Animalympics (1980)

“In all creatures great and small there exists the spirit of athletic competition…”

Welcome to the Animalympics – the Olympics featuring cartoon animals (obviously) – an idea so simple and pure it must be genius. Think Bedknobs and Broomsticks football match times a thousand on the Richter laugh scale.

Presented as a series of vignettes from ZOO TV – “the network that brings out the beast” – the stream of sporting glory moments and mishaps provide a frame to throw a kitchen sink’s worth of loony tunes sight-gags and winking one-liners out with breathless fast-and-furryous zeal. The result scores comedy gold and is one of the greatest animated movies ever made.

Albeit one that hardly anyone ever saw.

Animalympics is a perfect example of internal logic pushed to the max, so everything – as surreal and crazed as it may be – makes perfect sense.

Somehow it seems normal for the bobsled team to be squids (the Calamari Brothers), for a hippo to flop on the gymnastics pommel horse (a quaking ‘real’ horse), skinny-lizard-husband and giant-chicken-wife to be figure skaters on the ice and the football team to be llamas – to mention just a few brief minutes. The insanity never lets up. Nothing should work, yet everything fits and the pace never slows to question the whys, hows and what-the-hells.

Within the crackerjack sketches are a range of high-speed sub-plots to further anthropomorphise the 2D critters in record time. So we have the inspirational story of Bolt Jenkins – the alligator who started out as a handbag, recovered to a life of poverty in the sewers, before being motivated to train for the high jump and scoring gold against his frog idol. Naturally, he is also a dynamite Travolta-alike on the Noah’s Ark disco floor.

There is also the heart-warming romance between Euro-goat Rene Fromage and African lioness Kit Mambo – obsessive marathon runners who fall for each other while staying neck-and-neck for days and keep on going into the sunset together. If some of the more knowing jokes may pass over the heads of the supposedly young audience, then parents or savvier teens could laugh for them – the speedy verve and good-natured enthusiasm prevent offence and it’s impossible not to be swept along with the unbridled fun.

Much of the riotous almost-adult hilarity can be laurel-laid on the dialogue and brilliant vocal delivery. Incredibly, only four actors provided all the voices in the movie, but they were bloody diamonds able to switchblade a world-range of accents – Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and Michael Fremer.

Radner leads the charge on the one-liners and goofy globe-trotting vocals, honed from peak success on Saturday Night Live. Crystal would go on to major movie stardom, while Shearer would continue his expressive dexterity voicing The Simpsons, influenced by Animalympics DNA. Fremer also co-wrote the scattergun script and supervised the music, utilising an album’s worth of terrifically catchy and memorable songs from Graham Gouldman of 10cc.

Helping ensure every frame counted for maximum comic potential were animators Roger Allers and Brad Bird. Allers would go on to direct The Lion King (1994) for big boys Disney, while Bird was a formative creative within Pixar, directing The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouile (2007) among others. Writer/director/producer Steve Lisberger would become semi-legend for creating ground-breaking CGI showcase Tron (1982).

Almost everyone involved made their names elsewhere, rather than this brilliant showcase for their talents, as Animalympics sadly never reached the mass audience it so richly deserved.

The film was originally commissioned as two NBC TV specials (Winter and Summer Games). However, due to Cold War upheavals of the day, broadcast was cancelled and Animalympics redesigned for cinema release. Ultimately, that too was muted and it disappeared into the ether of morning television and VHS rental bins, relegated to the cult underground by default.

If Animalympics remains a lost classic, its true legacy is the inspiration and joy it provided for the few who did manage to catch this curiosity by happy accident. The multi-generational ‘kids-flick-for-adults’ is an endlessly quotable gold-dust masterclass that etches itself into smooth brain grooves like a healthy acid flashback.

Those who were lucky enough will love it forever.

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