Friday , March 1 2024
A new DVD release of Harry Nilsson's classic children's cartoon. . .

The Point

Took me years to catch up with the cartoon version of Harry Nilsson’s The Point. When the telemovie debuted in 1971, I was immersed in junior year college studies and barely cognizant of network teevee. (That’d quickly change, of course, once I got through grad school.) When I finally had my first viewing of the 73-minute ‘toon, twenty years later, it was being aired as holiday programming on my local PBS station. The version they showed looked a bit washed-out, but the tone and feel of Nilsson’s children’s fable remained unchanged.
I knew the basic story by heart at that point. A Nilsson fan, I’d bought and nearly memorized the 1970 RCA album adaptation ahead of the telemovie’s first network broadcast: a blend of music and Nilsson narration capturing all the plot points (okay, last time I do the “point” thing!), the long-playing Point was the last release of fresh Harrysongs ’til his chart-breaking Nilsson Schmilsson. Even recognized one of the seven songs (“Poli High”) from a rate live appearance by the studio recluse on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Nilsson’s resolutely tuneful melancholy is at its best on this soundtrack: one track, “Me And My Arrow,” would become a minor hit for him (and be used in a car commercial), but even better are the wry “Think About Your Troubles” (neatly covered by Jellyfish on a Nilsson tribute album) and the gorgeously mournful “Lifeline.” Though the songs were attached to a putative children’s fantasy, the sentiments expressed in ’em were often recognizably adult: one song has the singer confessing that he’s “had a drink or two an hour or so ago,” while two of the songs repeat the lyrics, “And in the morning when I wake up, she may be telling me goodbye.” Clearly, there’s more behind The Point than a story about a little round-headed kid and his dog.
Through the years, I’ve caught the animated Point whenever it showed up on cable television. At one time, Disney Channel apparently had the rights to it and broadcast a version with re-recorded narration by Alan Thicke. The original network broadcast was narrated by a young Dustin Hoffman, but for some strange reason (a contract dispute?) Hoffman’s narration has not re-aired. This spring, BMG released a basic DVD of the telemovie, which is now being narrated by Ringo Starr. The shift in narrative voices doesn’t hamper the story (and it makes a certain sense to hand the reins to a onetime Nilsson crony), but it is kind of odd.
The movie tells the story of the imaginary Land of Point, where all the inhabitants possess a point on the top of their head, and the young boy Oblio (voiced by Brady buncher Mike Lookinland), who has the misfortune to be the first one born with a round head. Wearing a pointed cap, Oblio gets along with most of the inhabitants in the kingdom – who appear to be a genial lot, in general – with one notable exception: the son of the evil Count. When Oblio, with the aid of his loyal dog Arrow, bests the Count’s son in a game of triangle toss, the Count arranges to have the boy banished to the Pointless Forest for violating the law of the land, basically for “being without a point.” Boy and dog venture into the forest and meet a group of comically metaphorical creatures: a hipster poet made entirely of rocks, three fat sisters who bounce through the forest spreading merriment, plus a three-headed man who takes all sides of the argument and has arrows and hands sticking in all directions.
The message (see, this time I studiously avoided re-using the word “point”!) of Nilsson’s fable (story co-written with Carole A. Beers, dialog done by Norm Lenzer) is that everything in the universe has a point, even those who superficially appear to be lacking one. With this realization, our hero returns to the Land of Point, where he roundly defeats both the Duke and his son. The theme of looking past appearances is not-so-subtly reiterated more times than it needs to be (at least for an adult viewer), but even if it’s needlessly delivered in BIG BOLD 3-D LETTERS, the teevee flick’s visuals (designed by Fred Wolf) remain trippily enjoyable, particularly during the musical interludes.

BMG’s new DVD is wonderfully remastered, making the colors more vibrant than any of the broadcast versions I can remember. A few sequences are more than reminiscent of Yellow Submarine (the visuals for the most psychedelic number, “Point of View Waltz,” even borrows from the same Moulin Rouge imagery that made the movie version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” so visually arresting), but Wolf makes them work for the story. When I first saw The Point, I remember feeling vaguely dissatisfied by some elements of the cartoon’s visual scheme, which show the restraints of a teevee cartoon budget in the years preceding computer animation. But in these days of “Adult Swim” no-frills toonwork, Wolf’s animation looks positively lush.

The voicework features several old pros – most notably, Paul Frees in a variety of roles (including: the ineffable King who is pressured into banishing Oblio, our hero’s father plus a variety of villagers offering ironic commentary during Obli’s banishment trial) – while Lookinland makes a suitably spunky/quizzical hero. (Too bad he didn’t get more voicework instead of being typed and trapped as Bobby Brady.) Longtime Nilsson collaborator George Tipton (who worked on the soundtrack for the Courtship of Eddie’s Father sitcom and produced the singer’s earliest albums) provided incidental music, which is largely unmemorable alongside Nilsson’s compositions.
Per the era when it was created, The Point has elements most adult viewers will type as “60’s” (the overlong trial sequence, for instance, is plainly designed to tweak the period’s conservative-drummed mantra of “law and order”), but in the end it’s more than just a period artifact. Its casually didactic story has loopy charm to spare and, besides, when all’s said and done, there are still those great Nilsson tunes. Watching the DVD on a sunny weekend morning, I couldn’t help but feel heartened by the resurrection of this appealing ‘toon fable. . .

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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