Children losing their parents in tragedy has long become a staple of animated movies since Disneys melancholy 1942 tearjerker Bambi but its rather rare to find an animated feature where a similar incident occurs and the story doesnt end happily ever after. Imagine if you will that Bambi and Littlefoot the hero brontosaurus from Don Bluths The Land Before Time never got over their mothers deaths especially with no one to comfort them but instead they defect from their own kind to join forces with the killer and become corrupt monsters themselves. Do so and you get the basic idea behind Ringing Bell a rather obscure 1978 Japanese animated feature which despite its initially cuddly setup is as downbeat and meanspirited as youll probably never see from cartoons today. The film which barely clocks in at 45 minutes making it more of a featurette than anything else tells the story of Chirin an adorable little lamb who like most innocent little protagonists in a childrens animated tale grows up on a farm with his mother. One night however a ferocious wolf attacks the sheep on the barn and in protecting her child the lambs mother is bumped off. Of course Chirin is a storm of tears but none of the other sheep show him any sympathy. In despair Chirin runs away to take vengeance on his mothers killer at least initially then later decides to join forces with the wolf. In doing so Chirin grows into a ram every bit as cold and ruthless as his foster father. But when the two return to attack the same barn one night Chirin finds himself having a serious identity crisis. Needless to say theres no happy ending in store for this little lost lamb. Its beyond shocking to discover that Ringing Bell was produced by Sanrio the folks behind the much more lighthearted Hello Kitty. How a studio who created a sugarcoated franchise could churn out a movie as dark and depressing as this is hard to believe To its credit though Ringing Bell does not look like your usual Japanese animated fare but instead possesses a style that is almost but not quite Disneyesque somewhere between that and HannaBarberas adaptation of the popular childrens book Charlottes Web. Furthermore the animation itself is quite fluid running at a full 24frames per second. Aesthetically though Ringing Bell isnt just a gloomy tale it looks like one too. A good majority of the scenes are very smoky and shadowy. The final confrontation between Chirin and his nemesis/foster father in particular is painted with dark dreary colors. Adding to the somewhat disconcerting presentation of the movie are the character designs. Young Chirin and the other sheep are very much reminiscent of the typical sheeplike characters you would see from a classic Disney cartoon while having a somewhat stylized look similar to that of Hello Kitty while the wolf and later on the adult Chirin are designed to look intimidatingly threatening and scary. Surprisingly too Ringing Bell is a musical but the characters never break into song. Rather the occasional musical numbers are performed by an offscreen male chorus setting an appropriately melancholy tone to the production. These are mostly done during transitional scenes such as a tender moment when Chirin is walking through the meadow with his mother and later on as we watch the little lamb grow into a ram. The one drawback is that the songs arent particularly memorable but they are at least fittingly moody. Theres a bit of a dated oldschool feel to the animation and the songs but considering the glut of computer animation today watching a movie as vintage as this is refreshing at least from my standpoint. Theres even a dubbed voice track for the audience who would have little patience for listening to the Japanese version with subtitles. Like the movie the dub too is an old school production dating from the 1980s a period when dubs were at most not very good. Barbara Goodson voices the young Chirin and unfortunately her performance sticks out in all the wrong ways. There are moments that come across as well delivered but more often than not her performance is too strained and unconvincing and I found her voice rather grating. In all fairness the Japanese VA for this character isnt much easier on the ears. Gregg Burger fares a bit better as the older Chirin although his performance is limited to the last fifteen minutes. Ironically his performance as well as that of Ron Gans as the narrator are the best of an otherwise serviceable but mostly average dub. Fluidly animated though Ringing Bell is its difficult to know who this story is targeted at: children? Adults? Good question. For animation buffs looking for a change of pace from the usual fare todays animation market churns out though this movie could very well be worth a look.
67 /100
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