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'Sprung! The Magic Roundabout': Classic Cartoon Goes CG

Christopher Panzner chronicles the ride taken to bring The Magic Roundabout to the big screen in CG.

Editors Note: Due to the fact that the U.S. release date for this film in not yet set, Animation World Magazine a U.S.-based company is unable to obtain cleared images for this article. Because the film is already in release in the U.K. and as an international publication, we feel the coverage of the film is still warranted at this time. Please follow the provided link to check out images from the film's Website.

A Noo Yawka living in Paris writing about the French version of an 85-minute CGI feature adapted from the pre-school five-minute stop-motion episodes of one of the most successful French childrens series ever and simultaneously one of the biggest hit childrens series for the BBC, ever a series Ive never seen may seem incongruous (unjust? unfair? confusing?), but Sprung! The Magic Roundabout, extruded from The Magic Roundabout, opened in the U.K. on Feb. 11, 2005, and is headed to millions of equally fresh-faced American franchise virgins.

I can hear the creak of containers being loaded onto ships in Shanghai from here and the 18-wheelers idling at Oak Brook, Illinois, loading docks, chock-a-block with pre-printed Happy Meal boxes.

Whats Up, Tiger Lily?

Created by Frenchman Serge Danot, a former advertising executive and author/publicist, Le Manège Enchanté debuted on Frances ORTF (now known as TF1) on Oct. 6, 1964, aired 441 episodes from 1965 to 1971 in France (and until 1977 on the Beeb) and another 39 original episodes in the 90s on Channel 4 (UK). At the zenith of its popularity in 1977, it had a loyal U.K. following of 8 million teatime viewers, thanks to its 5:55 pm timeslot on BBC 1, surreal humor and nightly Time for bed closing catchphrase. Shot on 24 fps color film (7,200 images per five-minute episode), it originally aired in black & white in France until 1967, when SECAM was introduced (and for which it became a sort of poster child), and, until 1969 in the U.K., when PAL BBC went color. The show has been translated into 28 languages and appeared on close to a 100 TV stations worldwide since its creation.

Danot was assisted by future English stop-motion legend Ivor Wood (FilmFair/Woodland Animations) who went on to animate such classics as Paddington Bear, The Wombles and Postman Pat. Legend has it that the series was passed over by the BBC at first, but it eventually landed in the lap of Eric Thomson, host of childrens television show Playschool (and Emma Thomsons father.) Thomson wrote, did the voices and narrated the stories based exclusively on the visuals, à la Woody Allens Whats Up, Tiger Lily?, and, in the process, transformed the pastoral hippy-dippy whimsy of the original French series into a hip, whimsical pastiche for his paisley-bellbottomed, late 60s/early 70s groovilicious British audience.

Urban legend also has it that the original French version was thinly-veiled political humor and that the characters (original French and subsequent English interpretations) were inspired by soft drug experimentation Dylan aka Minnesotas own Robert Allen Zimmerman, the acoustic axe-playing bunny? Ermintrude, the flower-chewing (peyote?) pink bovine? Dougal (De Gaulle?), the sugar cube-eating dog (what, Owsley was taken)? A magic mushroom episode? but this was, after all, rock-and-bottle-throwing mai soixante-huit and the tie-dyed, granny-glasses, blacklit, lava lamp, psychedelic British Invasion/Woodstock/Watergate era, man, when conspiracy theory ran rampant, hallucinogens flowed like Nouveau Beaujolais and the walls warped like warm Camembert. Rumor has it the BBC canned the series when the discussion went mainstream (something you have to give a certain credence to given the size of TMRs audience and its success.)

I dont imagine it was any more subversive than Alice in Wonderland, however, to which it had a certain resemblance the series starts with calliope owner Mr. Rusty/Le Père Pivoine wishing the magic would return to his merry-go-round and a jack-in-the-box type character, Zebedee/Zébulon, brings children to play in the Magic Garden/Bois Joli and on the ride but I also dont doubt that it enjoyed the kind of popularity with the Counter-Culture that Barney did/does with ravers, for example.

