Tuesday, May 20, 2008

She's Just a Rag Dolly

Ah, Raggedy Ann & Andy, the 1977 feature film loosely adapting Johnny Gruelle's beloved dollies, is one of those animated features where, for me anyway. the style outweighs the substance. Given the period when it was made, the fact that it had some much style (compare it even to its competition at Disney, The Rescuers) has a lot going for it, not least the bi-coastal crew which mixed veterans (more on them later) and up-and-comers like Dan Haskett (designs for Animaniacs, Toy Story), "Nine Old Man" Ward Kimball's son John, Eric Goldberg (the Genie in Aladdin), and Michael Sporn (tons of great specials, shorts, and commercials, including my own personal favorite, Abel's Island). It inspired John Canemaker's first full book The Animated Raggedy Ann & Andy which is still arguably the best and most engaging "making of" book for an animated feature to date. It has a certain following (almost a year ago, Don Brockway payed tribute to the movie here), but it's last home video release was in the early 1990s. For the animation alone and what it represented as an attempt at least to make a lush animated feature that was neither aping Disney *nor* an adult sex and drugs foray or sub-TV kiddie pap, this Cinemascope feature certainly deserves a wide-screen

The finished product is a movie I've always found more interesting than entertaining, one which intrigues me and which I'm glad exists but which I have very little emotional attachment to (it inspires neither love nor hate). Among the points of interest (setting aside the film's messy episodic story) is the fact that this really is an animated *musical* in the stage sense of the word; not only was the vocal cast mostly gleaned from New York Broadway stock (Didi Conn, Mark Baker, George S. Irving, even Fiddler on the Roof lyricist Sheldon Harnick in two bit parts) but almost every character gets a "star turn," which is animated as such. The plot stops to showcase the character's song, and as with the Greedy's number, the protagonists just sit down or stand by (it also fits the "casting by character process" perfectly, as each animator basically gets an unbridled showcase until their character departs into the wings and out of the story). The great Joe Raposo was an appropriate choice for the movie, but his songs are generally only as effective as the characters, and since the characters are defined by the songs, it leads to problems. The Camel's lament "Blue" justifiably became a pop hit, the Greedy's song is serviceable, and Raggedy Ann and Andy's turns work well enough in context. But for the ill-defined and obnoxious Loonie Knight and King, the songs only add to the cacophany.

Anyway, I'm mainly here to examine the wonderful animated title frames (and in some cases, how they relate to the actual movie). As I said, I can take or leave ''Raggedy Ann & Andy'' the movie. But I unabashedly love the opening titles. I won't argue that they're the greatest example of their kind, but there's a verve, a bounce, a joy to them (and to Raposo's "Rag Dolly" underscore) that always gets me (but generally doesn't incline me to spoil it by slogging through the entire movie). It's not a surprise. Director Richard Williams basically approached Raggedy as a work-for-hire project to gain funding for his never fully realized opus The Thief and the Cobbler (for the full story on what would become one of animation's most notorious "what might have been" sagas, see Eddie Bowers' excellent site), but this was his first time helming a full-length feature. His best work prior had been in shorts, artistic commercials, and especially title sequences, notably the wonderful sequences in Tony Richardson's Charge of the Light Brigade or the end titles to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. According to Canemaker's book, Williams' animated and boarded the titles himself. The chief delight is not that characters are running around or some action is occurring underneath the titles (as with the Pink Panther series) but the names themselves. In particular, and only fitting given the Broadway "star" aspect I mentioned earlier, each lead animator is credited above the character they worked on. This would be the first time a drawn-animated theatrical feature would supply character specific credits (Will Vinton's clay epic The Adventures of Mark Twain did so, but it wasn't until 1991 and Beauty and the Beast that it became standard practice). It's a slight shame that the credits don't actually showcase the animator's *work*. However, it draws the necessary link between animator and character and shows that as crucial as the voices are (the voice cast is billed in the end credits) it's truly the animators who are the actors behind each character. It's not done by magic or gnomes or computers (not yet, anyway, and even with CG the hand behind the mouse, ahem, should never be forgotten). The best animated titles, in fact, or those which work on either one or two levels. Those which tell a narrative of their own (as with the Pink Panther flicks or Bill Justice's stop-motion felt and paper figures in The Misadventurs of Merlin Jones) or those which engage and entertain the audience not by working around the string of names but drawing attention to them and to the different aspects of the filmmaking craft. So anyway, let's take a brief look at some of the animator's credits (images taken from a home-made DVD burn of an old VHS, and thus unable to capture the look of these as they appeared on-screen). The main title card itself, with the name of the movie, has Raggedy Ann curtsy demurely while Andy punches out the NDY.

Yay, it's Art Babbitt animating the Camel! Babbitt, of course, was already a legend from his work at Disney, giving life to the Queen in Snow White, the stork in Dumbo, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and especially for developing throaway character "Dippy Dawg" into the classic Goofy of the 1940s. Due to his key role at the Disney strike, Babbitt left (though he would return briefly) and wound up at UPA and working on commercials. Williams appreciated Babbitt and used him on many projects (he was assigned the sleepy King Nod in the original version of Thief). So it's great to see Babbitt get the star billing he deserved, and the Camel is the only character in the movie who completely works for me (the lustful Captain coming a close second). The way the camel sags and collapses under the weight of Babbitt's name always makes me smile a little.

Tissa David. There's not much I can add to Don Brockway's tribute to her. While hardly the first female animator, or even the first to receive screen credit, she was one of the few to handle major chunks of an animated feature up until the late 1980s and 1990s, really. Like I said, the title art isn't hers, but David's animation treats Ann (or "Annie") as both a loose rag doll and a caring, playfully gentle girl, and the title captures it as she tosses a flower to dot Tissa's "i" (the capture titles it?) Okay, that was a bit too schmaltzy and I'm not sure I'll feel the same way next time I closely examine the movie as a whole, so let's move on.

The Greedy! A tour de force for Walter Lantz' vet Emery Hawkins, and generally one of the best loved parts of the movie. For me, the Greedy's fun but too one-note (like most of the other character's encountered by the dollies) so I've never been a heartfelt admirer. But the gag of having this rapacious thing eat his own name is effectively funny.

After these "star" titles (Raggedy Andy is omitted, apparently because a lot of the work on him was done by Williams himself) comes a sort of "co-starring" list, pairing two or more animators (and their characters) divided by a line. I may examine the rest later, since I'm almost at Blogger's image limit. So for now, let's all wave to Joe Raposo's name:

Yeah, one of the more treacly of many whimsical images in this sequence, but it does its job: it helps you remember Raposo's name and his occupation and sets the general mood for what was, after all, intended as a children's movie. The sour note on the left looks tired of the treacle; he's just biding his time with the other two happy jerks until he can land a gig as a pill in an Alka-Seltzer commercial.

), but to conclude, for me, the animated credits are just simple, relaxing, and *fun* in a way that the movie as a whole isn't.

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