The Criterion Collection is simply the best company in the United States, and possibly the world when it comes to re-issuing and releasing international film treasures. Whether it be Ingrid Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or Alex Cox’s Repo Man, one can be safely assured each DVD release will be given the treatment of a new Mercedes Benz. While Criterion’s variety is what gives it endless appeal, one noticeable deficiency is its lack of Animated Films. Could this be the prejudiced notion that Animated films are merely for children, a lower rung in the caste system of cinematic art? Animation, as shown in this list, can mean anything and appeal to just about any audience, and most of the films here are most definitely not for the kiddies. So lets take a look at some mind bending, revolutionary works of art, frame by frame.
10. Havoc in Heaven (Chinese: 大鬧天宮) (1964) Dir: Wan Laiming
China is not well known for their Animation, and frankly there isn’t much there. But its brief renaissance is thanks to the ingenuity of the Wan Brothers, who single-handedly formed the Chinese Animation Industry. After seeing a print of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1939, they produced and released China’s first full length animated film, Princess Iron Fan in 1941. For years, they worked on their magnum opus, Havoc in Heaven, based on one of the four Classical Novels of China, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. It follows some of the many adventures of the mischievous Monkey King, who causes utter chaos among the many gods and goddesses of Chinese Folklore when he tricks the Dragon King out of a magic Pillar. Probably China’s most adapted and well loved tale, Havoc in Heaven shines the brightest out of countless kiddie cartoon, TV serial and live action adaptations of the novel, and is an endeared classic in its home-country to this day. Though a success on its release in 1964, winning international acclaim and heaps of awards, it would prove a bitter end for the Animation Film Industry when a real uproar in Heaven would occur, the Cultural Revolution spear-headed by Mao Zedong. The Communist Party, no fan of fantasy, severely punished most of the animators, including the Wan Brothers, to years of hard labor in remote, rural parts of China. To this day, the Chinese Animation Community has never quite recovered. Havoc in Heaven is truly like no Animated film you’ve ever seen, looking nothing like Disney’s cuteness, or the sometimes generic looks of Japanese Anime, it is a film that truly seizes all of the senses of sight and sound, submerging you into an exotic, technicolor world.
9. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Czech: Baron Prášil) (1961) Dir: Karel Zeman
Dominated by the Soviet Union after WWII, Czechoslovakia was one of many countries in Eastern Europe that struggled with Communist oppression well into the thaw of the Cold War. But if one takes the half full theory in stride, one will notice an absolutely astounding amount of Animation produced thanks to Government funding, helping furnish a Nationalist Cinema unrivaled in its unorthodox animation styles, technique and narrative. While Disney and the rest of the Western World took to merely sticking to two Dimensional animation, Eastern Europe took the technology and techniques of Animation and ran with it in ways that continue to be strikingly original. Baron Prášil stands out as one of the most breath-taking approaches to incorporating Animation and Live Action into one hell of a breath-taking film. While Animation incorporated into Live action is now an everyday procedure in Hollywood, using life-less CGI aliens, digital backgrounds and green screened techniques up the arse, Baron Prášil manages to do the exact opposite. Stop motion animation, matte paintings and puppetry collide fantastically, evoking a universe inspired by the original Engravings of Baron Munchausen’s Memoirs by Gustave Doré. What we are given, is not unimaginative mounds of special effects striving for realism, but a true treat for the eyes using theatrical elements that remind us that we are in a realm of fantasy, not reality. The story of Baron Munchausen has been frequently adapted onto film as early as the silent days of Georges Méliès, to even the Nazi Era in 1944, when Goebbels decided to produce a fantasy for Nazi Germany to rival The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Thief of Baghdad (1940). Not surprisingly, it was this Czech version that inspired Terry Gilliam to direct The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in 1988, becoming one of the most expensive flops of all time.
8. Old Czech Legends (Czech: Staré Ceske povesti) and 7. A Midsummer Nights Dream (Czech: Sen noci svatojanske) Dir: Jiří Trnka
Jean Cocteau called him “The Poet of Childhood” and was dubbed by many as “The Walt Disney of the East”, Trnka is one of cinemas forgotten masters, and most of his body of work has never even been released in the United States in any capacity. Starting out making clothes for his Grandmothers dolls, he moved from Puppetry, a prolific career in children’s book illustration and eventually moved into Animation, where he was a great success, even winning over the Communist Party with his seemingly harmless fairy tale films. But even Trnka could not bend easily to the Communist Regime, hiding much political commentary or displaying it in plain sight in several of his films, which were banned. He is one of the few auteurs in the Western World of Animation to have directed such a large amount of Feature Films, when the world of Animation was not known as being a world of Auteurs, unless one counts Disney who couldn’t draw Mickey Mouse and hardly drew a frame of animation in his life. What appears on screen with a Trnka film can be deceptive. Initial loads of cuddly seeming puppets appearing on screen, moving in an orthodox fashion. One has to look twice to realize the true scope of Trnka’s mastery. The way the camera moves, his edits and mind for composition will prove that he was not the Walt Disney of the East, but the Akira Kurosawa of stop-motion animation.
