Friday, November 20, 2015

Criterion Blogathon: Criterion And Animation

The key to the Criterion Collection’s success has always been the remarkable diversity of films welcomed into their lineup. It would have been easy, and perhaps expected, for them to focus solely on foreign films or acknowledged classics. But as “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”, Criterion has released titles from every genre, every era and from seemingly every film-producing nation on Earth. This diversity was even more apparent back in the laserdisc era, when the major studios’ almost total lack of interest in the format allowed such blockbusters as Ghostbusters and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to rub spine numbers with the likes of Floating Weeds and The Devil And Daniel Webster.

But despite this commitment to diversity, there is one area where Criterion stubbornly continues to have a massive blind spot: animation. Animation is one of the cornerstones of the film industry dating back as far as 1900. Any history of film that failed to take animated movies into its consideration would be considered laughably incomplete. Despite this, Criterion has released a whopping three animated films on either laserdisc or DVD/Blu-ray. That’s only one more than there are Michael Bay movies in the collection.

Criterion’s first (and only) animated laserdisc was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, released in 1992. It was a natural fit for the company, given their affinity for Japanese culture and cinema. Acclaimed as one of the greatest animated films of all time, no one could dispute the fact that Akira deserved its place in the collection. If nothing else, Akira burst open the floodgates, exposing Western audiences to countless anime they may otherwise never would have encountered. 

Unfortunately, Akira’s time in the Criterion Collection was short-lived. It’s one of many titles that Criterion has been unable to relicense for DVD or Blu-ray. The long out-of-print laserdisc is now highly prized by collectors. No doubt if Criterion is someday able to re-release the film on Blu-ray, fans will snap it up in a heartbeat.

It would be over twenty years before Criterion released another animated film, this time Wes Anderson’s stop-motion Fantastic Mr. Fox. Once again, this was a no-brainer for Criterion. Having released every other Wes Anderson movie to date, why would this be any exception?

As delightful as Fantastic Mr. Fox is, it would be a mistake to view its Criterion induction as a new-found interest in the art of animation. This was nothing more than a case of filmmaker loyalty. At this point, Wes Anderson could make a Smurfs movie and Criterion would have no choice but to release it at some point. (Note to Wes Anderson: please do not make a Smurfs movie.)

Criterion’s next foray into animation was a bit more of a surprise. Martin Rosen’s 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down is a beautifully animated and mature piece of filmmaking. Thematically, it makes perfect sense as a Criterion release. But it’s hardly the highest-profile animated film of the last forty years.

Theories abound as to why Criterion has paid so little attention to animation. Certainly, many of the most
important examples of the form are tied up in rights issues that make even inquiring about them a waste of time. That said, nobody really expects Criterion to go after any of the Disney classics. Frankly, Disney’s done an excellent job releasing most of those on their own. These movies don’t need anybody’s help.

Disney also controls most of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in the US. These would actually be a better fit for Criterion. Disney’s done all right by them, barring a few instances of bad subtitling, but Disney is more focused on commerce than art. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that but it does mean that the studio treats all of these movies exactly the same way. They can’t really be bothered to delve into the unique qualities that separate Porco Rosso from Spirited Away.

In addition to licensing hurdles, Criterion has always been known as a director-oriented imprint. It’s fair to say that nobody subscribes to the auteur theory more fervently than the folks at Criterion. The job of “director” in animation is a bit more mysterious. Most of the names that pop immediately to mind, Ralph Bakshi, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, are more frequently described as “animators”, which isn’t exactly the same thing.

All good movies have a degree of magic in them but perhaps none have as much as animation. The ability to instill life and emotion into a series of hand-drawn images or puppets or pixels requires a remarkable depth of artistry from a legion of collaborators working in perfect harmony. It’s an art form every bit as worthy of celebration and examination as any in the Criterion Collection.

Criterion needs to get busy if they hope to plug this gaping hole any time soon and naturally I have a few suggestions to get them started. Some of these may be obvious, others may be the longest of longshots, but all of them would fit right in with the Criterion mandate.

The Compleat Tex Avery
 It could be argued that animation’s purest form is the short film and few mastered it as well as Tex Avery. Back in 1993, MGM released the definitive collection of Avery shorts on laserdisc. Odds are slim to none that this will ever make the transition to Blu-ray, much less DVD. This would probably be a licensing nightmare for Criterion but it’d be oh so worth it.

