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Remembering the 1980 Animalympics

15 February 2010 One Million Watts 12,336 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

I’m sitting here watching the opening ceremonies of Games of the 23rd Olympiad, live from Vancouver, BC, and I can’t help but wonder: What has become of the Kurt Wuffners of yesteryear? The René Fromages? The Kit Mambos? What about that Asian duck who took home a gold in interbeast kung-fu gymnastics; whatever happened to that guy? He had style.

These aren’t real athletes. They’re characters from a 1980 animated film, “Animalympics,” directed by Steven Lisberger and animated by Roger Allers and Brad Bird. From this distinguished start, Allers would go on to direct “The Lion King,” Lisberger would conceive and direct “Tron,” and Brad Bird would direct “The Iron Giant,” “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles,” as well as writing virtually every episode of “The Simpsons” that’s worth watching. But in 1980, none of those amazing films existed even faintly in the minds of the creative men who would make them; no, all that they had on their plate was Kurt Wuffner, and Kit Mambo, and the kung-fu duck.

Now, I don’t want you to get too excited and bump “Animalympics” to the top of your Netfliz queue; it is not a great film. The animation is basic, choppy and ungraceful, probably because “Animalympics” was never meant for the big screen. NBC commissioned Lisberger to deliver an animated series of vignettes, featuring animal athletes, to run between the events of the 1980 Winter and Summer Games. The shorts ran with the Winter Games as planned, but when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter pulled America’s athletes from the Summer Games in Moscow, NBC canceled its coverage of the games and Lisberger was stuck with 40 minutes of unusable animation. Compiling the two halves into a theatrical film was the only way for Lisberger to recoup his losses.

That’s how I came to see “Animalympics” in 1981 or ’82. The film never made it to theaters, but it screened on HBO and Showtime almost endlessly. I must have watched the film more than a dozen times — in part because it was always, always on, but mostly because “Animalympics” is genial, funny — and a lot more subversive than you’d expect.

Most of the enduring charm of “Animalympics” comes from its voice actors. Lisberger cast three actors who could put snap in his script — and improvise funnier lines when Lisberger’s script fell short. Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer, Michael Fremer and the late, great Gilda Radner sound like they’re having a ball, putting words into the mouths of talking dogs, cheetahs and ducks. Crystal does his spot-on imitation of Howard Cosell; Radner does her hilarious Barbara Walters impression; and Shearer and Fremer do nearly everything else.

Oftentimes, “everything else” crosses into “too much.” “Animalympics” is surprisingly — some would say refreshingly — crude and offensive. Characters smoke, drink, and are chided for being too overweight for the venue, like Kevin Smith. (“4.5? Is that her score, or the reading on the Richter Scale?”) The aforementioned Kit Mambo, who looks she’d be more at home in “Heavy Metal,” is covered by the camera the way Vadim covered Bardot. And no nationality goes unpunished: An Italian bobsled team composed of octopi, the Calamari Brothers, finishes a medal-winning run by declaring “Let’s-a do eet again-a!” And Bruce Kwakimoto, the duck gymnast from an unnamed Asian country, mixes his “L’s” and “R’s” so badly that I’m still not sure exactly what he says in his one and only line. (It sounds like “Anyone see a red pen?”)

At this point, I’m simply going to end my coverage of the Animalympics of 1980 — without even mentioning Graham Gouldman’s sopping wet yacht rock soundtrack or the film’s surprisingly affecting romantic subplot. The opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympiad have just ended, and I’ve just remembered that the entirety of “Animalympics” is on YouTube. You can watch it, in pieces, between the events of the real Olympics, as its creators intended. It’s not as good as the bit with the whales swimming across the floor of BC Place Stadium (was that awesome or what?), but it is better than you’d expect a document of a bestial Olympiad to be. And Bruce Kwakimoto totally owns that gymnastics medal.

Geoff Carter

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  1. Google alerts found this with my name on it. I love that you remember “Animalympics!” I co-wrote it and did voices on it…so long ago! It was really a fun project to work on. Lisberger and producer Kushner had heard my outrageous radio commercials in Boston and liked my voices and general humor so they invited me over to look at the basic storyboard. My first job was to name the characters that didn’t yet have names. Many were secondary characters but I came up with some names that still make me laugh today, like the Russian Elephant Ivana Steponyatova and the pole high jump star Ivan Diseventsky. I had to fall in love with myself because I played both Kit Mambo and Rene Fromage. I suggested Harry Shearer to the director from his work with The Credibility Gap, which also starred David Landers and Michael McKean who went on to become Lenny and Squiggy.

    Harry brought along Billy Crystal to the studio and he riffed on Mohammed Ali and that was added to story…and of course he did Howard Cosell too.

