Twice Upon A Time

Director: John Corty and Charles Swenson  
Voice Cast:
Lorenzo Music, Paul Frees, Marshall Efron

In the more than one hundred years that the motion picture camera has existed, there have been a number of big and extraordinary changes to the idea of the motion picture. Films started off running for short lengths, but eventually the idea of a motion picture running more than an hour became the norm. But it's not just live-action motion pictures that have made some big changes over the years, but also animated motion pictures. The first animated film, the 1906 production Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces, was a black and white effort that lasted just two minutes long. As the years progressed, animated films became longer. Then there was the first feature-length animated movie - no, not Walt Disney's Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, but the Argentinian El Apostol. But when Disney came out with Snow White, not only were all previous feature-length animated movies forgotten, Disney became the animated feature film king. In fact, his reign of being king of feature-length animated movies was so strong for several decades, few people in the United States tried to challenge him with their own animated movies. Some countries like Russia did regularly crank out animated movies, but they didn't have much success selling them to other countries, unlike Disney. Eventually, the technology came that enabled people to make computer animated movies. If you look at the film market today, you'll see a number of different Hollywood film companies making their own computer-animated movies, and a number of them have done well enough at the box office to show that Disney does not have a monopoly on the animated feature-film market anymore.

While I do think it's good that today not one company has a strangehold on the animated feature film market, there are some things about the animated films being made today that fill me with a kind of despair. The first thing that I'm kind of down about is that practically every animated movie being made today is computer animated. Don't get me wrong - there are some computer animated movies that I've enjoyed. But I have a soft spot for animation that has been done by hand. To me, hand animation shows that a lot more work and time has been invested than something whipped up by a computer. Also, I feel hand animation has a charm that is sorely lacking in most computer animation. A second reason why the typical animated movie nowadays bothers me is that it almost always seems to be a comedy, or one with an abnormal amount of comic relief. Yes, I like a good joke like the next person, but I am really bothered that seemingly every animated movie feels it has to have a lot of laughs. There is a third bothersome thing that I don't like about animated movies being made nowadays, and that is that all of them seem to be made for a kiddie and/or family audience. I would like to see more animated movies made for a more mature audience. But deep down I know why that third truth about modern animated movies is so. The fact is that if you look at the few mature-themed Hollywood animated movies made over the past few decades, you'll see that they didn't do very well at the box office. Titan A.E. bombed, and so did that Final Fantasy movie. And there were also those rotoscoped animated movies by director Richard Linklater, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, neither of which did well enough to convince their distributors to give them a wider release.

It's hard to feed my appetite for serious animated movies. There's anime, but I've read that anime is dying due to potential animators in Japan not being attracted by low salaries. There are direct-to-DVD superhero movies, but I usually have to wait several months between each release. Twice Upon A TimeSo you can imagine I was happy when I came across a copy of Twice Upon A Time. Here was a hand-made animated movie aimed at a more mature audience. Yes, it promised to be a light-hearted movie, but as Meat Loaf said, "Two out of three ain't bad." The background of the movie interested me - it was produced by George Lucas, and it was intended to get a wide release. However, the distributor (The Ladd Company) was experiencing financial problems, so the movie never got a real theatrical release. To add insult to injury, the movie subsequently had to wait eight additional years before it was released on video. Maybe its video release was delayed because of the movie being unconventional, and therefore harder to market. See what you think after you read about the plot. The events of the movie surround the Rushers, the inhabitants of the black and white live-action world of Din. Every night, the Rushers sleep oblivious to a struggle between the connecting worlds of Frivoli and the Murkworks. Greensleeves and his Figmen, from Frivoli, deliver pleasant dreams to the Rushers, while a fellow in the Murkworks by the name of Synonamess Botch sends out vultures that drop bombs causing nightmares for the Rushers. One night, Botch sends out his vultures on a new mission, to capture Greensleeves and his Figmen so that the Rushers can be given a never-ending bombardment of nightmares. Botch succeeds, but his plan cannot go fully ahead without getting the main spring from the Cosmic Clock, which is located in the world of Din. Botch decides to con two misfit citizens from Frivoli to help him with his plans, a shape-shifting animal by the name of Ralph, and Ralph's buddy Mumford, a Chaplinesque figure who can only express himself through sound effects. The two buddies are fooled by Botch, only learning of their mistake once it is too late, and they realize that it's up to them to set things right again.

