Syrinx (1965)

3 min; Director: Ryan Larkin

From the National Film Board of Canada: “Borrowing from classical mythology, this very short film illustrates the story of Syrinx, the nymph who attempts to escape the goat-god Pan’s amorous advances by fleeing to a nearby river for help, only to be transformed into hollow reeds. Syrinx is the first film by Ryan Larkin, an Oscar®-nominated director who began his animation career in Norman McLaren’s student group. The technique employed is charcoal sketches on paper; the accompanying music is Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute.”

Diana and the Golden Apples (1960)

6 min.

Produced by New World Productions; one episode of the Mel-O-Toons series

An odd retelling of the Atalanta and Hippomenes myth in the “limited animation” style. In this version, the baby Diana is abandoned after her parents are captured by bandits. She is raised by the hunters who find her and she learns to run, ride and hunt. Melanion is her childhood companion in these activities and her best rival. After her parents somehow reclaim her, she returns to Athens with them but not before predicting she will marry Melanion. Years later he competes for her hand in the infamous running race, but it is her father who helps him win by providing the golden apples that will lead to her defeat.

Aesop and Son (1959-1962)

“Aesop and Son” was an interstitial series of shorts that appeared on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show from 1959 to 1962, and in syndication for a long time thereafter. A total of thirty-nine five-minute episodes were produced, in which the ancient fabulist Aesop appeared as a character who attempts to teach a lesson to his son using a twisted version of one of the fables or a loose variation thereof. After hearing the story, the son sums up the fable’s moral with a witty pun.

“Aesop and Son” was very similar to the better-known segment “Fractured Fairy-Tales” that was also featured on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. While Aesop’s fables had been a huge source of inspiration to animators since the 1920s (see Paul Terry’s “Aesop’s Fables” series, Disney’s “The Grasshopper and the Ants,” and Warner Brothers’ “Tortoise Beats Hare” featuring Bugs Bunny, for just a few examples), the approach to the material and the animation style of “Aesop and Son” were quite distinct, largely due to the fact that these were produced for TV rather than for movie-theater screenings. The animation is less polished and low-budget, but the wordplay and clever writing, which incorporates satire and the kind of subversive humor that would become extremely popular in the 1960s and 70s, appealed to audiences of both children and adults.

“Aesop and Son” (and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show more generally) thus marks a turning-point in animated depictions of the ancient world. After this, attention would turn to “historicizing” portrayals of the past (see “Asterix the Gaul” and “The Roman Holidays”) or to portrayals based on fantasy and mythological motifs, and the fables of Aesop would receive little attention, with one exception: a 1971 made-for-TV movie that combined live-action and animation and featured Bill Cosby as Aesop.

A youtube playlist with about half the episodes here:


The Return from Olympus [Возвращение с Олимпа] (1969)

This is the first in a series of five twenty-minute films based on Greek heroic mythology that were written by Aleksei Simukov and directed by Alexandra Snezhko-Blotskaya between 1969 and 1974, at the end of her long animation career in the former Soviet Union (see also “The Argonauts,” “Labyrinth: The Deeds of Theseus,” “Perseus” and “Prometheus”). They were produced by Russian state animation studio Soyuzmultfilm on behalf of the Ministry of Education and are considered the most important movies about Greek myth ever made in the USSR.

“The Return from Olympus” draws upon the common ancient motif of Hercules as a benefactor of mankind, but the story it depicts is wholly modern. It takes a philosophical approach to the hero which emphasizes his humanism while skillfully weaving in contemporary Russian political concerns: Hercules wishes to return to earth after becoming a god, and after reviewing his labors and engaging in a debate about free will and divine authority (with  Zeus’ eagle), he realizes that he needs to stay on earth and help mankind overcome challenges such as Nazism, fascism and militarism, which take the form of the famed monsters from his labors.


watch 6 min: 0-3.10; 15.25 to end

Asterix the Gaul [Astérix le Gaulois] (1967)

This 1967 Franco-Belgian animated feature film is based on the first volume of the celebrated comic strip series Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny (stories) and Albert Uderzo (illustrations). (Before being published as its own volume in 1961, the story appeared as a serial in the children’s magazine Pilote in 1959-60.) This was the first of ten animated Asterix features (see below for a complete list), including Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion, which will be released in Decmeber of 2018. Asterix the Gaul was produced by Dargaud, publisher of the Asterix comics, largely without the input of Uderzo and Goscinny, who were unsatisfied with the final product. This spurred them to become involved with later Asterix film adaptations, which are generally agreed to have  improved production values and which also received better reviews.

The story told in Asterix the Gaul is essentially one of French resistance to Roman occupation of Gaul circa 50 BCE. The Gauls of the village of Armorica use a magic potion made by the Druid Getafix to become invincible . The Romans, led by Julius Caesar, want to obtain the potion for themselves and finally subdue this corner of Gaul, but they are thwarted by the courage and guile of the hero Asterix and his sidekick Obelix. In later films, the heroes travel to different lands and time periods, where they undertake a variety of adventures that are loosely based on historical settings, figures or events.

Much like The Roman Holidays, the portrayal of the ancient world in the Asterix comics and films might be termed “historicizing” since it depicts “realistic” Gauls and Romans (as opposed to mythological creatures and characters), going about their daily lives. However, what these cartoons actually depict is a hybridized fiction, a vision of the ancient world as seen through modern eyes. These kinds of “historicizing” depictions became much more common in animation in the late 1960s, which was a period of dramatic social change and of experimentation in the arts.

In the case of Asterix, the motif of resistance to Rome recalls the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France in WWII, though it may also reflect the African resistance to French colonial rule during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Through its engagement with the ancient past, Asterix the Gaul may have engendered a sentiment of restored national pride and/or served to assuage French guilt over the effects of colonization, even as the seeds of the uprisings of May 1968, which questioned traditional French values and protested American style consumerism and imperialism, were being planted.

(watch 3 min: 2.40-5.25).

List of subsequent animated Asterix films:

1968 – Asterix and Cleopatra (Astérix et Cléopâtre)

1976 – The Twelve Tasks of Asterix (Les Douze travaux d’Astérix)

1985 – Asterix Versus Caesar (Astérix et la surprise de César)

1986 – Asterix in Britain (Astérix chez les Bretons)

1989 – Asterix and the Big Fight (Astérix et le coup du menhir)

1994 – Asterix Conquers America (Astérix et les Indiens — produced in Germany as Asterix in Amerika)

2006 – Asterix and the Vikings (Astérix et les Vikings)

2014 – Asterix: The Mansions of the Gods (Asterix: Le Domaine des Dieux)

2018 – Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion (Astérix: Le Secret de la Potion Magique)


The Mighty Hercules (1963-66)

This Canadian/American series consists of 128 five-minute episodes that were produced by Adventure Joe Oriolo (co-creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost) and Cartoons for Television, Inc. The Mighty Hercules aired for three years, from 1963-66, usually in a block with other cartoons or back-to-back in a thirty minute block. The show is very loosely based on the mythology surrounding Hercules but with some very odd features, such as his Centaur sidekick Newton who constantly repeats himself, and Daedalus, who is portrayed as an evil and crafty wizard. Hercules helps out mortals in danger, often in the kingdom of Calydon, with the help of his magic ring, from which he derives his superpowers. Both the 1940s cartoon series, Superman, and the live-action sword-and-sandal films from this period starring Steve Reeves (and others) as Hercules, are clear influences on this simple yet enduring series (which features a very catchy theme song).




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