Australia's first animated feature
BY SALLY JACKSON
For the centenary of Australian animation in 2015, the NFSA has undertaken a new transfer of the first Australian animated feature, Marco Polo Junior Versus The Red Dragon (Eric Porter, Australia-US, 1972). The film is now available for the first time.
In production for almost two years, Marco Polo Junior Versus The Red Dragon (NFSA title: 13072) was released in December 1972. It tells the story of an heir to the famous explorer Marco Polo who must return his half of an ancient medallion to the kingdom of Xanadu, at the same time rescuing Princess Shining Moon before she is forced to marry the villainous Red Dragon.
The film features the voice of American and teen idol Bobby Rydell (who also appeared in Bye Bye Birdie, 1963) as Polo. The Red Dragon, Polo’s nemesis, is voiced by Australian actor, comedian and newsreel narrator Kevin Golsby (Division 4, Kingswood Country and numerous Australian Movie Magazine newsreels).
An Australian and American co-production the ambitious project was undertaken by over 100 top illustrators and animation artists working from Eric Porter’s studio. They included Cam Ford (who worked on Yellow Submarine), book illustrator Yvonne Perrin, Peter Gardiner (who worked on The Beatles animated series) and Vivien Ray (Arthur and the Square Knights of the Round Table). The film was aimed at a global market but, unable to secure a major distributor, had only a limited release. It debuted on television in 1976 as The Magic Medallion and in 2002, producer Sheldon Moldoff re-released it with extra footage as Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu, which was a title he had originally suggested for the film.
The film is a fine example of high-quality hand-drawn animation from the time, rich in detail and intricate movement. There are some innovative touches, like coloured strobe effects during the opening song. Eric Porter won Best Director at the 1973 Australian Film Institute Awards (now the AACTA Awards) and the film also received a Gold Award in the General Category. With its overall high production values and several entertaining songs interspersed throughout the film (with lyrics and music variously by Jack Grimsley, Julian Lee, Joel Herron and Sheldon Moldoff), Marco Polo Junior Versus The Red Dragon holds up well today.
The new NFSA transfer restores the brilliant colour lost from the remaining 35mm prints. Taken from an original Picture Duplicating Negative (AKA interneg), the transfer is not a digital restoration but retains the evidence of its film heritage – the occasional mark or some speckle from the original printing process.
You can watch three clips from the film below.
In the first, Princess Shining Moon (voiced by Corie Sims) learns she has to marry the evil Red Dragon (Kevin Golsby). In case she had any doubt about his dishonourable intentions the Red Dragon bursts into song to confirm them. Kevin Golsby half speaks and half sings the introduction to his song (‘The Red Dragon’, with music by Joel Herron and lyrics by Sheldon Moldoff), punctuating his lines with the occasional full-throated cackle. Golsby’s entertainingly big vocal performance fills the soundtrack. His character also dominates the scene visually, as he darts around the room with flashing red eyes while the Princess hardly moves.
In the clip below, Marco Polo (voiced by Bobby Rydell) is surprised to learn from The Guru (voiced by Larry Best) that his arrival has been long prophesied.
In the clip below, Marco and The Guru have been captured by a terrible monster only to discover that The Delicate Dinosaur (voiced by Arnold Stang) is in fact a gentle hypochondriac.
From commercial artist to feature film creator, the career of Eric Porter spans over half a century in the Australian film, advertising and TV industries, from the late 1920s to the early 1980s. Predominantly working in cinema and television advertising, Porter’s achievements are many and his career is littered with Australian firsts.
He made the first colour cartoon – an advertisement featuring Willie the Wombat in Waste Not, Want Not (1938); the first animated television commercials, including Mortein’s enduring Louie the Fly and the globally recognised Mr Sheen character for Samuel Taylor’s cleaning product of the same name.
In 1946 Porter released his first feature film, a live action drama A Son is Born, featuring a young Peter Finch, to good reviews and rewarding box-office receipts. His Eric Porter Studios, a significant contributor to international animation, was successful at breaking into the American advertising world in the early 1970s with some advertisements for Mattel’s Barbie. He followed Marco Polo Versus The Red Dragon (1972), Australia’s first animated feature, with 1973 children’s TV series The Yellow House, a magazine-style show for which Channel 7 paid $100,000.
Read Eric Porter’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography »