An unofficial USA/Australian co-production, manufactured mostly in Australia, but with a veneer of US voices.
Production company: Animation international Inc./Porter Animations
Budget: A$650,000 (Oxford Australian Film), with some $60,000 from the Australian Film Development Corporation. (Other press sources claim a budget of $750,000, but the lower budget figure seems more likely). According to Cam Ford, one of the two animation sequence directors on the show, the budget started at $500,000, with Eric Porter and Sheldon Moldoff contributing half each. When the budget became strained, Porter added another $150,000 of his own money, against 100% of Australian and South East Asian profits, but never received a satisfactory report or return from Moldoff, and lost money on the production.
Locations: animation, set in 'Xanadu'. Some databases, including this one, listed the location for Porter's work as his animation studio at Artransa Park, but according to Cam Ford, this is wrong. Porter had left Artransa ten years ealier and set up his own Film Academy Studio in Mitchell Street, North Sydney.
Filmed: mid-1970 until May 1972, with a crew of sixty to seventy.
Australian distributor: B.E.F.
Theatrical release: December 1972 in Australia. The US co-producer Sheldon Moldoff failed to attach a major distributor, and as a result, the film's release in the United States, Britain and Europe was 'fragmentary'.
Running time: 80 mins (Oxford Australian Film)
VHS time: 1'17"40
US DVD time: 1'21"38
NFSA DVD time: 1'18"43
Poor, and as noted above, especially poor for Eric Porter.
The film won a couple of major awards at the AFI, and a number of spin-off story books for children sold relatively well, but the film suffered the usual fate of Australian films released in the December school holiday season, up against the big guns of American studios, and was given only low-earning "day sessions" aimed at children.
A television cartoon special on Marco Polo was screened before the film's release, resulting in B.E.F. giving the film its long and clumsy new title (they did the same sort of name-changing trick for the film's television release in 1976, calling it The Magic Medallion).
American co-producer Sheldon Moldoff couldn't arrange a major release in the United States, and the film was given only matinee bookings in Britain.
The film did later have a solid ancillary life, being released in a number of territories on VHS, but by then the box office horse had long bolted.
Australian Film Institute Awards 1973 winner in two categories:
Village Cinemas & Village Theatres prize for Best Direction (Eric Porter)
and Gold Award (general category, producer/director Eric Porter)
The search for a decent copy of Australia's first feature length animation has at last come to a happy ending, thanks to the NFSA.
The film was available on VHS for many years - Rigby-C.I.C Video released it in Australia and it was also available in the USA - but these editions are now rare. DVD copies struck from VHS copies circulate amongst collectors, the quality contingent on the original tape, but they were generally poor.
The film was also available in the United States in a collected DVD edition box set which includedsome ten animated features, but it was an unrestored image, and the quality was little better than VHS.
That version was, however,in better shape than some of the other Australian animations in the box set, which include Dot and the Bunny and Dot and the Kangaroo.
The quest for a good copy ended with the NFSA release, which is 4:3 full frame, but is obviously open matte, so that there's no loss of information nor any panning and scanning.
There are clearly some issues with fluctuating densities in the surviving negative, but the transfer is a revelation in other ways, most notably the rich colours. A lush palette was used in the animating of the show and at last it’s revealed again, having been lost for many years in wan releases.
The sound is also in good shape, so at last Australia’s first animated feature has been given the restoration treatment it deserves.
There are only a couple of extras but they are good ones.
The 9’22” period ‘making of’ starts with a generous dose of the villain singing his “I’m mean” song, before heading off to Porter's studio to show how a sequence in the film - the Princess and Pangu running down the stairs - was made.
With the US-produced soundtrack a given, we start with head animator Cam Ford at his board doing a drawn paper layout and timing of the sequence.
Then it’s on to layout man Monty Wedd, doing the drawings for the scene. Then it’s on to measuring and charting the frames up against the soundtrack on a four gang synchroniser, followed by the animator laying out the entire sequence frame by frame.
We see the un-named animator doing the drawings (260 for the sequence), then checking the action for continuity. The completed drawings are passed into the special effects room, where an overhead camera photographs the drawings. Once the sequence is viewed and approved, it’s passed to the tracers to transfer the pencil drawings to celluloid - very detailed and precise work - at which stage the cells are painted by the painters on the reverse side of the cell.
After the finished cells are placed in racks to dry, the cleaners and checkers then minutely scrutinise the cells, before they’re checked on top of the background by backgrounder Yvonne Perrin (seen with Cam Ford).
