The lesser-spotted British animated feature

The release of A Liar’s Autobiography, the new animated adaptation of Python Graham Chapman’s memoirs, is cause for celebration. As curator Jez Stewart explains, feature-length British animated films are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Jez Stewart
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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

Last week saw the release of a rare and unusual beast – a British animated feature film. A Liar’s Autobiography uses three directors, 14 animation companies, a sprinkling of remaining Pythons, and the words and voice of late Graham Chapman to bring his own comic ‘autobiography’ to life. The film’s website gives an excellent and very funny introduction to the film for those who are not familiar with it – but do heed the age and sensitivity warnings.

Animation has always been a labour-intensive process, particularly traditional cel animation, which required the tracing and hand colouring of pencil animation drawings for every distinct frame of the film. It’s the main reason why feature-length animations, which might require over 50,000 of these drawings, have historically been few and far between, but Britain has a particularly sparse history.

The first animated feature film was the 70-minute El Apóstol produced by Argentine cartoonist Quirino Cristiani in 1917, but unfortunately neither this nor his second feature, made a year later, survive. The earliest surviving example is Lotte Reiniger’s 65-minute The Adventures of Prince Achmed, released in 1926, which is still an absolute delight to watch today.

A Liar’s Autobiography (2012)

A Liar’s Autobiography (2012)

Britain can tentatively throw its own hat into the ring in 1927, when Anson Dyer produced The Story of the Flag, which offered an animated exploration of the flags of Britain and its Empire over several film reels. Personally, I would try to surreptitiously claw the hat back as the film only ran around 40 minutes, and was more commonly released in six parts. Producing 3,600 feet of animation for that period was a considerable and worthy achievement that Dyer should be recognised for, but I think it is hard to see it as a ‘feature’ part of a film programme. Again the film is sadly lost, although even writing as someone who is extremely passionate about British animation and its history, I have to admit it does sound fairly dull…

The next contender for first British animated feature arrived in 1945, by which time the Soviet Union, Germany, the United States and China had already seen one or more of such films released, with Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) being the most famous example. However Halas & Batchelor’s Admiralty-sponsored training film Handling Ships, which had a combined length of 70 minutes and was produced in Technicolor, was again more suited for showing in seven separate parts and is perhaps better regarded as a series. The same could be said for the 1949 film Water For Firefighting, also by Halas & Batchelor, which was in seven parts and ran only 45 minutes.

So now we must jump ahead to the very end of December 1954 (with Spain, Japan, Denmark, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France and Brazil having in the meantime been added to the list of achievers) when Halas & Batchelor’s 70-minute animated version of George Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm was released. To me this ticks all the boxes as the first British animated feature film, and remains an interesting, relevant, and powerful film today.

Animal Farm (1954)

Animal Farm (1954)

Some might argue over its Britishness, given that it was made with American money (with a large part of that funding infamously coming from the CIA), but I would dismiss such nit-picking, as the talent was virtually all British and it was made in London and Stroud. All the same, this does raise the issue of the lack of domestic production funding in Britain, particularly for animation, and – rather than opening the floodgates – Animal Farm would wait over a decade to be joined by a second animated British feature.

The importance of Halas & Batchelor to British animation history is proven by the fact that they also produced the next contender, with Joy Batchelor’s version of Ruddigore (1967), based on the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Although it is a little short in running time at 54 minutes, and was principally made for American television, it was theatrically released in the UK and is one of the very few animation features to be directed by a woman and should be celebrated as such.

Yellow Submarine, released in 1968, was the next feature animation on a comparable scale to Animal Farm, and marks the first entry by another production company, George Dunning’s TV Cartoons.

My research is not complete, but I can find only half-a-dozen qualifiers for the 1970s – most notably Dick Deadeye, or Duty Done (1975) and Watership Down (1978), and the story is not much different for the following decades. Flicking through my copies of Sight & Sound, I find that last year saw only one British animation feature, in the form of the Aardman/Sony Pictures film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (with honourable mention to the roles played by British talent in US films such as ParaNorman and Frankenweenie).

Watership Down (1978)

Watership Down (1978)

The previous year saw another Aardman/Sony film, Arthur Christmas and – at a real stretch – Gnomeo & Juliet. I should also mention Phil Mulloy’s Dead but Not Buried from 2011, part two of a trilogy of feature-length films, but unfortunately I don’t believe the film was seen in Britain outside a couple of festival screenings, despite winning prizes elsewhere.

The success of American animation, easily imported into another English-speaking market, has long hung over our domestic industry, which needs significant investment to compete. Such backing has very rarely appeared over the years, and the funding situation for animation in this country is still fairly bleak.

Making animated films for adult audiences is an even more difficult proposition, as ‘cartoons’ are generally seen in the UK as fodder for children, to be pumped out by exhibitors during half-terms and holidays. All this goes to show that the release of A Liar’s Autobiography is a considerable achievement that should be seen and celebrated, and when you do see it you will discover that Britain has a whole host of talented animators who are crying out for an opportunity to produce work in a longer form.

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