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Western Animation / Twice Upon a Time

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Once upon a time, there were some people called the Rushers of Din. Every night, as they slept, sweet dreams were delivered to them from sunny Frivoli, and nightmares came to them from the mysterious Murkworks. But the villain of the dark castle was not content. He wanted the Rushers to have non-stop nightmares, and for that he needed control of the Cosmic Clock. It was a time in desperate need of heroes — any kind of heroes.

Twice Upon a Time is a 1983 mostly-animated comedy-fantasy directed by John Korty and Charles Swenson, and executive produced by George Lucas. As with several other animated films of the early '80s (The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH), its theatrical distribution was such that it made virtually no impact...and unlike those films it didn't get much video/cable exposure either. The month it debuted on HBO, the pay channel's guide made a full page announcement - and that was the last anyone heard of it until the early 1990s, when it had a brief video release; Cartoon Network twice showed it as a weekend feature by decade's end. The film finally resurfaced on DVD in 2015 via Warner Archive.

The land of Frivoli is where dreams are made, and the land of Din is where they are taken to for delivery to the sleeping Rushers, via the jolly old man Greensleeves and his helpers the Fig-Men of the Imagination. They have an evil counterpart in Synonamess Botch, who runs the nightmare factory known as the Murkworks and sends vultures out to deliver nightmares to Rushers. (Frivoli, the Murkworks, and the residents of both are animated via illuminated cut-outs while Din is Deliberately Monochrome live-action. Rushers are what we know as humans.)

Now Botch launches a master plan: He has Greensleeves and company kidnapped, and then tricks innocent fools Ralph (an "all-purpose animal", so called for his shapeshifting abilities, voiced by Lorenzo Music) and Mumford (a Charlie Chaplin-esque mime) into stealing the spring of Din's Cosmic Clock for him. They do and this stops time in Din — at a moment when everyone is awake. Botch will send the vultures there to drop powerful nightmares everywhere, then restart the clock and detonate them, which will trap all the Rushers in waking nightmares...forever. It's up to Ralph, Mum, Greensleeves's niece/aspiring actress Flora Fauna, inept superhero Rod Rescueman, and a harried Fairy Godmother to put things to rights before it's too late.

Notable names among the crew, years before they became famous as directors, are Henry Selick (sequence director)note  and David Fincher (special photographic effects).

Not to be confused with the Doctor Who-episode of the same name.

This animated film contains examples of:

  • An Aesop: Two.
    1. Everyone deserves a second chance.
    2. Slow down, and enjoy the world around you.
  • And Starring: Paul Frees, who played the Narrator and various minor roles.
  • Animate Inanimate Object: The nightmare that Mum and Ralph experience is of office supplies coming to life and attacking them.
  • Anything but That!: When Botch sees what he thinks is a nightmare bomb (actually Mum) coming at him, the idea of being subjected to one of his own nightmares causes him to Freak Out to the point that he falls out the window.
  • Ash Face: Rod passes the Fairy Godmother's rescue test by inhaling the flames surrounding her. But then he accidentally exhales the flames back out, charring her to a crisp.
  • Bad Boss: Synonamess Botch, and he's completely aware of it at least with regards to the vultures.
  • Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad: Scuzzbopper makes a big deal of his boss going to "sunny Frivoli", pointing out how much he hates the place.
  • Batman Gambit: Fairy Godmother "firing" Ralph and Mum, telling them they don't have what it takes to be heroes. It works.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • Mumford. He goes ballistic on the Garbagerie loudspeaker.
    • Ralph pulls out at the stops on Botch at the climax, changing shape faster and with less effort than ever before.
  • Big Bad: Synonamess Botch.
  • Big "NO!": Botch, when all his nightmare bombs go off before time is restarted.
  • Big Red Button: As part of his plan, Botch designs a button labelled "The Big Red One" which would detonate all the nightmare bombs in Din at once. Unfortunately, Ralph ends up tricking him into pushing it before time restarted, causing the bombs to detonate harmlessly.
  • Books That Bite: Killer books are seen during Ralph and Mumford's nightmare.
  • Bowdlerized: Most airings were edited to remove some of the more PG-13 content that the original (which aired on HBO) had. Arguably, this is a case of reverse bowdlerization, since the saltier dialogue was added without the director's knowledge and the sanitized version is actually closer to his original intent. The DVD release includes both audio tracks.
