Living dolls are an ancient obsession, storied wherever there are stories and sung wherever there are songs. Pygmalion’s ivory bride; Hephaestus’s automata; Hidari Jingorō’s statues; the golems of Prague; Pinocchio; Sir Cliff. We are fascinated by the idea of sculpting a soul, of lacing gears together so finely that sparks of life glimmer between the teeth. The creation of life could be considered the final goal of art. Mona Lisa smiles because she has to. Imagine a painting that smiles because it wants to.

No artist has succeeded at this task, unless God is an artist. According to Genesis, he formed us out of dust from the ground, so in a way, we’re his toys. But why would you want to give life to a toy, assuming you could? Toys are defined by a relationship with their maker: in Aristotle’s classic schema, we are agents (actors), and toys are patients (acted-upon). A living toy is a paradox, inhabiting both and neither role. Children’s movies can bring toys to life, but they always raise existential implications that are never properly dealt with.

Long before Alan Menken brought Broadway to Disney, there was Richard Williams’ Raggedy Anne and Andy: A Musical Adventure, an animated film from 1977. Toys are preparing for their owner Marcella’s seventh birthday when a pirate captain breaks out of a snowglobe and kidnaps Marcella’s birthday present, a bisque doll called Babette. A loyal Raggedy Anne doll goes on an adventure to rescue Babette.

The film was a box office bomb that ended up as airtime space filler on CBS and the Disney Channel. It has a thin plot, and relies on Williams’ animation and Joe Raposo’s music to carry it. But again…toys are alive in the film, and conspire to make the life of children wonderful. Are they slaves? Do they have free will? Do they have the ability to judge? To hate? The point of toys is that they’re not alive: they’re a tabula rasa you fill with your personality and wishes. Researchers at the Kibale National Park have observed adolescent chimps using sticks as toys, but the males use them as weapons or tools, while female chimps cradle them like babies. That’s what a toy is: a shadow of the one who makes it. The idea of a living, talking, thinking toy, with a will insubordinate to your own, is a weird one that seems to naturally slide toward horror, like a stone rolling downhill.

The toys in Raggedy Anne and Andy exhibit Nietzsche’s slave morality. They are fully subservient to Marcella, not because she’s nice or worthy, but because she’s a girl and they’re her toys. They seem to possess awareness and introspection. Raggedy Andy is ashamed that he’s owned by a girl. The Twin Pennies are curious about what life is like outside the playroom. Most disturbingly, Raggedy Anne feels pain and discomfort at Marcella’s rough playing—the first thing she does is complain that she’s popped half her stitches. However, they seem to be at peace with their place in the universe. They can’t imagine freedom. The only characters who rebel are Babette and Captain Contagious, the villains.

The movie is charming, and beautifully animated by 1970s standards (until the production ran out of money—believe me, you’ll notice when this happens.) Of special note are Tissa David’s sensitive Raggedy Anne and Andy, Art Babbitt’s Grecian-tragic Camel With Wrinkly Knees (with each of his humps embodying a different personality!), Emery Watkins’ voracious sucrose ocean Greedy, and the typical brilliance displayed in Richard Williams’ “No Girl’s Toy” sequence.

It’s also shamelessly schmaltzy, and feels decades older than 1977. I’d always assumed Raggedy Anne dolls were based off Anne of Green Gables (red hair + freckles), but this is not true. This is a movie based on a doll patented in 1915, and then a children’s book written in 1918, and you really feel those years. Raposo’s music is straight out of Tin Pan Alley.

The film was (possibly) funded by the CIA. Did you know that?

It was distributed by the ITT Corporation, a shady manufacturing conglomerate with ties to the US executive branch: their involvement in Augusto Pinochet’s coup is now well-established. This was around the time the CIA was waging a so-called Cultural Cold War, which involved promoting “American” forms of art such as Broadway musicals. The source of funding was apparently an open secret among the film’s production team. Here’s a second or third hand story shared by Steve Stanchfield (by way of Garrett Gilchrist):

(Not speculation at all). Talked with Dick [Williams]. A friend had visited him and talked about how the CIA had funded the film. When I was talking with Dick about Emery [Hawkins] being fired, I asked if that was the CIA. Dick’s hands went in the air and he said loudly “those were the guys!!” and started to tell a story. His wife quickly came over and said “we’re not going to talk about that right now”. Later, while I was at the national archives searching for Private Snafu materials, I made a request to see material related to the CIA, ITT and Raggedy Ann and Andy. The freedom of information act is a wonderful thing. ITT was in trouble in GB and the states for being a front for the CIA. This led to the assassination of a candidate in South America, leaving egg on the face of ITT. They produced some childen’s programing to show they are a solid company with family values (and, of course, that idea is as ham-handed as it sounds). The programs were the Big Blue Marble and the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy. Raggedy Ann was to be released, at the latest, in the summer of 1976, in time for the big celebrations for the Bi-Centennial of the US. ITT bought Bobbs-Merrill for this purpose. Once the film was finished, they sold the Raggedy Ann film for $10 to Bobbs-Merrill and, somehow, allowed their assets to be sold back to itself. It is now owned by Random House. This is public record, and there’s many, many pages (thousands). I’ve just seen a handful.

If the ITT Corporation was indeed a spinnerette for taxpayer money, this could imply that part of the film belongs to the US public—ie, it’s public domain. As a pundit joked when obscenity charges were brought against a Robert Mapplethorpe photo of a flaccid penis, it probably won’t stand up in court, but I definitely feel less guilty than usual about giving this film the Captain Contagious treatment, if you know what I mean.

I’ve watched it once, and may watch it again. I maybe I won’t. Raggedy Anne and Andy is pleasant, but it’s not an unsung masterpiece.

The pacing is terrible. The film larded down by musical numbers—we get SEVEN songs before the first vestiges of plot emerge, and I’m not joking. It’s a “Musical Adventure” with MUSICAL in all caps and (adventure) in a tiny-sized font. What little story exists is episodic. Raggedy Anne and Andy make a new friend, get into trouble, escape somehow, then repeat as often as needed. 

But the movie’s flaws—the leisurely pace and incidental storytelling—curiously work. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child, cooped up indoors on a rainy day, playing with your toys and making up an adventure for your head. Or rather, what it once was like to be a child.

What would a kid born in a year starting with “201” think of this film? Would it provoke wonder? Or would it simply seem as an alien relic, undecodable and indecipherable? When I see children today, I am struck by how few of them still play with toys. Instead of Raggedy Anne, their hands are wrapped around a glowing shard of magic glass. It sings to them, enchants them, dreams for them, hurtles them algorithmically into an adulthood they’re not prepared for. Young girls are memorizing rules on how to diet and dress and say correct words and have correct thoughts. Their brothers watch aspirational lifestyle videos by a bald sex predator. The past depicted seems strange, but that’s not true: the world of 1977 is set in stone, remaining the same forever. We’re the ones mutating. The film thinks we’ll recognize ourselves in Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy, when actually we’re the Greedy.

In the future (if not the present), this movie will look like footage of a rare jungle tribe. Or maybe research notes of those chimps in Kibale National Park. It depicts a way of life, a piece of the past that’s coming unravelled in memory like Raggedy Anne’s stitches. For this reason alone, it’s worth watching—or at least, knowing about.

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