Look at Old Czech Legends, here Trnka manages what seems to be the impossible, an epic battle using entirely puppets. The first cuts show a hawk flying away from a Soldiers hand, joining a crowd of birds that swoop over a battle field. One looks at a large amount of puppets flying madly over what looks to be a large, sprawling set which is in fact, a field in miniature and wonder, how on earth he does it?
Trnka’s audacity is what also endears us to him. His adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream is evocative, visually lush and painterly. Though a critical and commercial flop when released in 1959, it is Trnka’s Magnum opus. His camera techniques are in full swing. Look at him manage a zoom out shot while the puppets manage to move, using a grueling animation technique using only five frames a second, meaning not even a second of film for each puppets movement. One cannot imagine the ingenuity and engineering it took to make the camera seem to swoop back and fourth throughout the film. Originally filmed in wide-screen, one wonders how to access the film in its original screen ratio. If anybody can do some detective work, its Criterion.
6. Heavy Traffic (1973) Dir: Ralph Bakshi
Its about time Bakshi be considered one of the great auteurs of Seventies American Film, a part of the New Wave in a brief, tumultuous renaissance that would provide us with directors doing their best work such as Altman, Friedkin, Pekinpah, DePalma and Ashby. Perhaps it is his career in Animation that hinders more ignorant critics, but what one must remember is that Bakshi is the first American animator to bring the art form to a world of Adult consumers, willing to stray from Disney. Fresh from his box office smash Fritz the Cat, Bakshi directed his magnum opus, the autobiographical Heavy Traffic, about a young Jewish Cartoonist living, and haunting, the most harrowing parts of 1970’s Brooklyn. Though not filmed in any locations besides the drawings they live and breath in, few films have captured the real grittyness of a New York long gone and long gentrified. Transvestites, greasers, hookers, perverts, pimps and drug fiends abound in cartoonish, violent glory. Here, Bakshi pulls out all the stops and then some.
5. Coonskin (1974) Dir: Ralph Bakshi
After hitting two home runs with Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, Bakshi got into the most controversy of his entire career with Coonskin, a film that literally caused riots on its release, Paramount eventually dropped the film after nearly every screening was picketed by Black Focus Groups and smoke bombs were frequently dropped in theaters playing it. But what audiences black and white couldn’t seem to understand, was that the film was a testament against years of Racism in the media. Bakshi sought to make a film about racism by throwing two centuries of Mammies, Aunt Jemima’s, Uncle Tom’s and Pickaninnies in the faces of an often unwilling audience, forcing them to think on their feet and make their own decisions about what Race means in a cannibalistic, capitalist society. The film is a riff on the Uncle Remus stories kept popular by Walt Disney in his now banned Song of the South (1946). Transposing B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Bear and B’rer Fox from the South to the Streets of Harlem, where they become determined to fight the man, no matter what it takes. With Sam Fuller’s previously unreleased White Dog (1982) along with Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969), Coonskin should be a more than welcome entry into the Criterion Collection as another highly controversial treatment of American Racism.
4. Lunacy (Czech: Šílení) (2005) Dir: Jan Švankmajer
Jan Švankmajer is not only one of the great animators in film history, he is one of the great artists of the 20th Century and one of the founders of the Czech Surrealist Movement. We are lucky, though many may not know, to have him among us in the film world, still making feature films regularly, each one becoming a cult classic. His version of Alice in Wonderland, Alice (Něco z Alenky) (1988) is perhaps the best adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s novel ever filmed. Not to mention his version of Faust and his rendition of the Czech folk-tale, Little Otik (Otesánek) naming only a few, if only examples of a Czech film maker consistently able to have his films released in the United States because of his strong cult following. But one of his most over looked films, is perhaps one of his best, and one of the few with mostly live action. Lunacy is his most horrifying film. Based loosely on two short tales by Edgar Allen Poe and the works of the Marquis De Sade, a young man is interned into a mental asylum by none other than the founder of Sadism himself. The animation is brief, but effective by way of disturbing interludes involving slabs of breathing, pulsating meat that slithers its way across claustrophobic sets. Here, Švankmajer is wild, yet sub-dued, taking his reign as the greatest film surrealist since Buñuel. A horse and carriage travels its way by a free-way filled with moving cars, obese mental patients naked bodies lean against walls covered in body paint, while statues of Jesus are hammered with nails. Lunacy is a magnificent companion piece to another Criterion Release, Salò, or The 120 days of Sodom (1975) and makes Quills (2000) look like kids stuff.
