Monday, 28 May 2018

Crudely Drawn Filler Material: The Simpsons in "Gone Fishin" (January 24, 1988)

Following on from my previous observations about early Homer being a much more conscientious family man than his later incarnations, there is another way in which his character differed in the olden days, in that he was quite the savage son of a bitch. In the Ullman shorts (and some of the early Simpsons episodes), Homer was prone to losing his temper at the drop of a hat and Bart, despite his natural thirst for rebellion, was ever wary about ending up on the receiving end of that fury. A piece of that angry, primitive Homer does still linger every time the show reuses the classic sight gag of Homer throttling Bart, but his character has mellowed out significantly over the years, and barking at his son like a rabid wolfhound isn't such a defining character trait any more.

This tetchier dynamic between Bart and Homer is probably no more evident anywhere than in "Gone Fishin'", where it's pushed to such an extreme that Bart is effectively treated more as Homer's reluctant, bungling servant than as his son (to the extent that he even addresses his father as "Sir" throughout). After "Bart and Dad Make Dinner", where we got to see how these characters would weather an evening alone without Marge's oversight, we get to see them rough it in the great outdoors, and we suspect that they're not going to come out of this smelling of roses (or of freshly-caught trout, as it were). Bart screws up repeatedly and does what he can to avoid Homer's wrath, while Homer teeter-tooters between angst and oblivious enthusiasm. I notice that Nancy Cartwright's vocal work is a little off-kilter here, as she seems to be dabbling with a slightly deeper Bart than usual - as a result, her performance here plays more like the missing link between her respective Bart and Nelson voices.

Besides that, "Gone Fishin'" is notable for two reasons:

  • It contains one of the most stomach-churning gross-out gags in the entire history of The Simpsons, to the extent that you are strongly advised to wait at least an hour after eating before viewing this one. In Act II, Bart is unable to fulfill his father's request for a baloney sandwich because he forgot to bring along the key ingredient. Realising that his father will blow his top if his baloney cravings aren't satisfied, Bart tips a full jar of fish bait in between two slices of bread and hopes that Homer won't tell the difference. Apparently, Homer cannot, and he wolfs down the fish bait sarnie eagerly, oblivious to the live and wriggling worms dangling out from between the bread. That's just vile, man.
  •  It makes an extremely valiant attempt at a big dramatic set-piece on the shoe-stringiest budget imaginable. In Act III, Bart and Homer run into some rapids and dragged across a hazardous array of jagged rocks which leave them tattered and torn. The sequence...well, it's interesting in how they choose to stage it. In the absence of any actual dynamic animation we get a bunch of still images and jerky zooms as the camera attempts to simulate the motion of a boat at the mercy of the elements (as cheap as this sequence looks it could potentially be harmful to those with motion sickness - again, you are advised not to go to this short too soon after eating). We also get a few close-ups of Bart and Homer's faces in which only their mouths move and, needless to say, hilariously off-model facial expressions abound.

Unlike "World War III", "Gone Fishin'" doesn't have a strong overarching narrative; it is just a series of skits in which Bart and Homer run into calamity after calamity while out on the waters (a given scenario plus Murphy's Law, in other words). The only hint that the outcome of one act might have consequences for the next is at the start of Act III when Homer notices that their fish bait supplies have run inexplicably low all of a sudden; Bart smiles sheepishly and we wait for Homer to make the connection...only that never happens because the rapids come along and give Bart a reprieve. In some respects, "Gone Fishin'" might be viewed as a proto "Call of The Simpsons", the seventh episode of the series proper, in which the family go camping and Bart and Homer end up lost in the wilderness. As with that episode, Bart and Homer's situation escalates when they find themselves plummeting down a waterfall, only it's played with a lot less seriousness here, and we never get any sense that Bart and Homer are genuinely in danger. Life was hardly but a dream for the Ullman Simpsons but it was occasionally quite heavy on the cartoon physics.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Crudely Drawn Filler Material: The Simpsons in "World War III" (November 22, 1987)

If you were to ask me to pick out my idea of the perfect Ullman short, then I would point without hesitation to "World War III". This short makes great use of the original four-act structure to tell a neat story, one that combines the warped domesticity of the early Ullman shorts with the more familiar Simpsons panache which was already starting to blossom, while tapping into a nightmare which has plagued generation upon generation of children ever since Ed Sullivan chose to broadcast A Short Vision on his show back in 1956 - namely, that your parents might come bursting into your bedroom in the early hours to announce that World War III has just broken out and you have fifteen seconds in which to leg it to the fallout shelter (assuming your family had one) or be obliterated along with everything else unfortunate enough to be caught up on the Earth's surface.