Then Yvonne’s off with her work to the un-named final assembler and checker, to check the matching of cells and backgrounds, and pick up any continuity errors, and see how the sequence works in a widescreen format, before it all goes off to final photography on the Oxberry camera. We see an Oxberry in action, then we see a modestly un-named Eric Porter looking at the result with Cam Ford on a 35mm Moviola. The ‘making of’ concludes with the finished scene playing out.
It’s a succinct summary of how animations were done way back when, and while it shows signs of its age, with some wear and tear, it’s fascinating, if also a little exhausting. So much rigorous work, and detailed accuracy required, for so little screen time on a daily basis.
There’s also a couple of trailers, in relatively good shape for their age, and revealing for the way they show the film being sold, but the ‘making of’ is a very informative and rewarding extra for anyone interested in the way animations were once made.
There’s also a poster gallery, but it only offers an Australian poster, two lobby cards and a photo of Eric Porter with his lead juvenile characters. This could have done with a bit of bulking up.
There are also three clips from the show on YouTube accessible via this link, but they have an NFSA bug on them. They do show off the rich colours in the restoration, and so serve as an enticement for people wanting to see the show.
Remarkably the film doesn’t seem to have a listing at the ASO, though Eric Porter’s excellent 1942 Aeroplane Jelly advertisement can be found here. Remarkably this was found by Cam Ford on a rubbish dump afer Porter's death, and its discovery spawned a new advertising campaign featuring Bertie the Aeroplane.
Perhaps this is because of the tired notion that Porter sold out the show and its potential to be Australian by consorting with the American enemy, but this is to deny the pleasures to be obtained from watching the film, which shows influences ranging from Norman McClaren’s 1968 Pas de Deux (the sky dance of boy and girl about 58 minutes in) to Hokusai’s woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (the storm about 17 minutes in). The main villain is also suitably mean.
Not everything has to have gum leaves and billy tea in it, even if the film failed in the domestic and international marketplace, though for reasons not necessarily related to its appeal as an animated yarn.
Cam Ford, one of the two animation directors on the show, advised Ozmovies of the subsequent fate of the film in relation to Sheldon Moldoff and the NFSA:
In 2000, Moldoff partially remade Marco under the new title of Return to Xanadu, using about 75% of the original animation. He deleted a couple of the original musical numbers and added new ones, and extended the climactic end sequence with some 13 minutes of a totally confusing chase sequence through time and space, with new animation from studios in Eastern Europe, China and the USA. It was widely panned.
In 2015, the Australian National Film and Sound Archives produced a beautiful digitally restored archival DCP version of the original Marco Polo Jr.
The NFSA advised that the digital release came from a HD transfer completed for the DCP and reformatted for SD DVD at 25 fps, pitch corrected, and "looks great" - with one one of the show's creators saying the new print was "beautiful".
Having now seen the result, Ozmovies agrees, and it's clearly time to put talk of crappy US releases aside. This was an appropriate way to celebrate the centenary of Australian animation in 2015.
(Note: the illustrative stills on this site are from a poor quality US DVD release, and will be updated in due course with stills from the much better NFSA release).
This was the first feature length Australian animated film.
The project originated with Animation Inc. of the United States. The idea was conceived and scripted by American comic book artist Sheldon Moldoff, and Animation Inc, then called for tenders in Asia, Mexico, America and England. Moldoff had been involved in other shows such as Cool McCool and Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse.
Porter, who ran an animation advertising and television studio in Sydney (he animated a number of Aeroplane Jelly commercials) won the tender and purchased a fifty per cent share in the production. According to press reports at the time, the budget was A$750,000, but the more likely figure is the lower one led by the Oxford Australian Film, c. $650,000.
This figure has been confirmed by Cam Ford, one of two animation sequence directors on the film - the bad news is that the original split was 50/50 between Eric Porter and US producer Sheldon Moldoff, but then Porter tipped in another $150,000 of his own money, and was allegedly done over on the film's returns - as so many Australian film-makers have been - by his American partner.
