Pippi Longstocking (1997) | Animated and Underrated
When it comes to underrated animated films, there are three ways that I think it becomes underrated. Either it has poor advertisement, and therefore comes and goes and is swiftly forgotten; leading some to believe that because it’s not well remembered, it must mean it’s not very good. It could also have a poor story and some find it a tad boring, all the while others can look past the bad story and find a fascinating and charming film; like in the case of Little Nemo or Rock & Rule. But I think the biggest culprit which causes certain films to go unnoticed and become underrated, is production/animation quality. If a film looks bad, chances are it also is bad. And that’s the major issue here with this Canadian animated adaptation of Pippi Longstocking.
To get right to the point, this film is actually better than I thought.
I remember seeing the trailer for this movie every time I’d put in the tape for Cats Don’t Dance, (we’ll get to that film very soon) and thinking that it looked pretty cool. I mean that opening shot of Pippi standing on a dock tapping her foot with her hands on her hips just had this cool vibe to it. I mean, just that one shot actually had really darn good line work and animation; and it was sadly the best animation out of the entire film: even though ironically it wasn’t even in the film, just the trailer. You can see it above in my link there.
I also remember watching the film, in its entirety, at least once or twice when I was about 9 or so. So it’s been lingering up there for some time. But now I felt it was time to give it another honest wach with the same eyes and same ears that I did my oh’so’harrowing reliving of The Brave Little Toaster.
And now for a more in-depth look at why this film is better than it might seem, let me start with something I came to enjoy right off the bat…
Holy crap! I LOVE Melissa Altro as Pippi!!!
I mean… WOW! I gotta say, this is one of the coolest and best voices I have heard in a long time. Because when you watch cartoons as much as I do, you tend to hear people like Paulson, McNeille, Welker, Lamarch, West, and DiMaggio way too often. So eventually I started to get numb to their voices and started to notice the other people in the voice casts: people who had the unique voices that stood out from the regulars. And in Pippi’s case, her voice is stellar. I dare-say its worth putting at number 3 or 4 on my top 10 favorite cartoon voices list.
Melissa Altro just has this remarkably energetic, strong and mature, unique, fun, and yet still youthful voice that you just don’t hear very often. You never meet anyone on the street or in the coffee shop or the mall that sounds like she does here. So when I hear young actors who can sound like this in animated features or cartoons, I just latch onto them because they’re… so… damn… AWESOME!
Alright, now in terms of what Melissa actually sounds like, I can see that from interviews, her natural voice is not nearly as pronounced as Pippi’s, or even Muphey from Arthur; which is where I originally heard Melissa’s voice. But none-the-less, this voice that she can perform for these characters is remarkably fun and you just get wrapped up in it, and you can’t stop trying to figure out how she does it. At least I can’t. LOL.
To move along with other enjoyable factors about this film: the opening song is really really damn good. True, it’s no Circle of Life or anything as grandiose and breath-taking as that. But if you wanted to have a really strong opening number for a Broadway play, I think this is that good of a song. It’s a song that exudes an adventurous and (mildly) epic tone of appreciating the world and all its splendors that have yet to be experienced by our young protagonist. It’s certainly better than dozens of other opening songs for low=budget (looking) films such as this. It’s actually so good that it gives me goose-bumps: and that only happens when a song has a really good hook and chorus or really good harmonies.
So far, I’m really impressed. And as if I can’t stop praising Melissa Altro’s quirky and cool voice enough; she has some really good pipes in this first song, and indeed all of her songs in this flick. This is so early in her career that she’s being introduced in the credits, and she’s the star role. I think she was probably about 15 years old or so when she made this, and so her singing voice is really impressive. Just the confidence and certainty in the way she sings her lyrics is very striking.
Okay, I’ll stop gushing now in order to move on with the rest of the review. (ahem!)
In relation to the other songs in this movie, as well as the score and the orchestra providing it, it’s all quite top-notch. Nothing like the midi-file crap you’d hear in other independent animated flicks. Something else to note about the songs that is incredibly important, is the fact that the choreography is good. Most lower-budget animated films, attempting to compete with Disney tend to write semi-catchy but usually lousy songs and produce even more embarrassing animated choreography. Just take a look at the 1990’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and you’ll see what I mean about the midi tune music and the choreography. Quite often these song numbers in these cheaper films consisted of mainly having the characters pace along a long track of land while looking up to the sky, having a group of people thrust their arms back and forth, clapping, and doing the old stand-by Broadway musical move of bending over while doing a karate chop and kicking each leg up behind you in turn. However, in this movie, the characters are actually doing stuff: like literally carrying out complex actions and tasks from start-to-finish and actually accomplishing something by the end. When Pippi is singing about “This Recipe for Life,” she’s actually making pancakes, setting the table, flipping the pancakes into the air and catching them like Spiderman, and then dancing around with the two neighborhood kids, Tommy and Anika. There’s energy, there’s pizzazz, there’s real creativity with the actions here. It’s not just a bunch of kids marching around the house for 3 minutes: which it so easily could have been.
