originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/665681...
When it comes to naming Western animation studios, you’ve got the really old school studios from the early 20th century like Fleischer, Disney and Warner Bros. You’ve got the offshoots of Disney like Don Bluth Productions and Dreamworks. You’ve got the oddball directors like Ralph Bakshi would who hop from studio to studio, whoever would take their pitch. Head over to Europe and you find a lot of smaller studios like Cartoon Saloon, Bobbypills, Xilam or (long list of French studios) who tend to work on massively multinational collabs designed to scoop up arts funding from as many countries as possible. There are limited-animation oriented TV studios, which is to say there is Hanna-Barbera.
And then there’s Rankin/Bass!
Rankin/Bass are a bit of an odd beast, in that they were perhaps one of the earliest studios to primarily produce animation via international outsourcing - and while nowadays that usually means South Korea and the Philippines, back in 1960 that largely meant Japan.
Rankin/Bass, founded naturally by two guys called Rankin and Bass (in 1960 under the name Videocraft International, based in New York), took American money and sent it to animators at some of the oldest anime studios including Toei, Eiken/TCJ and Mushi Pro to draw or stopmotion animate their films, which they would voice act with American VAs. But the studio they’re most associated with is Topcraft, which you may remember from Animation Night 70 as the studio which old Hayao chose to make Nausicaa; outside of this rare exception, Topcraft almost exclusively served Western productions, largely for Rankin and Bass. And after Topcraft vanished shortly after Nausicaa, with the majority of its animators going on to follow Miyazaki to the exciting new Studio Ghibli, but a certain portion hung on, creating Pacific Animation Corporation. You can see the full list here.
The way things seem to work at this studio, Arthur Rankin and and Jules Bass themselves directed basically all their movies. On the Japanese side, the stop motion ‘animagic’ productions are credited to Tadahito Mochinaga at MOM production; Topcraft was led by Toru Hara, formery of Toei, before he joined the Ghibli exodus.
For the first few decades of the studios existence, Rankin/Bass specialised in, well, ‘holiday specials’ for various US xtian celebrations like Christmas and Thanksgiving. Since the official line of Animation Night is that the only valid one of these is Halloween and all others are revisionist, we are going to pass over these without much comment. Which means we’re speeding forwards to the late 70s, where they started to branch out a little. First were a series of hourlong TV specials, and then, suddenly, childrens’ books were in, starting with Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Why did this happen at this particular point in history? I’m honestly not sure, although perhaps the success of Zuiyo Eizo’s World Masterpiece Theatre series (also talked about on Night 70) had a lot to do with it? Or perhaps they were hoping to fill the space left by a weak decade at Disney? In any case, in the space of about a decade, Rankin/Bass dived head first into adapting fantasy books - among them Tolkien’s Return of the King, The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle (certainly the best remembered), The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, and a version of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
The particular visual style of this period of Rankin/Bass movies stands out - if not necessarily always for good reasons, those giant hobbit eyes are certainly a choice! The 70s and early 80s were a period when ‘fantasy’ had not yet ossified into its current rigid commercial aesthetic (i.e. the Star Wars money machine was still revving up), watercolour paintings and fantasy artists were throwing out some fascinating feelers into aesthetic space. At its best this led to some brilliant works like Belladonna of Sadness [Animation Night 69] over in Japan, the rise of French comics artists such as Meobius, and even disjointed but very compelling Bakshi movies like Wizards.
It may contextualise things to note that this song by Leonard Nimoy was made in 1968:
…which is admittedly a full decade and then some before The Last Unicorn, but that’s the vibe. Imagine a drawing of a hobbit with a pipe on top of a weed shop… oh, you don’t have those outside of Glastonbury? Huh.
So, let’s have a look at a couple of these movies.
The Last Unicorn (1982) is actually the only one I’ve seen, capturing a suitably ethereal and melancholy atmosphere - perhaps not surprising since the book’s author Peter S. Beagle wrote the screenplay as well. Rankin/Bass were the last animation company to be approached, initially horrifying the author, but he came around after seeing the Japanese animators’ character designs (which include a fascinating cloven-hoofed look for the unicorn herself that recalls illuminated manuscripts and medieval tapestries, apparently intentionally!) and the voice actors’ performances. @mogsk reports actually meeting the guy at a screening of a remastered version with additional inbetweens, and he was very happy about the adaptation, only regretting that they hadn’t had the budget for more full animation in the first place.
It was rly cool, we were sitting in the second row to the front, and the guy in front of us kept turning around and excitedly talking about each scene, and when the lights came up at the end t hey handed him a mic and he was like ,“So yeah I’m peter s beagle!” lol
A lot of the tone has to do with the score, composed by Jimmy Webb with the band America and singer Lucy Mitchell. A reviewer is quoted as calling it “an appropriately somber and sentimental blend of fairy tale motifs and dark, Wagnerian cues” and disparaging the folk ballads which became so common in other rankin/bass films, but honestly these ballads now convey a feeling of ‘hey it’s (only just ceased to be) the 70s’ and it really works here. At least I think the OP is pretty :p
So yeah that’s who’s on it, but what’s it about? It’s a tragic little story about a unicorn who goes looking for any other survivors of the magical creature genocide by a tyrannical monster known as the Red Bull, falls into various misadventures including a traveling circus, and it gets very bleak indeed when she has to turn human to evade capture.
As for our second movie… one of the Tolkiens might be an obvious pick, but instead, I’m going to take the opportunity to show @mogsk the one R/B fantasy film she hasn’t seen… and nor have I so this one’s a roll of the dice. That is The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, If you look at the poster you might be like, “hey bryn have you gone mad” (you fools I was mad all along), but the film itself looks like… well, a late 70s fantasy film, so high drawing counts, some rotoscopy looking scenes, often kinda-stiff animation but also some beautiful 70s-anime approaches to stuff like fire.
This one… the plot’s pretty daft, a buncha wizards get together and have an argument about the fate of humanity. Forbidden to fight among themselves, the ‘good’ wizards deputise a small group of humans to steal the bad wizard’s crown. Meanwhile a young Peter Dickinson - author of the book, self-inserting here! - gets isekaied into the past and accidentally downloaded into a dragon’s body. From there we get a kind of science vs magic subtheme which honestly sounds a little painful, as Peter attempts to fit dragons into his 20th-century ontology, but we shall see…
And oh! Guess this is actually our first isekai on here. Wasn’t expecting that. I shall save an attempt to research the history of isekai for when we end up doing an actual anime one.
Anyway, it looks like it will have some fun vocal performances and cool visuals, so hopefully a chill and amusing time, and it still has something of the colouring of 70s/early 80s anime which should give some visual appeal even if it’s not quite the technical showoffiness of something like Horus. Idk, let’s roll the device.
Animation Night 76 will start… now! I know, late again. Hopefully this will be a fun one to recover from any surgeries, illnesses, malaises, and misfortunes you may have experienced in the last week <3 head to twitch.tv/canmom when you are ready!