Forgotten Movies: The Mouse And His Child

by AnomalousArtist

Hollywood history is filled with "forgotten" films. Here is an animated film from 1977 that is little remembered today, for better or worse.

It is estimated that there are far more silent films "missing" than there are in existence; poor storage or bad film stock accounts for a lot of films that don't exist anymore.

Another kind of "loss" is when a film simply isn't in circulation anymore, for whatever reason. Not every film can be "popular" and perhaps not every film should be, but what about films that have been abandoned? There is something to be said for unearthing a treasure; there's also much to be said about re-discovering something that was considered less than successful, in some ways you can learn more from a "failure" than a success.

Here I present an odd, touching little animated film from 1977 that was expected to do a lot better than it did and has ultimately faded into obscurity. Whether that was a good or bad thing I leave up to you!

Peek-a-Boo V, Mouse
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1) Animated movies in the 70s

The 60s and 70s saw an upheaval in animated films; up until then Disney Studios had ruled the box office and Warner Brothers and MGM had the theatrical short cartoon market cornered. 

But times change and so do ideals; the public was hungry for something new and experimental animation techniques from all around the world started getting notice.  Not only were these new cartoons innovative, they were often done much cheaper than their splashy American counterparts. 

Eventually low-production-cost fare like the Peanuts cartoon specials and the Hannah Barbera series (Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, the "Charlotte's Web" feature film) became strong competition for the theatrical output of Disney, and once Walt Disney passed away in the late 60s the stage was set for new pioneers of the medium and industry.

Ralph Bakshi was one such pioneer; his X-rated "Fritz The Cat" cartoon was a huge success as was the more tame "Wizards."  But no new animation guru ever took the mantle from the ailing 1970s Disney studios and in time Disney took the crown BACK, in the 90s, with a string of hits beginning with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989.

As of this writing Disney seems to be abandoning its hand-drawn film department, leaving only Japanese anime as a genre for regular, and successful, "traditionally" animated films. But back in the 70s and 80s it seemed any studio had a chance, and this produced a lot of product, of varying quality and popularity.


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2) Throwing a hat in the ring...or into the trash?

"Fred Wolf" productions was one such studio, a small concern notable for producing 70s cult films with animation such as Frank Zappa's "200 Motels," 1973's uber-low-budget Bakshi-wannabee "Dirty Duck" and 1985's similarly forgotten animated "American Rabbit."

"Fred Wolf" partnered with a Japanese company to produce "The Mouse And His Child."  The company, "Sanrio," is known today for the "Hello Kitty" line of toys.  Founded in the early 60's, the company has had great success producing and marketing all things "kawaii" ("cute"). 

From 1977-1985 Sanrio dabbled in films and animation, often with modest success, but they never seemed to have anything like a breakout hit, at least in the western world. (Another such film I hope to cover in an upcoming article is 1979's perplexing, beautiful-but-failed Greek-myth phantasmagoria, "Metamorphoses.")

1977's "The Mouse And His Child" was the first official entry into the feature animated film market for Sanrio and it bears some of the company's trademarks but ends up being a remarkable departure in many ways.

3) No...but I've read the book...

"The Mouse And His Child" film is based on a successful and highly praised 1967 book by American-turned-British author Russell Hoban. 

Hoban wrote science fiction, fantasy and "adult" fiction; like many other celebrated books from the era designed for "children" ("Charlotte's Web" and "Charlie And The Chocolate Factory" come to mind) the book is much deeper and more resonant than it appears on the surface.

The story centers on the mice of the title, joined at the arms as one "wind up" toy.  While making friends in their toy shop home the father and son fall off a shelf, are tossed in the garbage and spend the rest of the film trying to get back to "home" and "family" as well as attempting to find a way to become self winding.  Along the way they are imprisoned and exploited by a greedy rat and his minions and are befriended by an odd mix of dotty talking animal companions.

The book itself is quiet and gentle, containing evocative, lightly-rendered illustrations and a seemingly unending series of memorable philosophies, such as "One does what one is wound to do." 

As of this writing the book can be found but isn't commonly available.  I read it in the 1990s and found it pleasant enough but no less obscure than the movie that introduced me to the story, which is, I assume, what held the film back from becoming a commonly-known classic.

4) The movie

At 12 I may have been too "old" for kids' cartoon films but I was into them anyway and always got excited by the appearance of a new, original voice in the animated film genre.

"The Mouse And His Child" was marketed as a hit before it even arrived in our local theaters; the ad tag line optimistically claimed, "Destined to stand beside Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz as a children's classic" (woops!) and that it was the winner of the "Ruby Slipper Award" and "Award Of Excellence" from the "film advisory board," whatever that may be.