As you can probably see from that plot description, Twice Upon A Time does not sound like your conventional animated movie, due to its strange sounding characters as well as the description of its world. But the movie is also unconventional in the way that the animators and the directors visualized and subsequently brought to life the characters and this fantasy world. Although Twice Upon A Time is hand animated, it is not hand animated in the way that probably immediately comes to mind, drawing and painting on transparent cels. Instead the movie uses a technique called "Lumage", which consists of colored pieces of plastic placed on a light table, and the plastic pieces moved around slightly and subsequently photographed for each frame of the movie. It's kind of how South Park comes across, though that's done with computers while this movie does it the old-fashioned way. Though if you were to watch this film, at first glance you would immediately think of childhood memories of Sesame Street. Even if you can't recall a specific clip from the show, the animation technique here has a very '70s feeling to it. However, this being a feature film, the Lumage technique here is executed in a much more sophisticated manner. For one thing, quite often the backdrops and the foregrounds have been constructed to have much more detail. There were times when watching this movie where I wanted to freeze a scene that I was watching in order to observe and fully appreciate the various details surrounding the characters. Also, when it came to executing various kinds of movement - characters or various physical objects in the frame - quite often it's clear more time and effort was put into this. While it's true the Lumination technique often comes across like what the ancient Egyptians depicted on their walls - characters and moving objects shown in side view moving directly from one side of the screen to another - there are a surprising number of moments that suggest depth, with characters or objects becoming bigger or smaller as they move in front of our eyes, suggesting a lot of additional plastic was cut up and photographed instead of photographing the same pieces over and over in different positions.

The various characters and movable objects in Twice Upon A Time have all been designed, as well as photographed (the colors are very nice in this movie), to look engaging to the eye even when they slow down and stop their movements. I must admit that the world that is depicted in this movie is one of the most visual pleasing I've seen in quite some time, even during the parts of the movie that use live-action footage. Normally I find live-action inserts in animated movies jarring, but care was made to make the live-action footage "otherworldly", such as by depicting it with black and white photography. There are also a few bizarre and memorable live-action special effects that not only fit well with the hand animation that often intrudes in the same frame, but sometimes made me wonder how the filmmakers pulled them off. Anyway, by now you have probably concluded that Twice Upon A Time is a visual feast and a triumph for an animation technique most would probably consider low tech, and you would be right. But, you may be asking, how is the movie when it comes to other things, such as with its story and characters? Well, I'll now discuss those and a few other subjects. When it comes to the script, I had several issues with it. For starters, the beginning of the movie is extremely rushed. The movie opens with a narrator explaining, with a rapid tongue in less than a minute of running time, the situation and the characters who are participating in this situation. If I hadn't had beforehand read about the plot online and on the back of the movie's video box, I am pretty confident I would have had to rewind my videotape two or three times before feeling comfortable enough to proceed. Actually, after that inauspicious start, I still had some problem with the movie's speed. There are numerous times during the movie that are so fast-paced, there isn't enough time for the characters (or the audience) to stop and take a breath. Curiously, the movie's running time (including the closing credits) is only seventy-five minutes, so there doesn't seem to be this need to move so quickly - unless maybe the budget dictated this. The rushed feel to the movie results in a number of story details feeling unfinished, such as the subplot about Ralph and Mumford getting three wish dimes from their Fairy Godmother (a character who is awkwardly forced into the narrative, I must add.)

My telling you of the movie's more often than not extremely rapid pace might possibly give you a clue as to what I thought was another flaw in the movie. If not, I'll tell you now. The movie sometimes goes so fast that often character development is an afterthought, at least if it's there at all. Take the central characters of Ralph and Mumford, for example. We learn they are misfits in their world, but we never really learn why. As the movie progresses, we learn next to nothing about them, and as a result Ralph comes across as a bland figure despite knowing how to shape shift, while Mumford comes across as a rip-off of UPA Studio's Gerald McBoing Boing at best. It gets worse when it comes to the villain of the movie. The screenplay seems to think that it's enough for Botch to talk big and in a colorful way, but it's not enough. We never learn what drives this character, or what his dreams are besides conquering Din. And we never learn what he plans to do once Din is permanently in a nightmare state. Somewhat better constructed are a few of the supporting characters. The moronic Rod Rescueman, a superhero wannabe, does deliver some laughs with his stupidity, and the characters of the Fairy Godmother and Flora Fauna also occasionally tickle the funnybone. Still, while there are some laughs for both the young and the old, I have the feeling that kids overall won't enjoy this movie. Kids will most likely be both confused and bored because the movie is so unconventional and unfamiliar in more than one way. What about adults? Well, I am sure they will appreciate the visual look of the movie, and enjoy the originality of the script - at least the parts of the script where there is actual story and flesh-and-blood character traits to digest. It's a pretty picture to look at, but don't think about it too hard. If you're interested in an unconventional animated movie, then it is worth checking out, though only when you have previously filled up with a nutritious cinematic meal - while this visual feast has a lot of flavor, it comes with a lot of empty calories.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The Last Unicorn, The Nine Lives Of Fritz The Cat, Once Upon A Girl