While many children of the 1980s have wondered if this sports spoof was real, the name was right in front of you this whole time.
I’m not sure that fandom for Tron, 10cc, and Billy Crystal can truly exist within the soul of a single individual, but just in case I’m wrong, we’re proud to dig up another animated obscurity here at Laser Time. We present to you the nearly lost movie from 1980: ANIMALYMPICS!
If that just triggered anything within you, you’re undoubtedly a child of the 1980s and were thus exposed to many an unguided cable viewing.
Before we get started, in order to avoid confusion, we’re not talking about the Hanna-Barbera all-star show Laff-A-Lympics from the late 70s, nor “Sports Cartoons,” the voiceless Nickelodeon interstitial of the late 80s/early 90s. Animalympics holds up a little better (a lot better in the case of anything related to Hanna-Barbera) so we must make the distinction. And as we discussed in this episode of Laser Time, there’s a lot of uncontextualized Olympics fanaticism to distill for nerdy kids my age who didn’t care to watch athletes run fast and throw things, but as we’ll see the very situation that led to the creation of this beautiful little film has also forced it to languish in obscurity.
Today, NBC is airing the Olympics on almost around the clock, in addition to online and several of its other channels, up to including CNBC, MSNBC, and Bravo, which last I checked, was a channel devoted to gay men helping people dress better. I kid! But today it seems the Olympics is aired in such a way to both highlight the best of the events, and also not interfere with each channel’s respective regular programming.
It’s difficult to put into perspective how ALL Olympics coverage could reside on a single channel in 1980, but you better believe it was a gamble that NBC needed to promote, and promote heavily. So based on a the strength of a short sports cartoon and following an Academy Award nomination for his Cosmic Cartoon short, Steve Lisberger was contracted by NBC in 1978 to create two animated specials to air before the 1980 Winter and Summer Olympics. (This was before the seasonal games were split into occurring every two years.)
That Lisberger would go on to co-write, direct… hell, basically create Tron is a helluva a bit of trivia, but if you look at the rest of the staff, you’ll find that Animalympics would serve as a bizarre stepping stone to Disney’s groundbreaking 1982 CG movie. One of Animalympics’ four credited voice actors, Michael Fermer (also Animalympics co-writer), who was literally the voice of a dozen or so characters, served as Tron’s music and sound supervisor. Tron’s storyboard artist was a background artist who also worked on Animalympics.
Either way, it’s beyond fascinating to see in hindsight that work on a cartoon about animals playing sports could inform a film like Tron (for better or for worse, one of the most visually distinct movies ever made). And if that weren’t enough of an cartoon pedigree, several of Animalympics’ animators and supervising directors would go on to make their own bonafide classics. The directors of The Lion King, Ferngully, and The Incredibles (Roger Allers, Bill Froyer, and Brad Bird, respectively) all align in the pre-movie credits of Animalympics. Damn.
Earlier than you thought: The basis for all Furries
Now that you know the people involved, it should help explain the somewhat unexpected high-level of quality found in the film. If you’ve listened closely to the 1986 segment of Thirty Twenty Ten, you’ve heard us (me) talk about how Disney stood unopposed in the field of animation for almost half a decade, and even then it was mostly toy lines getting their own films (think Care Bears and Transformers: The Movie). Although, by comparison, the mid-80s was a wonderfully weird time for independent animation. Chuck Jones, Ralph Bakshi, Rankin and Bass, and foreign imports saw numerous theatrical releases during the period that produced enduring hits like Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, and numerous Snoopy movies.
I thought this was important to mention, because even though Animalympics first met viewer eyeballs in the 1980s, it’s dripping with post-hippy, bell-bottomy 1970s flavor. You can thank Graham Gouldman for a lot of that, as the 10cc front who penned an entire album’s worth of songs for the production (in some territories the Animalympics LP was marked with a 10cc sticker.)
There’s definitely an art-rock feel to the entire score, but there’s little doubt that it has one foot firmly rooted in the disco era, most notably in the one sequence that doesn’t take place in any sporting event and the characters all literally go to a disco. If I can correctly assume we’re culturally through with bashing disco, I can’t think of another animated movie that so warmly embraces that genre (other than Flashbeagle), and the consistently unique musical stylings of Animalympics lends a wonderfully distinctive charm to the whole film when watching with modern eyes. Seriously, peep some of the music in the video embeds or listen to this soundtrack!
Further rooting Animalympics in the 1970s is its voice cast, most notably via the hiring of three Saturday Night Live alum from the show’s first decade. Gilda Radner was on her way out of SNL by the time the special aired, but Billy Crystal was still an up and coming comedic force, at the time most famous for his role on Soap. While there’s a fidelity lacking in the quality of the voice recordings, it proved to be pretty inspired casting. Hiring professional comics, all versatile in impressions, allowed for four people to bring to live a cast of dozens. (You don’t have to be a sports fan to recognize Radner’s Barbara “Baba Wawa” Walter impression, nor Crystal’s Howard Cosell and Ali.)