What is clear is that the show pioneered a successful formula, albeit schizophrenic, of French graphics/English writing, a formula that has yet to be fully exploited in my humble opinion.

Cargo Cults and Euro-pudding

Doing a remake of or repackaging a famous program is always a risky proposition even more so for an adaptation to film because youre dealing with sentimental subjectivity, elevated expectations and, in some instances, tinkering with the cultural collective consciousness. Most times you get the cinematic equivalent of the Papua New Guinea cargo cults stick and leaf effigies of WWII planes, soulless talisman to bring back the magic and commodities. If theres some continuity, like principal talent, as in the case of the previous movie adaptation of The Magic Roundabout made in 1972 (and released on video in the 1990s), Dougal And The Blue Cat, written and directed by Eric Thomson, in stop-motion (and which I also havent seen), theres a much better chance for success. But Thomson died in 1982 (Nigel Planer of The Young Ones fame narrated the episodes broadcast starting in 91) and Danot stepped off the terrestrial roundabout in 1990.

To channel the spirit of the series, one of Danots Studio de la Feuillée animators, Raoff Sanoussi, who directed the last episodes of the series, is credited as one of the writers (with brother Stéphane), but the screenplay credit goes to Paul Bassett Davies with additional dialogue by Tad Safran (Englishmen, presumably.) For the CGI French touch, another pair of brothers the originators of the project Pascal and Laurent Rodon (Films Action) produced through Studio Action Synthèse in Marseille, a relatively unknown startup created in 2000 and a subsidiary of French theatre owner Les Salles Action.

Distributor and financier Pathé UKs François Invernel exec produced along with Girl with a Pearl Earring exec producer Cameron McCraken, former English TV series Night Network producer Jill Sinclair and the esteemed Jake Eberts (exec producer of Chicken Run, The Wind in the Willows, James and the Giant Peach, Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Chariots of Fire, etc.). Assoc. producers include Claude Gorsky, Linda Marks, Bruce Higham and Andy Leighton.

Directing credits were given to Dave Borthwick and Frank Passingham, from the Bolex Brothers and Jean Duval. Considering the reputation of the Bolex Brothers as underground innovators (John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, for example, wrote the theme music for their disturbing pixilation/stop-motion nursery crime of epic proportions, The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, and they recently did a freebie short for the Church of the Subgenius), not a bad choice for channeling Eric Thomson.

Sadly, in spite of this remarkable collection of talented and eccentric people, Sprung! The Magic Roundabout never quite raises above its Euro-pudding script, which might possibly have found the original magic in, excuse the pun-ishment, turnaround. Just a few of the questions the other brothers-in-arms on this movie, the Weinsteins at Miramax, the U.S. distributor, should be preparing for: Where does ZeBadDee come from?, Why does he talk so much?, Why is there a long song at the beginning of the movie that does nothing thematically for the film?, What is Sam, the soldier puppet, doing in the middle of nowhere?, Where is nowhere?, Where is the clever repartee?, Why are there only two laughs in 85 minutes?, What is with the three crystals and how did they get there?, Why the fire and ice?, (Never mind that theyre shooting out of the springy-thingies moustaches, which was kind of like tubular dudes.) And why doesnt the moose talk again?. And How come the most adorable character, Florence, the star of the series and the film, spends the entirety of the film saying and doing practically nothing except almost dying at the end? OOPS! my bad.

Seriously, a glass of absinthe at a showing of Timothy Learys decapitation video, in French, wouldnt leave you this confused. Or as cold.

Good Dogs and Englishmen

Pathé Europe won a Cartoon Movie Tribute last year for its work in developing a European strategy for production and distribution and as an exhibitor of European animation films. Pathé UK invested heavily in Sprung! The Magic Roundabout (and the currently-in-production Why I Did (Not) Eat My Dad, adapted from the Englishman Roy Lewis book The Evolution Man or How I Ate My Father by Kirikou and The Triplets of Belleville exec producer, Les Armateurs.) Its understandable that an old, established, successful European distributor would want to limit the risks and cash in on all that notoriety and cereal, biscuits, instant whip, bubble bath, talcum powder, jelly moulds and Dougal dog food but, with Chicken Run under its belt, the film is disappointing. Whats more, the 20 million ($25.5 million) spent would have made a beautiful stop-motion flick.

