The Flight of Icarus [Le Vol d’Icare] (1974)

3 min. / no dialog / dir. Georges Schwizgebel

Swiss independent animator Georges Schwizgebel drew upon the story of Icarus and his fall in this film, the first he directed. The film’s unique pointillist aesthetic was created with “a black hole template laid over painted cels” (Bendazzi p. 198), which gives it a video-game like feel. The harpsichord musical accompaniment provides an element of gravitas to the playful animation, as it gives the impression that “the ‘bulbs’…are triggered by the harpsichord keys as they are played.”

Gladiators of Rome [Gladiatori di Roma] (2012)

95 minutes; Italian/English dub; dir. Iginio Straffi

This CGI-animated parody of a gladiator film was one of the biggest box office bombs in Italian cinema history. Produced by Rainbow SpA in Italy in 2012, it was released in the United States in 2014 by Paramount Pictures. The film, which was clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), was in development for five years, cost about $50 million dollars to produce and earned about $10 million in total.

It tells the story of Timo, an orphan from Pompeii who is adopted by a general named Chirone and raised in a gladiatorial school in ancient Rome. Chirone is keen to train Timo in the gladiatorial arts, but Timo just wants to hang out with his friends, until he falls in love with Lucilla, Chirone’s daughter who has returned to Rome from Greece. Then, “through spells, crazy raids in the woods and the terrible trainings of a very personal lady trainer named Diana, Timo…transforms himself into the greatest gladiator of all time” and is able to outbattle Cassio, his rival for Lucilla’s love, in the arena.

The animation has a somewhat creepy aesthetic and the plot of the underdog-who-beats-the-odds is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a film from the 1980s (see Karate Kid, Rocky, etc.), but perhaps what is most disturbing about it is its extreme sanitization of the bloodsport of the arena for youthful audiences. Also the emperor Domitian makes an appearance?


The Animated Odyssey (2000)

104 min.; Russian/no subtitles; dir. Valentas Ashkins

HBO aired “The Animated Odyssey” as a four-part miniseries in the US in 2000. It was originally produced by Vilanima Studios of Lithuania and first aired in Russia as a feature-length film in 1998 under the title The Destruction of Troy and the Adventures of Odysseus (Разрушение Трои и путешествие Одиссея). As a series it was divided into half-hour episodes including “The Trojan Horse,” “The Cyclops,” “Circe, Hades and the Sirens,” and “Odysseus Returns.”

The production, which was supervised by original Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and took three years to complete, was lavish and ambitious, and was intended to appeal to a wide audience that included school-age children and young adults. The narrative presented was more detailed than other animated treatments of the Odyssey and stayed closer to traditional storyline. It also included a powerful score by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, though some critics thought that the film was lacking in dynamism, due to its stilted and choppy character movement and awkward dialogue (likely due to its translation from Russian and dubbing into English). The English-dubbed version of the film is nowhere to be found online or streaming, only the Russian version and a modern Greek version are available.

More: The Animated Odyssey – Variety

The Pink Panther: “Pinkus Pantherus” (1993)

10 min; Season 1, Episode 9; English

In 1993, MGM/UA rebooted the Pink Panther franchise with a new TV series that lasted two seasons. In this series, unlike in previous ones, the Panther was a speaking character, which was apparently a controversial change.

In this episode, the panther enlists as a recruit in the Roman army. His rival/nemesis is the burly General Maximus, who is summoned by the emperor Samerus (played by The Little Man/Big Nose) to guard his spoiled princess of a daughter as she travels to meet her husband to be. The panther and legionnaire compete for her affections on the trip (this includes Maximus singing in the style of Elvis, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, knows the Appian Way…”). In the end a Frankenstein-like Cyclops attacks the group, but the princess falls in love with him. The short ends with their wedding and the panther being celebrated as a great matchmaker, while the general carries their baggage.

All in all this is a rather uninspired short with trite gags (e.g., ending random words with -us), basic animation, and a pretty random plot that only superficially engages with ancient Rome.


