Lodging deep within the brains of millions of prepubescent youths, JACK AND THE WITCH is one of those movies you see on some UHF station's afternoon movie timeslot when you're home from school with a fever or it's a rainy summer day or you're stuck at the relatives and are aimlessly turning the knobs on that giant woodgrained RCA monster - the knobs make that satisfying "klunk" as you switch from channel 2 to channel 3, and you have to fiddle with the tint once you get up into those rabbit-ear channels, and you sit there by the set inhaling ozone and faint scorched plastic until things look just right.
Twenty years later you thumb through some incomprehensible Japanese book listing every animated film ever released in Japan from 1941 until 1990 or so, and you see a picture that jogs your memory hard, like a fist, and you stand there shocked as you realize that no, you didn't DREAM that movie or IMAGINE it or HALLUCINATE it after one too many shots of Dimetapp Children's Cough Syrup - it actually exists, for once your memory isn't cheating. There actually is a Japanese animated film about little witches who fly broom-helicopters on fire missions against a spectacularly homely boy named Jack and his carload of animal friends, there really is a movie filled with spooky castles and crumbling balustrades and legions of devilish imps, featuring a giant machine that exists only to turn friendly woodland creatures into evil witches.
That's JACK AND THE WITCH, a movie seemingly produced to give children nightmares and confuse the hell out of adults. Released in 1967 by Toei Animation Company in between two rock 'em sock 'em CYBORG 009 films, JACK isn't based on a fairy tale or a popular manga or an ancient legend. It's its own thing, a bastard cross Between some whimsical Hanna Barbera TV cartoon and all the scary parts of the best Disney movies.
Directed by Japanese animation pioneer Taji Yabushita, JACK is not nearly as linear as some of his more familiar works like ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960) and ADVENTURES OF SINBAD (1962). However, JACK's flat character designs combined with lush, expressionistic backgrounds are proof positive of Toei's mid 60s schizoid split between wannabe Disney and wannabe UPA. Released over here by American International, this film was dubbed by Titan Productions, the outfit that handled Astro Boy, Gigantor, and many other imports. Close listeners can hear Corinne "Trixie" Orr and Billie Lou "Astro Boy" Watt voicing several different characters. Other than impacting the subconciousness of impressionable youths, this film made almost no impact on American anime fandom at large - American anime fans would obsess over early Miyazaki films and the voice talent of EIGHTH MAN, but lacking star animators or super robots, JACK AND THE WITCH spent years in obscurity, or at least a slightly higher level of obscurity than it now currently enjoys.
OUr titular hero Jack is a cleft-palated young hellraiser with his own car full of animal chums. Yeah, that's it, that's all the introduction you get. As the film opens he's bombing through the house - yes, driving IN THE HOUSE - in his Model T, blissfully ignorant of things like legal driving age or roads or seat belts. Well, wouldn't you know it, after a song about how the world is a lovely place, he gets into a race with a little girl witch named Allegra who rides a chopped and channelled broomstick/helicopter. Happens all the time. Allegra offers Jack a ride on her broomstick and takes him straight to an evil castle. Don't accept rides from strangers, kids!
Turns out Allegra and her more adult witch commander-in-chief Auriana all live in the terrifying castle and their hobby is turning innocent children and woodland creatures into hideous imps of Satan. This is accomplished by means of a giant machine made up of mostly of bones. "INTO THE MACHINE!!" the imps chant as our heroes are vaccummed into its depths. "INTO THE MACHINE! INTO THE MACHINE!!" It's a rhythmic cry that scarred the memories of many a TV-watching kid. Jack escapes the harpy machine- but mouse pal Squeaker doesn't!
Jack's animal posse escapes the creepy, gargoyle-carved-pillared castle with their own harpy prisoner, an amiable sort who's not averse to fun. Their impromptu dance party back at the house is interrupted by Jack's return; not to mention a fierce claw-chain attack by Allegra, which is halted by the simple expedient of whacking her on the skull with crockery until she's unconscious. Stricken by sympathy, Jack stops the animals from exacting any more violence on Allegra, but he's repaid by her knocking him down as she wakes up and escapes. Cheer up Jack, it won't be the first time a girl makes a sucker out of you. Every hesitant schoolyard crush is writ large on the animated stage here as Jack comes to grips with his strange new feelings towards this weird female creature.
Anyway, Jack and the animals realize they've got to rescue Squeaker. Their castle home invasion is sidetracked by Allegra, who's their friend again! Sure she is! She tricks our heroes and they fall into a pit populated by giant bugs and talking Sid & Marty Krofft mushrooms. But all psychedelic experiences must eventually come to an end and soon it's time for Jack to face the harpy-transforming machine. INTO THE MACHINE JACK! Saved at the last minute by desperate anti-wind power sabotage by Barnaby the Bear, Jack must now travel to the ice caves to rescue Allegra, who was banished there for her failure! Jack has a thing for the bad girls. He frees the witch-sicle with a smash from a huge crescent wrench - but then must face the angry vengeance of Auriana, whose swinging pendant chain sends Jack and Allegra into a crazy underwater volcano dimension of swirling psychedelic colors! When Jack's captured animal pals trick Harpy Squeaker into breaking the witch-queen's crystal ball, Auriana's power takes a serious hit - Jack and Allegra pop back into the regular non-psychedelic world (or at least as regular as this film gets) and Auriana changes into a weird Oni-type goblin, inflates a giant dinosaur skeleton balloon, and sets a time bomb before she escapes!
However, as it always happens in these movies, the witch is hoist by her own petard and both the castle and the witch are destroyed in a giant explosion. All the harpies are changed back into the little boys and girls and animals they once were, and the ruined castle changes into a beautiful forest. Allegra changes from her creepy witch look into a blonde. As the film wraps, children and animal friends ride off into the sunset in Jack's car, the end credits roll over dramatically-lit shots of actual models built of the film's characters, and early 70s children all over the world have nightmares.
Did I mention that JACK AND THE WITCH is a strange film? Too bizarre for younger children, not nearly comprehensible enough for older children, and possessed of none of the pretentious artistry that allows adults to admit they enjoy cartoons, it's an odd beast that refuses to be neatly categorized. Perhaps the last gasp of Toei's struggle to produce fairy-tale Disney style animated features, its European facade is permeated throughout by hints of Asian folkways; the Oni-demon Auriana transforms into, the sasumata-carrying harpy guards, and the swirling bands of fire lifted straight from Yabushita's work on SARUTOBI SASUKE. Maybe the legacy of JACK AND THE WITCH goes beyond entertaining kids in 1967; perhaps its destiny is to put us all back in touch with that confused pre-teen trying to make sense of the mysterious ways of a world that gives us girls who are sweet one minute and scary the next; a world that gives us movies like, say, JACK AND THE WITCH.