Now the best way to tell if a movie is going to better and even more risky than your average kid’s show fodder, is when the movie opens with a dramatic sequence of the main character’s father falling over-board in a sea storm. Although Captain Longstocking does not die, and we don’t see him die; for the moment, it’s very ambiguous and uncertain whether he’s alive or not. And Pippi is such a strong, resilient and resourceful girl, that she doesn’t let negative thoughts get to her. She keeps right on truckin’, having faith that her father will return to find her at their house, called Villa Villa Coola (I think it’s spelled). This actually makes Pippi a stronger character in my eyes. Sure she’s a little like Sponge-bob, or more recently Wander from Wander Over Yonder, in how she often annoys people with her destructive and disruptive enthusiasm. However, the few moments we do see her become more serious and talk about her family and her father, I genuinely care for her and her feelings. And I think this aspect of the film with her temporarily losing her father gives her character some real depth. It’s not as strong as it could be because most of the film is dorky antics and random happenings, but it is still a strong point.
On the topic of animation quality: it’s a mixed bag. It does tend to fluctuate between “okay,” “better than okay,” and “quite good,” depending on who happens to be animating a certain shot or set of shots: which can often happen if you have different teams of animators working on your film. But over-all, I’ll give it a pass for being a theatrical release during the mid-90s. Certain quality standards hadn’t reached an all-time high until films were primarily inked and painted with computers. Then everything had to look like Mulan or Treasure Planet before it could be taken seriously in a movie theater setting. It’s actually still a shock that Equestria Girls made it into theaters when that was no more than a television special. (By the way, totally a Brony, I just didn’t care for the film.)
Now to the subject of some of the other characters that we have. Let’s start with Mrs. Prysselius, who is performed by Catherine O’Hara of SCTV and Home Alone fame.
I don’t quite get what her deal is. By the time Mrs. Prysselius starts having a problem with Pippi, Pippi hasn’t done anything to annoy her except upset what concepts of public decency she has in mind for this little port town. In her mind, it appears that Pippi is an unstable element waiting to burst forth and cause trouble. And yet, if her father were home, Prysselius probably wouldn’t have much to complain about. I mean, what was Mrs. Prysselius wanting to talk to Pippi’s parents about, anyway? She never got to say. Was she going to complain that her singing was too loud, or that she felt her excessive pancake cooking was a waste of flour? What?!
There are two policemen in this movie, who are comic foils for Mrs. Prysselius, if only for a short period.
They remind me quite a bit of those two cops from the Tintin movie. Same face, same body-type, same mustache. Even though for some reason they aren’t twins, and they aren’t even related in anyway shape or form. Though, I can’t say yet whether the two cops in this movie aren’t related because neither the film or any research I did ever specified. But if they aren’t, I think there’s some serious hidden issues between these two. They even have matching wives, who also may or may not be twins.
As for the two crooks, who oddly enough are named Thunder-Karlsson and Mr. Bloom (they’re sort of the Marv and Harry of the film); they have a very unique set of voices.
In fact, I think I recognize the skinny guy’s voice, but I’ll have to get back to you on who it is. Because I don’t think it’s Charlie Adler, it sounds even higher than him… OH, no wait, it’s the guy who played the lizard from The Rescuers Down Under. Lol, no mistaking his squeaky sound.
Something else that seems odd: the skinny guy is wearing a red jacket, dark pants, and he has a yellow scarf that looks like a tie when he stands a certain way. Could it be a subtle reference to my favorite animated thief, Lupin the 3rd? I can’t be sure. But it’s nice to dream of that possibility.
Anyway, the song the two crooks sing in the jail cell is one of the better looking numbers, because clearly much more time and skilled artists were allocated to work on it. It’s very big, very broad, very colorful, and built sort of on the soft-shoe tap tune. And these guys aren’t really looking for much in life, even if their dream scenes suggest they are. Mainly all they want once they break out of jail is an English Bowler hat, and a Gold tooth. Although I don’t know how you can get a gold tooth popped back into your head without it having been a removable one.
And rounding out our main cast, there are the two neighborhood children, Tommy and Anika. They don’t do much.
Really, not a whole lot. Mostly they’re only here because they were Pippi’s best friends from the original novelettes; and the only thing they contribute plot-wise is inviting Pippi over for tea, at which time Pippi causes a scene and makes a horrible mess, which only intensifies Mrs. Prysselius’ distaste for Pippi and her antics. Tommy and Anika also take Pippi to see a Circus in town, where Pippi proceeds to beat the Strongman in a weight lifting contest, and then the kids help Pippi escape from the two crooks who are chasing her in a pipe-organ van.
Now, when it comes to the issue of Pippi “not behaving properly,” there’s a few reasons for why that is. It’s clear enough that she’s been out at sea all her life, and that she’s mainly made port in a multitude of different countries other than her home country. And so when it comes to attitude, or her conduct, or the way she presents herself, she’s probably never been anywhere where her antics were necessarily disliked or disapproved of (although that seems rather unlikely). Another reason is that she has, for the most part, been parented by a large group of men, including her father. So she hasn’t had a good steady input of the more level-headed concepts of life and social interaction that a feminine parental figure could have given her.