  • Bungled Suicide: Scuzzbopper hangs himself — but he's so light that he doesn't even pull the noose taut.
  • The Cape: Rod Rescueman is still young, naive and is as much a Dumb Jock as he is The Hero, but his heart is in the right place. With some tempering, he definitely has the potential.
  • Caps Lock, Num Lock, Missiles Lock: Botch has a Big Red Button to detonate his nightmare bombs. In the climax, Ralph shapeshifts into a fly and baits Botch into trying to swat him, resulting in the flyswatter hitting the button and detonating the bombs prematurely.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Synonamess' opening credits introduction literally has him twirling his mustache!
  • Cartoon Creature: Ralph's default form.
  • Chained to a Railway: Flora's first job as a nightmare actress is to be tied to a railroad track.
  • Character as Himself: Mumford is credited "As Himself" in the end credits sequence.
  • Clip-Art Animation: The film uses a technique its director calls Lumage. The characters are made of small pieces of plastic or fabric that are moved on top of a light table. It also uses black-and-white photographs for the land of Din, which is meant to be the real world.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Mumford is rather flighty, and is frequently seen goofing off while the other characters are doing more plot-important things.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Of the PG variety in Botch's opening Rousing Speech.
  • Coincidental Accidental Disguise: The nightmare bomb rolling towards Botch in the climax turns out to be Mumford stuck on a pipe, his hat and feet sticking out and giving it the appearance of a bomb.
  • Collector of the Strange: Botch has rooms in his castle dedicated to collections of all sorts of weird things, including lava lamps, salami, stretched cats, and the "royal bat-head collection".
  • Cool Car: Botch's stretch hotrod.
  • Cool Old Guy: Greensleeves. He's very crusty (he jokes that the Fig Men "tap-dance not, neither do they fart"), but he's unequivocally a good guy.
  • Crazy-Prepared: During the final battle, Botch has a series of traps laid out for Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, apparently intended to handle any form Ralph can take. Unfortunately for Botch, Ralph eventually turns into a bird, and later a bug, and flies around the rest of the traps.
  • Damsel in Distress: Heavily spoofed. Flora gets a job at the Murkworks playing this role in various nightmares, and Rod Rescueman's test for whether he's appropriate for being hired by the Fairy Godmother is rescuing her from her flaming desk. Becomes Damsel out of Distress when Ibor captures her — Rod tries to rescue her, but in the end she destroys the robot herself.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Synonamess Botch has the look pegged, with his hunched back, drab clothing, greasy hair, and skinny mustache.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Fairy Godmother.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The Rushers and their city of Din are all depicted in black and white.
  • Deranged Animation: The "Lumage" animation style gives the film a very unusual and unique look, and the film is full of bizarre sight gags.
  • Disney Villain Death: Played straight with Ratatooie, and subverted with Botch, who falls out of his tower but is caught and carried off by his vultures. Given how poorly he treated them, this is probably not going to turn out well....
  • The Dragon: Ibor the video gorilla (a TV Head Robot). Via one of the shout outs below, a clip of quintessential dragon Darth Vader appears on it at one point.
  • Dramatis Personae: After the opening credits and prologue, the main characters are introduced to us in this manner.
  • Dream Land: The primary setting, aka the land of Frivoli.
  • Dreams vs. Nightmares: Dreams are created in Frivoli, a candy-colored land of whimsy, and delivered by Greensleeves and his Figmen of the Imagination. Nightmares, on the other hand, are produced in the Murkworks by Synonamess Botch and delivered via bombs by vultures. The plot involves Botch kidnapping Greensleeves and the Figmen as part of his plan to give the world endless nightmares.
  • Duck!: Ralph yells "Duck!" when being attacked by the vultures. And then he turns into one!
  • Dumpster Dive: Flora while looking for her uncle's letter at the Garbagerie.
  • The '80s: The film would be timeless if not for some of the '80's pop songs scattered throughout the film.
  • Embarrassing Slide: Synonamess Botch accidentally puts a photograph of a half-naked woman in his slide show. ("That's an old actress I used to know.") Mumford is especially pleased.
  • Epic Fail: When Botch activates the nightmare bombs too early, his monitor mocks, "Failure", "Nightmares Wasted", "Tilt", and "You Lose".