The TV ads for the film showed a lanky, cartoony rat  with a neck scarf rowing a sardine can with two cute, perplexed mice passengers down a twisting river of muddy water.  It suggested an aura of sophistication and darkness mixed with the innocent look of plush toys.  It also had a rough edged, "DIY" aesthetic that appealed to my eagerness to learn about animation.

I went to the film with some younger friends and we did, in fact, enjoy it, at least as far as I can remember.  I think I even saw it twice, but that was more likely to happen in "the old days" when there were fewer movies available and they tended to say in theaters for longer runs.

What I do remember is that the film played to a full house...but the audience was silent during, and particularly after, the film. 

5) What's wrong, or perhaps right, with the movie

I would hesitate to even call "The Mouse And His Child" a "children's movie."  It is, like "Charlotte's Web," fixated on issues dealing with death, or at least the loss of things...loss of home, loss of family, life without a support system of friends, relatives or financial security...the film even the questions how two individuals who are connected can be so far "apart" ultimately.  "Lady And The Tramp" this is not.

The Peter Ustinov-voice "Manny The Rat" character who exploits broken and abandoned toys for personal gain is cold, greedy and mercilessly cruel; one disturbing sequence that few children who see the film can ever forget finds him forcing a sad, broken elephant toy into "early retirement;" after the pathetic creature begs for its life we see it hacked up for firewood in the shadows on the walls of a cave while the other horrified toys look on.  Even Bambi's mother was killed off-screen, and followed up with a dignified response by Bambi's father!

The parade of odd, and often screeching characters gets annoying after awhile...Cloris Leechman is particularly shrill in an endless segment dealing with an outdoor theatrical production, Andy Devine plays a another pathetic and slightly annoying frog character.  Our "heroes" are passive victims of their fate and their inability to do anything to help themselves creates a feeling of frustration and despair in the viewer.

The quest to find "home" is fraught with disasters so unpleasant it seems impossible our friendly, soft-spoken, well-meaning mice friends will even survive, let alone end up one point the mouse and child are sunk into the dirty bed of an abandoned river and face a life of rusting away and being eaten by a fish as they sit staring off into space contemplating their sad existences.  Even Charlie Brown won ONCE in awhile!

Finally the film is loaded with esoteric comments and asides, such as a running motif about a painting within a painting on a dog food can:  "Can you see anything beyond the last visible dog?" or the deeper-than-dirt concept, "The relation of self to mud is basic to any discussion of to be."

The constant philosophizing of the flighty characters mixed with an unusually cruel and arbitrary villain and a quest that seems hopeless at best, tedious at worst, makes "The Mouse And His Child" a challenging film for adults and kids alike, and it's no surprise to me that it didn't take off and hasn't resurfaced over the years. 

Watch the movie here:

6) But did it deserve to be buried?

"The Mouse And His Child" is a movie I need to subject myself to periodically, if for no other reason than to remind myself why it just doesn't work.  It's a film that seems like it SHOULD work, so I keep giving it chances. 

The caves of the rat lair are evocative and spooky, the eventual "rat hotel" on top of a telephone pole the vermin set themselves up in is surreal and memorable.  The voices of the mouse dad and child are warm, familiar and comforting.  The esoteric aspects of the film are thought provoking and make more sense the older I get.  The fact that the film is so leaden with melancholy also appeals to me more as I age, and it has a lot of truth to share about the darker shades of humanity.  The theme song is quirkily pretty and the overall design of the film is unique. 

But still, I can't actually call this a "good" film or one that I can recommend.  It's a film I like for personal reasons; were I to see it today for the first time I'm not sure I could/would sit through it.  That wouldn't be much of a problem; aside from a VHS release in the 80s and some airtime on the Disney channel in the fledgling days of the station the film is pretty hard to track down.  You can find bootleg copies but no official DVD was ever released and it's unlikely to resurface, although it shows up on Youtube periodically.  Even the book has become rare. (one odd recent development I uncovered--London's Royal Shakespeare Company apparently put on a live version of the story to mixed reviews that echo a lot of my concerns with the piece).

With so much "garbage" available out there it seems odd that "The Mouse And His Child" didn't find a home after all; there are, at least, fans of the film as there are for most obscure things, and perhaps the film was ahead of its time and will re-emerge one day, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Until then those of us who remember the film fondly, for whatever reason, will hold onto it as a strange, but memorable, artifact of another time.

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Updated: 05/29/2013, AnomalousArtist
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AnomalousArtist on 06/18/2013

Yes! At least it's better now with the internet, you can find almost anything and make your own choices, right? :)

WriterArtist on 06/18/2013

I feel these forgotten movies should be shown and let the audience decide whether they want to watch them again. They ought to be stored and renewed. I am sure most of them are worth watching - what with all the blood and violence on today's movies.

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