Animalympics: Wishing You’d Made It To The Top

Mention ‘Aminalympics’ out loud, and chances are, it’ll be met with a shrug. However, sometimes you bring it up, and you’ll see a person’s eyes widen because they haven’t brought it to the front of their mind since they watched in the school holidays a billion years ago.

Of course, there’s a small number of people who are solid fans of the film — regardless of where you land on all this, welcome to this piece, which is basically in praise of something I think is a forgotten gem.

So what is Animalympics’? Well, it is a 1980 feature length animation that was blighted by America’s political situation, made by a TV powerhouse, voiced by superstars, soundtracked by pop royalty, produced by someone who would go on to make a gigantic Hollywood blockbuster, and sadly, not the famous and classic cartoon it should be.

When you look at some of the feature length animations that have become cult-classics, or just outright famous, it’s a shame that ‘Animalympics’ was effectively forgotten. There’s always room for more favourites, and it’s such a shame that this got left behind.

Imagine a new film being made, starring say, Kate McKinnon, Will Ferrell, and Mike Myers, with a soundtrack written by Sia, and you’d suspect that, even if it was really, really bad, people would still talk about it. At the least, it would have enough there in those ingredients, to make it a cult classic.

‘Animalympics’ was voiced by Billy Crystal — a bankable film star, and Gilda Radner was SNL’s golden girl (like McKinnon is now). Lending his voice too, was Harry Shearer, who would go on to make Spinal Tap, and become a host of voices on The Simpsons, and much more. The soundtrack, not by Sia who writes her own successful material as well as providing songs for others, was by Graham Gouldman, who likewise, had been providing pop hits for other bands for over a decade by this point, as well as being one of the head honchos in 10cc.

The talent wasn’t just in the soundtrack and acting — Steven Lisberger wrote, directed, and produced ‘Animalympics’, just two years before he gave the world ‘Tron’ (and ultimately, ‘Tron: Legacy’), for NBC, one of the biggest television networks in the world. You’d think, with a team like this on-board, it’d have more sway, so why didn’t it connect? Is it because it’s really awful, or worse, average? Not at all. Apart from some dodgy stereotyping (which is a thing that blights a lot of stuff from the late ’70s and early ‘80s), ‘Animalympics’ really stands up.

What went wrong?

Firstly, it was supposed to be aired on NBC in two parts — the first being the Summer Olympics segment, and at a later date, the Winter Olympics portion. All good so far — but no-one counted on the Cold War kicking off between the Americans and the Soviets.

Back then, NBC was the sole broadcaster for the Olympics in the USA, and in 1980, The States decided they would be boycotting the Games which took place in Moscow.

65 countries in total decided to boycott Moscow ’80, after US president Jimmy Carter gave an ultimatum to the Russians that, if they did not pull their troops out of Afghanistan within a month of his request on 20th January 1980, they would not participate in the Summer Games. Some of these boycotting countries decided to have their own games, called the ‘Liberty Bell Classic’, held in Philadelphia, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it (ring to it! ZING!).

Four years’ later, the 1984 Games in Los Angeles were in turn, boycotted by 14 Eastern Bloc countries — led by Russia — and instead of the Liberty Bell Classic, they hosted their own ‘Friendship Games’, which is some excellent trolling.

One of the things that suffered, thanks to the Olympic no-show, was NBC’s decision to scrap the airing of ‘Animalympics’. It would air at a film festival as a feature, but it wouldn’t be until the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles ’84 games, that your average American would see ‘Animalympics’ on their screens.

Showed by HBO and others, ‘Animalympics’ would be a featuring length standing in the path of the juggernaut that was Disney. Independent in spirit, and lacking the homely, cutesiness of Mickey Mouse & Co, ‘Animalympics’ cracked open a door that would be fully kicked in by Transformers and Care Bears movies some years later.

Sadly though, four years in child-years is a hundred lifetimes, so the jokes and style may have missed the mark on a bunch of kids that may have gone crazy for it, but were now more likely to be watching He-Man.

The people that missed out on ‘Animalympics’, really missed out in general. For starters, the film doesn’t run like a normal animated film — instead, it plays out like a real sports broadcast, cutting from event-to-event, like they’re the real thing. It is almost like a collection of great shorts, with a marathon story running throughout, where we get to see a battle royale/love story… but we’ll get to that… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The ‘show’ was hosted by caricatures of then-famous broadcasters, with Barbara Warblers (a lanky bird version of Barbara Walters) and Henry Hummel (a dour turtle that was basically Muhammad Ali’s verbal sparring partner, Howard Cossell), joined by Keen Hacksaw (giddy jock), and a character called Brenda Springer who is surely to blame for Furries being a thing.

