Generous thanks are heaped on director Bill Feigenbaum for his valuable input regarding Hugo the Hippo's production. Fan correspondence can be sent to the retired animator-turned painter via the film's unofficial website.
Bill Feigenbaum's visually hypnotic Hugo the Hippo (1975) has never approached mainstream popularity during the last four decades, but anyone with fond memories of this animated parable will remember its crisp art direction, colorful characters, unique setting, and vintage pop soundtrack. Our story revolves around the eponymous pink hippo who, along with 11 others of his kind, is brought in by the Sultan of Zanzibar (voiced by Robert Morley) to rid his harbor of sharks and save the local economy. Unfortunately, the hippos have another enemy in Aban-Khan (the unmistakable Paul Lynde), the Sultan's top adviser: he plots to kills them all, but Hugo escapes to Dar es Salaam and befriends a group of schoolchildren including kind-hearted Jorma (Ronnie Cox, but not the one you're thinking of). Naturally, the teachers don't appreciate such distractions, so they attempt to drive Hugo away by any means necessary...but the kids aren't having it, so they plead with the Sultan to speak on behalf of their lovable pink friend.
Produced during a four-year period, Hugo the Hippo owes a visual debt to animated films like Yellow Submarine but feels comfortable in its own skin. The production design was spearheaded by late children's book illustrator Graham Percy, whose colorful and eye-catching style was interpreted by Hungary's Pannonia Film Studio. Producer Robert Halmi, who initially pitched the idea to Feigenbaum, was a Hungarian ex-patriot and received an an official pardon from the government after the deal was ironed out. He also hired the original English-language voice actors, which also included Burl Ives in a comfortable role as the fatherly and reassuring narrator. The soundtrack even included vocal contributions by Ives as well as Marie and Donny Osmond, paired with elaborate musical numbers that reportedly took multiple teams of animators five or six months apiece to complete. The artists, none of whom spoke English, were mailed videos of Feigenbaum reading the script in close-up to get the mouth movements exactly right.
The result is a film that occupies its own little corner of animated film history; it's filled with countless visual flourishes, artistic scene transitions, memorable character designs, stunning backgrounds, and an atmosphere in which surprises lurk around every corner. I first saw Hugo the Hippo at a young age during a summer block of films at my elementary school that also included Disney's Robin Hood, Watership Down, and Rankin/Bass' adaptation of The Hobbit. Hugo the Hippo has aged quite well during the last several decades: its soundtrack is still charming, the story remains accessible, a handful of jokes no longer go over my head and, perhaps most importantly, the gentle reminder to appreciate help in any form and never lose your sense of compassion still rings true. It's been dubbed in countless languages over the years (including Hungarian, Italian, and Czechoslovakian) and remains something of a cult favorite in the UK, which makes Hugo the Hippo's relative obscurity in the United States all the more baffling.
Aside from a limited run on VHS decades ago, Hugo the Hippo was available on Region 1 DVD from Bill Feigenbaum via the film's unofficial website; it's no longer available now that Warner Bros.' new Archive Collection DVD-R is in print, but fans should be happy with the A/V presentation of this anamorphic disc despite its lack of extras. I'd imagine that some would gladly pay more for a fully-loaded Blu-ray, but what we get here provides a temporary nostalgic fix.
Video & Audio Quality
Director Bill Feigenbaum had this to say about Warner Bros.' new disc in comparison to his out-of-print DVD edition: "I recently ordered a Warner Archive DVD of "Hugo the Hippo". Overall it looks and sounds better than I thought it would. I don't know what they used as a master. Some of the colors are off a bit. I feel that mine looks better. The color scheme is very subtle and complex. The film could use a full scale restoration."
Though I don't have that OOP edition for direct comparison, Warner Bros.' edition indeed looks reasonably good for a 40 year-old animated film that obviously hasn't undergone a complete restoration. Still, there are obvious drawbacks: print damage, dirt, flickering, and mild compression artifacts are evident during portions of the film, while image detail and color timing also fluctuate on several occasions. Other digital imperfections are kept to a minimum, and the disc has been correctly flagged for progressive playback. Overall, the film's eye-catching style still shines on this 1.78:1 transfer (opened up from its original 1.85:1 matted format, a Warner tradition), and die-hard fans who don't own Hugo on DVD yet will be be happy to have this. Still, a fully restored version on Blu-ray would be sight to behold.
DISCLAIMER: This review's compressed screen captures are strictly decorative and do not represent DVD's native 480p resolution.
The audio defaults to a two-channel Dolby Digital mono spread...and aside from source material limitations, it sounds good enough. There's some clipping on the high end and little in the way of dynamic range, but the frequent music cues stand out nicely without overpowering background noise. Dialogue is mostly crisp and clear but some portions are muffled a bit, which makes the lack of optional subtitles or SDH captions something of a disappointment.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The static interface offers a vintage poster-themed background and no separate sub-menus. This burn-on-demand disc is housed in a standard black keepcase and includes cover artwork identical to the menu interface. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features (not even a trailer!), which is a mild disappointment but hardly surprising.
Director Bill Feigenbaum's Hugo the Hippo remains an obscure but well-loved childhood favorite for very good reason: the visuals are excellent, the characters are memorable, and its vintage pop soundtrack ties in nicely with this sweet, light-hearted international adventure. It definitely stands in sharp contrast to the more simplistic animated productions that dominate the family market today, but that's absolutely not a criticism. Warner Bros.' Archive Edition DVD-R replaces a limited-run disc previously available via the director, and the results are reasonably good despite a complete lack of bonus features. New fans may want to rent or stream this title first (if such an option exists, of course), but those with fond memories of Hugo the Hippo will obviously want to indulge. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.