Monday, March 24, 2014

What I've been watching: Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure

I couldn't be considered an animation fan to any degree if I didn't know of Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, which he spent decades trying to get produced, persisting in the face of endless setbacks, but, sadly, he passed away before he could see it to completion.

However, until last year, when I was talking about Dell's Raggedy Ann and Andy issues of Four Color, I'd had no idea that a full-length animated Raggedy feature film had been produced in the `70's, nor that Williams had directed it. Intrigued, I tracked down a used VHS copy, as it has never been released on DVD.

Coincidentally, I finally got around to watching it the other weekend ... the same weekend in which I finally got around to watching Wizards. Coincidentally, they were both released during 1977, which I hadn't realized when pulling them from the shelf.

A children's film about toys that come to life is the farthest thing from a post-apocalyptic anti-fascist saga starring an elderly burnt out hippie a and his near-naked, overly curvaceous tart, right? You'd be surprised! (...or not, as I'm sure most of us realize that even cartoons that appear to be for children aren't necessarily strictly so). In the piggish Captain Contagious' abduction of the prissy French doll Babette, the Captain's lust is explicit. When he manages to capture her and take her away on his ship, one doesn't get the idea that it's to lock her in a tower where she'll wait for her knight in shining armor. 

The animation is absolutely exquisite, as you would expect of a master and perfectionist like Williams. Either heavy rotoscoping or heavy frame-by-frame "still-lifing" of live-action reels of performers executing the characters action. The effect is Fleischer-esque (which should be a no-brainer, as the Fleischers invented the rotoscope technique). (Interestingly, the Fleischers actually produced three Raggedy Ann and Andy shorts in the early `40's, which I also hadn't realized.) Most inventive and unorthodox of all is the stuffed Camel, who appears to have been modeled by two people under a sheet (and possibly with the front person operating a puppet for the camel's head) creating a frequent, very humorous lack of coordination between the Camel's back and front legs. I kept thinking, "When are they gonna take off the suit?!", and then would have to remind myself that in the world of the movie, no one's supposed to be under the suit -- that's juts how the Camel is! Similarly mesmerizing to the eyes, and I imagine was complicated in execution, is the constantly churning, convulsing, morphing in shape Greedy, a gelatinous, amorphous blob-like monster cursed with endless hunger. 

Those who are especially attentive to detail have noticed that I compared both this film and Wizards' animation to that of the Fleischers. As both appear to have been rotoscoped or modeled, I believe the comparison is valid. Raggedy is consistently as fully animated as anything ever done, while Bakshi's work is only fully animated in certain parts. Compared to the Disney features of the `90's, these `70's films will appear less sophisticated to the layman's eye, due to the excessive gloss and digital faux-three-dimensional effects that were the norm for the former. But such elements were just that: effects, and not really an inherent part of the animation itself.

Also like Wizards, the middle of Raggedy has little to do with the overarching plot. And in both cases, the heroes are tangled up in an isolated world with odd customs. The Looney Land and aforementioned Greedy episodes are delightfully, both visually and in terms of the canny, uncooperative, taunting Lewis Carroll-like humor. (Poor rag dolls, being the object of such games.) 

The live-action framing sequences, featuring the little girl to whom the toys belong (who I believe is played by Williams' daughter or perhaps niece, given the shared last name) are modest and appropriately limited, allowing nearly the entirety of the film to take place in the animated world/the toys' world, as it should be.

Here's to a DVD release, so that this somewhat forgotten film may earn new exposure and appreciation.


ALERT!!! Coming soon to this blog: Something NEW!!! Something BIG!!!

-- Ryan

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