Dr. Toon: Off-Register
American Pop (1981, Ralph Bakshi, Dir.)
Does the registry have something against this guy? America Pop is arguably Bakshi’s most accomplished film, a dark and bumpy journey through four generations of immigrant entertainers. Some deal with the mob, some with murderous Nazis, some with drugs…and some with fame. Every popular musical style from 1900-1980 is represented in a snapshot of American culture rarely rivaled in animation. Some purists decry the extensive use of rotoscoping, but this is one film uniquely suited to the method. Although the ending is somewhat unlikely, it is impossible to watch this film and not be affected by the conflicted history of the family Belinski. Add Louise Zingarelli’s expert character designs and Barry Jackson’s evocative background art, and you have a film that was sadly overlooked for the Registry.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Henry Selick, Dir.)
It was a mere matter of time until computer-generated animation conquered the silver screen, but just before its ascendancy Tim Burton and Henry Selick combined to make an iconic film whose methods harkened back to the earliest days of animation. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion animated wonder, a warped fairy tale for the 1990s that has earned its place in film culture. Although Burton originally conceived the film as a possible TV special, it soon became clear that his weird but joyful vision was more suited to the big screen. Disney originally rejected the concept, wisely reconsidered, and the strangest holiday special in film history came to fruition. Gothic and ghoulish, bizarre and beautiful, the tale of Jack Skellington’s discovery of his true place in (after?)life is more than worthy of inclusion in the Registry.
The Iron Giant (1999, Brad Bird, Dir.)
1999 saw the release of two science-fiction movies, one highly hyped and anticipated, one virtually unpublicized. In this corner, George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode 1- The Phantom Menace. In the other corner, the little-known feature called The Iron Giant. Looking back from 2013, there’s no doubt that the underdog was likely the better film. Warner Bros. had concerns about the recent failure of their previous animated offering, The Quest for Camelot, but gave Brad Bird the go-ahead to turn Ted Hughes’ novel, The Iron Man, into a feature. Great decision. What Warner got was a very adult film set in 1957 complete with cold-war paranoia, the dark side of American militarism, and a uniquely American take on a popular theme in anime – can machines actually possess a soul? This unhurried, introspective film, bereft of the tendency to entertain through constant gags, showstopper musical numbers and frantic action, answers the question in a mature and touching way. Not only can a machine have a soul; when needed, it can have the soul of…Superman.
There you have it, seven films that deserve inclusion in the National Registry. Some are notable for economic influence, some for artistic reasons, and others for cogently capturing the culture that produced them. No cartoon feature is easy to produce, market, and find success in a country where animation has long been considered a children’s medium; except for Pixar (and less often Disney of late), expectations for a given animated feature are muted at best. Add to that the fact that many of them are not of superior quality or are tacked-on sequels, and it’s not hard to see why only six animated features have made the registry.
Is it too much to expect another six (OK, maybe Yogi Bear is somewhat of a reach if you discount its far-reaching effects on the industry) or seven animated features to be considered for future inclusion? Not really; taken on their own terms without comparison to other animated features or live-action films, there is a good case for each of them. It will be remembered that fame and profit are not the sole mechanisms by which films are considered, even though a couple of my candidates do meet that criteria. All it takes is a re-examination by the Board.
BTW: Anyone for Gulliver’s Travels? Always did have a soft spot for that film…
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.