"World War III" is one of the better-known Ullman shorts, thanks to its inclusion in the regular Simpsons episode "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular" (although only the first act was shown), where it was cited as an example of Dad/Mr Simpson/Homer/Captain Wacky's characteristically zany antics. I've spoken previously about Homer's characterisation being somewhat different in the Ullman shorts, and "World War III" is a pretty good illustration of this. Homer's always been kind of a dolt, but he was a responsible dolt back at the Simpsons' dawn. He was conscious of his obligations as a husband and father and tried to adhere to those, even if he didn't always make the most sensible choices. Homer really puts his family through the wringer in "World War III", but there is a method to his moronity, in that he's looking to ensure his family's survival prospects in the event of the impending disaster which many regarded as inevitable in the 1980s. Of course, if you've ever read/seen When The Wind Blows then you'll know what a scary time that was, so perhaps Homer does have the right idea and his family are too wedded to their soft duvets to see it.

Like a number of the Ullman shorts, "World War III" pivots around some kind of disturbance to traditional domestic routine, although here the (implied) disturbance is of a much more extreme nature, playing on the horror that the very worst calamities could occur at absolutely any moment and the world as we know it be reduced to a pile of smoking wreckage in the blink of an eye. I think the first act works sufficiently as a stand-alone piece; the first time we see it, we don't quite know what's going on, but we are gripped by the urgency in Homer's voice and the unbridled terror emitting from Bart. Once the family have been whisked from the comfort of their beds and into the cold confines of the fallout shelter (which exists purely for the purposes of this short; I don't think the Simpsons have ever made reference to the nuclear shelter down in their basement ever again), we get our punchline - this was only a drill, and the bad news is that in the event of actual nuclear war the family would have stood no chance of survival. Homer's denouement doesn't quite the sting off at the end of the act, which fades out with the family still shivering, and the audience catching an inkling of that chill (a sensation that's merely accentuated when Homer asks them, "Are you cold or what?"). The twist, then, is that the disturbance to the Simpsons' domesticity comes not from external calamity but from Homer's overzealous efforts to safeguard his family's well-being, which is carried out to such an extreme that it in itself becomes a threat to the family's functionality.

"World War III" structures itself around the repetition of a basic routine, and the various changes within each go-around which clue us in on how the story is building and where it is headed. Each additional act opens with Homer bursting into Bart's bedroom to announce that the End Times are upon them before ushering his increasingly sleep-deprived family down into the fallout shelter. By the second act, the initial shock is already gone and we see that Bart's terror has already given way to annoyed indifference. The family shifts through a range of emotions with every drill, from fear to frustration to exasperation at simply wanting to make it through the remainder of their night without having to flee for their lives from a phantom apocalypse. In the end, Homer does succeeding awaken a kind of survival instinct in his family, albeit one wholly concerned with protecting their short-term needs. The short's final punchline - which sees the family team up to give Homer a taste of his own medicine and ensure peace for what remains of the night - is a tad predictable, although the getting there is certainly fun and it does offer a rare example of Marge getting in on the kind of rebellious shenanigans ordinarily reserved for the Simpsons children, to the extent that even Bart has to question its permissibility. Marge's response suggests that there are times when even the most stringent individual has to bend the rules in the interests of upholding one's sanity; in the meantime, the possibility that the end of the world might come calling at any minute is a problem that can be put off until the morning.

Note: There's not a lot in the way of truly freaky-looking animation to speak of in this time, although the way in which Homer's pupils dilate when he says, "Let's go, go, go!" is kind of unsettling.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Animation Oscar Bite 2018: The Remains of The Day

90th Academy Awards - 4th March 2018

The contenders: The Boss Baby, The Breadwinner, Coco, Ferdinand, Loving Vincent

The winner: Coco

The rightful winner: The Breadwinner

The barrel-scraper: The Boss Baby, Ferdinand

If you logged onto social media on 23rd January 2018, shortly after the nominees were announced for the 90th Academy Awards ceremony, you might have noticed that the nominees for Best Animated Feature were subjected to an unusual amount of ridicule. I got in on that (kind of) when I declared it to be the worst line-up since the 2012 ceremony. With hindsight that may have been a mite unfair of me. Certainly, I do not think the line-up here is quite comparable to that of the 2012 awards, in which the majority of entries were the kind of mediocre fare that would have certainly been passed over in a stronger year. Here, that's not the case, because three out of the five nominees are absolutely outstanding. Coco, Loving Vincent, The Breadwinner - all terrific. No, I think it's more about the fact that there were two very egregious nominees in there, each exemplifying Hollywood at its most soullessly mediocre. DreamWorks' Animation's The Boss Baby was on the receiving end of nearly all of the ridicule, with many taking the internets to proclaim their disbelief that the film was now officially up Oscar consideration, although I'll wager that a good percentile of the people dispensing such mockery hadn't even seen the film and were just chiming in on the basis of the trailer, which made the film look mindless as fuck. Which is not to say that The Boss Baby is actually good, mind, or smarter than its trailer would suggest, but at the same time I can understand why some people might enjoy it, on the basis that it is so mindless, stupid and anything-goes that it scores points as an alternative to heavy hallucinogenics (I fessed up to liking Rock-a-Doodle, so I'm hardly one to judge). An Oscar contender, though? Get out.

