMENTS: In my brief but busy history here at 366, I’ve encountered many kinds of weird movie. Scary-weird, grotesque-weird, unnerving-weird, incomprehensible-weird… but Grendel Grendel Grendel marks the very first time I’ve encountered cute-weird. Through its simplistically expressive animation, Grendel brings us the less-known story of the eponymous monster (charmingly voiced—and sung—by the great Peter Ustinov). The novelty of the perspective, the coloring-book-come-to-life feel of the imagery, the drollery, and the musical numbers collide in a wonderful spectacle of light, sound, whimsy, and weird.

On a “Tuesday Morning, Scandinavia, 515 AD”, we see warriors troubled by a massive footprint. Thus appears the first sign of Grendel. Indeed, as we learn early on in a song, this monster is a hulking 12’4″ and covered in scales and fur. He eats forest game and the occasional human—but kills far fewer humans than the humans themselves. The humble origins of the up-and-coming King Hrothgar (Ed Rosser) show a man of only slightly greater intelligence than his peers who has, in effect, a three-member posse and a kingdom in name only. But as Hrothgar’s kingdom grows, so grows the body count (with, admittedly, a few in the tally racked up by Grendel). It is only through a misunderstanding that things take a serious turn and the King calls for an exterminator.

So we’ve got our adorable anti-hero, our petty humans, and wondrous color-block environment. Grendel is urbane and witty— similar to Peter Ustinov. The narrative conceit is that Grendel talks to his (unspeaking) mother, with an interruption every now and again for song. Simultaneously the “shaper” Hrothgar hires for his mead hall forges a mighty ballad about the King’s nose and its battle-earned scar. Also, a mystical dragon discloses facts of life to Grendel, in song and dance form. By the time Beowulf arrives on the scene, we know exactly for whom we won’t be rooting—although Grendel ‘s Beowulf is hilariously snide and lecherous. All told, there’s not much going on in this movie that one would describe as “normal”, particularly for a G-rated animated feature.

With its unlikely ingredients, Grendel comes together far, far better than one would readily think it should. The director, Alex Stitt, also wrote the screenplay and produced, so we’ve obviously got a labor of love here. It was a fortunate turn of events that his labor was executed with competence, grace, and ample style. It was also fortunate that the (also great) James Earl Jones turned down the lead role when offered to him (ostensibly when he found out it would be an animated picture). Peter Ustinov provides one of his greatest and most memorable performance as the lovable Grendel. His personality underscores the beast’s humanity, and allows us an anchor in the vibrantly fanciful world of Grendel Grendel Grendel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One’s appreciation with likely depend on your tolerance for listening to omniscient dragon sages singing about Manichaeism and lilting folk-synth ballads describing Grendel’s horrifying features. Personally, I found it to be a well-suited mix of profound modernist absurdity and classical nursery rhymes… I can only hope that the spirit of risk-taking eccentricity that inspired its production will get reincarnated in other projects.”–Film Walrus (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY: A MUSICAL ADVENTURE (1977)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Williams

FEATURING: Claire Williams, Didi Conn (voice), Mark Baker (voice)

PLOT: Raggedy Ann and Andy to pursue a toy pirate into a mystical fantasy world to rescue a French waif.

Still from Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because of its reputation as a weird animated film which traumatized generations of kids, we dare not exclude it from consideration, lest the masses rise up against us. But also, it includes an auto-cannibalistic taffy pit, singing naked twins, a camel who insists on pointing out his deformities, and a practical-joker knight—and we haven’t even entered Loony Land yet.

COMMENTS: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: A bunch of animated, sentient toys in a child’s room greet a new toy which is unable to accept its lot in life. It runs away with another toy from the room while the rest of the toys marshal a plan to go rescue them—with lots of songs along the way. Toy Story? Ding, you are correct! But Raggedy Ann and Andy did it all eighteen years before. The film is in fact based on the book “Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Camel with the Wrinkled Knee,” by Johnny and Marcella Gruelle. There were a whole series of these books that came out around the Great Depression and are soaked in that time period’s sensibilities—after all, Ann is raggedy, not shiny and new like a rich kid’s doll would be.

From the letter-by-letter animated credits to the full-blown absurd climax, this movie is a treat in every sense, but it is also some of the most bonkers animation ever set to film. It’s an onslaught of eccentric characters, spontaneous songs every ten minutes, fantasy places as exotic as anything you’d find in Wonderland, and demented dream logic throughout. All of this is animated by a team working on individual segments, chiefly led by legendary animator Richard Williams, with meticulous attention to detail but mismatched styles throughout the film, giving it Heavy Metal levels of inconsistency. Flopsy moppet dolls gambol in boneless dances, shape-shifting blobs boil in a hodge-podge of mismatched eyeballs, and at times the cast is propelled through what appears to be an MC Escher world or a psychedelic rainbow land, except when they’re charging off cliffs against a sky that’s an homage to Vincent van Gogh.

Raggedy Ann and Andy reside with a host of other dolls in the playroom of a little girl, Marcella, who’s getting a new toy for her birthday: Babette, a French doll who snobbishly disdains her surroundings. She’ll be taken down a notch when the pirate Captain, finagling an escape from the solitary confinement of his snow globe, sails away with her lashed to the mast of his ship. Ann and Andy set out to rescue her, encountering the wrinkly-kneed Camel, the sentient self-consuming lake of taffy known as the “Greedy,” a sadistic practical joker Knight, and eventually the appropriately named Loony Land where bedlam is the only law.