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening Rousing Speech by Botch basically tells you all you need to know about the film - this was not going to be your usual fairy tale cartoon.
    Synonamess Botch: I just want to say a few words to you scumbags before you deliver those nightmares. I know some of you have girlfriends and old ladies and all that kind of crap, and you're probably expecting to get in their feathers tonight. Well, let me just say tough shit! And for you jerkoffs who think you can hang out here on your fat asses, I have one thing to say to you: go suck an egg!
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: The Murkworks.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: When Flora finally meets her uncle Greensleeves.
    Flora: Uncle Greenie, is it really you?
    Greensleeves: Basically it is, yeah.
    Flora: You're short and bent!
    Greensleeves: I'm short and bent.
    Flora: What happened to my Uncle Greenie, the handsome dashing hero?
    Greensleeves: He got short and bent. But he's glad to see you nonetheless. Come here, darling, let me give you a kiss, you sweet love! (kisses Flora)
    Rod: (looking on jealously) I should get short and bent.
    (Eyebor enters and promptly makes Rod short and bent.)
  • Extreme Omnivore: Botch's pet armadillo... thing Ratatooie — most spectacularly when he eats all the garbage that Ralph and Mum were gathering up. His regular diet consists of nuts and bolts.
  • Fairy Godmother: She prefers "FGM" - she hates excess verbiage.
  • Fan Disservice: Botch taking a shower.
  • Fanfare: A brief one plays every time Rod Rescueman enters a scene. Lampshaded when FGM hears it over the phone:
    Fairy God Mother: I sense he's arrived.
  • Floating Limbs: Scuzzbopper has no arms; his gloves just float in mid-air.
  • Flying Brick: Rod Rescueman embodies the strong-and-tough version of this trope. Has no other powers that we've seen.
  • German Expressionism: The Murkworks makes heavy use of this style with its surreal angles and shadows. Din also leans into this after time is stopped, especially when Mumford accidentally detonates a nightmare bomb in an office building.
  • Happily Ever After
  • Heel–Face Turn: Scuzzbopper in the third act.
  • Idiot Hero: Rod Rescueman. He's only got a superhero learner's permit.
  • I Fell for Hours: Flora falls for so long after stepping out of Rod Rescueman's flying bachelor pad, Rod has enough time to wash and iron one of his dirty capes before flying to her rescue... sorta.
  • Is This Thing On?: The first lines of dialog uttered is Botch muttering "Is this on?" into a microphone while preparing to give a speech to his vulture minions.
  • I Want My Mommy!: Botch during his Villainous Breakdown.
    Synonamess Botch: No! Never! It's too much to bear! I want my blankie! I want my momma!
  • Jerk Jock: Rod Rescueman is rather self-absorbed and not very bright, and dresses like a cross between a football player and a superhero. His base even resembles a football.
  • Joisey: The Fairy Godmother has a thick Jersey accent.
  • Kangaroo Court: While Ralph and Mum do tend to mess up, their trial following the accident they caused in Frivoli seems to be a lot like this as they're immediately pronounced guilty and sentenced to work in the Garbagery.
  • Large Ham: Flora's idea of how an actress is supposed to perform.
  • Life's Work Ruined: After spending the majority of the movie writing it, Scuzzbopper finished his magnum opus, the Great Amurkian Novel. Unfortunately, when he showed it to Botch, he threw it out the window because he needed nightmare scripts instead of novels. This act is what drives Scuzzbopper to temporary attempt suicide, followed by a Heel–Face Turn.
  • Light Is Good:
    Narrator: Sweet dreams were delivered to them from sunny Frivoli, and nightmares came from the mysterious Murkworks.
  • Lilliputians: The residents of Frivoli and the Murkworks are puny compared to the Rushers of Din.
  • Literal Metaphor: Botch's title as Nightmare Producer Extraordinaire is quite literal as he produces his nightmares like movies, with the essence of each word and sound being distilled into a liquid that's poured into the nightmare bombs.
  • Look Ma, I Am on TV!: Rod Rescueman shouts "I'm on camera!" when he sees himself on Ibor's screen, just before Ibor knocks him out.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: When FGM gets accidentally charcoaled by Rod, her reaction is basically the same "Ow" you'd make from stubbing your toe.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Ralph asks the Garbagerie computer how far to take the garbage. It replies, "Far away", then "Far, far away" then "You'll know when you get there."
