The brains behind Animalympics worked at Lisberger Studios. I have talked about this studio on the site and podcast before because Steven Lisberger and his group of filmmakers and animators, were the people behind the masterpiece TRON.
Without Animalympics, TRON might not have existed. Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner borrowed against the anticipated profits of Animalympics. When things went wrong for them between the winter and summer game, they would use the money to develop storyboards for TRON when it was still an all-animation project.
But before they did TRON and a cartoon about an Animal Olympiad they were making animation up in Massachusetts and entered some of their animations in film festivals. They were pretty well received. So Lisberger and his business partner, Donald Kushner moved the business out to Venice, California in 1974 and started working on a 90-minute animated film for NBC called Animal Olympics.
The film was actually originally commissioned by NBC, to be used as two separate shows that would air as part of their Olympic coverage in 1980.
The Winter Olympic Games actually did make it to NBC but as 1980 grew closer pressure mounted to boycott the Olympics. The games were taking place in Moscow and tensions were high between the Soviets and the United States because of the invasion of Afghanistan. Ultimately the decision was made for the U.S. to not participate in the games that year.
If the Americans weren’t going to be a part of, it NBC didn’t feel the need to cover the Olympics that year. And sadly, the hour-long animal Olympics, summer games were never shown. Although they did broadcast the Winter portion of the games and that would be shown in reruns well into 1981.
Remember that when they moved out to California, they had conceived this as a possible full-length feature. It was NBC that had decided to split it into two parts. So Lisberger decided to follow through on that and edited together a full-length feature consisting of elements of the summer and winter games along with some added elements.
This version had its debut in 1980 at the Miami Film Festival. People liked it so much so that they decided to release the film in overseas markets during the summer of that year.
Retroist Animalympics Podcast
If reading is not your thing, might I direct your attention to the Retroist Animalympics Podcast that I recorded a few years ago.
Behind the Animation
So, behind the animation, you had Steven Lisberger who would go on to work on Tron and of course, stay on board with TRON and produce TRON legacy. He would also direct the very underrated John Cusack film, Hot Pursuit.
In addition to Lisberger, you had Art director Roger Allers. Allers would animate the character of Kit Mombo who was the lion star of the film who ran in the marathon segments. That experience really must have helped him because years later, in a fun twist, he would go on to direct Disney’s The Lions King. But he is not the only animator who would go on to do great stuff.
Animation director Bill Kroyer would later go on to write and direct Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest.
Finally, you had Brad Bird, who would go on to work as the story editor on The Simpsons and would later write and direct The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles.
It is amazing to think of all these very talented people, all working on the same project together. I just want to take a moment to share Liberger Studio’s intro animation. Not only is it epic, but it is a good representation of how innovative this group of people was trying to be.
What is Animalympic About?
Before we talk about some of the voice talent, I want to give a little overview of what this movie is about. Animalympic is a series of connected animated vignettes about Olympic-style games for anthropomorphic animals being broadcast on a fictional network, ZOO.
Unlike the real-world games, the Animalympics combine both the summer and winter game events into one big celebration of animal athletics.
Not only are the athletes all animals, but so are the broadcasting personalities covering the games. What I didn’t realize as a kid, but became obvious when I got older was that these broadcasters and some of the athletes were caricatures of famous like Mark Spitz, Barbara Walters, and Howard Cosell.
Unlike the real Olympics, there are no countries represented in the animal Olympics. Instead, they compete based on continents. Although the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc at the time are represented sort of separately and are not lumped in with Asia or Europe. Even though some of the continents are barely represented in the movie, all of them except for Antarctica make an appearance. Why no love for the penguins of Antarctica?
There are a lot of great segments and you have to watch them to really develop a sense of what is your favorite, but I have a few that I think are standouts. Throughout the film, they keep coming back to the marathon. Its two top competitors are Renee Fromage, a French goat and Kit Mambo, an African lioness.
Now, I’m gonna give you a bit of a spoiler. I’m sorry, but this is really adorable. As they’re running, they begin to admire one another and eventually they fall in love and as they get closer to the finish line, neither of them decides to pull ahead of the other. Instead, they hold hands, crossing the finish line together and they keep running into the future.
This is just like in nature where goats and lions get along fabulously.
In addition to this marathon, which is my favorite, there are many other events represented. You have skiing, swimming, fencing, figure skating, various track and field events, gymnastic, bobsledding, soccer, basketball, diving, volleyball, weight-lifting. And there are various events that are shown in highlight reels or just mentioned like cycling, boxing, and water polo.
All of these segments are wonderfully animated but are brought to life by an extremely talented cast who gave voice to all these animals.
The Cast of Animalympics
Animalympics is lucky. They landed some great voice talent to work on the film. Gilda Radner, who was an original member of the cast of Saturday Night Live and a very funny performer. She did the voice of Barbra Warblers, Brenda Springer, Cora Lee Perrier, Tatyana Tushenko, Dorrie Turnell, and The Contessa.
Billy Crystal, whose biggest claim to fame at this point was playing Jody Dallas on the sitcom Soap Later he would go on to work on movies like When Harry Met Sally, Monsters, Inc., City Slickers, and of course, he’s hosted the Oscars, many many times.
He did the voices of Rugs Turkell, Joey Gongolong, Art Antica, and Bruce Kwakimoto.
Harry Shearer is an extremely talented comedian and writer. You probably know him for all the voices he does on The Simpsons. But he also worked on Saturday Night Live and This is Spinal Tap. He voiced Keen Hacksaw, the Mayor of Animalympic Island, Burnt Woody, and Mark Spritz.