If you see this film as a wee tot, it’s just a fun fantasy musical with a tad more psychedelic imagery than the average animated feature. The weirdness sneaks up on you long after. Perhaps the movie’s story comes from more innocent times, but there’s almost too many disturbing implications for it to be unintentional. Ann and Andy are brother and sister but act like lovers, there’s a mean and crazy man who torments lost little dolls in the woods at night while singing that he loves them, there’s an impotent king whose body parts inflate at random and who rages that he can’t expand bigger unless he’s torturing a captive, there’s a female former captive in bondage who now rules a crew of men while cracking a whip, there’s a tickle monster, and you could go on all day. Now ponder the hellish existence of the Greedy, a monster made of candy who craves candy and so eats himself constantly, before discovering Ann’s candy heart and coming after her with a pair of scissors to cut it out – because he wants a “sweetheart.” Now you know why everybody loved this movie as a kid and yet recalls it with shivers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What mostly registers from the movie, though, is its unfettered weirdness; and this is something that will be felt differently by every viewer. For myself, I was delighted by the way the animators chased their ideas down to extreme degrees without holding anything back, seeing how the discipline learned from Disney and Warner could produce some exquisitely warped surrealism.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

CAPSULE: THE NEVERENDING STORY (1984)

Die Unendliche Geschichte

“I was doing a tattoo in Seattle, and a girl came in and had the whole side of her buttcheek was the Auryn. So she pulled her pants off and asked if she could get a picture with me next to the Auryn, so I stuck my head right next to her butt.”–Noah Hathaway, star of The NeverEnding Story and tattoo artist, on the nexus of his past and current lives

DIRECTED BY: Wolfgang Petersen

FEATURING: Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach, voice of Alan Oppenheimer

PLOT: An orphaned boy discovers an epic story about a young hero’s quest to find the cure for a mysterious force that is destroying the kingdom and killing a princess, only to discover that he is more integral to the story’s outcome than he had imagined.

Still from The Neverending Story (1984)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A fantastical milieu is always good for unusual characters and settings, and the story’s propensity for bleak and even nihilistic ideas goes well beyond the usual expectations for “children’s fare.” However, the weirdness is mostly concentrated in the Mobius strip plot (which inspires the title), making the film primarily weird for the sake of itself.

COMMENTS: Director Wolfgang Petersen parlayed his success directing the global smash Das Boot into a seat at the helm of this movie, which would wrap as the most expensive film in German history. As regards what’s up on the screen, it shows. In our CGI-rich present, the effects may appear dated, but they are surprisingly effective and charming. Petersen creates a fully-realized fantasy world, from the crystalline castle of Fantasia to the dour Swamp of Sadness. The stop-motion, animatronic, and puppeteered creatures are also quite spectacular, with the fatalistic Rockbiter and the treacherous Gmork coming across as especially believable.

All those expensive special effects mean that the burden of acting falls almost entirely upon the two child leads. Noah Hathaway (previously sighted as Boxey on the original Battlestar Galactica series) is particularly strong, doing his best hero’s quest despite being prepubescent. Barret Oliver (soon to be seen as D.A.R.Y.L.) has a harder time, since so much of his role involves reacting to reading. He’s acting by himself opposite events happening to other people, which turns out to be at the heart of the movie’s bait-and-switch.

The true weirdness of The NeverEnding Story lies in this ultimate twist: the Nothing, an encroaching void that is destroying the world of Fantasia, is the personification of the apathy of a disinterested human readership, and the world can only be saved by the imagination of Bastian, the boy who stole and is now reading this very story about how the world is dying because he’s not imagining the story. It’s hardly a coincidence that the hero’s amulet, the Auryn, is a double ourobouros. The movie itself tells us that there is no real world/fantasy world dichotomy to unpack; it’s all fantasy, feeding upon itself. Which certainly goes a long way to explaining some of the story’s more puzzling mysteries, such as why Bastian’s unsympathetic, egg-swilling father (a very grim cameo by future Major Dad Gerald McRaney) isn’t out scouring the city looking for his son in the midst of a storm hours after he should have come home from school.

(Evidently, that metatextual mindplay is an even greater component in the source material. The movie draws on roughly the first half of Michael Ende’s novel, and the author was so incensed by the adaptation that he sued twice: first to stop the production, and then to have his name removed).

Ultimately, the film has major problems articulating what is really important. Characters are introduced only to have no impact on the story at all. A major death is wrung out for every tear it can muster before we’ve ever had a chance to meet the character or understand his importance to the hero. And the ending is a borderline travesty. Given the awesome power to create worlds, the most Bastian can think to do is turn the tables on his bullies and torment them in return. It’s an ending that works (my son laughed uproariously), but it doesn’t fit the philosophical, high-minded tone of all that has come before. Which is perhaps why it’s best to assume that the story never really ended.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… comes off as a Reading Rainbow episode covering existentialism… The NeverEnding Story’s virtues derive in part from its weirdness and uncompromising tone. Much of children’s entertainment instructs about self-actualization, but rarely is the message realized in a manner as respectful of its young audience’s intelligence.”
Mark Pfeiffer, Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema