Nether Regions 11.21.12: Twice Upon a Time
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.21.2012
This week take a trip back in time to 1983 when George Lucas helped bring this marvelously under appreciated animated oddity to a very small number of movie screens.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
TWICE UPON A TIME
Featuring the Voices Of: Lorenzo Music, Judith Kahan, and Marshall Efron Directed By: John Korty and Charles Swenson Written By: Bill Couturie, Suella Kennedy, John Korty, & Charles Swenson Original Release Date: April 9, 1978 Running Time: 75 minutes Missing Since: August 5, 1983 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rarest of the Rare
Twice Upon a Time was released in 1983 with George Lucas named as Producer for the first time in his career. It is a bizarre, acid-trip of a movie, yet enormously entertaining and hilarious all the same. Wikipedia lists it as one of the most important films in the history of stop-motion animation. How true that is I don't know, but this ballsy anomaly does drum its own unique beat, that's for sure. Like numerous titles highlighted in this column, it has acquired a cult following. With luck somebody will grab this off the shelf and wipe the dust clean in the near future so Twice Upon a Time can reach a new generation.
The story takes place in the city of Din, populated by regular people the characters refer to as Rushers. These folks lead a fast-paced lifestyle and stop only for rest. Din resides between two worlds that bring dreams to the Rushers. Frivoli is a happy place where Greensleeves (Voice of Hamilton Camp) and his Figmen drop some sort of dust that gives people sweet dreams. The other is Murkworks, a dark factory led by Synonamess Botch (Voice of Marshall Efron) and his vultures responsible for dropping nightmares. He hatches a scheme to kidnap Greensleeves and the Figs, but Greensleeves manages to send out a letter to Frivoli requesting help. Meanwhile, Ralph (Voice of Lorenzo Music), the All-Purpose Animal, (because he can shapeshift) and his silent friend Mumford are punished for their incompetence at work. They are sent to a garbage dump. It is there they meet Flora Fauna (Voice of Julie Payne), the niece of Greensleeves, who has found his letter and wants assistance finding him. Botch overhears this and approaches the trio pretending to be Greensleeves' pal. He says that in order to save Greensleeves, they need to take the main spring from the Cosmic Clock. This will actually allow Botch to stop time and employ permanent nightmares forever. So Ralph and Mumford are sent out to Din, determined to prove themselves.
This nightmare features a nod to Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!
That might sound convoluted, but trust me when I say it's engrossing and endlessly clever. Admittedly, it might take a second viewing or two to fully absorb the characters, their motivations, the various plot threads and the labyrinthine universe, but the movie is witty and inventive enough that you won't mind revisiting. The form of animation utilized is called "Lumage," in which cut-outs of plastic and fabric are illuminated by a light table. They even combine this with live-action stills, hence the "Rushers" of Din in 50's black-and-white. The visuals are colorful, distinct, and eye-catching, similar to Terry Gilliam's Monty Python effects or Yellow Submarine. I would cite South Park's style as a comparison as well, but as good as that series can be, Twice Upon a Time unleashes astonishingly vivid and often gorgeous sequences. Take the moment where Ralph and Mumford get caught by a nightmare bomb in an office building. The dingy, creepy images exhibit all the supplies and utensils attacking them, pencil sharpeners shooting bullets, scissors chopping at them, and so on.
The voice acting is basically flawless. Leading the charge is Lorenzo Music, who was famous as the voice of Garfield. I grew up with Music as Garfield and as Peter Venkman on The Real Ghostbusters, so I was delighted when I heard that same low-toned speech as Ralph, the All-Purpose Animal. Ralph tends to have trouble morphing into whatever he feels like, but his regular state is a cross between a dog and a bear. Ralph's sidekick Mumford never utters a word. He keeps trying magic tricks as the adventure escalates and comes off as a half Charlie Chaplin, half Penn & Teller. Marshall Efron is hysterical as Botch, the evil villain we even see bathe. He also gives a tour of his home and show off his collection of lava lamps, salami, stretched cat furs, and the underside of movie seats. Someone must have been high when thinking of this material. Julie Payne and Judith Kahan are fabulous as Flora Fauna and the Fairy Godmother, each notable accent aiding the memorable personas. The Fairy Godmother has a priceless line: "Call me FGM; I hate excess verbiage." James Cranna voices multiple characters, Scuzbopper and Rod Rescueman being the central ones. Rod Rescueman might be in my Top 10 favorite animated characters. He is a professional hero who can fly and saves damsels in distress basically for the reward of their affection. After helping Flora Fauna, he tries to woo her by giving her a tour of his apartment. Every piece of furniture is also exercise equipment.
