Nov 17, 2015

On DVD: Twice Upon a Time (1983)

With lackluster initial box office and discord between co-writers and producers Bill CouturiƩ and John Korty (who also co-directed with Charles Swenson), the animated fantasy Twice Upon a Time has been in need of a release do-over for quite some time. Produced by George Lucas' Lucas Films and Korty Films in partnership with The Ladd Company, it has slowly built a reputation on video and television, but has never been widely known. Now in a new release from Warner Archive, this quirky, one-of-a-kind film can be seen in two versions: one a PG-rated edit meant for mature audiences, the other unrated, but geared towards children and families.

Korty intended for the film to be enjoyed together by people of all ages, a formula more common today in animation today. In an interview promoting Twice he said, "I…wanted it to include the message that reality is not so bad after all and that what you need to stay sane in this world is some combination of
fantasy and reality."

While CouturiƩ may have agreed with this sentiment, he felt the need to make the film a bit more adult when he observed college-age kids walking out of screeners. He had several lines rewritten and recorded without notifying Korty. It was only at the premiere of the film that the co-director realized what had been done, and he was understandably furious. So were parents who took their children to the film, only to hear the villain crack jokes about his minions sticking it to their wives after their villainy was done. In response to the complaints, the film was pulled from distribution in multiple theaters.

Overall, the story of Twice Upon a Tale is actually fairly innocent, and both versions are for the most part pretty tame. The heroes are Ralph the Multi-Purpose Animal (sort of like the shapeshifters in True Blood, but more cuddly) and Mumford, his top-hatted pal who only speaks in sound effects. The pair meet a blunt-speaking Fairy Godmother (she prefers to be called FGM) from the Bronx, who tasks them with stopping Synonimous Botch, a mustachioed creep who plans to stop time so that he can conquer the world.

Botch is also big on scattering nightmare bombs among humans. He captures the bringers of good dreams: elf-like Greensleeves and his purple, blobby Figmen of Imagination and deploys threatening ravens to distribute the bad dreams. Even though Ralph and Mumford have no idea what humans are, the FGM makes them feel sorry enough for poor mortals to save them and time. They are helped by aspiring actress Flora Fauna, ridiculous superhero Rod Rescueman (a great lampoon of silly hero stereotypes) and Scuzzbopper, Botch's resident screamwriter who bails when the villain destroys his novel-in-progress.

John Korty is perhaps most beloved for the animated sequences he created for television shows Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and you can see a lot of the quirkiness from those shorts here. As dopey and corny as the characters can be, there are lots of clever asides and goofy moments. Not laugh-out-loud, but the kind of humor that makes you smile to yourself.

The film is animated with a multi-layer technique called The Lumage Process, in which hand-moved images are manipulated across different backdrops. Here it includes photography, video and richly-colored illustrated settings. I still don't entirely understand how the technique works, but the effect is a bit like 3D; there's depth to the images, making them seem real at times. Some of the sequences, like a nightmare scene where office supplies become deadly are quite inventively staged and animated.

Dawn Atkinson's score plumps up the film, making the action feel bigger and more grand than it really is. The same cannot be said for the pop songs on the soundtrack, by musicians Bruce Hornsby and Maureen McDonald (whose three tracks are produced by her brother and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald). While the tunes aren't too bad, they date the film and seem out of place in style if not sentiment.

The disc includes the PG and unrated family-friendly versions of the film, a trailer and a commentary track with director John Korty and collaborators John Baker, Harley Jessup, Brian Narelle, Will Noble, Henry Selick, and Carl Willat.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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