Kirikou And The Sorceress was a hard sell in the United States, largely due to its lack of prudishness about body parts: According to the New York Times, distributors told writer-director Michel Ocelot even before he made the film that he wouldn’t be able to sell it unless he put pants on his naked infant protagonist, and bras on all the topless women. Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko faced similar barriers in America: The largely comical animal fable from the studio behind Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro was Japan’s No. 1 grossing film in its year of release, and Japan’s official Academy Awards submission for Best Foreign Film, but the prominent scrota of its shape-shifting tanuki stars, and the many gags based around them, became a major barrier to entry for American sellers. Initially, Disney balked at releasing the film as part of its package distribution deal with Ghibli, and even when it went forward (with a decorous dub referring to the tanuki’s anatomy as “pouches”), it was neglected compared to other Disney/Ghibli packages. Meanwhile, Kirikou did become a festival and arthouse favorite, and came out on DVD via Facets Video’s small boutique label, but it never got wide theatrical release, and it remains a minor cult hit at best.
That isn’t an unusual experience for imported animated films, or even, in the pre-Pixar era, domestic ones produced by anyone other than Disney. For decades, Disney’s overwhelming market dominance with a highly specific brand of animation left American distributors unsure how to package or sell anything else, while American audiences assumed “animation” meant “designed for young children.” The occasional hit like Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated Fritz The Cat or the British import Watership Down notwithstanding, animated films with any remotely non-G-rated content have struggled in America.
That changed significantly around the mid-1980s, as a growing wave of Japanese and Korean animated imports primed American audiences for a much more diverse field of entries. In recent years, the growth of animation as a profitable American business has opened the field to a wider range of projects. Imports like Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir have taken on complex topics and won awards. Daring experiments like Waking Life, The Tune, and Sita Sings The Blues have stretched the boundaries of who can create animated films, and what animation can be.
But we still all have favorites like Kirikou or Pom Poko, deserving films that didn’t fully find their audience for whatever reason. To round out this Movie Of The Week discussion, we’re highlighting some other animated films that should be better-known than they are, via individual recommendations and conversations explaining what we love about these underrated projects.
SCOTT TOBIAS’ RECOMMENDATION
The Emperor’s New Groove. In this 2000 Disney film, an ambitious sorceress turns a selfish, egotistical ruler (voiced by David Spade) into a llama (also voiced by David Spade) to get him out of her way. In the process of fighting his way back to his throne, he learns some lessons about humility and interdependence with others.
Tasha Robinson: Of all the underrated animation people wanted to advocate in this space, The Emperor’s New Groove is the least obscure: It’s a Disney feature, it’s less than 15 years old, it made more than $169 million worldwide. Why do you classify it as an underrated film?
Scott: First off, the $169 million total is a bit deceptive: It was a little south of $90 million domestically at a time when Disney animated movies—and Pixar, which enjoyed massive hits in Toy Story and A Bug’s Life—had become habitual world-beaters. But what’s really striking to me about The Emperor’s New Groove is how little resemblance it bears to other Disney movies at the time—it’s looser, funnier, less portentous, and more like a rule-flouting Warner Bros. cartoon than anything you might expect from the Mouse House. There had always been comic relief in the studio’s post-Little Mermaid run, most notably in the form of Robin Williams’ genie in Aladdin, a character that seemed animated around the actor’s improvisatory skills (to put it generously). Yet The Emperor’s New Groove is the true odd duck of the era, beginning its life as an austere Lion King follow-up, and ending as a delightful wisp that’s constantly moving and scribbling bits of business in the margins. I think its lack of gravity is both its greatest quality and the main reason people don’t talk about it in the hushed tones that attend pre-fab “classics” like Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King.
Tasha: It’s such an amazing oddity in the Disney canon. Unlikeable protagonist, no romance angle, pacing and humor that’s more Looney Tunes than Disney… any theory how this all happened? And what do you make of the non-linear timeline? That’s one of the biggest oddities in a movie made for young kids, but it seems almost necessary here, so the opening scene can alert viewers that the whole story isn’t about one character being a monumental jerk.
Scott: Well, The Emperor’s New Groove rose from the ashes of Kingdom Of The Sun, which was supposed to be another twist on the Prince And The Pauper story, with eight original songs by Sting. And if you want to get an idea of how unappealing that might have been, listen to the stray Sting song in the closing credits, which very much sounds like it came from another movie. (Even those who could argue for Sting’s merits as a singer-songwriter would have to be dubious of him following in Elton John’s footsteps—or even Phil Collins’. His work is just too heavy.) The collapse of the original project seemed to have provided the studio with what Homer Simpson would call a “crisitunity” (that’s crisis + opportunity), and I think it accounts for the film’s relentless tinkering with structure, and its frequent breaks with the fourth wall. To give you just one example of many: There’s a scene where Kuzco, the emperor-turned-llama, is dangling from the top of a waterfall spilling down from his palace and the enormous cliff on which it sits. The camera keeps zooming back and back to show us the absurdly steep drop, until it settles on a branch far off in the distance, where a chimp climbs out to eat an insect. “Um… what’s with the chimp and the bug?,” the narrator asks. What indeed!
Tasha: Who would you primarily recommend this movie for? For me, it doesn’t have the animation-buff appeal of something like The Lion King or The Little Mermaid—or even Pocahontas, a problematic film that still serves as a glorious animators’ showcase. And the lack of significant emotional stakes makes it feel less like a true all-ages movie than animated films in the modern Pixar mode, which are designed to be exciting for kids and meaningful for adults at the same time. At the same time, the slapstick here is so accessible, and the classic-animation-humor touches seem intended equally for people who grew up on Bugs Bunny and for kids too young to consider him a staple. Is there a specific viewer you’d point at this film and say “This was made for you?”