And no, I won’t check to see if I’m right because I don’t want to go down that road.

Among the laughs and general silliness that you’d want from a feature length cartoon that starts off with a ‘Mount Animalympus’ pun, there’s some really spectacular scenes.

For fans of ‘that’s a bit psychedelic for a kids’ show!’, the underwater sequence featuring an otter called ‘Dean Wilson’ is an absolute treat. There’s literally no point me writing anything about it — just watch it.

Watching that, there’s something of ‘Yellow Submarine’ about, with that excellent druggy fantasy that was common on a lot of rock LP sleeves and posters.

As well as that, there’s a fun ice-hockey sequence that basically turns into a war with people playing harmonica in the trenches, the story of Bolt Jenkins — a crocodile who started life as a handbag (?!) before turning himself into a star of track and field (a real bags-to-riches tale, badoomtish!, Kurt Wuffner the skiing dog, a surprisingly lovely and well choreographed gymnastic segment, a boxing kangaroo, and so much more.

Also, there’s a great disco scene, because who would make a film in 1980 without throwing some disco at it?

This all aside, the real stars of the show are long-distance runners, Rene Fromage and Kit Mambo, two warring athletes in the marathon against each other, who ultimately fall in love.

The scenes with these bitter rivals gives the movie a little tension amongst all the fun and games elsewhere, and during the story, we’re treated to a montage of Rene, showing the life that he’s given up in pursuit of sporting success. It’s a strangely touching sequence, considering we’re dealing with a goat with the surname ‘Cheese’.

Not only that, the whole thing comes with one of Graham Gouldman’s finest ever songs, ‘Love’s Not For Me’ (no mean feat, considering he wrote ‘For Your Love’, ‘Heart Full Of Soul’, and ‘Evil Hearted You’) for The Yardbirds, ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Look Through Any Window’ for The Hollies, ‘No Milk Today’ for Heman’s Hermits, and co-writing 10cc hits like ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, ‘I’m Not In Love’, ‘The Things We Do For Love, ‘I’m Mandy, Fly Me’, and many more.)

Many films have tried to convey the hardship of ambition, and the loneliness of victory — who would have ever thought that a marathon running goat would be the one to truly do it? It’s heartbreaking. It’s brilliant.

Throughout the course of the film, the animation team really get to flex their muscles, and if you dig into the credits, you’ll see some important names in the field. In there, you’ve got future director of ‘The Lion King’ Roger Allers, Brad Bird from ‘The Incredibles’, ‘The Simpsons’, and ‘Ratatouille’, and Bill Kroyer who made ‘Ferngully’, which ‘Avatar’ leaned heavily on.

Back to the soundtrack, it wasn’t just a one-off ballad that stole the show — Gouldman really pulled the stops out for ‘Animalympics’. In there, you’ll find some great robo-synth work in ‘Bionic Boar’, heart-melting balladry in ‘Away From It All’, uptempo bops like ‘With You I Can Run Forever’, ‘Go For It’, and the endlessly uplifting ‘We’ve Made It To The Top’, which is so joyous, you should be able to get in on prescription.

Sadly, the soundtrack has been out of print for decades, so you’ll have to dig a little. Thankfully, if you want to listen to the whole LP, someone has very kindly uploaded it to YouTube (here).

The fact is, ‘Animalympics’ is not a grand masterpiece like ‘Toy Story’, but that’s not what it is aiming for. It is an engaging and entertaining movie to watch, and as good or better than some of the films that followed it. While other animated films retained some popularity, ‘Animalympics’ sadly hasn’t, and that’s unfair.

Still enjoyable is the way it all unfurls like a real live broadcast, with anchors cutting to events, replays, and the feeling of being there as it happens. Add to that, the mixture of fun, slapstick Looney Tunes-esque characters with some of the more ambitious anthropomorphic characters (Roger Allers, who animated ‘Kit Mambo’ definitely used her in his ‘Lion King’ work).

We are introduced to a huge amount of characters, and honestly, if someone had the foresight to make toys of them all, maybe we wouldn’t be talking about this as a somewhat forgotten cult classic? It’s all ifs-and-buts, of course, but if anything deserves a reappraisal and a day in the sun, it is ‘Animalympics’.

In short — it is a fun film, with some spectacular animation, a fantastic and small cast and a great team behind it. It’s got an absolutely killer soundtrack, and was hamstrung by political problems out of its control; ‘Animalympics’, you’ll always be a favourite of mine and I just wanted to show it some love.

If you end up watching ‘Animalympics’ as a result of reading this, give me a shout — and welcome to the fandom. We’d be called ‘Animalympians’, right?

Hi. I'm Mof. I really like Steely Dan.