The second mediocre entry was largely ignored in all of this, presumably because Ferdinand itself attracted virtually no attention during its ill-fated run at the holiday box office (it chose to open on the exact same day as The Last Jedi; what the hell did it expect?). But to me it actually stuck out as the more glaring example, because while DreamWorks Animation have never really had much clout when it comes to winning this award, Blue Sky have been dead to them since almost as far back as the award began. And now suddenly the floodgates were re-opened to them, and for Ferdinand of all films. Ferdinand was Blue Sky's first film to be nominated for this award since the studio's debut feature, Ice Age, all the way back in 2003, so if you hadn't been keeping up with their output you might take that to mean that Ferdinand was their strongest film in a while. Erm, no. Ferdinand is as boring, safe and vanilla as Blue Sky gets - there is literally nothing about it that conveys any growth or development as a studio since the days of Robots and Ice Age 2. Rio and Epic, while not Pixar-worthy efforts, did at least have more character and ambition going for them than Ferdinand.

If I seem particularly hard on Ferdinand, it's because I desperately wanted for it to have been better. If nothing else, then Ferdinand does have an enormously positive message, one that you don't tend to see a whole lot of in Hollywood, period (given that it's making a statement on toxic masculinity). A shame, then, that it doesn't have a strong story to back it up. It betrays what an inordinate amount of rewrites it underwent by just how awkwardly everything therein pieces together, from the odd, unconvincing manner in which a young Ferdinand is exiled from his ranch only to be hauled back within the first thirty minutes, to the curious lack of focus given to what the film keeps insisting is at heart of the story; that is, Ferdinand's relationship with his adoptive human family (we barely even see the people in question; the same goes for Ferdinand's passion of flowers, which here plays more like an incidental trait than anything especially pivotal to the character's motivations). There's one character who, much like Chief from Disney's The Fox and The Hound, was presumably killed off in earlier drafts of the script but lives in the finished film (somewhat implausibly) so as not to disturb the kids in the audience. And some of Blue Sky's very worst habits come creeping in yet again. Lupe the goat is the kind of tortuously annoying side character one encounters all-too-often in their productions (granted, it is unusual for the odious comic relief to be female, but that doesn't make Lupe any less unbearable). By comparison, the trio of crayola-coloured hedgehogs are cute and not overly intrusive, although they are the subject of an increasingly irritating running gag in which they're repeatedly mistaken for another species altogether and have to indignantly remind us that they are, didn't ya know, hedgehogs. The reason why this gag annoyed me so is because it was blatantly implemented on the assumption that American audiences might not recognise a hedgehog when they see one, given that they are not indigenous to the New World. Which is all well and good, but you have to remember that this particular story is set in Spain, and the Spaniards know damned well what hedgehogs are.

As previously noted, before the 2018 ceremony the Academy implemented a few changes to the voting process for Best Animated Feature, which animation news site Cartoon Brew predicted would make it easier for mainstream productions to hog the proceedings in future ceremonies. It seems that Blue Sky was indeed a beneficiary of these changes. Having said that, 2017 was kind of a weak year for Hollywood animation all-round, and it's not as if this award hasn't always had a very visible bias toward mainstream productions. So I'm not sure how much difference it really made in the end. In the (relatively short) history of this award, there have only ever been two nominees which I consider so soul-grindingly wretched that they had no business being invited to the Oscars in the first place, and they are Shark Tale and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (both which were nominated in the early years of the award, when the animation industry was still so small that pretty much all you had to do was show up). Everything else I could just about give the benefit of the doubt (I've got problems with Fantastic Mr Fox and Frankenweenie, but I can at least appreciate the craftmanship that went into those films on a technical level). But all the same, we have consistently seen quite a lot of mediocre entries get through, apparently on the basis that the Academy has to meet its quota for Hollywood representation before it can give foreign and indie flicks a look-in. Were The Boss Baby and Ferdinand's nominations really so egregious when you consider that Despicable Me 2, The Croods and Puss in Boots (and A Cat in Paris, just to prove that mediocrity isn't an exclusively Hollywood thing) were all nominated not so long ago? Perhaps it's more a case that we've been absolutely spoiled for great line-ups within the last two or three years. Perhaps. I guess we'll have to wait until the 2019 ceremony to see if this was merely a brittle year or if there are some worrying changes in the air. If the new rules mean that little-known gems like Boy and The World and My Life as a Courgette probably wouldn't be nominated in the future...well, that's a crying shame.

