Partially because of the usual attrition one experiences during life, and partially because my family moved a large number of times while I was younger, I no longer possess many artifacts from my childhood. Yet for a good three decades, I inexplicably retained a paperback tie-in book for the 1975 animated musical Hugo the Hippo—even though I have no recollection of seeing the movie during its original release. More likely than not, I held onto the book for the colorful illustrations, which showcase an ornate style of line art. In any event, the book finally drifted out of my life a few years ago, but the normal business of this blog led me to track down Hugo the Hippo itself. And while I can’t describe the experience of watching the movie as one of tarnishing a beloved memory, I worry for the sanity of my younger self if seeing Hugo the Hippo was something I deemed worthy of commemorating. One can only hope the book was a gift from some misguided relative.
Originally made in Hungary, but later dubbed into English and festooned with an American song score, Hugo the Hippo is easily among the weirdest children’s films of the ’70s, which is saying a lot. The movie is alternately cloying, disturbing, dull, offensive, psychedelic, saccharine, and tragic. Not many pictures contain gentle ballads sung by Marie Osmond as well as shockingly racist portrayals of black people, but Hugo Hippo does.
Set in Tanzania, the bizarre picture begins when sharks invade the port of Zanzibar, frightening away the porters who work waist-deep in the water every day and forcing the Sultan of Zanzibar to seek a remedy. The Sultan orders the importation of a dozen hippos, which presumably can drive the sharks away. Entrusted with the task is the Sultan’s green-faced Minister of Finance, sadistic schemer Aban-Khan. He leads a hunting party into the jungle, and they successfully acquire animals including little Hugo, the adorable son of the King of the Hippos. Released into the harbor, the hippos defeat the sharks but are subsequently abandoned and slaughtered, turning Hugo into an orphan. Desperate to survive, Hugo escapes to a farming community and eats crops until he’s arrested and put on trial (!), becoming the center of a conflict between the goodhearted children of Tanzania and the nature-hating adults.
Yes, Hugo the Hippo is yet another ’70s movie riding the environmental-crusade bandwagon.
Nearly every scene in Hugo the Hippo is so peculiar as to seem like part of a drug-induced hallucination, which means that a complete inventory of the picture’s oddities would take too long. A few highlights shall suffice. In one sequence, Hugo and his best pal, a little boy named Jorma, have a food-themed dream that culminates with Hugo and Jorma evading corn cannons and pumpkin samurai by riding a giant butterfly toward a planet made of cauliflower. Seriously. Elsewhere, Jorma and other children serenade Hugo with these promises: “If you go to jail, we’ll get parole for you; if you go below, we’ll save your soul for you.” FYI, this ditty about venturing into hell to rescue a hippo is sung by Marie’s little brother, Jimmy Osmond. Unbelievably, it gets worse. The voice of Aban-Khan is provided by game-show staple Paul Lynde, the bitchiest queen of the ’70s, so every line the villain speaks sounds like an example of gay camp.
And as syrupy-sweet as some of the songs performed by the Osmonds and by Burl Ives are, the underscore is dark, giving parts of Hugo the Hippo the texture of a surreal horror movie. How horrific? Let’s try the montage of sharks eating everyone in the harbor or the sequence in which Aban-Khan systematically murders Hugo’s entire family. And then there’s the racist content—think monkeys performing a Harlem Globetrotters-style routine (completely with whistling), or Jorma enjoying his favorite breakfast cereal, “Jungle Pops.” On every single level except artistic execution—thanks to a gorgeous color palette and relatively ornate line work—this movie is about as wrong as the ’70s gets, so I’m glad that time has erased the reasons why Hugo the Hippo first entered my young life.
Hugo the Hippo: FREAKY