ANIMALYMPICS (1980)

  • Director: Steven Lisberger
  • Writers: Screenplay by Steven Lisberger and Michael Fremer, Story by Steven Lisberger, Roger Allers, and John Norton
  • Starring: Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, and Michael Fremer
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video

As a kid I happened upon Animalympics randomly showing on TV somewhere and thought it was pretty much the greatest thing that had ever happened. This was pre-internet, and I was never able to find it again. I mentioned it to more than one person who genuinely thought I was either making it up or describing a dream I had. I later discovered that Animalympics was originally commissioned by NBC to promote its coverage of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Then President Jimmy Carter chose to boycott those Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, NBC completely cancelled its coverage (which feels insane today, but is what happened), along with its accompanying weird animated movie. But the movie was finished, and released in movie theaters overseas. It later showed up as a time-filler on US pay-cable TV, including the Disney Channel when I was a kid. It was never released on VHS or DVD in the US (there is a Region 2 DVD you can bid for eBay), but now with the advent of streaming it is now available free with Amazon Prime or for a 99 cent rental, so I thought I’d share it with you all.

It is probably a stretch to call Animalympics a “classic,” but I’ve always loved it. The basic conceit (various anthropomorphized animals competing in an “Animal Olympics”) does not seem like it would take a story very far, and no, it doesn’t. On top of that, the animation itself is not great. There are some parts where it just turns into stills for reasons I don’t understand, and at other points we see “replays” which are always exactly the same as what we just saw (i.e. they didn’t have to do any extra animation). If Animalympics had gone what seems like the obvious route and done a three-act story about a plucky cute animal whose dream is to compete in the Olympics, and then does, I would not be featuring it here.

What it does instead, and what endears it to me amidst all the very silly puns (the Gymnastics vaulting horse is an actual horse), is that instead of all that all the movie really does is approximate the experience of watching a broadcast of the Olympics for 80 minutes, and pulls this off surprisingly well. This lets it not only make silly animal puns but also make fun of the whole Olympics thing itself, the broadcasts, the nationalism, the over-the-top coaches. It takes a very specific thing that I specifically am very into, and does an absolutely great job of lovingly satirizing that thing.

I think it probably helps to have my extremely specific knowledge base where I know exactly what athletes and broadcasters, famous at the time, but not always today, are the subjects of the parody. There’s a turkey that is the best parody of Howard Cosell I’ve seen (“If you don’t think you’re about to see a titanic clash of international hockey powers, YOU ARE MISTAKEN!”), and a large dog that is really the only parody of Keith Jackson I’ve seen. The swimming analyst is a dolphin named “Mark Spritz” who shows up with a neck full of gold medals that he drops onto the table with a loud clunk. We also get the kangaroo boxer that is clearly supposed to be Muhammad Ali, and the flamingo figure skater clearly based on Peggy Fleming. There are other, even weirder jokes that I definitely did not get as a kid, like the Swedish horse announcer for alpine skiing that briefly mentions his budding movie career, involving starring in the new film from “Ingmar Birdman,” “Cries and Whinnies.”

Perhaps more interesting than the specific individuals references are the general tropes. I particularly like the various versions of the segments my mother would call “Up Close and Personals.” We get a thorough introduction to the alligator track star “Bolt Jenkins,” including a lengthy description of all he has had to overcome. “Born as a handbag, he was told he would never walk again.” The way the announcers break down the various events is exactly correct, in a way that probably barely registers as a joke to most people. The bobsled commentator going “Oh, a little skid, that will cost them!” is funny when “they” are a bunch of octopi called “the Calimari Brothers.” 

Given the politics of the time, it is not surprising that the dynamics of the Olympics in the Cold War also feature prominently. The competitors are introduced as representing continents rather than countries, but they distinguish between “Europe,” “Eurasia” (clearly meant to be the Soviet Union), and “East Asia.” The Soviet competitors are always described as “the mysterious Eurasian,” and we get a segment describing how the vaguely Olga Korbut-esque mink gymnast has been “trained since birth by the state.” There are even nods to drug controversies, as when one coach angrily describes “rumors of catnip” regarding another feline competitor. 

There are perhaps insensitive bits that might not make it into something like this today, particularly those points where they vaguely attribute various ethnic and national stereotypes to anthropomorphized animals. Maybe the worst are the East Asian birds that all look exactly alike, one of which wins the Men’s Gymnastics by seemingly performing a bunch of karate. Honestly, the whole thing feels a lot less egregious than it might have been, mostly coming down to a few silly accents. There is also a general willingness to give everyone silly names, like the killer whale swimmer “Ono Nono,” or the elephant competitor “Irina Stepanyatova” (say it out loud), in a way that I’m not sure would fly today, but in 1980 I don’t feel like they really imagined anyone in Japan or Russia would actually ever watch this thing.

For me, the biggest weaknesses in Animalympics come when it strays from its central premise, as it does in an occasional series of very 80s musical montages set to generic versions of various pop genres. This is less a musical than a movie that occasionally stops for music videos. One psychedelic undersea montage is justified with a quick comment that a diver “goes into his own world.” And when it tries to have plotlines, they are generally perfunctory and weird. One involves champion skier (and dog) “Kurt Wuffner,” who disappears while training in the mountains, then discovers the magical land of “Dogra La,” which he leaves in order to win the Downhill. But I mean, that actually sounds like kind of a great movie when I say it like that.

Animalympics has a surprisingly good voice cast that included Billy Crystal, Gilda Radner, and Harry Shearer. It also had a bunch of people in the crew that would go on to bigger things in animation Roger Allers, the Art Director, went on to co-direct The Lion King. Animation director Bill Kroyer wrote and directed Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, a movie that I watched several more times than it deserved as a little kid. A young Brad Bird worked as an animator on this movie, then went on to write and direct The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles. The director of this movie, Steven Lisberger, would make his biggest impact with his next project, the sci-fi cult classic Tron.

I’m not going to pretend that Animalympics is really a “great” movie, or that it will work particularly for anyone who isn’t very specifically me. But I’m very glad that it’s on streaming and now I can watch it whenever I want. Also I am just realizing now that this thing is like a furry’s dream, which I probably should have realized before. As the Dean says on Community, “I hope this doesn’t awaken anything in me.”

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