The history behind this production and its subsequent rare status is a bit complicated. It was distributed by The Ladd Company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy as they were preparing to release this. They were forced to choose between a wide release or a limited one and opted for the latter. The result was Twice Upon a Time failing at the box office. The same scenario unfolded for the company's The Right Stuff. They ended up shutting down. Warner Bros. presumably has control of it now.
The Fairy Godmother tries to get Rod Rescueman to save her.
Now onto the war of editing. The version I first saw, and the one that is more readily available, is the cut co-director John Korty approved. There were an unknown number of cuts, but Korty's was rated PG. Korty did not like many of the lines from the original script, but voice actor Marshall Efron thought his dialogue was great so he emphasized the raunchier aspects of his character. Producer and co-screenwriter Bill Couturie included many of the adult lines (such as profanity) unbeknownst to Korty. Opening night arrived and Korty noticed lines he did not agree to. Years later, HBO aired the movie, but it was the Bill Couturie version. Korty discovered this and immediately contacted HBO, threatening legal action. Couturie's cut was broadcast 3 times until HBO was given Korty's edited one. Unfortunately for HBO, they then received complaints of "censored" movies being shown on their channel. Ultimately, they decided never to air it again. Eventually Showtime got the rights to air it, but only Korty's edition. In 1991, Twice Upon a Time was finally released on VHS and laserdisc, but again, it was Korty's.
Copies of the Bill Couturie, HBO cut are floating around (as you can see below), but you never know when they'll get pulled off the internet. Having seen both, I can say with a certainty that the uncut, adult version is superior. Korty makes unsophisticated, noticeable changes. A few sequences are simply left out, making several transitions awkward and jarring. Amazingly, the alluring strangeness and charm are present even in the butchered cut. It was available on Amazon's video on demand service for a brief time, but quickly taken down. Warner Home Video has not given any updates recently as to whether or not this will ever see the light of day on DVD, but since Korty has gotten his way on all the recent video releases, who knows what version will survive if that day ever comes. In an interview from 2007, writer Taylor Jessup, who has done more research on Twice Upon a Time than anyone, discussed many different scenes that did not make it into either final cut. Jessup also describes the dated 80's soundtrack (cheesy, but spectacular) as the small, but crucial factor that might be preventing a DVD release. Though, with the steady rise of Warner Archive, those qualities and the risk of what revenue the picture would generate don't seem like a huge issue anymore.
I do think the adult language adds some edge and gusto to the film, but both cuts warrant a release. Both versions are excellent, but it's just funnier to hear Botch yell "So come on, you garlic breathing, garbage sucking dipshits. Move out! I'm not talking tomorrow! Haul ass, you mothers!" There's also smoking and drinking alcohol. No, the mature cut is probably not the one you'll want the kids to watch, but despite the ridiculous weirdness, I can see children still enjoying Twice Upon a Time. Some random trivia for you, David Fincher (Fight Club) and Henry Selick (A Nightmare Before Christmas) both worked on Twice Upon a Time and both provided thoughts to Jessup's own article which interviewed various crew members for the 20th anniversary of its HBO showing. And from what I've read, 2012's Rise of the Guardians carries a similar plot. Not a lot of people know about Twice Upon a Time and they don't really have reason to hear about since no household name is associated with it except maybe George Lucas who isn't known for animation and likely doesn't care about it since selling Lucasfilm to Disney. I'm glad former 411mania colleague Will Helm suggested it to me years back. It's a fantastic, under the radar achievement in any incarnation.