Twice Upon a Time
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Bill Couturié; directed by John Korty and Charles Swenson; written by Korty, Swenson, Couturié, and Suella Kennedy; edited by Jennifer Gallagher; art direction by Harley Jessup; music by Dawn Atkinson and Ken Melville. DVD, color and B&W, 74 min., 1983. A Warner Archive release.
Cineaste rarely covers animated features, unless they’re politically inclined, like Persepolis (reviewed in our Winter 2007 issue) or Waltz with Bashir (Winter 2009). Nor do we cover much from George Lucas, and we have the rejected proposals regarding Star Wars to prove it. Twice Upon a Time isn’t political, and it isn’t typical Lucas product, either. (Impressed by ten minutes of sample footage, he suggested that the Ladd Company might finance it, and that was the extent of Lucasfilm’s involvement despite a prominent credit.) It is the sort of offbeat cult release that the Warner Archive specializes in with its manufactured-on-demand discs, and the label has gone the extra mile to satisfy fans who saw it on cable back in the Eighties and were wondering what had become of it.
The film was the brainchild of co-director John Korty, who won an Emmy (for 1974’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and an Oscar (for the 1977 documentary Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?) while maintaining an interest in animation, including shorts for Sesame Street. Korty was the first filmmaker to settle in Northern California, and he, Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola were kindred filmmaking spirits in Marin County. For “the industry,” Korty’s eclectic career has included the Love Story sequel Oliver’s Story (1978) and, speaking of Star Wars, the TV spinoff Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984). From home, he made what his Website, johnkorty.com, calls “Independent, oddball movies,” spotlighting San Francisco-based talent like the improv group The Committee. Using a kind of cutout animation technique he pioneered, Twice Upon a Time, which Korty conceived in the Seventies, has a handmade and a homemade feel. On the commentary track that accompanies the film, he says he moved his fellow animators and support staff into his three-story house for the duration of the production, which he describes as “cheerful,” despite many sleepless nights.
Good cheer and sleeplessness permeate the movie, which begins with a batch of title cards laying out the setting and characters as the veteran voice-over artist Paul Frees narrates. In the city of Din, Rushers cram in all kinds of activity and stop only to rest. (The live video segments depicting Din were shot in black and white in the Bay Area and feature some of the crewmembers and their families.) Din is situated between two worlds that supply the Rushers with dreams—colorful Frivoli, home of Greensleeves and his Figmen of Imagination, who manufacture sweet dreams, and the dismal Murkworks, ruled by the vainglorious Synonamess Botch, who schemes to use his vultures to carpet bomb the Rushers with ceaseless waking nightmares. He kidnaps the Figs and Greensleeves, who leaves an SOS found by his niece, the actress Flora Fauna. The first characters Korty developed for the film, Mumford, a failing mime, and Ralph, the shape-shifting All-Purpose Animal, assist Flora. A caustic fairy godmother, a superhero, Rod Rescueman, and Botch’s “video gorilla,” which spies on the heroes, are among the help and hindrances along the way as the two parties seek the mainspring of the Cosmic Clock, which controls time and the universe.
Like the plots of W. C. Fields’s wilder movies, it’s complicated—and a good excuse for time- and space-bending gags, such as a beautifully executed sequence where a “nightmare bomb” detonates in a workplace, setting office supplies after Ralph and Mumford. Korty’s “Lumage” animation brings to mind Yellow Submarine (1968) and Terry Gilliam’s work with Monty Python, with a stained glass-style texture all its own. Much of the fun is verbal, with improv comics like Lorenzo Music (Ralph) and Marshall Efron (Botch) let loose in the dreamscapes. With the Internet further messing with our heads a generation after its release, the film’s message, to slow down, has a truly “timeless” appeal.
Twice Upon a Time had the misfortune to be released in an uncertain period for feature-length animation, before Disney musicals like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Pixar’s computer-generated blockbusters revived the form. (Some of its personnel now work for the latter company, which is also located in Marin County.) Korty’s bit of “Frivoli” ran aground in the Murkworks of Hollywood, as the Ladd Company went bust, taking Time with it. When it resurfaced on HBO, it was in a new cut, supervised by co-writer and producer Bill Couturié, who had Efron make Botch’s rants more profane, the better to hook a hipper teen and college-age audience. Korty, infuriated, threatened legal action if that version was rebroadcast, so HBO slipped his original theatrical cut back into its schedule. When viewers subsequently complained about censorship, HBO dropped the movie altogether, and it’s been little seen since a full-frame, and incomplete, laserdisc was issued twenty-five years ago. In a welcome move, both versions are present on the disc, in the film’s original aspect ratio. My kids were a little surprised that Dad was showing them a movie with “bad words,” so parents with young children are advised to watch the “Theatrical PG version,” not the one confusingly described as “unrated family friendly.”
You’ll hear no bad words about anyone in the commentary track, which reunites Korty with art director Harley Jessup, still photographer John Baker, sequence animator Will Noble, and sequence directors Brian Narelle, Carl Willat, and Henry Selick, who later directed The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Coraline (2009). The track is slow to warm up, with Korty filling in gaps with prepared notes about the shoot. But some good information is imparted, about the artistic influences (including Sesame Street, Tom and Jerry, and Saul Steinberg), the “no rules” freedom Korty allowed in the studio, how the movie brought greater edginess to animation, and the difference between the youthful crew, shown in stills under the closing credits, from the senior animators employed in Los Angeles. (One of them was nineteen-year-old director-to-be David Fincher, whose dexterity with a Mitchell camera earned him the job of special-effects photographer.) It’s gratifying to have Twice Upon a Time back again, with the hope that the Warner Archive might one day spring another beguiling fantasia from its vaults, Tom Schiller’s Nothing Lasts Forever (1984).
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
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Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2