Asparagus, Suzanne Pitt

12 Totally Strange and Underseen Animated Films

Well into the ’80s, animated filmmakers attempted to create something even stranger than the X-rated cartoon: the PG-13 cartoon.

Who is an animated film’s audience? Is it for kids? For adults who are OK with “watching cartoons”? These questions plague animation as a medium. The paradoxes abound. Animation oftentimes involves talking animals, but its content is popularly associated with displays of ultra-violence due to the medium’s ability to depict violence without inflicting harm on a living thing (think of Looney Tunes, for example). Cartoons are seen as a gutter medium by some and as high art by others. The medium’s inherent unreality can call to mind hazy childhood memories while also calling to mind art movements like surrealism. It’s an uneasy relationship, as the intended viewer’s age group has, in many ways, caused animation to stay stuck in a state of limbo, which has held it back and even stunted its growth.

Since the inception of television cartoons and animated films, there has been cross-over with more arty experimentation. Still, such films – often short films – have, for the most part, stayed within the interest of academic circles. Disney’s rise to power in the 1940s, while groundbreaking, essentially segregated the idea of “the cartoon”, to the world of the very young. With the rise of ’60s counterculture came alternative comics and, with them, a more adult strain of animated features that made attempts at mainstream legitimacy.

Filmmakers like Ralph Bakshi (1972’s Fritz the Cat and 1981’s American Pop) embraced the juxtaposition of linking adult content with the talking animals of animations more innocent mainstream. Well into the ’80s, animation filmmakers attempted to bridge the age gap in their audiences to create something that was, perhaps, even stranger than the X-rated cartoon: the PG-13 cartoon. Films like Bakshi’s 1978 adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, and arguably, Martin Rosin’s 1982 animation The Plague Dogs, in hindsight, seem like final pleas for a western audience to understand that an animated film could be just as mature and legitimate as any other film at the megaplex.

Crossovers were successful in other markets, most notably with the Anime revolution in Asia, but as far as western audiences were concerned, animation was for kids. Despite television audiences embracing the middle ground of animated television shows like The Simpsons, and Family Guy, to this day, the boundaries remain strong. Western animation, with few exceptions, is pressured into catering to young audiences, and adult themes are usually filtered into niche markets, or designated to the company of no- holds-barred, button-pushing programs like the ones broadcast on Adult Swim

The list below contains films that are strange not just for their surreal content but for being bold examples of what happens when animation embraces its capacity for both childlike wonder and boundary-pushing experimentation.  

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)
Director: Giasburo Sugii

This psychedelic story of two probably (absolutely) gay cats on a train ride through the afterlife remains one of animation history’s most underrated films. Based on the 1927 Japanese fantasy novel of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa, Night on the Galactic Railroad is full of ominously tripped-out imagery and perhaps even stranger: symbols from Christianity and Gnosticism.

Night on the Galactic Railroad has more going for it than just its inherent oddness. Even at its strangest moments, the film always wears its tender, unapologetically emotional heart on its sleeve. It’s like a Hayao Miyazaki film, but if his style was even more dreamy, even more delightfully awkward. Dying has never looked so colorful and cute. 

Son of the White Mare (1981)
Director: Marcell Jankovics

The trailer is not an exaggeration. Every moment of Son of the White Mare is bright and exploding with color. Your eyes may get sunburned. The film is based on the ancient Hungarian myth of the same name, which is epic, sprawling, and, like any good myth, downright goofy.

Characters are often gods or mystical men born from horses who must outwit and battle snakes, witches, and rainbow-colored griffins. Swords are drawn. Soup is stolen. Butts are slapped. (There is some spanking in Son of the White Mare). Somebody should start a band that projects this film onto themselves while they perform live. If they did that, people might even stay for the whole set. 

The Plague Dogs (1982)
Director: Martin Rosen

What at first seems like a Disney movie that never was quickly (like, after the first 20 seconds where a dog is “experimented” on) becomes something else entirely. Rowf, a world-weary labrador, follows Stitter (voiced by the legendary John Hurt), who is guided by visions that may either be divine prophecy or hallucinations caused by a head injury. The two escape the horrors of an animal testing facility, fleeing into the countryside, where they begin to revert back to their “wild” instincts.

The Plague Dogs may sound a bit like edginess for edginess’ sake, but its aim is always to bring dignity to the animal characters and make us empathize with their plight. It can easily be filed under the “who is this for” category. It’s far too dark for children but does not have the raunchy factor that would help it fit in with an Adult Swim crowd.

