Don Knotts, the Emmy-winning actor who rose to fame on The Andy Griffith Show, launched his starring career in movies with this 1964 family comedy that mixes animation and live action. He was still a regular on the popular series when he signed to star as a henpecked bookkeeper, too frail for World War II service, who's transformed into a fish with a special "thrum" power, a roar capable of taking out the enemy. Although it received only mixed reviews, the film developed a strong fan following that continues to this day. It also caught the eye of Universal Pictures President Lew Wasserman, who signed Knotts to a long-term contract that forced him to leave The Andy Griffith Show in 1965. The films he made for Universal - including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), The Reluctant Astronaut (1967) and The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968) - were hits that continue to attract a strong cult following.
Although the film marked a major beginning for Knotts, it also marked the end of the Warner Bros. Animation Department. The studio that created such enduring favorites as Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew had to abandon doing animation in-house because of rising costs and diminishing demand for cartoon shorts to screen along with feature films. After 1966, the studio would farm out its animated shorts to Depatie-Freling Enterprises, creators of the Pink Panther cartoons, then give up theatrical animation altogether in 1969.
Just because Warner's was dismantling its animation department, though, it didn't mean they skimped on The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Producer John C. Rose was something of a perfectionist who went through several animators before he got the look he wanted for Knotts' naval alter ego. Although former Disney employee Bill Tytla was credited as animation director, he left the film early in the production process because of failing health and constant quarrels with Rose. Most of the work was supervised by Robert McKimson, who had started with Disney, but had moved to Warner Bros. in the early '30s. He had animated several of the most beloved Bugs Bunny cartoons, including "Gorilla My Dreams" (1948) and "What's Up, Doc?" (1950).
Perfectionism would dog attempts to remake The Incredible Mr. Limpet as well. In the late '90s, a new version was announced, with Knotts' blessing, as a vehicle for Jim Carrey. After spending about $10 million on animation tests using motion-capture techniques to give the fish Carrey's face, with less than satisfactory results, the project was dropped. Talk of a remake has continued with Carrey and Robin Williams both mentioned as stars. More recently, Zach Galifianakis has been attached to a version due to start production in 2014.
By Frank Miller
The difficulties of making the original The Incredible Mr. Limpet and getting a remake off the ground point up the special problems involved in melding live action and animation. Historians often cite "The Enchanted Drawing" - a 1900 short from J. Stuart Blackton, the father of American animation - as the first film to mix the two media, though it seems rather simplistic in comparison to Mr. Limpet's interactions with the U.S. Navy. In the pioneering film, Blackton draws a face on a large canvas. He then adds objects like a wine bottle, a hat and a cigar to the drawing, pulling them off for his own use and returning them to the canvas for use by the newly drawn figure. As he gives his figure a drink and a smoke, its expressions change. Blackton did this by stopping the camera and changing drawings, though he does so with surprising precision for such an early film.
In the '20s, Walt Disney and Max Fleischer had popular series of animated shorts mixing the two techniques. Disney's Alice cartoons featured a live girl wandering through a dangerous animated world, while Fleischer's Koko the Clown, created by tracing over footage of his brother in a clown costume, interacted with the animator's hand and various real animals and objects. Disney refined the technique of mixing live action and animation in feature films like Fantasia (1940), in which Mickey Mouse shakes hands with conductor Leopold Stokowski, and The Three Caballeros (1944), in which Donald Duck interacts with various characters and performers from Latin America. He then had James Baskett, as Uncle Remus, interact with animated characters from the Uncle Remus stories in Song of the South (1946). At MGM, Gene Kelly danced with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Esther Williams swam with Tom and Jerry in Dangerous When Wet (1953). One of the most popular mixes of animation and live action would occur in Disney's Mary Poppins (1964), which captured an Oscar® for special effects.
The earliest combinations of animation and live action used double-printing, combining the negative of the animation with a negative of live action to create a release print. Later, optical printers photographed the two different versions as they screened simultaneously, allowing for more sophisticated synchronization of the images. The biggest breakthrough in mixing the two formats came with the use of digital special effects, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) making the combination of live actors and animated figures more popular than ever. That and new motion-capture techniques have helped make the combination as seamless as possible, with films like Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) making the animated figures seem to interact freely with human actors. Those are the techniques that should help The Incredible Mr. Limpet reach new generations of viewers should a remake ever be completed.
By Frank Miller
The fish into which Don Knotts transforms in The Incredible Mr. Limpet most closely resembles the tilefish, a shallow-water species considered something of a delicacy by chefs. As a fish, he really would not have been much of a candidate for military use in real life. Most military research has centered on aquatic mammals like the dolphin, sea lion and even the beluga whale. And programs to enlist those species didn't begin until almost 20 years after the film's World War II setting.
The Navy first started training dolphins in 1960, initially trying to use the study of dolphins and other species to improve their own sonar capabilities. The Marine Mammal Program eventually trained dolphins to help rescue swimmers, locate underwater mines and lost objects, and tag enemy swimmers, which proved very useful during the Vietnam War. Eventually, sea lions were also enlisted to help locate missing objects, and researchers explored training beluga whales, which could navigate colder waters than dolphins. Dolphins would later help guard the harbor in Bahrain during the first Gulf War. At that point, the Navy possessed more than 100 dolphins in various stages of training.
By the 1990s, the Navy began downsizing its Marine Mammal Program, leading to some controversy over the best ways to deal with decommissioned dolphins. Eventually, they determined that it would cost more to re-acclimate their trained dolphins to the wild than it would to keep them. The Soviet Navy, which also kept a number of trained dolphins, ran into similar problems. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, several of their dolphins were sent to the Ukraine, where they eventually were retrained to serve as therapy animals, working with children.
Producer: John C. Rose
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Jameson Brewer & John C. Rose
Based on the novel by Theodore Pratt
Cinematography: Harold E. Stine
Score: Frank Perkins
Cast: Don Knotts (Henry Limpet), Carole Cook (Bessie Limpet), Jack Weston (George Stickel), Andrew Duggan (Harlock), Larry Keating (Admiral P. P. Spewter), Oscar Beregi (Nazi Admiral), Elizabeth MacRae (Ladyfish), Paul Frees (Crusty)
By Frank Miller
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