Of the three outstanding nominees, it was a tough call settling on my personal pick for rightful winner, because I think they're all pretty great. Coco is fun and heartwarming in the very best Pixar tradition and with it we have the magic and excitement of getting to explore an entirely new, freshly-realised world (I'm aware there was another animated film based around Dia de Muertos a few years back called The Book of Life, which I haven't seen so I can't compare how similar its treatment of the subject is to Coco, but certainly Coco looks and feels entirely different to every Pixar film before it). Loving Vincent, likewise, was a sublime experience from start to finish. But in the end I'm going with The Breadwinner. I came to it primarily for the gorgeous animation animation (courtesy of the ever-reliable souls at Ireland's Cartoon Saloon, along with Aircraft Pictures in Canada and Melusine Productions in Luxembourg), but I wound up getting so invested in the story and characters. I'm not exaggerating when I say there wasn't a single second in which I felt bored or my attention wandering, I was so on the edge of my seat the entire time wanting to know what would happen next. The Breadwinner does close on a very open-ended note, which might not be to all all tastes, but given the setting it would probably be a tad disingenuous to have gone with an ending in which everything was cut and dried. Am I surprised that it lost to Coco? Nah, I'm well-accustomed to how this whole process works by now. This was one heck of an easy outcome to call.

I am full of praise for Coco, although if I did have one nitpick with it (and be warned, we are getting into spoiler territory here) it's that if you didn't see the plot twist coming a mile away, you blatantly haven't seen enough Pixar. By now, it's a pretty solid rule of thumb that if a Pixar character is on the old side, patriarchal and widely respected then he's not to be trusted. Pixar do love their "surprise villains", but it's not really much of a surprise when they keep playing the same card over and over, now is it? Actually, check that - my main criticism of Coco is that I didn't much care for the means by which the villain's ill-deeds were made public that it struck me as reminiscent of how the villain's ill-deeds were made public knowledge in Zootopia, which itself borrowed heavily from how the villain in Monsters, Inc inadvertently gave themselves away. In all three cases, the resolution hinges on the villain conveniently choosing to blurt out the details of their nefarious schemes with no regard to who else might be listening, and the more that Disney and Pixar keep going back to this particular plot device, the less plausible I find it that the villain would actually be stupid or careless enough to fall for it.

The Snub Club:

A lot of people were sour because once again, and even with the revised voting process, the Lego movies (there were two in 2017) had zero joy in being nominated (note: this sourness was largely on behalf of The Lego Batman Movie, which many consider to be a pretty good movie, and not The Lego Ninjago Movie, which was widely dismissed as a hollow cash-in). Myself, I went to see The Lego Batman Movie with my parents and it was a bewildering experience all-round. Afterwards, when my dad said to me, "You know, that had a very odd message for a children's film. It seemed to be saying that good and evil need one another," I couldn't help but agree. What exactly was supposed to be the takeaway from that particular arc? But then it seemed to me that The Lego Batman Movie had a whole shit-ton of half-baked and broken morals. For example, am I the only one who felt sorry for all those non-Batman villains stuck in the Phantom Zone? Granted, they were bent on eating the Joker initially, but once he'd persuaded them to come over to his side they were 100% loyal to him, and the Joker repays their solidarity by ditching them the instant they cease to be of use to him. Then again, that's entirely in keeping with this particular Joker, who betrays the other Gotham City villains early on by turning them into the law, and then at the end of the film they all just welcome him back with open arms and his treachery is never brought up (I didn't see the Joker apologise to any of them, did you?). And to top it all off he flirts openly with Batman right in front of Harley Quinn. This Joker is a DOUCHE, man. That wouldn't be problem, except the movie kind of wants us to see the Joker as a victim and Batman as the one who's in the wrong. Huh. Although, speaking of so-called villains who were actually the victims of their particular narrative, what is King Kong doing in the Phantom Zone, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Voldemort, Saruman and every other iconic villain Warner Bros currently has the rights to? King Kong isn't a bad guy, he's just a big gorilla who behaved exactly as a giant gorilla would be expected to behave when you pluck it out of its natural habitat and chain it up to be gawked at by a bunch of slack-jawed yokels. As Homer Simpson so succinctly put it, "It's so unfair! Just because he's different!"

(Note: My mother agreed with me on King Kong. She was also upset that the shark from Jaws was in the Phantom Zone, pointing out that it's not his fault that he ate people, seeing as how he's a shark and he was only ever acting on instinct. You can see how this film inspired some spirited debate among my family.)

As for the two films I believe should have nominated in place of The Boss Baby and Ferdinand, that's a no-brainer - Japan's In This Corner of The World and Spain's Birdboy: The Forgotten Children were both excellent, and had those two made the cut instead then this would have been a nominees list to rival the line-up for the 2016 ceremony. That would have made Coco the sole mainstream Hollywood production in the running, however, so it was never going to happen. Again, I have to question how great a difference those changes to the voting procedure actually made for either of these films - non-Ghibli Japanese animations do have a very poor track record with this award (many thought that Your Name would be a shoo-in for the 2017 ceremony, yet it failed to scrape a nomination), so what chance did In This Corner of The World stand? Meanwhile, Birdboy was probably always too dark and demented for the Academy's tastes (since it's about animal drug addicts struggling to survive on an island ravaged by industrial disaster - not for nothing to do I refer to it as Threads meets Zootopia).

