Today’s animated cartoons are very sophisticated and technically superior to older fair like you might find on YouTube from… let’s say… 1977. As an artist and writer dedicated to didactic surrealism (yes, I know you probably have no earthly idea what those two words even mean, but that’s a review post for another day), I should probably look down my long critic’s nose at the story of A Mouse and His Child, from Sanrio Studios. I saw this bit of artwork in motion at the College-Town Theater in Ames, Iowa while attending Iowa State University. It is a dopey pre-Toy-Story story about a pair of wind-up toy mice who are designed to dance in circle and can do nothing more than that at the beginning of the movie. They are told at the outset that they can only do in life what they were designed to do… and nothing more. But then they spend the whole movie doing so very much more.
The artwork is very cartoony in ways that only an American who loves Japanese versions of American style can be. (Don’t try to tell me you didn’t recognize Sanrio as the “Hello Kitty” people.) It has classic animation voices in it. Peter Ustinov as the villain, Manny the Rat, Andy Devine as the frog… and more other classy actor-types than I can possibly remember.
The story is everything a cartoon movie should be. It is a quest to get rid of the wind-up key and be self-winding. It is a quest to choose your destiny for yourself… to make for yourself a family and have safety and love as all people should. There is also considerable danger. Young children will come away from this movie with many potential opportunities to develop nightmares from the images. It is also a quest to find a balance between the magic of the frog and the science of the Muskrat. In order to solve the mysteries of destiny, they have to look at a dog food label that has a picture of a dog grinning and holding a can of dog food with a label that shows a dog grinning and holding a… you get the idea, they have to see beyond the last visible dog. This movie makes sense in a way that poetry makes sense. You have opportunities presented to you make sense of it yourself. Like a good poem, you get out of it what you put into it. If you think about its meaning long enough, you will find something quite profound.
I have seen this movie now four times. I saw it in the theater in 1977. I saw it two years later on TV, on a Friday night. Then I re-discovered it on You-Tube this last February and I have watched it twice since. Every time I understand something new and wonderful from it. I have now made it my goal to find a copy of the Russel Hoban book and read that as well. You have to be a little crazy to like a movie the way I love this movie, but I have to tell you, I will be a little disappointed if nobody clicks on it to see if they like it too.