The Plauge Dogs is the rare PG-13 talking animal movie. The film is the second adaptation of one of Richard Adams’ novels, the first being Watership Down (1978), which already boasted bloody rabbit warfare. While The Plague Dogs is certainly not for the faint of heart, it is beautifully animated and truly moving, emotional journey. (Grab the Shout Factory Blu-Ray re-release if possible). 

Prometheus’ Garden (1988)
Director: Bruce Bickford

Prometheus’ Garden is the weirdest and arguably the most underseen film on this list. The film trailer can only do so much to communicate what it’s like to watch this film in its full, hypnotizing splendor. Prometheus’ Garden remembers that animation’s greatest strength is its sense of speed and movement. A lofi clamation rainbow awaits. An eye becomes a mouth, and the camera goes into that mouth, which becomes a cave, which becomes a world with an army that explodes in blood, which turns into a flower (I am doing my best here) and then a werewolf (so many werewolves in this film).

This dream/nightmare evolves beyond the need for a traditional narrative, moving us simultaneously through the whole of time and what appears to be the innermost psyche of Bruce Bickford himself, the one weirdo wrecking crew that made this all possible. (Check out Brett Ingram’s 2004 documentary Monster Road to go further down the Bickford rabbit hole). 

Mind Game (2004)
Director: Maraaki Yuasa

AMaraaki Yuasa’s feature debut crams more animation styles into its runtime than just about any film of its kind. The characters in Mind Game are manic and wild, yet endearing and loveable. While the film’s style obviously brings it into the anime category, Yuasa immediately establishes his own approach to the tradition with sketchy, malleable characters that are always ready to defy the laws of gravity and anatomy gleefully.

The plot, which (of course) begins with a gunshot to an asshole, moves quickly to death, then to meeting god, who allows our main character to be born again, and then allows him and his friends to get trapped in a whale (of course). it’s all done at a speed only animation can make possible, yet Mind Game never feels like empty randomness or stream of consciousness. In many ways, this film is the best of all worlds on this list. It has LSD-like energy coming out of its eyeballs, but doesn’t forget to take the time to make us love this wacky cast of characters. Watch Mind Game with your best friends. Eat lots of candy and drink too much coffee while it plays with your brain.

Angel’s Egg (1985)
Director: Mamoru Oshii

Angel’s Egg could arguably be considered the 2001: A Space Odyssey of Japanese anime in more ways than one. It’s truly dream-like and moves with a glacial, droning pace. (Andrei Trakovsky come to mind) Angel’s Egg‘s story is full of ambiguities that will frustrate viewers who want clear explanations (hey, no shame). Viewers who thrive on symbolic puzzles and filling in gaps with their imagination will find this to be an immersive pleasure to return to and study again and again.

Is what we’re seeing a post-apocalypse? A dream? What is the significance of the egg, the young woman, and her nearly silent protector as they traverse through landscapes both beautiful and terrifying? Let the questions wash over you like an unexpected wave. You might even get some answers. 

Asparagus  (1979)
Director: Suzanne Pitt

Suggestive-looking vegetables. Characters doing suggestive things with suggestive-looking vegetables. Swirling multi-colored ghosts. Enter the world of Suzanne Pitt’s Asparagus. Her visions are abstract and strange, but, visually speaking, this film could draw the attention of even the most out-to-lunch frat boy (maybe with the help of at least half a joint). He might even learn a thing or two about himself. Pitt’s abstract, psychosexual feast displays the double life of an artist.

Asparagus begins with a wild scene involving asparagus and a toilet and thereby shows us the quiet, introverted aspect of art making. Our faceless heroine is seen wandering about her strange home, gathering, dreaming, creating, and ultimately, preparing herself to go out into the world to share what she has made. From there, she must don the mask of the extrovert, the arty witch with her strange bag of tricks that swirls about the room and dazzles the masses during the film’s mind-blowing finalé. Pitt’s work remains relatively obscure outside of arthouse circles, but her heady visions should not be seen as a barrier to entry but rather an invite to come and play along. 

Tale of Tales (1979)
Director: Yuri Norstein

Watching Yri Norstein’s Tale of Tales is like watching the contents of a shelf full of children’s books and the dusty knick-knacks your grandma used to collect get up and dance before your very eyes. It’s an epically modernist and experimental look at memory that, interestingly enough, gravitates around what might forever be (for better or worse) the central symbol of animation: the anthropomorphic animal.

As far as longer-form films go, Tale of Tales is the last we’ve heard from the Russian master, but rumor has it that he has been working on a proper follow-up called The Overcoat for the last 30 years. Not to get all Beach Boys scholar about it (love those fellas), but if Tale of Tales is Norstein’s Pet Sounds, then the mysterious forthcoming The Overcoat must surely be his Smile and, therefore, his magnum opus. We will have to continue to be mesmerized by the films we have of him as we wait for what comes next. (I can’t recommend 1975’s Hedgehog in the Fog enough.)