Not much else of note happened in 2017. Pixar did another Cars sequel (despite there being absolutely no demand for one) and once again I gave it a miss. Actually, I have heard that Cars 3 is a lot better than Cars 2, and that Cars 3 does everything in its power to make you forget there ever was a Cars 2. If that's really the case, then why did they call it Cars 3? Oh, and there was also something called The Emoji Movie which seemed to get everyone's bile boiling, but I'm still doing my darndest to ignore that one.


That's it for Animation Oscar Bite for now. We'll pick this up again after the 91st Academy Awards ceremony in 2019. Until then, and as promised, here's my personal ranking of all of the winners to date from best to worst:

1. Inside Out
2. Ratatouille
3. Up
4. Spirited Away
5. Wall-E
6. Coco
7. The Incredibles
8. Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of The Were-Rabbit
9. Finding Nemo
10. Happy Feet
11. Frozen
12. Toy Story 3
13. Brave
14. Zootopia
15. Big Hero 6
16. Shrek
17. Rango

The most cheated film never to have won this award:

Still Monsters, Inc. My all-time favourite losing entry is Moana, but losing to Zootopia is somewhat less egregious than losing to Shrek.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

VHS Verve: Blinky Bill The Mischievous Koala (aka Save Us From That Woodchip Mill!)

Here at The Spirochaete Trail I've specialised in harvesting and devouring some of the most feel-bad animations ever to have graced this Earth, everything from casualty-riddled eco-serial The Animals of Farthing Wood to anti-nuke feature film When The Wind Blows to the mind-numbingly morbid adventures of Scruffy The Tuesday Dog. With that in mind, it was always only a matter of time before I brought up Yoram Gross, Australia's master of melancholy. Born in Poland in 1926 and being of Jewish heritage, Gross's formative years were spent locked in a daily battle to stay alive under the Nazi regime. Following the war Gross found employment in Israel as a cameraman, and in 1968 he immigrated to Sydney, Australia, where he and his wife Sandra Gross founded Yoram Gross Film Studio. The studio would become famous for the Dot films, a series of animated features produced between 1977 and 1994 about the adventures of a young girl who gets involved in the plights of various creatures in the Australian wilderness, notably a mother kangaroo on an impossible quest to be reunited with her abducted joey. In this article, published in 2011, Gross emphasises that he is fundamentally an optimist and that his positive spirit is reflected in his films, which impart messages about love, loyalty and pacifism being stronger forces than hate and war, although truth be told the Dot films are not exactly what you'd call mirthful viewing and I would not recommend them if you're not prepared to withstand a considerable amount of heartache. The first time I saw Dot and The Kangaroo I remember howling in anguish at the ending and wondering why on earth the bloody film had insisted on being so cruel to me. If you want to see a grown adult cry, then Dot and The Kangaroo is definitely one of the top titles you should consider showing them. It is, of course, entirely possible to convey a positive message while still having your audience bawl their eyes out at the end (that's what Watership Down manages to achieve, is it not?), but the Dot films certainly don't make bones about the sadness of life, championing its resilience while underlining its fragility, how filled it is with abrupt comings and goings and how often you don't have the chance to say your proper goodbyes. It was in Dot and The Kangaroo that Gross honed what would become his signature visual style, in pasting animated characters atop live action imagery.

In 1992 Dot's career was nearly at a close, and Gross was branching out with a new animated franchise featuring a very different breed of Australian hero - Blinky Bill, an anthropomorphic koala created by New Zealand-born children's author Dorothy Wall in 1933, whose adventures have been a staple for generations of Aussie children ever since. The Blinky Bill stories had previously formed the basis of a puppet-based series, The New Adventures of Blinky Bill, which ran from 1984 to 1987, but Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala was the merry marsupial's first ever feature film. In 1993 it was followed by an animated TV series, The Adventures of Blinky Bill, which served as a direct sequel to the events of the film. This ran for three seasons and was a big international success, raising the character's profile in several European markets. In 2005, Gross would revisit the character with a one-off seasonal special, Blinky Bill's White Christmas (written and directed by Gross's son, Guy Gross), and in 2015 Yoram Gross Film Studio (now rechristened Flying Bark Productions) retooled Blinky for the computer age, complete with a 3D animated reboot, Blinky Bill: The Movie, and spin-off TV series, The Wild Adventures of Blinky Bill. We'll get to the modern, all-new CG Blinky eventually, but for now I want to focus on the one that figured in my own childhood, and which has continued to haunt me ever since. In the UK, this film was released by BBC Video under the title Blinky Bill: The Movie, although for the purposes of this review I'll be sticking with the original Australian title.

