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2017-11-12

Movie Review: The World of Hans Christian Andersen (1968)

Movie Review: The World of Hans Christian Andersen

The World of Hans Christian Andersen is the American title to the 1968 Toei Doga animated feature Andersen Monogatari ("The Story of Andersen"). It was released in the US in 1971 by United Artists, in partnership with the legendary Hal Roach Studios, who handled the English-language dub.

The movie tells the tale of a young Hans Christian Andersen, who meets a magical storyteller who arrives to Earth from Heaven in order to guide the boy and inspire his talents as a storyteller. As young Hans observes the lives of the villagers around him, we see the trappings of the fairy tales that would make him famous. There are cartoon mice, cats and dogs, as well as about a hundred song-and-dance numbers.

Personally, I am not a great fan of this movie. Of all the Hiroshi Okawa-era Toei Doga movies (1958-1972), The World of Hans Christian Andersen feels the most formulaic, the most cliched, the most, shall we say, Disney-esque. In every way, it is a stereotypical "family cartoon" with sing-along songs, simple characters, contrived plot points, and an overall atmosphere of suffocating niceness. The swelling strings of the orchestra are pure cheese. This is a movie very specifically made for very small children who would be easily distracted and amused.

What made the classic Toei movies so compelling is how they learned the lessons of Walt Disney without copying his movies. Instead, they learned to adapt their own folk tales and legends, learned how to incorporate a purely Asian flavor to their animated features. In time, the animators learned new ways of expression, and new paradigms emerged which eventually became "anime." This movie, however, represents a massive thrust backwards. It is nowhere near the level of Hakujaden, Saiyuki, or Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, Toei's best animated features up to that point.

Here's why I believe that happened. This movie was released in March of 1968, ahead of another Toei feature that was supposed to be completed and released earlier. It's name: The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, the revolutionary anime masterpiece directed by Isao Takahata and helmed by Hayao Miyazaki, Yasuo Otsuka, Yoichi Kotabe, Reiko Okuyama and Yasuji Mori. The battle to create Horus lasted the better part of three years, ran massively over-budget and severely damaged relations with the production staff and its labor union (of which Takahata, Miyazaki and Otsuka served leading roles).

To the studio bosses of the day, Horus was an albatross, a dark, brooding, violent mess that would almost certainly give children heart attacks. It might even scare them away from Toei forever, into the waiting arms of rival animation studios that were flooding television screens. Something needed to be done to keep that traditional audience in place, and to prevent them from fleeing.

I believe this is the reason why Andersen Monogatari was made. It is the safest and most "child-friendly" movie the studio had ever made. It was a purely defensive move against a feared backlash, to say nothing about recovering all that money that was being spent on Horus (which ended up being the studio's biggest box-office flop, but that was at least partly due to studio sabotage as anything).

Hans Christian Andersen is not a bad movie. It's just very uninspired and very, very "safe." It could have been assembled by committee, and very likely was. To be fair, all the studio's best talent was locked up with Horus, leaving very few skilled animators or artists available for anything else (Jack and the Witch, Toei's 1967 feature, suffered from the same problem). The animation is lacking any real spark or inventiveness, never straying from the instruction manual, it seems. The story lacks inspiration in its characters or setting.

In the movie's defense, I do enjoy the "Little Match Girl" story thread the weaves in and out and supplies the climax. Here, the movie seems to have found a proper balance, striking an emotional cue that is fitting to Andersen's stories. The movie ends on a strong note. It probably doesn't matter that before the year was out, Horus, Prince of the Sun would completely demolish it to rubble. The World of Hans Christian Andersen is like that act on The Ed Sullivan Show that came on stage just before The Beatles. Does anyone remember that guy? No, of course not. Which is precisely the point.

P.S. The World of Hans Christian Andersen was recently uploaded to YouTube, in the original Japanese, where one person noted that the movie's final 25 minutes syncs up perfectly with David Bowie's Low album. That gave me a chuckle. These are the sort of things that make me question if we're really living in The Matrix.

1 comment:

Christopher Sobieniak said...

The World of Hans Christian Andersen is the American title to the 1968 Toei Doga animated feature Andersen Monogatari ("The Story of Andersen"). It was released in the US in 1971 by United Artists, in partnership with the legendary Hal Roach Studios, who handled the English-language dub.

Even if the opening credits may make one think they were watching a Rankin/Bass production!

Reminded someone posted this gem on YouTube, the opening of the film on WGN-TV Chicago from Christmas Day, 1977!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOpvr8CEF0g

I guess somehow NTA acquired TV syndication rights to this somehow.

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