Because she’s been out at sea with a bunch of dudes, she lacks an understanding of things like posture, politeness, respect, the virtue of patience, the importance of quietness when appropriate, and other such pleasantries of so-called “polite society.” And further-more, I don’t believe one could get Pippi to quite understand the complexities of politeness because all she knows how to do is have fun. She may be a hard-worker and can take care of herself, but I think it would take real discipline and real hard hitting lessons to make her change her ways or adapt herself that drastically. And we certainly don’t want any of that happening to her. She already means well, no matter what she does; and she’s a very charming and enjoyable person if you can keep up with her. If I was Captain Longstocking, I’d be proud to have a strong willed lass like that for a daughter.
You might call me crazy, but there is a decent charm to this film. It even comes out in scenes like the one where Pippi bests the Strongman at lifting weights: ultimately lifting him up while he himself is holding two 400 pound barbells. I think maybe I find some of these scenes really enjoyable because I can imagine what they’d look like if done really well in live-action; and they end up looking just as good either way in my mind. Kinda like that scene in the Kurt Russell Disney movie, The Strongest Man in the World. But I find this scene more fun than that, by just a bit.
Okay, so we have some interesting stuff here. But, the more I look at animated movies like this, the more I realize that animators and story artists and production designers don’t stay in one place for too long. And that’s because not everyone is always working on an animated feature all the time, especially 2D these days. So people who work on animated features find themselves all over the place working for just about everyone at some point in their career.
In regards to this, we have people like Frank Nissen, who provided the character designs for Pippi Longstocking. But funny enough, he also was a character designer for my favorite mid-80s gritty animated flick, Rock & Rule; as well as an animator. He later worked as a Story Artist for the Disney movies Dinosaur, Treasure Planet, and Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue. He even directed Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. And although some might think making a film like that isn’t an accomplishment, it was probably a big deal for him to be able to direct something for a change. It’s a living.
Even more fascinating is the fact that the actual Director of Rock & Rule directed this movie. Now that is a strange coincidence if I ever heard one. Because the style and tone of that movie is so drastically different from this one. But then again, you got guys like Mamoru Oshii who directed movies like Ghost in the Shell and The Sky Crawlers, but also directed the first two Urusei Yatsura films back in the mid-80s. Besides, Pippi… and Rock… were both made in Canada, so I guess I should be less surprised that some of the same crew or even the same director was involved with both. But I still would have never guessed. Oh, and apparently, the director, Clive Smith, also sang with the background singers for some of the songs. Just one more random bit of trivia.
You know what’s funny, Hayao Miyazaki keeps poking his head in so many different things. And once again he shows up in the history of one of my review topics. It turns out that back in 1971, just after Miyazaki and his partner Takahata left Toei Animation Studios, they had made plans to make their own animated Pippi Longstocking movie, subtitled the Strongest Girl in the World. And you know what, after seeing glimpses of what Takahata did with Anne of Green Gables, I think it would have been one of their finer projects. But alas, after meeting with Pippi’s original author, Astrid Lindgren, their rights to adapt the story were denied. Can’t imagine why though. I think they would have brought the whimsy in Pippi to life much better than any of those domestic German and Sweden films. It’s hard to bring magic and whimsy to life in live-action the way you can in animation. There’s no substitute.
As of now, this movie, and its sequel TV series are the only animated versions of Pippi Longstocking that exist, and they were the last adaptations to be done in any visual medium. Honestly, I’d love to see somebody at Studio Ghibli attempt to do another one. Anybody else up for that? I’m sure Lindgren’s estate would gladly let them do it now. Hell, Miyazaki was so pissed that Lindgren wouldn’t let him make a Pippi film, that he reused and reworked his design for Pippi in many of his later projects. Dola from Castle in the Sky is an older Pippi Longstocking. The little girl from Panda Ko Panda, the same year Lindgren said no, was a knock-off of the Pippi design. There might even be a Pippi clone in Sherlock Hound for all I know.
These days, it’s a shame that this Canadian Pippi film is so hard to get a hold of. The DVD is pretty pricy, around $35 dollars, if not close to 60 or 80 by this point: same with the VHS. I can’t speak for the quality of these used copies. But one day, I hope to own this film. Hopefully on a future re-release. Because out of all of the non-Disney animated films, this is one of the better ones that you can find within the midst of crap and cheesy cash-ins.
My final thoughts?
Take my opinion on this particular film with a grain of salt. It’s personally a very enjoyable film. But my experience with it and subsequent praise is very much in the minority as far as I can tell. I can easily see the film as being considered cheesy, cliché, typical, annoying at times, unfocused, and a number of other things. But, if you do take in all that I’ve said before this, then I still say you should definitely give this film a chance. Maybe you’ll come to enjoy Melissa Altro’s voice as much as I have. I really wish she was in more shows that I could see.