The original Blinky Bill story by Dorothy Wall (Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian) has its share of similarities with Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in that each revolves around a feisty young creature who is cautioned to be wary of humans after his father falls victim to their murderous machinations. Like Peter, Blinky has a distaste for following rules and is soon lured by the temptations of a potentially hazardous human habitat - in his case a roadside food store owned by Miss Pym who, like Mr McGregor, has zero tolerance for any wildlife audacious enough to be stealing her wares. As with Peter, Blinky evades capture by his human nemesis, only to have to face the wrath of his frantic family once he's legged it safely home. A series of sequels followed, including one published in 1940 where Blinky became the mascot for the Australian Army (top that, Peter Rabbit), which was apparently toned down from its original form when Wall's publishers found the premise of Blinky straight-up joining the army to be a bit out there. Actually, reading through this biography of Wall, it seems that the world was tragically denied the full extent of her eccentricities, with most of her really weird and intriguing ideas ending up in the reject bin and the manuscripts being destroyed. That story about six skeletons going on a cruise and swapping houses - what sort of Faustian bargain to I have to make to go back in time and save it from the clutches of oblivion? Wouldn't you love it if there was an animated adaptation based on that set-up for me to be reviewing?

In Gross's film, Blinky Bill remains a free-spirited young koala who lives with his mother in the Australian bush community of Greenpatch (here, his ill-fated father is never brought up) and whose rebellious, Bart Simpson-esque demeanor makes him a natural adversary to disciplinarians in all their forms. When not undermining the pretensions of avian authority figures like the pompous Mayor Pelican and straight-laced schoolteacher Miss Magpie, Blinky enjoys clowning around with his friends, who include Splodge, a slow-witted but big-hearted kangaroo, Marcia, a pugnacious marsupial mouse, Flap, a lisping platypus, and Jacko, a loud-mouthed kookaburra. Blinky's world is turned upside down by the arrival of a reckless pair of tree-pillaging humans, Joe and Harry, whose insatiable appetite for timber devastates Greenpatch and forces the animal community into exile. Blinky is injured in the demolition and emerges from the wreckage an amnesiac, but is reminded of his identity with the help of a lonely young female koala, Nutsy, and resident sage Mr Wombat. After reconvening with the other animals, Blinky learns that his mother remains unaccounted for and, along with Nutsy, sets out on a perilous search and rescue mission, which takes them all the way to the human headquarters, the much-feared Woodchip Mill. 

Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala reuses many of the themes from the Dot films (parents separated from their children, human encroachment of the natural world). It also incorporates Gross's characteristic style of juxtaposing animated characters with live action backgrounds; it goes without saying that the film's visual aesthetic is nowhere near as sophisticated as what Hollywood had recently pulled off with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but then it isn't trying to be. Gross's technique isn't so much about wowing the viewer with its technical wizardry as creating a curious kind of visual poetry, with characters whose hand-drawn simplicity makes them seem all the more ingenuous and delicate against their real-world environs. You might recall that When The Wind Blows did something very similar, in having the two-dimensional Jim and Hilda move around a very plain and three-dimensional domestic setting, shortly before it was all flattened by a nuclear blast. In both cases, the effect is to create a sense of unreality and to paradoxically cause the characters' ill-fated worlds to appear all the more immediate and fragile. The sequences early on in the film with Blinky and his neighbours crawling out from beneath the rubble and staggering through the smoking remains of their erstwhile home, as masses of dark red clouds sweep overhead, have an undeniably haunting, almost apocalyptic quality, as if we've just witnessed the fall of an entire civilisation. Later on, when Blinky and Nutsy set out for the Woodchip Mill and have to cross a raging river, those cute little cartoon koalas do look awfully small and vulnerable out there in the big, dark, unforgiving world.

Gross's Blinky Bill adaptation was released in 1992, the same year as Kroyer Films' Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, another animated feature to base its pivotal conflict around the destruction of the Australian wilderness. The early 1990s was the time of the ecologically sensitive kids' cartoon, with a whole array of feature films (Ferngully, Once Upon A Forest) and TV shows (Captain Planet, Widget, Twinkle the Dream Being) dedicated to extolling the virtues of caring for the planet, and Blinky Bill was only too happy to climb aboard the bandwagon. Nowadays, of course, the environment has become such a heavily politicised issue that even more muted forms of environmental didacticism (eg: Pixar's Wall-E) tend to provoke instant knee-jerk reactions in some, and it goes without saying that if you prefer your cartoons to be entirely free of overtly green messages, then Blinky Bill is not the movie for you (my take: although valid criticisms could probably be made about the simplicity and heavy-handedness with which some of the aforementioned media present such messages, environmental consciousness is certainly not a quality that I would ever want to discourage in children). In Blinky Bill's case, the message is entirely in keeping with Wall's stories, which frequently express concern for the plight of koalas and other bush animals. Gross's film does notably go to lengths to emphasise that the environmental destruction depicted therein is the result specifically of illegal logging procedures - the dialogue between the human characters makes this clear, and if you stick around to the very end of the closing credits this is even reiterated through a handy disclaimer (nevertheless, it's my understanding that the spin-off TV series generated some controversy among the Australian timber industry when the lyrics "Save us from that Woodchip Mill!" were incorporated into the show's opening theme song - possibly because the context about it referring to illegal logging was removed).