A number of film tie-in books were released around the same time, including:
The adventures of Marco Polo junior / from the animated feature film story by Sheldon Moldoff; artwork by Eric Porter Studios; book adaptation by Stuart Glover and Claire Meillon. Sydney, Australia. Paul Hamlyn, c.1973, 157 pages colour illustrations; and
Marco Polo junior : by sea to Xanadu/story by Sheldon Moldoff. Artwork by Eric Porter. Book adaptation by Stuart Glover. Paul Hamlyn 1972 colour illustrations, 60 pages Marco Polo Junior books, book 1; and
Marco Polo junior: by land to Xanadu, Sydney Australia Paul Hamlyn 1972 colour illustrations, 60 pages
Eric Porter Productions also released c. 1972 a 16mm colour film, Marco Polo Junior: The Making of the Film, a 9'22" long look at the techniques used in making the feature film, as part of the promotional push, and this has now thankfully surfaced on the NFSA DVD release.
Eric Porter has a useful short biography at the ADB here.
(Below: one of the movie tie-ins - for this edition, see Trove here).
Preliminary storyboards and character designs were done by two American animators Al Kouzel and Eli Bauer, and the sound-track was pre-recorded in the United States, but after this, all production was handled in Australia, with the soundtrack revised and edited as the animation progressed.
While Porter supervised, the animation was directed by Cam Ford and Peter Gardiner, Australians with experience in television series animation (Ford had worked in Europe and was one of the animators on the Beatles' feature Yellow Submarine).
Pop idol Bobby Rydell had previously turned up in the Eddie Davis directed, Reg Goldsworthy produced 1971 feature down under That Lady From Peking, and his contribution to Marco Polo Jnr isn't much more distinguished, except to emphasise the American intent of the production. He has a wiki here.
As well as playing the main character, American singer Rydell sang several songs, his lounge style sitting oddly with the exotic land of Xanadu, and perhaps this was one reason why the film failed to appeal to Australian audiences. Several of the songs were by Australian musicians Jack Grimsely and Julian Lee.
Kevin Golsby, who voiced the red dragon, and the only key Australian voice in the film, was a radio man who dabbled in acting and did many voices for commercials.
Arnold Stang, an American comic actor, began on radio in late 1930s, and stayed in work thereafter. He later specialised in voices for animated shows such as Top Cat, for which he voiced "T. C." He has a wiki here.
Marco Polo Jnr was apparently the only voice work for American actress Corie Sims, while Larry Best's chief distinction was working on the TV series Milton the Monster with Sheldon Moldoff.
Shortly before the film's domestic Australian release release in the Christmas holiday season in December 1972 an American cartoon special about the original Marco Polo was screened on commercial television.
To try to differentiate the show, the film's distributor added on the lengthy main title.
The film is also known as The Magic Medallion in some territories - it was the title given to the show for its television release in Australia in 1976.
The Prime Minister William McMahon's daughter Melinda was guest of honour for the preview of the film at the Rapallo theatre, late November 1972.
The film was released in Australia with a thirty minute support feature by the Porter studio, The Yellow House, which later became a television series. The one off story was based on the story that Van Gogh had painted his house yellow, and his neighbours forbade their children to go anywhere near the house because they believed the artist was mad. But children flocked to the yellow building which they called the sunshine house. Porter devised the project after discussions with a U.S. toy manufacturer, and it contains animation and puppet segments as well as live action.
The usual plethora of meaningless statistics - which are routinely trotted out as publicity for animation feature films - were also trotted out for this project, a typical one being that enough sheets of paper were used in the production to cover a seven acre farm.
Portions of the film were cut into a new title Marco Polo Return to Xanadu in 2001, which was put together by original producer Sheldon Moldoff with Ron Merk, and which has been released on DVD in the United States.
In 2005, one of the animators who worked on the original film, Cam Ford, wrote to a blog, noting that the budget for the original film was just over a half a million 1970s dollars, compared to the Disney average of $4-5 million at the time, and that the American remake used a lot of the original footage, but the story veers off into time travel and outer space, and is really a bit of a mish-mash. (here).
With the failure of the film, and the lack of enthusiasm shown to The Yellow House, Eric Porter Productions became a sub-contractor for US animation house Hanna-Barbara, helping churn out animated fodder for American television.
It was a case of join them or be beaten by them, as a plaintive newspaper story noted that Hanna-Barbara were offering 50% better deals than local studios could manage to make television commercials.
Even so, a downturn in the business saw Porter shutter the animation doors in 1975, a sad end to a brave attempt to maintain some kind of animation activity in Australia over several decades.
Porter turned to live action television commericals and produced a telemovie, the 1976 Polly Me Love, which starred Jacki Weaver and Hugh Keays-Byrne, and was set in early Sydney town.