Im guessing no economies were made on the voice talent. It features Vanessa Paradis/Kylie Minogue (Johnny Depps French wife and Lenny Kravitz ex-squeeze) as the little girl Florence/Margote, Robbie Williams/Henri Salvador as the dog Dougal/Pollux (in French he talks with a heavy English accent, his character originally based on British comedian Tony Hancock), Tom Baker/Michel Galabru as nasty spring-like character ZeBadee/Zabadie, Sir Ian McKellan/Elie Semoun as Zebedee/Zébulon, the good shock-absorber character, Jim Broadbent/Dany Boon as Brian/Ambroise the snail, Joanna Lumley/Valérie Lemercier as the pink diva cow Ermintrude/Azalée, Bill Nighy/Eddy Mitchell as Dylan/Flappy the beatnik rabbit (he spoke with a heavy Spanish accent in the original French series but not in the movie) and Ray Winstone/Gérard Jugnot as the puppet Soldier Sam/Sam le soldat de bois.

And changing software (from 3ds max to Softimage|XSI) two years into a three-year project sounds expensive, too? But, that said, I do think that the character design was very well done (made easier by the existence of the puppets, of course, but thats beside the point) and that Softimage handled the snow, glaciers, winter light, ice reflections, lava and numerous other effects with aplomb. Textures were well done and the hair worked very, very well, too (although Dougal the Maltese Terriers fur had a tendency to turn into Becks Odelay Spanish Water Dog dreadlocks on occasion.)

I was also pleasantly surprised to see Fréderic Bonometti credited as technical supervisor for animation, with whom I shared as managing director of co-producer Luxanima in Luxembourg an international Emmy on 3D TV series Insektors 13 years ago, a year before Toy Story came out (which, like the French producers of Sprung! remind us, was also done on Softimage, as was Insektors), exec produced by the now-defunct Neurones in Belgium and Fantôme in Paris. Nice job, Fred. All of the characters moved really well and were expressive, sweet and endearing. Its not your fault that Innocence, Lyricism and Poetry are dead, even if we still believe.

And speaking of Hollywood, Pathé insists that the film has a, "very particular, eccentric, British" humor, in spite of the Indiana Jones, Matrix and Mummy visual references. (And, apparently, in the English version, which I havent seen, a Pulp Fiction one-liner?) But how can you top such series gems as Brian the snail saying, "All suitably agog? On a kids program?! Or Dougals, I'm here, let joy be unconfined." Sloganeering at its finest. Or this multi-tiered conundrum: (Dougal) "I shall be back soon with some plants from Mars." "Your mother's?" replies Mr. MacHenry. Far out.

Never Mind the Pollux

In classical mythology, it was believed one of every set of twins was the son of a god and, therefore, immortal. Pollux is reputed to have begged Zeus to allow his dead twin, Dougal, to share his immortality. Zeus decreed that the twins had to divide their time evenly between Hades and Heaven (and, in their honor, created the constellation Gemini.)

As so often happens in Europe, on Sprung! The Magic Roundabout the graphics were heaven and the writing, hell. And any immortality the film shared with the series is divided between appreciating these sweet, lovable, idiosyncratic characters and the eye on the prize merchandizing.

If youre feeling nostalgic, buy a porcelain figurine on eBay or, if youre feeling generous, a mint (original box) Magic Roundabout Playground will only set you back $1,500.

And watch out for that Noddy/Oui Oui remake cant be far behind?!

Chris Panzner has split the last 25 years doing TV, animation and films. His favorite joke is: Ya know, I was thinking the other day no, wait, that wasnt me. He recently created writing company Power Lines and production/distribution company Eye & Ear.

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