Animalympics was born as a 7-minute short when creator Steven Lisberger made it happen out of $10K grant from the American Film Institute shortly after his graduation from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. NBC backed his dream to turn the short into a full-length movie, complete with seven figure budget. Orginally made with the intention of releasing it theatrically, but that’s not what happened. What happened is that it was picked up by NBC to air as two specials, (one showing the winter Olympic sports, one showing the summer) previewing the the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The winter games section aired, but summer games section didn’t, as the United States boycotted the Olympics (taking place in Moscow) when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The two parts were edited together and new footage added to form the Animalympics film that most people know, and it was released in 1980 on HBO. Cult following commenced! It’s a little more than an hour and fifteen minutes long, and Steven Lisberger, wrote, directed, and produced the work with Producer Donald Kushner and writer Michael Fremer, both of whom would also join him on what is perhaps his best-known movie: Tron.
Animalympics was a cartoon depiction of the Olympics, featuring animals as athletes, with a background storyline punctuated by strings of punny scenes and sight gags. Here’s some samples of the punny script. The voice cast that seems to have been pretty exclusively pulled from the cast of Saturday Night Live: Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, etc. This cast isn’t the only thing that makes this movie come across as totally 80′s – the music and the visuals, and pop culture references are incredibly dated. (There’s also a few jokes about nationality and race that have been edited out of some editions of the movie that somewhat borderline by modern standards, but at least everyone seems to be mocked with equal disrespect.)That doesn’t work against the movie – if anything it makes it more fun. But apart from being a basically fun and lighthearted movie, there’s a couple of things that really make it stand out. The first is the animation, and how it works with the soundtrack, the second the portrayal of women, and the third is the fact that the movie proved to be a proving ground for people who would go on to have great animation careers.
Animation & Music
There isn’t much of story to the movie – it’s more of a series of gags and tableaus about athletics, the Olympics, and nationality – but there is a nice little background story that gives the movie something to push it forward, and it’s a surprisingly deep story. The principle is that there is a 14 day marathon (realistic, right?) that ends up in a dead heat between the reigning champion, a French goat called Rene Fromage, and the first woman ever be a contender to win the marathon, an african lioness called Kit Mambo. They spend most of the movie pacing each other, while we get glimpses of what is running through their minds – all that they’ve sacrificed to be there, and what winning would mean to them.
The animation isn’t consistent. The dubbing usually doesn’t match up. There are definitely moments when incredible reproduction of natural gesture is achieved. There also a lot of recycled motion cycles and sections of frozen frames with voice overs. The nature of the movie really supports a slapstick approach to motion and movement, but it’s not universal, especially during the musical interludes.
The soundtrack is by Graham Gouldman, a Brit who went on to work on the soundtracks to a lot of movies and shows, including The Social Network, The Office, Deuce Bigalow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It’s a series of songs set up to give emotional consistency to the piece, and brings a reasonably deep level of upbeat emotion to a lot of the otherwise jokey scenes. The only bittersweet musical piece gives us a look into the mind of Rene, the French goat. It explores everything that he’s done to get to where he is, and what he had to give up to do it. As we watch it, we learn that while it’s too late for him to change course , he’s realizing that what he really wants isn’t the victory.
Maybe I’m super-sucesptible to the emotional side of this tableau, but I see a lot high quality animation in this sequence. The emotion of the character’s actions are enhanced by the music, but stands alone as well.
Women in the Movie
Women stand out a little in this movie to me. Most of the characters are parodies of athletes of the era – but children watching that movie then and later on didn’t really know that – all they saw was a diverse cast of ladies. Kit Mambo was a strong, competetive character, who goes through a surprisingly realistic reaction of becoming irritated when she realises she’s interested in her competitor. The fact that Kit exists at all is kind of awesome, and this is the reason why.
Consider this for a moment – women’s distance running was not part of the Olympics when Animalympics was made. The women’s marathon wasn’t even a part of the Olympics until 1988, nearly ten years after Animalympics started production! (Incidentally, Avon is one of the reasons that changed.) Women weren’t allowed to run in any marathon at all until 1972, just a few years before Animalympics was made!Yes, that’s right folks, as recently as 40-50 years ago, women were banned from running marathons because it supposedly caused damage to the uterus. The first woman to run in the Boston Marathon with a registered number (Katharine Switzer) ran in 1967, and that was apparently so incendiary that a race official attempted physical assault on her during the race. Fortunately, a male runner proceded to literally punch the official off the track - and that’s a story unto itself that you can catch up on here, on this Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast.
My favorite character by far came out of the fencing sequence. I don’t even care if this was a parody of some other scene – it’s set up so a big mean warthog beats up a little squirrel, and a swashbuckling hero – who just happens to be a LADY – shows up, fences him into a corner, wins gold medal and dashes off. She’s a female Robin Hood, a female Zorro, and she’s awesome! How many lady swashbucklers do you remember seeing in animation, or for that matter, live movies and tv?
The animation is also particulalry on-point in this scene.
Proving Ground for Greats
This movie turned out to be a proving ground for a lot of famous people in the animation world. Our beloved Brad Bird was an animator on this movie – his earliest animation credit! Animator and Art Director Rogers Allers would go on to work on almost all of the Disney Renaissance movies, directing the Lion King and writing on the highly underrater Emperoro’s New Groove. Animator Bill Kroyer would also go on to direct – among other things – FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Dan Haskett would go on to work on numerous broadcast tv shows including Smurft, Bill & Ted, Batman, and Johnny Bravo. Chuck Harvey, John Norton, and Bruce Woodside, they all got their start on Animalympics. Well, Bruce Woodside had been working Animalympics, but it was still early in his career.
Other notable moment include and underwater sequence that was clearly inspired by The Yellow Submarine, designed by Arne Wong.
By the way – this is NOT to be confused with Animal World Soccer, which has been making the rounds in the past few years as potentially the very worst animation that has ever been made. I’ve put my favorite links from that on the website, and it’s HILARIOUS.
Hey, ATC is on iTunes! Maybe you drop by and review us sometime, huh?
Email us: email@example.com