But on the voice acting tip, I think Animalympics deserves a shitload of credit for basically the discovery of Harry Shearer, landing him in one of his first prominent voice acting roles. Simpsons fans will instantly recognize Shearer’s sportscaster/newsman, as an early version of Kent Brockman is basically the first voice you’ll hear kick off the film. More importantly, Shearer feels far and away like the most professional VO artist involved, and it’s probably no coincidence Brad Bird is the credited designer of Kent Brockman. Both Shearer and Bird essentially premiered him ten years earlier in Animalympics.
Now here’s where the tragedy comes in! (NOTE: Before we move any further, this year is the first time I’ve ever really cared about the Olympics in any regard. I’m was also highly ignorant on historical events of this period until very recently. I apologize in advance for underplaying real-world events and athletic feats, but for the purpose of this piece, I only give a shit about a forgotten cartoon featuring birds, otters, and dogs.) Animalympics’ first half hour aired on February 1st, just a week and change before the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
But in March of that year, Jimmy Carter announced a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics due to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. America would not participate in the upcoming games, 65 other nations followed suit, and NBC pulled all of its Olympic coverage for that year. And even though NBC had already invested millions in the animated production, the subsequent coverage included the latter half of Animalympics.
Having just graduated from toddler-dom around that time, I don’t honestly know if the public was even aware of what they were missing. However, I do know that even with the gravity of all those real world situations, as a post-infancy cartoon-loving tot, I absolutely would’ve considered Animalympics’ end the worst thing that had ever happened in 1980. Fortunately, there’s a small silver lining… But before we get to that, how about my favorite sequence of the film?!
Thankfully, Lisberger and his producers had always intended to give the completed, stitched together version of both Animalympics specials the theatrical treatment. It was mixed with Dolby sound and committed to 35mm film, but as a wholly independent production made in honor of an event that occurs every four years, the full movie had trouble finding theatrical distribution. Eventually, Warner Bros would acquire the rights for video and pay-TV during the dawn of the VHS boom, which finally led to a 1984 premiere on HBO where I can say, without a doubt, most people my age saw it for the first and seven hundred subsequent times.
In the four years between Animalympics’ completion and unjust cancellation, it had certainly been rerun from time to time by certain NBC affiliates, but it was the HBO airings that burrowed Animalympics into the hearts and minds of 80s kids forever. As we discussed in our History of Pay TV episode of Laser Time, HBO would only air entertainment rated G and PG before 8pm (and for the most part, still does), so without access to the Disney Vault, Animalympics was likely the highest-caliber animation HBO could get their hands on during the fledgling days of the channel.
For an animated product of the 1970s, Animalympics still looks pretty damn gorgeous. The quality of the animation is well above board compared to most theatrical animation of the day, let alone television animation. IMO, it suffers only from the use of “sports replays” (which repeatedly shows the exact same sequence again with new commentary) but the anthropomorphized gags are lovingly reminiscent of the classic Looney Tunes era that clearly inspired it. Furthermore, it was made while Warner cartoon veterans like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were cranking out arguably inferior cartoon product during the same period.
In fact, I think that’s the biggest bummer about Animalympics. While I do love that the production is wildly impressive in execution, and almost unimaginably bold in its breakneck introduction of almost 50 new and previously unseen animal characters… this thing would’ve fucking killed had it starred the Looney Tunes characters. I’ll give Animalympics all the credit in the world for standing out despite the lack of Bugs and Daffy, but this was a period where the Looney Tunes were due for a renaissance, and were instead stuck in compilation films with rigidly new animated sequences made by the old men who originally brought them to life, and ultimately were either tired or lacking the budget and attention that Animalympics put into its characters.
This is, of course, all a hypothetical fantasy on my part, but I can’t help but speculating on what could’ve been. Especially since the Looney Tunes would make their theatrical film debut in a sports movie anyway, only sixteen years later… but featuring an olympian! Not only would the Looney Tunes have continued to remain relevant in much more substantial way when they needed it the most, but maybe Animalympics wouldn’t have become lost to time with the backing of Warner Bros and the clout of Bugs Bunny. Whatever the case, the relative obscurity of Animalympics compared to other ‘toons of the era is almost unfair when you see it up against lesser-quality stuff from the late 70s that managed to remained beloved and relevant for decades.
The whole reason I’m writing all this because it made such an impression on my generation, yet outside of some scant Disney Channel airings in the 1990s, Animalypics has become almost mythic. Up until recently, damn near unGoogleable if you couldn’t remember the name! Back when I did my best to research a comprehensive list of movies that have never been on DVD, I embarrassingly forgot Animalympics. Even though it’s been released in foreign territories under different names (AND with several bonus features), it’s never been made commercially available on anything other than VHS in the country that produced it. But of course, as is they way with these things, you can always watch the whole thing on YouTube. Let the games begin!
For more 1980s animated minutia, peep our 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Roger Rabbit or our eye-opening look at the 10 Best Animated Films Based on TV Shows. For Laser Time’s Olympic’s show, head here or goddamned iTunes!