The three VHS cassettes most prominent among my childhood were of the films “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky”, and “Animalympics” – our family really had some taste. "Animalympics" re-entered my mind after the 2012 Olympic Games, after coming across sections of it on YouTube, and its images ingrained themselves further in my mind than I realised. Released in 1980, it is seldom seen today – it only saw a DVD release in the United States in 2018 - but the story behind the film makes me lucky to have seen it all.
“Animalympics” began as a satire of the Olympic Games using exaggerated cartoon characters, in the tradition of the parodies made in Warner Bros. cartoons of old, but also in line with big sports shows like ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” and the BBC’s “Grandstand”. Stephen Lisberger, the director who conceived the idea, and whose studio was busy making TV advertisements and short children’s films, secured a grant from the American Film Institute to create a short segment of his idea. NBC, the TV network that would be showing the 1980 Olympic Games, bought it up straight away: Lisberger proposed they could have little cartoon films for each sport, which could be collated into an hour-long Summer Olympics special, and a half-hour Winter version, before the whole was released as a feature film. Not only did Lisberger ger the go-ahead to make the cartoons, his studio would also produce the on-screen branding for NBC’s coverage of each sport – these also feature in the final film, adding to the sophistication and effectiveness of the parody.
However, note the timing. The Winter special was shown, but the 1980 Olympic Games was taking place in Moscow, and with Russia entering Afghanistan, the United States boycotted the Summer Games. NBC cancelled their coverage, and Lisberger’s studio, having finished most of the film, and in pre-production on their next film, ran out of money. However, with Disney showing interest in that next project, "Animalympics" was completed and premiered, as a feature film, at the Miami Film Festival in 1980. It never had a theatrical release in the US, making its way to cable channels like HBO and The Disney Channel, but made its mark in Europe: to that end, my DVD copy of the film comes from Germany, titled “Dschungel-Olympiade”.
Despite its origins, there are a couple of stories that run through the film: for the Winter games, you have skier Kurt Wuffner, who passes out in a snowstorm and discovers Shangri-La, while the Summer games focusses on the growing rivalry, then relationship, between the marathon runners Rene Fromage, a goat, and Kit Mambo, a lioness. Also featuring are Japanese karate penguin Bruce Kawakamoto, sprinting crocodile Bolt Jenkins, and ice-skating flamingo Donnie Turnell, who literally dances her feathers off. For a film full of athletic, anthropomorphic animals, this is a furry’s paradise, and must have inspired more than a few imaginations.
Each story was written using storyboards first, with dialogue coming later, giving each animator the chance to create exactly what they wanted. Each animator has produced famous work: Roger Allers, who animated Kit Mambo, became co-director of Disney's "The Lion King" (1994), while Bill Kroyer, who animated an ice hockey game that became a war film, directed "FernGully: The Last Rainforest" (1993). And then, there was Brad Bird, who directed the flamingo ice skating: "The Simpsons," "The Iron Giant" (1999), "The Incredibles" (2004), "Ratatouille" (2007), "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" (2011).
"Animalympics" may have been lucky with having talent at the start of brilliant careers, it also had actors from “Saturday Night Live” voicing the characters, a result of the deal with NBC: among all the animal roles, Gilda Radner utilises her best Barbara Walters impression, Billy Crystal improvises as much as possible, and Harry Shearer provides the avuncular sports anchor personae he had already perfected by then.
This is even before I even mention the music - good, strong songs, "We've Made It to the Top," "You and I Can Run Together," "Love's Not for Me," all things that Stephen Lisberger said to songwriter and performer Graham Gouldman when he was trying to describe the context of the sketches, only to have them made into lyrics. Gouldman, of the band 10cc, which produced "I'm Not in Love," "The Wall Street Shuffle," "Dreadlock Holiday," and "Life is a Minestrone," is the first person to be credited after the title appears on screen, and before Billy Crystal, and this is over a decade before Elton John and Tim Rice won Academy Awards for their work on "The Lion King", and is one of the first cases of pop and rock songs being written for an animated feature film. There was a soundtrack album, and of course I have it as well.
I would just recommend people watch “Animalympics” for the sheer work that was put into it – for a small studio to go to the expense of properly inking their cels, when even Disney was photocopying instead, is worth witnessing. Talking of Disney, what was Stephen Lisberger’s next project, the one that interested Disney to produce it with him?