Scott: I’d recommend the film for children of all ages. Older Looney Tunes fans can enjoy it as a departure from the Disney brand that nonetheless has the studio’s appealing visual pop, and younger kids don’t necessarily need significant emotional stakes to engage with the movie. Some of the jokes are either too fast or too sophisticated to score with the very young, but there are often multiple layers to each one: Kids can laugh at the evil Yzma (wonderfully voiced by Eartha Kitt) dropping into alligator-filled waters when Kronk (Patrick Warburton, also wonderful) pulls the wrong lever, while adults can chuckle at the absurdity of Yzma’s punchline: “I don’t even know why we have that lever.” And that’s the Looney Tunes touch, I think, to deliver physical shtick while appealing to the knowing intelligence of its audience. You may be right that it’s a ’tweener, lacking in the visual splendor of Disney’s finest and the emotional resonance of Pixar. But I think it hits its own sweet spot.
Keith Phipps’ recommendation
The Dave Fleischer-directed 1936 two-reeler “Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor,” in which Popeye takes on a boastful rival in glorious color.
Tasha: Of all the Fleischer cartoons in all the franchises in all the theaters, Keith, you walked into this one. Why this cartoon in particular? Fleischer Studios cranked out an immense number of cartoons from the 1920s onward, including Superman shorts and the Betty Boop canon, as well as the Popeye shorts. And there were more than 100 of the Popeye cartoons. Why does this one particularly stand out for you?
Keith: A couple of reasons. For a while, Fleischer Studios, headed by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, rivaled Walt Disney for popularity, thanks to original creations like Betty Boop and Koko The Clown. Some of their most popular series were adaptations of others’ work, however, including those beautiful, Art Deco Superman cartoons from the early 1940s. (The first batch, at least. By the time of the second, inferior batch, Max had lost control of his own studio and he and Dave weren’t on speaking terms anymore.) But my favorite are the Fleischer adaptations of E.C. Segar’s Popeye The Sailor comic strip. “Adaptation” may not be the right word, since the Fleischers’ cartoons have their own flavor, informed by a bizarre sense of humor and an urban, working-class sensibility. I singled out “Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor” not because it’s one of the series’ best—it’s not, though I like it quite a bit—but because it shows the technical ambition that also characterized the Fleischers’ output, via its odd, innovative use of the multiplane camera, which mixes hand-drawn animation and miniature, three-dimensional sets. Those shots of Popeye and others walking around three-dimensional backgrounds are just so peculiar, they deserve to be seen. And since this piece is less than 20 minutes long, and filled with familiar, winning characters, it’s easier to appreciate that ambition here than in one of the Fleischers’ feature films.
Tasha: I’ve never seen the Fleischers’ two features, Gulliver’s Travels and Mr. Bug Goes To Town. Have you? I assume they aren’t as insane and surreal as the Koko or Betty Boop shorts, because that kind of craziness seems unsustainable over the long run. It fascinates me how their studio had such distinct strains, with the psychedelic Betty Boop musicals, the Deco Superman shorts, and the Popeye shorts embracing such radically different animation and storytelling styles.
Keith: They’re not as insane or surreal, which is part of the problem. As difficult as it might have been to sustain that weirdness at feature length, it would also have been preferable. Neither is awful but both are pretty dull. (A side note: Gulliver’s Travels, only the second feature-length cartoon ever made, after Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, was kind of a hit in its day. A Forgotbuster if ever there was one.) Gulliver’s Travels is interesting primarily as a spotlight for one of the Fleischers’ great innovations: rotoscoping, which traced animation over live action. The practice never really went away—Ralph Bakshi used it a lot in the 1970s—but it also never fully caught on. It’s simultaneously more lifelike and less believable, however contradictory that might sound. Put simply: It looks weird, but often fascinatingly weird. The 3-D/hand-drawn hybrid of “Popeye The Sailor Meets Sindbad The Sailor” never really took off either. But sometimes I think if you nudge history a little bit, or maybe just public taste, we might be talking about going to Fleischerland for vacation.
Tasha: What do you think of it as a story? Popeye animated shorts tend to be pretty programmed—a bully threatens Popeye, he looks like he’s going down, he eats some spinach and sings his song and wins, often Olive Oyl or Swee’pea or Wimpy are in danger to give Popeye a motive—and this one follows the formula. But it strikes me as different, in that it gives Sindbad (played by Popeye’s old enemy Bluto, as if Bluto were a character actor trying out a different but familiar role) so much time to establish his own bona fides, strut his stuff, and sing his song. There’s something unusually charming to me about Sindbad’s island of vicious monsters that he’s cowed into serving as his yes-men and support chorus.
Keith: There’s not much to it beyond what you describe, story-wise, but I find it all so charmingly bizarre, I don’t really mind, especially those animals you like. The Popeye shorts—though less often than Betty Boop and other Fleischer predecessors—sometimes threaten to veer into the avant-garde, and the sense that anything can happen is a lot of fun, no matter how repetitive the stories. For the curious, Warner Bros. put out a nice box set a few years ago: Popeye The Sailor: 1933-1938. In some ways, Fleischer Studios has become a cul de sac in the history of animation, but a fascinating one that’s well worth exploring.