Something was in the air in the late ’70s — a small, weird, but welcome animation renaissance that popped up in the void left by Disney in their dreary pre-Mermaid days. Ralph Bakshi hadn’t yet packed it in, Don Bluth was getting started, and not-for-kids toons like Heavy Metal and Rock and Rule were actually financed and put in theaters. Of course, given the lead time of cel animation back then, most of these didn’t hit theaters until the early ’80s, coinciding with a rise in sci-fi/fantasy films. Many of these experiments found little box-office traction but gathered cults that persist even now.
The cultiest of them all might well be 1983’s Twice Upon a Time, bankrolled by none other than Lucasfilm. It was released in a grand total of one theater, then banished to HBO for a handful of showings, which is how most of its fans caught it. Due to a foofarah over which version was being shown — there were two, one seasoned with lots of PG profanity, one largely clean — the film has been unavailable for decades. The cleaner version was the preferred version of its co-director, John Korty, but viewers erroneously considered the more profane version the “uncut, uncensored” one and thus the more attractive one. Now, finally, Warner Archives has made available a burn-on-demand DVD containing both versions.
What the new viewer (as well as the longtime fan who has never seen it in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio) will get here is a visually sumptuous experience tied to a fairly simple story given convolutions by Korty, his co-director Charles Swenson, and cowriters Suella Kennedy and Bill Couterie. In the black-and-white land of Din (Earth) live the Rushers (us), who receive sweet dreams from Greensleeves and the Figmen of Imagination. Not-so-sweet dreams arrive courtesy of the nefarious Synonamess Botch, who kidnaps Greensleeves and seeks to entrap us Rushers in waking nightmares forever. Our heroes are Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and Mumford the mime, who must keep Botch from procuring the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which … well, you see what I mean about convolutions.
You could very well just let Twice Upon a Time babble and rave in front of you (most of the dialogue was improvised) and care nothing about its plot, because every frame looks as though it were engineered by the Figmen of Imagination. The animation style, which for all I know was limited to this one film, was called “Lumage,” in which plastic cut-out figures were filmed atop a light table, resulting in a lively and unique world of subtle hues. It reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s madcap creations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as the trippy, quippy wooziness of Yellow Submarine; but its sarcastic, visually fecund spirit is all its own. Animation fans, and admirers of pure cinema in general, owe it to themselves to see this at least once.
I watched Korty’s preferred version, which still packs a couple of PG-rated swears (so neither version is altogether school-viewing-safe). The movie is essentially a comedy, satirizing such tropes as the Fairy Godmother (who here wants to be called FGM) and the superhero (goofed on via a Viking-helmeted idiot called Rod Rescueman) and paying homage to its executive patron when a television-headed creature named Ibor plays footage of Darth Vader and Indiana Jones on its face. The biggest name in the voice cast is the late Lorenzo Music, who voiced Garfield for years and does Ralph’s voice in the same jaded deadpan. But as I say, you could almost turn the sound off (a good way to avoid the lame, much-derided songs on the soundtrack) and still groove on the colors and the weirdness and the dreams and nightmares and the killer Scotch tape dispensers and so on.