3. Fantastic Planet (French: La Planète sauvage) (1974) Dir: René Laloux
Fantastic Planet is one of the first Animated Features to appear proving that Animated films could exist outside the realm of cuddly animals and fairy tales. What plays on the screen is one of Science Fictions most disturbing and original cinematic visions. Directed by one of France’s Animation masters, René Laloux, the film follows the fate of human beings far into the future, where they are kept as domesticated pets or treated as vermin by a species of creatures known as Om’s, much larger than their human counter-parts. Following the trails and tribulations of a boy named Terr, kept as a pet by a girl named Tiva, he eventually escapes, finding others like him, who live in fear of being found and destroyed. Using a cut out technique, elaborate backgrounds and a surreal design aesthetic, Fantastic Planet is a perfect anecdote for the usual Science Fiction jaunts loaded with over-saturated Special Effects, minimal plot and explosives. It is a quiet, eerie trip to the other side. Criterion should take note, since the film has had a powerful cult following since its release in 1973, being frequently re-issued in theaters and on DVD.
2. The King and the Mockingbird (French: Le Roi et l’ouiseau) (1980) Dir: Paul Grimault
Le Roi et l’ouiseau should be a primary asset for The Criterion Collection because its script is provided by none other than Jacques Prévert, screenwriter of one of Criterion’s crown jewels, Children of Paradise (1945). The film has perhaps, one of Animation History’s most unique and intriguing production histories. Originally a collaboration between Animator Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert, the film was taken out of their hands after a costly production, release as La Bergère et le Ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep), the film flopped and caused the loss of Grimault’s studio. But Grimault didn’t give up without a fight. For what spanned well over twenty years, Grimault was determined to bring his and Prévert’s original vision to the screen. Eventually scoring funding to re-do the film. What came was a revelation, re-released in 1980 to much acclaim. Though living under the guise of a cheery Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, the film is a delightful commentary against authority, displaying a sense of fun and mischief hard to come by in the massive over-flooding of today’s Feature Animation Market. The film follows the adventures of a fool-hardy Bird,who helps two lovers, a Shepherdess and a Chimney Sweep escape from a painting, away from the guise of an evil King who rules over a whimsical kingdom consisting of labyrinths, trap doors and menacing robots. Le Roi et l’ouiseau is long over-due for an American Release. Though its 1952 release is in public domain and has been dubbed in such obscure releases as The Curious Adventures of Mister Wonderbird, a prime chance at a plump release is being missed. In fact, the film was such a massive influence on both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, founders of Studio Ghibli, they re-released the film dubbed in Japanese, becoming a massive hit for the studio on the Japanese market. Perhaps Janus Films could release a version to be released in the many Children’s Film Festivals prevalent today?
1. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (German: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed) (1926) Dir: Lotte Reiniger
While Walt Disney took credit for making the first full-length animated feature with his Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the real credit goes to German film pioneer Lotte Reiniger, who not only made a 64 minute long feature using her brilliantly elaborate shadow puppets, but practically invented the multi-plane camera technique, enabling her to animate using layers of backgrounds, stepping outside of the realm of predominantly flat animation. Based on tales from The Thousand and One Nights, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is one of the most beautiful works of Animation art ever made, reminding us of the dream like quality films can deliver to us, flickering before our eyes like an ancient magic trick. Shadow puppets in their own way, are the most primitive animated films we have, being used in nearly every culture for entertainment since the dawn of man. Reiniger took this parlor trick and made a masterpiece that has to be seen to be believed. Luckily, a restoration was made between 1997 and 1998 using the few surviving prints (no nitrates of it exist). Though the DVD of the film is all good and well, it could really use the full Criterion treatment, proving to the world that Reiniger is one of the masters of German Cinema, standing beside Lang and Murnau in her mastery within the realms of cinematic fantasy.