Monday, 14 July 2014

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS: ANIMALYMPICS

L.J. SPENCE'S STARTING POINTS

30. ANIMALYMPICS (1980, dir. Steven Lisberger)

14/07/2014


"Animalympics" re-entered my mind after the 2012 Olympic Games, after coming across sections of it on YouTube. The seemingly daily viewings during childhood were more ingrained than I could have realised. It is not often seen now, perhaps as animation is thought of by many as 3D only, rather than just primarily 3D, but then I read that I was lucky to have seen it at all.

NBC, the US television network, commissioned two animated specials to accompany their coverage of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. One of them, the half-hour Winter Olympics special, was shown, but Russia then invaded Afghanistan, and the United States boycotted the Summer Games. The hour-long animated special was axed, but the director, Steven Lisberger, usually director of TV advertisements and title sequences, decided to get the film completed in the way he intended it to be from the start.

Using an "Independent Filmmaker Grant" from the American Film Institute, and money from the US government agency The National Endowment for the Arts, "Animalympics" premiered, as a feature film, at the Miami Film Festival in 1980, going on general release the same year.

"Animalympics" is a series of sketches, with a few running storylines, but with plenty of scope if you want to make something good. Roger Allers, who animated a marathon-running lion, Kit Mambo, became co-director of Disney's "The Lion King" (1994). Bill Kroyer, another animator, directed "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" (1993)...

And then, there was Brad Bird... "The Simpsons," "The Iron Giant" (1999), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007), "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011). He made his film writing debut with "*batteries not included" (1987), which now makes a lot of sense...

"Animalympics" may have been lucky with having talent at the start of brilliant careers, it also had celebrities voicing the characters, a long time before Dreamworks drove that idea into the ground from "Shrek" (1998) and "Shark Tale" (2004) onwards. It may have made sense using stars from the NBC TV series "Saturday Night Live" when the film was being made for TV, but when one of them is Billy Crystal, and another is Harry Shearer - appearing in his first animated production, a decade before "The Simpsons," using the lessons given to him by no less than Mel Blanc - a precedent was now set for voices that not only fit the character, but voices that you know (or, in the case of "Shark Tale," make your characters look like the people doing the voices - Martin Scorcese playing a puffer fish with big eyebrows, for fuck's sake).

This is even before I mention the music - good, strong songs, "We've Made It to the Top," "You and I Can Run Together," "Love's Not for Me." I now know that these songs were written and sung by the person credited first on screen, before all of the above - Graham Gouldman, the bassist of 10cc, they of "I'm Not in Love," "The Wall Street Shuffle," "Dreadlock Holiday," and "Life is a Minestrone." 10cc even play on the songs too, and this is over a decade before Elton John and Tim Rice won Academy Awards for their work on "The Lion King."

I know I am just listing the incredibly good luck of Steven Lisberger with "Animalympics" here, but this has to be understood for what came next. If you have made a film that involved as much talent as it did, then what do you release in 1982, after Disney have asked you what you would like to do?

"Tron".


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