Time Masters (1982)
Director: Rene Laloux

While by no means a Disney-like film, René Laloux’s heady, sci-fi film Fantastic Planet has, in the last couple of decades, become a household name with arthouse fans and pot smokers alike (check out the relatively recent Criterion Collection DVD release). Laloux’s follow-up film, Time Masters, however, remains one of the more difficult films to track down on this list.

Written by, and based on the visual stylings of, the legendary French cartoonist Moebius (The Incal, The World of Edena), Time Masters is a strange yet surprisingly fun space opera. Its colorful cast of characters calls to mind Star Wars and comes complete with its own pulpy heroes and bickering robots. Star Wars comparisons drop off at a certain point when the viewer starts to get caught up in Time Master‘s slow yet intense pace, the rainbow swimming pools, and of course, the bizarre finalé, which (naturally) involves a host of faceless time-traveling angels. 

Dinosauria (2022)
Director: David James Armsby

From the early stop animation of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen to Jurassic World, movies – especially animated movies – have had a love affair with dinosaurs. Animator David James Armsby seems to be the true heir to the tradition of bringing the prehistoric world to life. There are six episodes in this series of short films (you can watch them all in less than an hour), and each deals with a day in the life of a particular dinosaur, often with haunting and unexpectedly dreamy results. There is no David Attenborough here to spit dino facts at you, and the beasts on the screen don’t talk in silly voices. Instead, these animated animals are simply observed as they live and die like they would when they ruled the planet.

Armsby makes scientific accuracy a priority,  but what elevates his vision for Dionsauria is his willingness to be expressionistic in using color and light to express his larger-than-life cast’s inner feelings, thoughts, and dreams. Recently, Armsby released Blood for Blood (available on Youtube), the first episode of the sequel series to Dinosauria. It seems as though, once again, that the future looks bright for these long-dead giants. 

American Pop (1981)
Director: Ralph Bakshi

No list of this kind would be complete without an entry from Ralph Bakshi. The entire Bakshi filmography is a campaign against business as usual, a full-on assault on the medium. It could have been appropriate to discuss his controversial, X-rated early work (Heavy Traffic, Coonskin) or perhaps the heavy metal fantasy that is Wizards, but In a list like this, it seems pertinent to shed light on an under-seen film in his catalog.

American Pop can at first look like it’s going to be a rock ‘n’ roll take on Disney’s Fantasia, and indeed, that may have been a more palatable choice for audiences to accept. While it is full of colorful music montages, it is first and foremost a drama. Like many Bakshi films, it heavily uses rotoscoping techniques that give a realistic, if a little uncanny valley, look to the human characters on screen. American Pop is a passion project for Bakshi that focuses on immigrants trying to make new lives in America. Music is the constant guide through the passage of time, as we pass through the jazz age in the ’20s and 30s, all the way to the corporate rock era of the ’80s when our Lou Reed lookalike hero tries his hand at pop stardom.

Even the most diehard Bakshi disciples will tell you that his films are imperfect. At best, these imperfections can have the charm of lo-fi punk rock freedom, and at their worst, they can make the films over long, even confused. American Pop has plenty of Bakshi’s magic in it, but it can seem like a half-baked experiment the world still isn’t ready for. Regardless of its blemishes, American Pop is in its own lane. There are very few human dramas in animation, so American Pop remains unique, a cartoon that refuses to fit in. 

The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars (1998)
Director: Robert C. Ramierz

This may seem like a film that can’t hang with the arty, heady trips above, but you would be mistaken. The plot of The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars is as follows: Einstein can’t hear well and uses a hearing aid. He is hiding inside a refrigerator on an icy island. He contacts his brother (who also wears a hearing aid), who convinces him, The Brave Little Toaster, and all his “inanimate object” friends to come to Mars. There, they will join his cult of appliances that, upon learning about the barbaric human practice of planned obsolescence, have forsaken their masters and vow to nuke the blue planet known as Earth.

Should we be nuked for unknowingly causing harm to our inanimate inventions? Is it heroic of one of those appliances to want to try, perhaps naïvely, to spare us? Or is it just creepy? I could go on. But all things must end. This was the end of The Brave Little Toaster franchise, and this is now the end of this list.

Works Cited

Huston, Shaun. “Animated Short Prometheus’ Garden Is Weird and Complicated”. PopMatters. 26 October 2008.

Libby, John. “Tales by a Russian Master“. Camden New Journal. 14 September 2023.