  • Meaningful Name: The citizens of Din being called the Rushers is quite fitting as they all speed through their lives due to the Cosmic Clock being wound too tight. Fortunately, when time restarts at the end of the film, it goes at a normal speed, allowing the citizens to enjoy their lives.
  • Medium Blending: In addition to the Roger Rabbit Effect, some backgrounds in the animated world have cut-out photographs of real objects and people among the rest of the drawn world. The look of the film is meant to resemble a collage.
  • Never Learned to Read: Played for Laughs — this applies to the Chef Justice of Frivolinote , which is why he just tosses away Greensleeves's letter — a plea for help. Luckily, Flora Fauna has noticed that all letters sent to him get tossed away in this manner, and decides to retrieve it and see what it actually says...
    Flora: Why am I not believing this man?
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Literally, as Ralph and Mum end up accidentally breaking the Cosmic Clock with all their messing around. Subverted in that the Clock was broken — it was set too fast, causing the Rushers of Din to, well, rush. When the spring's restored, the Clock is set to a neutral speed; tellingly, this allows one Rusher to stop, buy a balloon and enjoy life.
  • Nightmare Fuel: invoked Quite literally. Nightmares are made of screams poured into nightmare bombs.
  • There's No Kill like Overkill: In the final confrontation, Botch fires upon Ralph and Mumford with a huge battery of cannons.
  • "Not Wearing Pants" Dream: One of the nightmares being staged at the Murkworks involves a guy ending up in his underwear at a graduation ceremony.
  • Once Upon a Time: The phrase is used in the Opening Monologue (naturally).
  • Place Beyond Time: Most of the denizens outside Din have no concept of time, because the Cosmic Clock doesn't affect them. Synonamess has to explain to Ralph exactly what time is.
    Synonamess: (on the Rushers) They don't have the time to be friendly.
    Ralph: (confused) What don't they...?
    Synonamess: Time. They have watches, or clocks on their wrists, which tell them the time they don't have because they are always rushing, and...
    Ralph: (now UTTERLY confused) I'm getting... what is time?
    Synonamess: Two o'clock. Four o'clock. Five o'clock.
  • Practical Effects: The nightmare gas that leaks from the bomb Mumford accidentally dropped in the office was shot on a set piece in real time, using mannequins in place of office workers who were frozen in time. The same technique was used in the climax using a miniature of the city of Din, when Botch detonates all the nightmare bombs prematurely.
  • Punch-Clock Villain:
    • Scuzzbopper; with his jester outfit and status as an unappreciated lackey (he's the head nightmare writer) he also has aspects of the Villainous Harlequin.
    • Ibor and the Vultures qualify as well. It's implied the latter barely tolerate Botch.
  • Punny Name:
    • "Synonamess Botch" is a pun on painter Hieronymus Bosch, known for his nightmarish artwork.
    • Greensleeves' assistants are the Fig Men (figment) of the Imagination.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Ralph, Mum, Flora Fauna, and Rod Rescueman. The first two are actually referred to as "misfits" note  early on, but no one else in Frivoli is aware of what's going on save for the Fairy Godmother, and there's only so much she can do for Ralph and Mum (i.e., hiring Rod). Even she loses faith in the pair and fires them from trying to save the day. Their determination to prove they can do something right leads into the final act.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After their encounter with the nightmare bomb, FGM takes Ralph and Mumford back to Frivoli and tells them what lousy heroes they are, pointing out how Ralph's naivete and excessive caution and Mumford's carelessness messed everything up. While dispirited at first, Ralph is eventually driven to try again and prove that he and Mumford aren't failures after all.
  • Roger Rabbit Effect: For the scenes in which the characters travel in Din, though a few times the characters acting against still photographs.
  • Rousing Speech: Botch attempts one, but it doesn't seem to inspire any morale at all.
  • Sequel Hook: While the movie sadly didn't do well enough to warrant a sequel, at the end Ralph tries to return the third magic dime to FGM, who tells him to keep it because "You're gonna need it."
  • Shout-Out:
  • Smooch of Victory: Rod expects/wants this as payment for "saving" Flora from the Murkworks. At the end, he finally gets one out of her, and she also gives this to Ralph, Mum (twice) and Scuzzbopper.