Song Of The South 
 Again, probably not gonna happen. I doubt very much that Criterion would want to willingly stick their hand in this particular hornet’s nest. But this is a genuinely important film with some of the most seamless and artful blend of live action and animation ever created. Besides, Disney sure as hell isn’t going to release it. Bring in Leonard Maltin to provide the context he did so well on the Walt Disney Treasures collection, market this to collectors instead of kids, and allow viewers to make up their own minds.

Fantastic Planet
René Laloux’s trippy science fiction masterpiece seems like an obvious choice for Criterion. It’s a still-relevant allegory with a unique visual style like none other. Eureka has it on Blu-ray in the UK as part of their Masters of Cinema line. If it’s good enough for them, surely it’s good enough for Criterion.

Fritz The Cat 
Ralph Bakshi has made any number of films that would be right at home on Criterion, including Wizards, Coonskin and American Pop. Fritz is probably Bakshi’s best-known work (with the possible exception of The Lord Of The Rings) and it’d make a nice introduction to his work. Plus, it’d be an excellent companion piece to Criterion’s release of the documentary Crumb.

The Complete Short Films Of Jan Svankmajer
Zeitgeist has a nice looking collection of the work of the Brothers Quay due later in November, but Czech animator Jan Svankmajer is overdue for similar treatment. I have an excellent DVD from the BFI collecting Svankmajer’s surreal shorts but I would absolutely shell out for a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion.

Charlie Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation is collecting critical hosannas on the festival circuit and seems a shoo-in for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination. It might be a little premature to dub this one Criterion-worthy. But the company has a history with Kaufman, having released Being John Malkovich in 2012.

These are just a few examples of Criterion-ready animation. There are plenty of others, including Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, the 1954 adaptation of Animal Farm (already released on DVD by Home Vision), Martin Rosen’s Watership Down follow-up The Plague Dogs, Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures Of Prince Achmed…the list goes on. Criterion has barely dipped a toe into the shallow end of the animation pool. It’s long past time for them to dive into the deep end.


  1. A well-written defense of animation as an art form! I completely agree and wish more people would take it seriously. Possible artful additions I thought of could include the British apocalyptic drama When the Wind Blows, the Scandinavian puppet saga Strings, the stop-motion Gospel story The Miracle Maker, the Rankin/Bass adaptations of The Hobbit or The Last Unicorn, and Kon's Paprika or Millennium Actress.

  2. I agree with the previous commenter. People don't view animation as an art form, which is a shame because – as you pointed out – there have been some incredible releases (The Box Trolls and The Book of Life being two recent examples).

    It'll be interesting to see if Criterion does release more animated films, and which ones will be chosen.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this analysis of animation!

  3. Enjoyable post. As it turns out, I was on a podcast that focused on the Sight & Sound and we talked about this same conversation, and ther is a lot of overlap between S&S and Criterion. I know that Brakhage has done some animation, but I (shamefully) haven't watched the disc. Also Borocwyck (probably misspelled) has done some that Arrow released and I don't think it sold well. Akira would be the gold standard, and there's no way they'll get Ghibli, Pixar or Disney.

    Watership Down and Fantastic Mr Fox could serve as ice breakers. I suspect that Plague Dogs will happen one day, and Anderson's next film is supposedly going to be another animated. When the Wind Blows came out from Twilight Time.

    There are options going forward, but I agree that the medium has been largely ignored, not just in Criterion circles but in art film circles. I think there's a thinking, which I feel is incorrect, that animated films do not reach a level of art. They are seen as children's films. I disagree of course, but that's the prevailing view. Also animated films have commercial appeal and the studios are more inclined to release themselves.

    Really thought provoking post as you can tell from this long comment, I appreciate you bringing up the subject, and of course supporting the Blogathon.

  4. Really nice post and ideas, agree with above, big fan of animation too and it always needs that extra push and focus to get the attention and respect it deserves. Thanks for bringing this angle to the blogathon,

  5. Fantastic post, Ruth! The lack of some animation on DVD is one of the reason I still have a VHS player!! Well that and I'm too emotionally attached to it to let it go, but that's a whole 'nother story...

    I also love that you begin your terrific write-up by talking about everything that Criterion does right, including its broad sweep of titles and lack of art-house myopia.

    This blogathon has been such a revelation to me; I've loved reading about the films I already am crazy about, but have learned about so many others. So thank you, and Kristina, and Aaron again. I now have so many titles to catch up on! There goes the housework... :)

    Warmest wishes, as ever,

    Janet (Sister Celluloid)

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