    Yes, we had some raunchy things in there before all of the political correctness. In fact I wonder if the scene where the coach opens a bottle of pills and swallows all of them made it to the HBO version you saw. I know it was cut at some point.

    Actually the animation was pretty good compared to what was around at that time. We saved money with the instant replays that allowed us to re-use the animation….

    I ended up editing the dialogue track from all of the takes and the animation was keyed to that. They I cut the footage together, edited the music, suggested Graham Gouldman and sat down with him about the tunes, though Joel Sill got music supervision credit. Then I recorded stereo sound effects and supervised the Dolby surround sound mix in 1980 when television was not yet even stereo I don’t think.

    We issued the feature film in 4 track magnetic stripe surround sound for theater in Europe. Don McDougal, who was one of the mixers on Star Wars did the mix at Todd-A-0. I supervised.

    Spielberg was across the hall mixing “1941” and for a week you heard nothing but the screaming scene where Belushi went down i the airplane. Spielberg sweetened that scene for the better part of a week!

    Let’s see, what else do I remember: I played Bolt Jenkins, the Nixonian mayor, did all the voces in the “Preenettes” commercial, was Henry Hummell Kissinger and I can’t remember what else…

    Brad Bird was actually an “inbetweener,’ not an animator. He did the fill in cells in between the key ones done by the animators. He did animate one short scene of a shotputter but it was only okay. His greatness came later as did Roger Allers’. Bill Kroyer worked on Animalympics too. He went on to direct “Ferngully.”

    I went on with Lisberger to TRON. I supervised the soundtrack that was nominated for two Academy Awards for best sound, which would have gone to the Minklers, Mike and I think two cousins. We lost to “E.T.” but Minkler went on to win Oscars later on…..

    Apparently the surround sound mix elements got lost, or deteriorated beyond use, which is a real shame. The music sounded incredibly good in stereo on the soundtrack as did the sound effects and the surround mix in general…

    Anyway, it was great reading you remembrance. One of my favorite throw away lines was about Bruce Kwakimoto turning his mind inward as he gets hit over the head with a board and says in the subway crowd “anybody see a red pen.” But that’s just my humor…..Michael Fremer

  2. Fremer left such an informative response, how great is that? I did not want it to be the last one.

    I first saw Animalympics in 1984 on HBO (as I remember it could have been called the Animalympics channel it repeated so often) and it was particularly timely because I had just started work at a network affiliate as a production assistant and film editor. Not only did it poke fun at the Olympics themselves but also the self-important and pretentious way the networks present the games with hero worship evident in the over the top graphics and music. A lot of TV cliche’s were parodied also.

    The commentary was clever and obviously aimed at an older crowd. From reading about how the project started I guess it had to appeal to the entire Olympics viewing audience. I wonder how much was added to fill it out from vignettes to a feature length film?

    My favorite line is after a bobsled team crashes, the reporter asks an ‘expert’ commentator how to keep this from happening so as not to discourage future bobledders and he answers they should take up golf I guess. So good.

    Hopefully more people will find this remembrance as they think of the movie themselves and google it. Let’s hope what reminds them is a new release to DVD. What a treat they will find Fremer’s post.

    I wonder if he’s the same Michael Fremer, contributing editor at Stereophile Magazine or is that another audio guy? Of course I had to put his first and last name in my post so it would show up on a Google alert.

  3. I also remember this animated move very well, as I had grown up in the 1970’s and it brings back many memories. Everything was well drawn and very imaginative. I must say that all of the characters are well drawn, and I admit that I still have a major crush on the Avengeful Contessa.
    I thought it was just graceful to see Dourey Tournell do her figure skating on the ice, she was very emotional upon getting the gold, but she deserved it for an outstanding performance. Whenever I hear the song that played as Rene Formage had ran the marathon race against Kit Mumbo, It makes me think of all the struggles and strifes in my life, and trying to acheive my goals. All the songs are very memorable, especialy the Disco themed at Noah’s Ark Disco, which I thought was cool. True all the athletes are characters of famous people, but having an understanding of the people that did the voices, especially Gilda Radner,(very funny and good looking woman I must add). You can smile and get and understanding of who they were, and laugh at it as well.
    It was on a tv infomercial of The Best of Deam Martin Roasts, that I saw Billy Crystal do his Muhammid Ali impression. A very good impression I must add. I managed to purchase an out of print book on the movie by Margery Steinberg, which has scenes of the movie and info on the sporting events. I would’ve enjoyed maybe collectable trading cards of the characters and such if the movie was merchandised. But for now, the memory will always live on, as well as going for the gold.

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