The Nemo Pilot (1984)

Courtesy of YouTube, the 1984 Nemo Pilot film. A masterpiece of animation, of action, and of movement, it represents everything that defines anime. There's probably only a handful of films or television shows that deserve to sit on that mantle.

The Little Nemo film project was extremely ambitious, a joint effort between the top animators from Japan and America. Production began in 1982, and a number of big names were courted, including Ray Bradbury, Gary Kurtz, Hayao Miyazaki, Osamu Dezaki, and Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, production was stalled as people walked away. Miyazaki, for instance, didn't want to make a movie in which everything was a dream, and Takahata wanted to tell a story about Nemo's growth into adulthood (much like Anne of Green Gables and Omohide Poro Poro).

Fortunately, in December of 1984, after six months of work, the first pilot appeared. Created by Yoshifumi Kondo (director), Kazuhide Tomonaga (animation director/e-konte/key animator), Nobuo Tomizawa (key animation), Kyoto Tanaka (key animation), and Nizo Yamamoto (art director). The pilot is essentially an extended chase sequence through a surrealist landscape of buildings and skyscrapers and waterfalls, drawn in full animation and shot in 70mm.

Sadly, despite the praises of the American side, the Nemo production stalled again, and by March, 1985, Kondo had left. Eventually, two more pilots would be created, and the project finally hobbled together in 1988, but with a much more typically bland and banal Disney style. Nemo was finally released to theatres in 1989, and was roundly dismissed by critics and the public.

The history of the movies is very often the history of artists frustrated in achieving their visions. Frustration by the suits, by the men with the money, who always second-guess anything that doesn't shamefully pander to their worst expectations of the public. The first Nemo is one of those great "what-if?" moments. You're amazed, endlessly thrilled at this three-minute self-contained universe; truly, whoever was in charge should have had the sense to get out of the way and let these brilliant artists follow their muse. Kondo and Tomonaga and crew poured everything they learned from Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan and Castle of Cagliostro, and at Telecom, the second Lupin III series, and then Sherlock Hound, which was really the one that most clearly predicts Nemo (one shot from Hound is riffed in the short).

And Nemo, of course, predicts the rise of Studio Ghibli; which brings us here to the present day.

(Update 4/1/20: I reposted a new version of the 1984 Nemo pilot on YouTube.)


Animated AF said...

That clip was stunning, shame it never amounted to more like it. Really gripping stuff, in which you actually get the same shock factor the kid does from the moments he just barely gets out in one piece.

Anonymous said...

Apparently the movie with exactly this clip made it and Moebius(Jean Giraud famous French artist) made lots of designs for it. Here it is:

Anonymous said...

This is lovely. It reeks of Japanese stylings and American alike, in a very pleasant sort of way.

Anonymous said...

I've seen that Nemo "pilot" film a few times , and again yesterday when a version of it showed up on Cartoon Brew and the subsequent discussion. Thanks for linking to the more complete version on Google Video. It's great !

Perhaps you can clear something up for me : Why was this pilot film made ? Was it actually a pilot or is it in fact a finished sequence from a version of the film that was never completed after new directors were installed ? If it was a pilot was it made to convince the backers that the film could be done and this was a sample of what the final film would be like , so they could secure the financing ? So much effort if that's the case... it is certainly one of the more elaborate demo films ever. It's an entirely finished sequence and way better than anything in the final film (which has some nice moments sprinkled here and there ... but nothing even close to this pilot) . I'm amazed that after all the work and expense poured in to this pilot they didn't find a way to use it in the final version of the movie . The character design of Nemo in the pilot is much better than the one used in the final version.

I somewhat disagree with you that the final version of Nemo was a "more typically bland and banal Disney style" . If anything this pilot clip is closer to Disney style of drawing and full animation (with the added Zing ! of anime-style action sequences), but the final film feels more like Hanna-Barbara TV animation, but with "full inbetweening" . The final version of Nemo is how H&B's Charlotte's Web would have looked with a bigger budget and fuller animation.

Maybe you were referring to things like the addition of the cute animal sidekick (the flying squirrel ) as being more typical of Disney ?

At any rate this pilot version of Nemo is a tantalizing taste of what could have been. I'm just glad it's out there and can be viewed.

francois said...

Hi Daniel,

I haven't commented here in a while (since July 2006, to be exact), but I just wanted to say thanks for your excellent contributions to the thread on Cartoon Brew*. You more than live up to Ben Ettinger's example!



serhei said...

Wonderful. Previously I tried to find it on YouTube, and kept finding the later version with the flying squirrel thing. Somehow this pilot put me in mind of the "flying canoe" chase scene in Howl's Moving Castle.

Is it just me, or is the voice direction more in line with anime than the Western notion of animation (I'm thinking here of Pixar or - down a notch in terms of interest - a standard Disney animation.) It was interesting to hear English voice actors following the general Ghibli style.

I'm guessing this is because the general voice cues were decided with the involvement of the animation people in Japan, not by a completely separate dubbing team working after the fact - contrast, for instance, the Pixar dub of Chihiro where they would ad lib, for instance, "What an esophagus!" where there were no corresponding lines in the Japanese.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Remember that this Nemo film project was a joint venture between the US and Japan. I'm sure an English soundtrack was always the intention, since this movie was envisioned as Japan's anime breakthrough into the American market.

If the 1984 Nemo pilot feels like Ghibli, it's only because the people involved - Tomonaga and Kondo, chiefly - were involved with Ghibli and worked with Miyazaki for many years. A keen eye will also spot shots which are riffed later in My Neighbor Totoro and Porco Rosso.

It's also interesting to compare Nemo '84 with the opening to Nemo '89. How do you feel the later movie compares to Kondo's pilot?

Adrienne said...

Ha. Wonder what Winsor McKay would have thought of it...

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