A review requested by Jackie Theballcat, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

NB: Thanks to the work of curator Garrett Gilchrist, this film can be seen in nine parts at the indispensable Thief Archive on YouTube

Nothing titled Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure should have the pedigree that Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure possesses. It boasts what's probably the single most impressive roster of animation talent of any single feature film of the 1970s: among its lead animators we find the master Art Babbitt, exiled from Disney more than thirty years prior, the living legend Grim Natwick, the onetime Looney Tunes artists Gerry Chiniquy and Emery Hawkins. Tissa David became the first woman to serve as supervising animator for her work on the titular Raggedy Ann; the film was the first credit for future animation icon Eric Goldberg. And these people were all gathered together under the general guidance of Richard Williams, one of history's great animators and animation buffs gathered into one being - it is surely due entirely to Williams's desire that this be a showcase piece for his murder's row of under-appreciated and under-used talents that the film opens with individual title cards crediting the supervising animator of each of the main characters, a rare and perhaps even totally unprecedented gesture.

That Williams should be so eager to put the animation crew front and center is a generous and welcome correction to the broad sense that animation just kind of happens, at an industrial level; but it also implies the big problem with Raggedy Ann & Andy, which is that it would never, ever have occurred to me to first identify it as anything other than an animation showcase. The film was dumped in Williams's lap after the first director, the Warner and UPA vet Abe Levitow, died in 1975, and the production companies had firm, intractable ideas for what they wanted the project to be. Those production companies being an unholy alliance between Indiana-based publishing firm Bobbs-Merrill and the multinational telecom/manufacturing conglomerate ITT, neither of which had ever been involved in filmmaking before, and so perhaps had done better to keep their opinions to themselves. But no, Williams was given strict rules and no ability to wiggle out of some of the things he'd have liked to avoid, like scaling back on the almost non-stop musical numbers. And while it is deeply gratifying that Williams gave such an ambitious showcase to so many talented artists, the constant sense one has while watching the film is that the director was more or less giving up on the project, and focusing in on the animation simply because it's the part that interested him.

What we know now that was certainly not common knowledge in 1977, is that Williams had already started work on The Thief and the Cobbler, his never-quite-completed passion project that would have been perhaps the most artistically ambitious and complex animated feature ever produced in the world if he'd been able to see it to completion (it was taken away from him in the early 1990s and crudely wrapped up, and that's going to have to do for a summary of the phenomenally interesting and endlessly complicated history of that project). With that in mind, it's a lot easier to see Raggedy Ann & Andy working as something rather like an exercise reel, allowing Williams and his animators to try out small versions of some of the things that he had in mind for that other feature. For there is a mind-blowing quantity of difficult, sprawling, boundlessly creative artwork in this film, enough so that, not for the last time in his career, Williams would be kicked off the project once it became clear that his fussy perfectionism was going to make it impossible for it to meet its hoped-for release during the 1976 holiday season (it came out the following April).

At the level of craft, it was unquestionably worth it. There are obvious show-off moments, like Hawkins's stupendous sequence of the Greedy (voiced by Joe Silver), a flowing amorphous blob of sentient taffy that fills the anamorphic Panavision frame with constant, unpredictable movement, its face and arms constantly vanishing and popping out in a mesmerising nightmare of fluid, organic animation. It is, as a stand-alone sequence, perhaps the most technically impressive and audacious work of animation to come out of United States in the 1970s. But there are also far smaller and more silent moments that find the crew doing their absolute best to push the artform out to the edges: needless little swoops of the synthetic camera that require the repositioning of the entire background from a new angle, something that barely registers while you're watching, except maybe as a way to bring us in closer with the characters, but the sheer quantity of manpower required to make it means that it's not some little tossed-off thing; it's a mission statement, a brag, and a test to add something real and new to the animator's toolkit.

Viewed as a collection of such moments, and more general excellence in character animation - Babbitt's work bringing to life the Camel with Wrinkled Knees (voiced by Fred Sluthman) is a particular delight - Raggedy Ann & Andy is a damned miracle, though in the early going, when we meet the title characters and their friends in a playroom owned by a live-action girl named Marcella (Claire Williams, the director's daughter, and an animation professional in her own right), there's a definite tendency to err on the side of too much busy moving and twitching, a tetchy kind of over-acting that reminds me of the weaker passages in Don Bluth's films or the itchy shuffling that plagues Ralph Bakshi's 1978 The Lord of the Rings. Viewed instead as, you know, a movie, and the reasons for Williams's attempts to shove it in any different direction become clear. It's not exactly that the script for Raggedy Ann & Andy, adapted by Patricia Thackray and Max Wilk from characters invented by Johnny Gruelle in the 1910s, is a disaster of storytelling; given that it was the 1970s and psychedelia was everywhere, envisioning the world of toys come to life as a series of non-sequitur journeys through hellscapes in which nothing makes sense and everyone has malicious intent isn't totally out of the question. It doesn't make for a very charming or inviting children's movie, though. And it's rather conspicuously allergic to letting anything happen: Raggedy Ann (Didi Conn) and her brother Andy (Mark Baker) simply bounce from event to event without making any kind of impact on the world around them or being impacted. It's Alice in Wonderland stuff, only without the wit, and exclusively reliant on the animators to give it any imagination.

That's more a curiosity than a flaw. The only real limitation to the film is its soundtrack, composed by Sesame Street music guru Joe Raposo. This would seemingly be a surefire qualification, and yet the songs in this self-styled musical adventure are a generally sluggish lot, with only the Camel's mournful country song "Blue" actually making a claim for greatness. There are some fun notions - Raggedy Ann's theme, "I'm Just a Rag Dolly" rather sensibly turns out to be in ragtime - and a whole lot of overly vague lyrics that don't mesh well as a continued statement of ideas, and only rarely feel like they correspond to the onscreen action. Movies have survived dodgy soundtracks, but with some 15 numbers spread through its 84 minutes, Raggedy Ann & Andy is musical far more often than it's not; that's a lot of time to grow bored and even peevish at the songs that are the primary storytelling mechanism of the project.

What mostly registers from the movie, though, is its unfettered weirdness; and this is something that will be felt differently by every viewer. For myself, I was delighted by the way the animators chased their ideas down to extreme degrees without holding anything back, seeing how the discipline learned from Disney and Warner could produce some exquisitely warped surrealism. The lack of restraint can hurt the film at times: there's a layover with the tiny, angry King Koo Koo (voiced by Marty Brill and supervised by Chiniquy; the flickers of Warner-trained animation that bubble up in his reaction shots and and pauses are marvelous) that stops the film dead, and there are characters in the playroom, the tandem-dancing Twin Penny dolls, whose sing-song line deliveries and habit of punctuating their statements with a little jazzy riff are the stuff of pure horror. It's not a film that feels disciplined in any way but the draftsmanship, and that can get horribly draining, especially with such inert characters to serve as our guides (and only one vocal performance, Conn's, that adds much in the way of an interesting personality). If I had first seen this film as a child, I think it would have given me severe nightmares. But I first saw it as a crusty old adult animation buff, and in that capacity, the things about it that strike me as rare and totally essential and beautiful vastly outweigh the sometimes baffling missteps it makes a work of narrative entertainment. In its way, it's an outright masterpiece, though I'll concede that I have no real idea of what that way might be.