With Ferngully and Disney's 1990 film The Rescuers Down Under, the early 90s was also a time when Hollywood animation underwent a short-lived infatuation with all things antipodean (which isn't terribly baffling when you consider how ravenously US audiences had eaten up the Crocodile Dundee films), although in reality neither film displays a whole lot of passion for Aussie culture, with the Australian wilderness serving merely as a backdrop to stories populated by characters with predominantly American accents (this is more conspicuous in Disney's film than in it is in Kroyer's). The authentically Australian Blinky Bill is an altogether humbler beast than its big-budget counterparts, lacking both the high energy spectacle of Disney's film and the cheesemongering glory of Kroyer's (say what you will about Ferngully, but it is fantastically entertaining), but reveling in the kind of adrift, haunting ambience that most Hollywood animation would never dream of. I'll also give praise to the vocal cast, which is as minuscule as such a cast can be, yet the range of voices they throw up is so diverse that the film never gets bogged down by the limitations of this. Virtually all of the voices are performed by only two actors, Robyn Moore (who voices Blinky and all of the female characters) and Keith Scott (who voices every male character sans Blinky), with a third cast member, Ross Higgins, chipping in as an unusual frog chorus for just one scene (see below).

Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala is not an amazingly narrative-driven film, which isn't unusual for Gross - the Dot films didn't have the tightest of stories either, in most cases consisting of Dot wandering around from Point A to Point Z and wagging chins with various Australian fauna - but for Blinky Bill the episodic plotting and lack of narrative focus does ultimately work against it, giving us a barebones story that's pulled around in all directions (incidentally, The Rescuers Down Under had a very similar problem - it's one of Disney's most adrenaline-fueled films, but good grief is the story all over the shop). As the film opens we're pretty much plonked directly into the action, with the humans advancing on Greenpatch and slicing the unfortunate forest to ribbons, before which we're afforded only a very fleeting opportunity to acquaint ourselves with any of its individual residents. This is followed by an extended flashback sequence as Wombat and Nutsy attempt to restore the amnesic Blinky's memory, which opens with an analogue to the characters' origins in The Quaint Little Australian, as Mrs Koala introduces her newborn baby to the rest of the community and toys with naming him Walter or Blue Gum before finally settling on Bill. This is a useful enough sequence for taking time out to establish who each of the main characters are, although the flashback as a whole goes on for well over twenty minutes and very quickly loses all sense of structure. Basically, it's a a series of short skits dedicated to proving over and over that Blinky is a handful and that his long-suffering mother is a saint for putting up with him. Blinky is seen ruffling various feathers around Greenpatch, before finally ending up in the roadside store where he has his infamous encounter with Miss Pym (side-note, but I kind of seriously detest Miss Pym's character design in the Yoram Gross adaptation, which is so ridiculously gangling that she doesn't resemble a human so much as a demonically-possessed spagbowl - I suppose this could have been a deliberate stylistic choice in order to play up the strange, alien quality of humankind to the bush creatures, but none of the other human characters in the film are anywhere near so unpleasant to look at). Really, I'm not sure whey they bothered to incorporate the Miss Pym arc into the movie at all, other than to pay homage to Wall's original story, for it has no bearing on anything that happens later on in the main Woodchip Mill arc. In fact, if you're unfamiliar with Wall's book then I suspect that you'll be confused as to who the heck this woman is and why we waste so much time hearing about her intense hatred for fluffy marsupials (in song form!). Then again, the first half of the film is full of these weird little interludes that have nothing much to do with anything. For example, there's a barbershop quartet number performed by frogs. For some reason. Another involves Bobbin, a pommie rabbit who sings about the joys of football and procreation in a short musical sequence that serves no purpose other than to make a point about the non-indigenous rabbit's tendency to reproduce at a faster rate than the Australian outback can handle. Actually, I do like Bobbin's sardonic personality and I'm glad that the sequence is there.

