Heartwarming, all-American animated movies and TV specials rule the holidays, but the safe and family-oriented gets a wee tiresome after a while, doesn’t it? How about something stranger? Edgier? Maybe even a little challenging…?
Usually, that’d be a preamble for another discussion of anime, but this time, we’re looking at exports from toontowns outside of Japan. These choice cuts of adult-oriented international animation hail from Italy, Canada, and England, and are of a far rarer stripe. “Cult movie” is probably too generous a label. The movies below are so obscure, finding any one of them feels like solving a treasure hunt.
Now, feast upon these recommendations whose very existence begs that awe-inspiring question, “How did this ever get made?”
ALLEGRO NON TROPPO
If this anthology of shorts set to classical music seems a bit like Fantasia, that’s absolutely by design. As the live-action vignettes peppered throughout the runtime make dramatically clear, Allegro Non Troppo (“Not so fast!” in Italian) is director Bruno Bozzetto’s answer/parody/tribute to Disney’s most unusual classic…
Photo Credit: Homevision
Of course, since it’s from the very country that coined the term “cartoon,” there’s an inescapable satirical bent, and the humor is far more urbane. In fact, two segments are direct send-ups of shorts in Fantasia. French composer Ravel’s “Boléro” scores an absurdist tit-for-tat for the “Rite of Spring” and its thunder lizards, revealing how the history of life on Earth traces back to a coke bottle discarded by alien visitors. Likewise, another French Impressionist piece flips the idyllic springtime of “the Pastoral Symphony,” showing the plight of a lonely satyr who somehow can’t find himself a mate in paradise.
Allegro Non Troppo boasts wide variety and true experimentation. Some segments are lavishly detailed and set to bombastic classics, while others use minimalist rendering and find their muses in playful jazz jams. If Fantasia evokes a classy night at the opera, this feels more like a bawdy gallery opening at a modern art museum.
ROCK AND RULE
There’s an 80s rock opera featuring Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Earth, Wind & Fire, but you’ve probably never heard of it. Why’s that? Well, it’s tough for any film to gain notoriety if it screens in just one Boston theater…
Basically, this was the victim of a change in distributors. Believe it or not, an adult-oriented animated flick (gleefully embodying all the sex, drugs, and satansim of rock, no less) was deemed too tough a sell in North America. And as such, until an official DVD release was eventually stamped, Rock & Rule was a plum find at comic con bootleg tables for years.
This makes a fine double feature with Interstella 5555. It’s got more in common with Xanadu than Heavy Metal. A band of cute mutants must rescue their lead singer from the clutches of an aging rocker? And he’s got a diabolical scheme to summon a demon with the power of her voice? That’s primo set-up from some wickedly over-the-top (if not always coherent) mayhem.
Canadian animation studio Nelvana reportedly ran itself near bankruptcy making this, and the excess of effort shows. The analog process effects on the demon alone will make you pine for the days before computers handled everything. It’s like a head shop print conjured into corporeal form.
THE PLAGUE DOGS
Based on a book by Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down, this is another tragic and atmospheric drama… that happens to star talking animals.
Snitter and Rowf are the titular creatures, and panic mounts throughout the English countryside after they escape a testing facility. The two have been experimented on for unspecified reasons, and one may be carrying an experimental virus! Their ensuing flight is an intense and surreal battle for survival; like First Blood with canines, or the most nightmarish inversion of Homeward Bound.
No bones about it, this is heavy viewing. However, it isn’t heavy handed on politics, and it’s also surprisingly unsentimental about the animal kingdom. These domesticated dogs we sympathize with regress to their primal sides while in the wilderness, learning to hunt and kill just as foxes and other predators do. Their journey doesn’t end with a predictable, moralizing finale, either.
We’re unlikely to see another plot like this, live or animated, on screen any time soon. What makes The Plague Dogs even more uncommon, though, is its very particular water color style. Every frame looks like a traditional landscape painting. It’s easy to understand why the labor-intensive technique was pretty much sworn off by animators afterward.
Featured Image Credit: Nelvana