The Hare and the Tortoise [教育お伽漫画 兎と亀] (1926)

6 min; Japan; silent film; dir. Sanae Yamamoto

This is the earliest animated version of Aesop’s most famous fable: Disney would go on to create his Oscar-winning short of the same name ten years after Yamamoto, in 1934, and Bugs Bunny would appear in the Merrie Melodies series short “Tortoise Beats Hare” in 1941, to name just two later iterations of this animated classic.

Yamamoto’s silent film is one of the earliest extant examples of Japanese animation. It was produced as “edutainment” for children, likely on behalf of a governmental organization (they were frequent sponsors of animation during this time). Its version of the fable was inspired by a Japanese children’s song (by Wasaburo Ishihara) that recounts the story and that became popular in the mid 1920s (and that is still sung today!). In the film, “the lyrics of the song ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ are represented as musical notes coming out of the characters’ mouths” (Japanese Animated Film Classics). It is animated in simple line-drawn and paper cut-out style, and has a playful air, both in the dance-inspired movements of the characters and in its whimsical, natural backgrounds.


Gladius (2020)

7 min.; no dialogue; France; directors: directors: Margaux Latapie, Grégory Diaz, Florian Cazes, Marie-Charlotte Deshayes-Ducos, Clément Petellaz, Baptiste Ouvrard, Jimmy Natchoo, Guillaume Mellet

This short CGI film was created by students at ESMA (Ecole Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques) and clearly evokes the 2000 blockbuster film, Gladiator. In it, a Roman winemaker named Marcus recalls his former life as a gladiator through a series of interspersed flashbacks. The film is a somber meditation on the PTSD that afflicts Marcus as a result of his experiences, though it also depicts the fighting scenes in a style inspired by popular video-games – violent but largely bloodless. It ends on a positive, sentimental note that suggests a life of meaning and care can be enjoyed even after the harm of trauma.

Sun Flight (1966)

6 min.; dir. Gerald McDermott; no words

The award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Gerald McDermott created this interpretive film, subtitled “the myth of Daedalus and his son, Icarus.” This retelling depicts the pair’s imprisonment by King Minos, the youth’s flight, and his tragic descent into the sea in a distinctive cutout style that recalls the art of Henri Matisse. It also features some psychedelic light play and a postmodern soundtrack which accompanies the imagery. Joseph Campbell served as an advisor on the production. The story was published as a book by the same name in 1980 by McDermott, but it featured different artwork.

Alix (1999)

26 episodes, 24 min. each; French/no subtitles; dir. Jean Cubaud

This television series is based on the longstanding Franco-Belgian comic book series Alix l’intrépide or The Adventures of Alix, which was created by artist Jacques Martin. The series began publication in 1948 and continues to be published today (though Martin passed away in 2010). It was first published in Tintin magazine and shares its ligne claire style with that famed comic, as Martin worked on both projects.

The story follows the adventures of 16-year-old Alix Gracchus, a Gallic youth who was captured, sold into slavery and bought by a Roman noble named Honorus Galla during the era of the late Roman republic. His adoptive father is a friend and contemporary of Julius Caesar, who is depicted as a protector of the young man. Alix is good-hearted, brave and motivated by justice. He frequently finds himself in situations where he is torn between his Gallic heritage and values, and the questionable ways of the powerful Romans among whom he now lives. His adventures often focus on real historical events of the period, particularly those related to the Gallic Wars (such as the Siege of Alesia in 52 BCE), though he also travels to Greece, Egypt (where he befriends his trusty sidekick Enak), Carthage and even China.

The TV show, which lasted only one season and aired on France 3, depicts several of Alix’s biggest adventures, and while the animation attempts to recapture the style of the comic, it is a basic hand-drawn program that lacks the vivid detail of its graphic counterpart.


Gladiator Academy [Academia de Gladiadores] (2002-2003)

Spain; 26 episodes of 24 minutes + 1 TV special (75 min.); English dub; creator: Claudio Biern Boyd

This Spanish TV series was produced for one season by BRB International in 2002-2003 and was aimed at an age Y7 audience. It follows the adventures of Fracas, Arena, Rumpus and Hocus, four gladiators who live on the island of Cornucopia, as they fight foes in the island’s Colosseum and defend against the evil emperor, Gluteus Maximus.


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