Dr. Toon: Off-Register
As we pulled those five-pound copies of “The Fairest One of All” from our groaning Christmas stockings, we held in our hands a chronicle of the most influential film in the annals of animation. In October of 2004 I wrote a column for this magazine detailing why the entire history of animation would have been different if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had not been a success. Snow White made artistic, economic, and production changes to the medium that still define it to this day, but it does not stand alone as a major influence on the development of animated features.
The National Film Registry represents selections by the United States National Film Preservation Board that merit preservation in the Library of Congress. Since 1989 (The first year the Board considered inclusions), 32 animated features and shorts have considered historically, culturally, or artistically important. Although many of the films included are considered “great”, that is not the most salient reason for inclusion. A film’s uniqueness may count for far more than box office take or unanimous, positive critical review.
Snow White, of course, is there, as are predictable entries such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, and Toy Story. However, some influential films never made it to the registry. Part of the reason is that only American films are eligible for inclusion. Another reason is that it is very difficult to reach consensus on what makes a film unique. The following list is for the consideration of my readers; it details some overlooked American films that, for reasons I will attempt to elaborate, may (someday) qualify for the registry. In reality, there may even be more; what I am suggesting are some of the better-known. Since short films are so numerous, I’ll stick with features. So, in no particular order:
OVERLOOKED IN AMERICA:
Fritz the Cat (1972, Ralph Bakshi, Dir.)
I have written before about how this film represented the dark side and decline of the youth counterculture. Bakshi so succinctly documented the death of 1960’s idealism and the souring of society under the curses of militarism, racism, and urban decay that the fact that Fritz was the first “X-rated” cartoon is actually secondary in consideration. The liberal use of drugs and violence is virtually taken for granted in this animated dystopia. Like some demented, cinematic John Updike, Bakshi averred that a sane way to face the decline of society was to seek solace in sex, sex, and more sex. Fritz the Cat, despite its glaring flaws, is a dark American original not easily ignored.
Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear (1964, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Dirs.)
No, I am not joking. This is an important picture for several reasons. To begin with, it was the first animated feature to be spawned by a television program. Had it not been commercially viable, the door might have remained closed for other TV-based cartoons to make the leap from the small to the big screen. It also allowed the HB studio to expand and change production venues. (A second feature, A Man Called Flintstone, would be in theaters two years later). These were major steps in making HB the premier TV animation studio in America at a time when the theatrical short was in its death throes. If nothing else, Yogi, Boo-Boo, Cindy and Ranger Smith proved that audiences who parked in front of the tube would go to theaters to see their adventures.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Robert Zemeckis, Dir.)
It is rare that a single film revives an entire genre, but that’s more or less what happened in 1988 when cartoon zaniness and film noir got together in 1940s Hollywood. Having Richard Williams and his extensive animation vocabulary in the animation director’s seat surely helped as well. This film almost singlehandedly brought animation back to the forefront of entertainment after too many moribund years. Producer Steven Spielberg made a wholehearted commitment to small-screen shows following this film, and there is no doubt that Roger Rabbit influenced network and cable programming as well as fueled the revival of animated features at every major studio in the United States.
The Little Mermaid (1989, Ron Clements and John Musker, Dirs.)
Disney’s modern revival may have had roots as far back as The Great Mouse Detective, but the studio’s films reached an apogee with this retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Disney’s first-string animators, headed by Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Reuben Aquino combined with composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to produce a Broadway-styled film that profoundly influenced the Disney output for years thereafter. Other studios soon followed suit, making The Little Mermaid the template for American animation entertainment in the 1990s. Although Beauty and the Beast (1991) was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscar Awards and did make the National Film Registry list, there is little doubt that The Little Mermaid paved the way.