Metamorphoses (Japanese: 星のオルフェウス, Hepburn: Hoshi no Orufeusu, “Orpheus of the Stars”) is a 1978 Japanese animated anthology film, produced by Sanrio. Directed by Takashi Masunaga and based on Ovid’s book of the same name, it took 3 years and 170 Hollywood animators to make. But that bombed, so 7 minutes were trimmed, a Peter Ustinov narration got added, and the whole thing got re-edited around a disco soundtrack. Did that pull its fat out of the fire? Well…
The basics of the story are undeniably solid. There is a reason Ovid’s work has been cribbed from so many times before, and it’s not just because a bunch of European Academics kept on getting all stuffy about it. Even if you view them as simply early examples of The Seven Basic Plots being written down (which is both somewhat valid and needlessly reductive), the plots used still work on many levels. There is also the utility of a lot of people knowing, on whatever level, the setting, and the stories, so they aren’t going in cold.
The additional embellishments that act as a through-line between the five disparate stories are also quite good in concept. The main male avatar is a moderately cute creation (obviously not as lovely as Sanrio’s Hello Kitty) called “Wondermaker”, who plays an assortment of characters that are the focus of each story. Whilst not exactly bursting with personality, he’s emotive enough and has a pleasing genericness that all the little boys in the audience will be able to identify with him (presumably all the little girls are elsewhere, hopefully setting things on fire).
As he, and none of the other various characters, has all the dialogue, Peter Ustinov does his best “Peter Ustinov as a whimsical narrator” narration and is, as you would expect, most effortlessly charming at it. Occasionally he’s distant and disinterested, probably in some writer’s ham-fisted attempt to add wry humor to things. But it’s Peter Ustinov, so you’ll forgive him that as it’s the aural equivalent of being mauled by an overly stuffed teddy bear.
However, having some good plots and a decent framework to tell the story in doesn’t equal good storytelling. Very rapidly it becomes apparent that the pacing is off and no amount of disco in the background is going to get around that. There are moments that feel like outright padding, which are only marginally less annoying than the comedy sections that appear, leave you cold, and then saunter off-stage so the actual narrative can get on with it. These happen a lot, making it feel like a TV special that got out of hand.
Carrying on with that theme, the animation simply isn’t that good. There are some incredibly pretty moments, and a handful of effective sequences, but most of it is far too simply presented and has no real flair to it. It never gets enthused about itself in the energetic way that it should, and there is a minimal stylistic distinction between the sections. It does its job, but that’s it. The soundtrack somehow heightens this effect, as whilst it’s fairly generic disco it’s at that driving 137 bpm so demands exciting and lavish visuals that are simply not delivered.
Many have made mentioned that this was supposed to be the 70s answer to Fantasia, but all that does is highlight how amazing Walt’s masterpiece was. The sparse moments of excellence give a glimpse of what could have been, but mostly it’s just tolerably okay. Disco and animation enthusiasts may possibly get something from it as a curio of its time. Sadly, for most it’ll be Trash that should someone else mentions in conversation they might remember having watched; then contemplate how bad the original must have been for this to be an improvement.