One of the joys of being a self-professed know-it-all is the occasional happening when I discovered that, indeed, I don’t know it all. A recent discovery of my knowledge gap came about from loyal Film Threat reader Chris Kee, who introduced me (via bootleg DVD) to the 1976 animated feature “Hugo the Hippo.”
Prior to Chris Kee’s heads-up, I never heard of “Hugo the Hippo.” This was fairly strange, since I’ve always been a rabid animation fan and I am also a loyal follower of two of the legendary icons who appeared on the soundtrack, Burl Ives and Paul Lynde. But somehow or other, “Hugo the Hippo” waded under my radar for many years. And now having seen the film, I feel like a new man – albeit a seriously damaged one.
“Hugo the Hippo” is among the strangest films ever created. The film (which was made in Hungary and imported to the US via 20th Century Fox) makes absolutely no sense and frequently lapses into such reckless incoherence that it becomes impossible not to stare at its madness with your jaw on your lap. It is also a surprisingly offensive movie on many levels, which will be discussed in a moment, and it is impossible in retrospect to conceive how the MPAA could’ve sent this into American theaters with a G rating.
“Hugo the Hippo” takes place on the East African island of Zanzibar. Narrator Burl Ives thoughtfully informs us how Zanzibar is a “lazy” and “sleepy” place – and if you’re starting to feel a bit queasy with possibly racist content, you’re not being overly sensitive. The film’s opening sequence features a group of African laborers standing mid-waist in a shallow port loading the contents of a freighter. The Zanzibar laborers are given voices which make them sound like the Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, but before you can say “Jello Pudding” their work is disrupted by a school of sharks wearing biker regalia. The sharks are in a hungry mood and for several minutes the film consists of black men running on the water while being pursued by sharks wearing leather caps and heavy metal chain necklaces. One laborer winds up in a fruit bowl with an apple in his mouth.
In the midst of the madness comes Zanzibar’s minister of finance, the evil Aban Khan. He is given a voice by Paul Lynde, who plays the role as if he was being annoyed by a dumb contestant on “Hollywood Squares.” When viewing the shark attack, he demands to know: “In the name of Allah, what are you doing?” Hearing Paul Lynde wrap his sing-songy mincing voice around the word “Allah” is both hilarious and vaguely blasphemous.
The shark crisis dominates a cabinet meeting run by Zanzibar’s sultan, a fat man in a turban who keeps company with a wise pet cheetah. British actor Robert Morley plays the sultan, and you may be wondering about Zanzibar given the weird mix of accents. The sultan consults with his hippie wizard, who is not very clever beyond a few card tricks and the accidental transformation of the sultan into a large boar. For some reason, it is determined that the port will be safe with the addition of a hippo squadron to the waters. Don’t ask why, given that the average hippo exists far from the average shark and the two are not natural enemies.
A dozen hippos are captured and dumped in the harbor, including the eponymous Hugo. He’s a baby hippo, the son of the hippo king. The hippo brigade are successful in eliminating the sharks (one hippo punches a shark so hard that only the fish’s sharp teeth remain floating about). The Zanzibar people respond initially with generous treatment, but soon forget the good hippo deeds and the creatures are left to starve. One night, they rampage through Zanzibar in search of food and destroy a clove farm. Aban Khan, who hates hippos, arranges to kill the creatures and one night he assassinates nearly all of them (the killings are shown by having lightning bolts destroying hippo-shaped clouds, followed by Hugo’s discovery of dead hippos lying on the floor of the bay).
Little Hugo finds himself on the run, without shelter or friends. The local jungle animals are oddly hostile and prevent him from accessing food; at one point, two nasty apes pick up a cabbage and use it to play basketball (to the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme song “Sweet Georgia Brown” – think about that for a minute). A young boy named Jorma befriends Hugo and gives him food and attention. But the bond between a boy and his hippo is soon tested by angry hippo-hating adults who go to great lengths to kill Hugo.
For a film aimed at kids, “Hugo the Hippo” is a surprisingly mean affair. Hugo is constantly being harassed and endangered, either by being deprived food or being pelted with stones or being attacked with swords and guns. Even the obligatory happy ending is strangely incomplete – the Zanzibar people never express any remorse for the hippo slaughter or the violence which they bring against Hugo. There is some degree of justice, but it feels half-assed.
But the most disturbing thing about the film is not its substance, but its style. It seems the Hungarian animators watched “Yellow Submarine” and “Fantastic Planet” a few too many times and felt they could meet or exceed the psychedelic imagery of those classics. However, “Yellow Submarine” and “Fantastic Planet” are fantasy films that take place in make-believe realms. “Hugo the Hippo” takes place in a very real place called Zanzibar, yet the film is populated with a big yellow sun with a scowling face, purple sea gulls who fly about in a state of mild confusion, and a giant blue-and-purple butterfly who takes Jorma and Hugo on a trip into a parallel universe of planets made of fruits and vegetables. The butterfly is obviously not a native to Zanzibar, but his presence makes more sense than the anthropomorphic garden goodies that try to kill the young heroes, including a Cossack asparagus army, a banana-octopus, and tanks made out of corn cobs.
(I almost forgot to mention the underwater hippo amusement park, where the big creatures ride carousels and drive bumper cars. But that’s fairly sedate compared to the rest of the film.)
If that’s not crazy enough, there’s the pop music soundtrack featuring Marie Osmond and her kid brother Jimmy Osmond. Marie barely pays attention to the songs, which sound flat and detached (she’s not a little bit country, just a little bit bored). But screechy little Jimmy somehow thinks he’s Ethel Merman and belts out such lyrics as this hippo description: “He walks like an elephant, / He swims like a whale. / His head’s like a pail, it’s pathetic, / Oh, plainly his tail’s unaesthetic.” Burl Ives gets to sing a happy tune about Hugo’s near-starvation, exclaiming how he’s so famished that could “eat the ox in oxygen.”
This is such a weird movie. It is too deranged to be horrible, but too peculiar to embrace. It is too nasty for little kids, not campy enough for adults, and so off-base with its racial attitudes that it makes it impossible to imagine a call for its return.
But, somewhere in cyberspace there is hugothehippo.com, a web site for rallying the faithful to sign a e-mail petition to demand the film’s restoration and re-release. The movement seems a bit on the anemic side at this stage, for 20th Century Fox has not announced any plans to bring back “Hugo the Hippo.” The film is obviously not an easy one to market, given its problematic contents and obscurity, and it is not hard to imagine there is also the problem of clearing the music rights to the soundtrack ditties.
Old videotapes from a brief early-1980s video release occasionally turn up on eBay and most of the bootlegs in circulation can be traced from that. The DVD-R I received is an excellent copy and I was able to appreciate the film – to the best that one can appreciate something like this. There’s nothing else like “Hugo the Hippo,” and thank God for that!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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