Once Blinky and Nutsy have made it to the Woodchip Mill and the central conflict with the loggers kicks into gear, the film sets up a whole new arc involving a very different kind of human - Claire, Harry's young daughter, who spends her days at the Woodchip Mill and is blatantly starved for companionship. When Nusty is pursued by the mill's guard dogs, Bruno and Hilda, and forced to take refuge in Claire's bedroom, Claire seizes the opportunity to adopt the frightened koala as her pet. The whole deal with Claire is frankly a bit odd, as it's not overly clear how we're supposed to respond to her character. On the one hand, she's the only human in the entire film who doesn't exhibit a contemptuous attitude toward animal life and, in that light, she plainly represents the next generation, whom the film hopes will do a better job at caring for the planet than their parents. On the other hand, and despite her benign intentions, Claire isn't exactly the good guy in this equation either, given that she's set on removing a wild animal from its natural habitat and holding it in captivity; there's a scene where Claire introduces Nutsy to her less-than-tickled family, who take an uncharacteristically responsible attitude in suggesting that the breakfast table perhaps isn't the most appropriate environment for a bush animal like a koala. Then again, the film never takes the time to establish how Nutsy actually feels about her human captor. I notice that she isn't kicking and screaming with terror whenever Claire holds her near, but she likewise doesn't think twice about ditching her later on when Blinky shows up to return her to the bush. There's definitely room for pathos with Claire's character (her family don't seem to understand her much and there are no other children in sight, so it's obvious that her desire to latch onto Nutsy is born of extreme loneliness) but the film never develops her, nor attempts to build up any kind of bond between her and Nutsy. In the end, Claire is just another obstacle for Blinky and his mates to overcome. They figure that Nutsy falling in with humans is bad news as they suspect it will end with the humans stuffing Nutsy with cotton wool and selling her to tourists (by that, I'm not sure if they're talking about actual taxidermy or of they've conflated taxidermy with plush toy manufacture). Once Nutsy is captured, the focus shifts onto rescuing her and the whereabouts of Blinky's mother are brushed aside until the very end. Blinky rallies reinforcements in the form of Splodge, Marcia, Flap and Jacko and returns to the mill, where he faces off against the dogs and humans in an extended climax that's very chaotic and could have done with some considerable trimming. A tighter climax and more time devoted to building Claire's character probably would have gone some way toward fixing the narrative problems in the latter half of the film. As it is, the climax really is just a drawn-out parade of the adult humans screwing up at every opportunity. Despite the devastation they unleashed at the beginning of the film, when they're not behind the wheels of their logging trucks Harry and his crew are far too bumbling and uncoordinated to pose that much of a threat. They have shotguns which they brandish a lot, but they can't seem to shoot straight, or even keep themselves upright for that matter. They're such a blunderous bunch that even Blinky can't harbour too great a grudge against them, in fact. There's a moment during the confrontation where Harry takes a tumble into a vat of water and Blinky temporarily drops the animosity to implore the klutzy human to swim to safety.

Blinky Bill ends rather abruptly; once Blinky and Nutsy are reunited the film suddenly seems to recall that, oh yeah, the entire point of going to the mill in the first place was to look for Blinky's mother, so they have her show up suddenly out of the blue, and it's all good. I suppose the abruptness of the ending could be attributed to the fact that that they were setting up for a TV series and so an airtight conclusion wasn't a priority (a number of loose threads that are left dangling at the end of the film, like how the residents of Greenpatch are to rebuild their community and the whereabouts of Nutsy's family, were subsequently addressed in the series). The film attempts to wrap things up on a melancholic note with regard to Claire, one which I suspect was deliberately looking to evoke the same poignancy of the aforementioned ending to Dot and The Kangaroo. They both have similar subtexts about wild animals needing to remain free and how any attempts on our part to box them in and contain them for our own purposes, however benevolent, will inevitably destroy the untamed qualities that make them so alluring in the first place. It doesn't have quite the same impact here, possibly because the animals in Blinky Bill are a lot more anthropomorphised than the ones in Dot and The Kangaroo - they wear clothes and go to school and such, so there isn't as big a gulf between their world and the humans' - but mainly because we're never able to get to be all that invested in Claire as a character. Blinky Bill doesn't "earn" its tearjerker ending as Dot and The Kangaroo does, although it gets it anyway thanks to that infernal song they play during the closing credits ("You and Me" by Robyn Dunne, Geoff Robertson and Kevin Bennett). It's not the kind of endnote that'll crawl under your skin and nibble away at you for days on end, as Dot and The Kangaroo will, but I'd be lying if I said that the final sequence of Blinky and his friends making their ultimate bid for freedom doesn't give me the chills.

The Verdict:

Despite its messy, undisciplined narrative (which never manages to find a balance between tipping the hat to Wall's original books and laying the ground for the upcoming TV series), Blinky Bill: The Mischievous Koala still succeeds in pulling hard upon the heartstrings, thanks to just how beautifully it conveys the vulnerability of its central characters, and that sense of vulnerability proves indispensable in keeping the viewer invested for the full 90 minutes. I have compared it unfavourably to Dot and The Kangaroo a few times, and that's definitely the film to track down if you're seeking an absolute classic in Australian animation, but Blinky Bill is still worth a gander. Besides, you kind of have to start here if you intend to delve into the aforementioned TV series - which is what you can expect to see on these pages in due course.

PS: There is an odd moment in the film when Blinky boasts to a family of frogs that he's "taught elephants to croak". Obviously Blinky's a liar, but this line stuck in my craw nevertheless because logically speaking Blinky shouldn't know what elephants are. There are no elephants in the Australian bush. However, thinking back, Wall's original story does contain a line about Blinky observing that Miss Pym's footsteps sounded like those of an elephant, so maybe they were just paying homage to her rather questionable choice of simile. Elephants in the outback? Whatever next?