  • Splash of Color:
    • Greensleeves and the Fig Men live in a filing cabinet, with green and purple drawers respectively. When Fig Men bestow dreams, it comes with colorful fireworks.
    • A balloon in Din turns yellow in the final shot.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Ibor, courtesy of his TV screen face.
  • Stop Motion Animation: A rare 2D example, animated with back-lit translucent paper cutouts to be exact. The crew dubbed it lumage (a combination of "illumination" and "image") because the back-lighting made the characters appear to glow. Certain elements, such as Botch's shower curtain, were real objects stop-motion animated against the drawn backgrounds. Others elements are animated still photographs.
  • Sugar Bowl: Frivoli is a Played for Laughs example. It's even got cows singing their mooing!
  • That's All, Folks!: Parodied via the trope namer as the last thing we see on Ibor's screen before he blows up.
  • Time Stands Still: The effect of Ralph and Mumford removing the mainspring from the Cosmic Clock is that time comes to a complete stop in Din.
  • Title Drop: During the end credits song "Twice Upon a Time." The title refers to Ralph and Mumford getting a second chance to save the day.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Ralph in the climax. Upon believing that Mum was blasted by Botch's cannon, not knowing he had taken cover behind a pole, Ralph finally managed to control his shapeshifting abilities and successfully used them to trick Botch into detonating the nightmare bombs before the Cosmic Clock was restarted.
  • TV Head Robot: Ibor.
  • The Twelve Principles of Animation: Followed surprisingly well for what's effectively a stop-motion film, with numerous examples of squash and stretch and exaggeration throughout, notably when Ralph and Mum mess around inside the cosmic clock, and while most of the film suffers from the "jerky" look most stop-motion has, others have surprisingly good timing and flow.
  • Undercrank: Used to portray the waking world of Din. "Rushers" are so named because they're literally rushing through their lives, thanks to what Botch explains is a lack of time — he tells the heroes his plan is to give them more via fixing the too-quickly-ticking Cosmic Clock. When Ralph and Mum search the Cosmic Clock for the spring, they cause time to run even faster, much slower (via overcranking), and even in reverse until it stops outright. At the end, when time restarts, it's at a normal pace at last.
  • The Unintelligible: The only sounds Mumford makes are squeaks.
  • Unrated Edition: Inverted. It was originally going to be a clean family-friendly film but a much more vulgar redub happened behind director John Korty's back to get a PG rating. The film's theatrical release would be this PG-rated explicit dub that outraged families and was aimed more towards college stoners. The PG-rated theatrical cut would be aired on HBO a few times before being pulled under Korty's wishes. The home video releases would come with the original clean, family-friendly cut which would be unrated. The Warner Archive DVD comes with both PG (explicit) and unrated (clean) audio tracks.
  • Unwanted Assistance: Everyone eventually feels this way about Rod. invoked
  • Unwanted Rescue: Rod's rescue of Flora from the Murkworks (he thought the King Kong-inspired nightmare she was filming was real). He punches out Flora by mistake.
  • Villainous Badland, Heroic Arcadia: Dreams are created in Frivoli, a candy-colored whimsical Sugar Bowl, and delivered by Greensleeves and his Figmen of the Imagination. Nightmares, on the other hand, are produced in the Murkworks, a logics-defying spire cobbled out of dark, ominous architecture, and delivered via bombs by vultures.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Botch after his plan is ruined by accidentally setting off the bombs early trying to kill Ralph. Then he sees a nightmare bomb (actually Mumford) approaching him and falls out the window while crying for his blankie and his momma.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Ralph the All-Purpose Animal can turn into an astounding variety of creatures, all of which share his cartoony eyes and yellow color scheme.
  • Walking Disaster Area: Ralph and Rod Rescueman tend to accidentally cause chaos wherever they go. The former gets better. The latter, not so much.
  • Writers Suck: Scuzzbopper yearns to write "the Great Amurkian novel", but Botch does not care. This sets off Scuzzbopper's Heel–Face Turn.
    Flora Fauna: Who's that?
    Synnonamess Botch: Scuzzbopper. He's nothing. A writer.
  • You Just Ruined the Shot: Rod Rescueman sees Flora performing on a set and thinks she's really in danger.
  • You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry!: Ralph really got ticked in the climax when he thought that Botch blasted Mum.