Rounding out the voice talent was Michael Fremer, I know you are asking who is Michael Fremer?
He was the music editor on Animalympics‘ soundtrack and would go on to be the music supervisor on TRON. It turns out he is also a good voice actor. He does the voice of Henry Hummel, René Fromage, Kit Mambo, Bolt Jenkins, Kurt Wuffner, Dean Wilson, Mele, Count Maurice Boar-Deaux, Jackie Fuelit, Bear McLane, Guy Lafluke, Bjorn Freeborg, and Mamo Ululu.
The Release of Animalympics
The movie was released overseas on February 1, 1980. Sadly it never got a theatrical distributor in the United States. While that might have held it back from an initial wave of film-driven popularity, it would find its audience in the U.S. on the small screen.
The film was acquired by Warner Brothers for home video and television distribution. It would soon start making the rounds on broadcast television, but it was not making much of a splash.
Since it was Olympic-themed it wasn’t until the summer of 1984 that they started nationwide airings on HBO and Showtime. That is when the cult following for the film started to devleop. It was there that I started watching Animalympics and became obsessed with it. Watching it every time it was on even after having recorded it on VHS.
It would continue running intermittently throughout the mid-eighties. Then in the mid-Nineties, it was given a new life when it was picked up on the Disney Channel. Since Disney is more family-focused they edited the program to make it friendlier to their target audience. As it turns out, what had been considered family entertainment in the late Seventies, was no longer family-friendly in the Nineties.
In 1996, they made a push on VHS, hoping to cash in on the summer games that year. Its ditributor, UAV Entertainment mentions digging it out of the vault and how dated the Soviet Union references are, but at $14.95 it’s a steal.
While some of the jokes might not have transcended the decades, the music for the film is timeless.
Animalympics has a great cast and talented people behind the camera, but what ties it all together is the great music. Which was written and performed by 10CC‘s Graham Gouldman.
The majority of the music is tied directly into segments from the film. What is impressive is how many of them play well as music videos. This makes complete sense when you are watching it in 1984. Mtv is a powerhouse and everyone is familiar with the music video format.
What is interesting is that this was made in the late seventies. Which is well before Mtv. Sadly by that Mtv was active, musical tastes had changed considerably. There is a lot of very disco-style music here. That would have fit in well with a late seventies popular music TV channel rather than one born in the eighties. Still, I think the vibe, oddness, and connection to comedy would have made it an interesting addition to Mtv’s late-night programming.
People might have thought this is really trippy watching all these animals dance around. Perhaps they would have fallen in love with Animalympics the way I did?
I know. I know. That’s me dreaming.
The soundtrack is hard to come across because it was only released on vinyl and cassette. Sadly in the intervening years, it has not morphed into a viable property for re-release on CD or MP3 format, which is a shame, because there’s a bunch of really good songs on it
I think it would have some value to anyone who was a fan back in the day or perhaps kids who would enjoy some funky fun music. You can of course buy vintage vinyl and if you do look around, you might be able to find it converted to mp3 in the shadier corners of the internet.
“Go for It”
“Away From It All”
“Born to Lose”
“Love’s Not for Me (Rene’s Song)”
“With You I Can Run Forever”
“We’ve Made It to the Top”
The Discotheque Scene
There’s a great sequence at the Noah’s Ark Discotheque in the Animalympics. Just that is worth the price of admission to getting watching this movie. It uses a song called, Go For It. It is period-perfect. It combined with the animation and the style of times is just magical. It is a song I have on all devices that I listen to music on.
Now, if you look, excuse me, it’s time for me to dance.
Once you hear it. you can’t get that soundtrack out of your head and sadly, you can’t get that soundtrack out in stores. Up until recently, there was an even bigger Animalympics tragedy. The film was not out on DVD at all in the United States.
That didn’t mean you couldn’t get it. There were plenty of people selling versions of the DVD. Those were mostly DVDs pulled off TV recordings or dupes of the European version being pushed on the grey market. Nowadays, I am happy to announce that Animalympics is available on DVD from a 2018 release. It is also available to rent or buy digitally via Amazon.
European fans are even luckier because in 2019 Germany’s Winkler Film released a remastered DVD and the first-ever Blu-ray release of the film.
Of course, if you have no interest in trying to find it on DVD, the entire video has been uploaded to YouTube. The quality and availability might vary but basically, you can watch the entire movie online.
I loved Animalympics when it was released and if you were to hang out with me, you would see that anytime I can, I WILL reference it. Usually, nobody has any idea what I’m talking about, which is a real shame because Animalympics is fun. Made by talented people who were creating a new world.
These were not existing cartoon characters like you would see in the properties like say the Laff-A-Lympics. No, these were brand new creations. Perhaps had they caught on, maybe if the Olympics had run in 1980, we would have seen them revived again every 4 years. Then we could have grown the mythology of the Animalympics.
I want to live in a world where instead of watching something like the Bud Bowl whenever we have a Super Bowl and gambling on the winner, we might also be betting on who is going to win the Animalympics. These are, partly the mad rantings and fantasies of a fan, but only partly.
Back when broadcast television was all we had, you could get a large captive audience for something and it would soar to unexplained fame.
Just a few years later that audience would get fragmented by dozen channels, then hundred of channels, and now the internet. So who knows what Animalympics could have been with proper exposure to a large captive audience? I can dream.
Viva la victory. Viva la victory.