Monday, October 30, 2017

The Devil and Daniel Mouse: A Canadian Made Halloween Special

As surprising as it might seem now, there was a time when Halloween specials were a rarity on television. Even though literally hundreds of Christmas specials aired in the Sixties and Seventies. for much of that time It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the only Halloween special that aired with any regularity. That made 1978's animated special The Devil and Daniel Mouse somewhat of a rarity at the time it aired. What made this special, well, more special is that it was made in Canada. What is more it was also made by an animation studio that would soon be rather famous, Nelvana, Ltd. It would also play a pivotal role in animation history, but that will be discussed a little later.

Nelvana was founded in 1971 by Michael Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A. Smith. The company was named for Canada's very first superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights. The company started out by making animated fillers for the CBC. They eventually produced a short-subject series, Small Star Cinema, for the broadcast company. Starting with A Cosmic Christmas in 1977, Nelvana began producing animated holiday specials. The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be their second holiday special, produced to air around Halloween.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse was written by Ken Sobol, who had already worked in animation for several years. He had written scripts for such American Saturday morning cartoons as The Lone Ranger (the Sixties version), Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Fantastic Voyage. For Nelvana he had written their previous holiday special, A Cosmic Christmas. The special was very loosely based on Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster". It centred on two anthropomorphic mice who comprise the folk music duo of Dan (speaking voice by Jim Henshaw, singing voice by John Sebastian) and Jan (speaking voice by Annabel Kershaw, singing voice by Valerie Carter, billed as Laurel Runn). After the two are fired from their latest engagement they fall on hard times. Dan sells his guitar. Jan takes even more drastic measures, selling her soul to B.L. Zebub (voiced by Chris Wiggins) for fame and fortune. When it comes time for the Devil to collect his due, Dan must figure out a way to save Jan.

The songs for The Devil and Daniel Mouse were written by John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful. They were sung by Mr. Sebastian and Valerie Carter. Valerie Carter spent most of her career as a back up vocalist, singing with such diverse acts as Don Henley, Linda Ronstandt, and Little Feat. She also wrote songs for such artists as Jackson Browne, Judy Collins, Earth, Wind, & Fire. She also recorded four solo albums.  

The Devil and Daniel Mouse was directed by Nelvana co-founder Clive A. Smith. Mr. Smith had already blended animation with popular music as part of the crew that worked on The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon as well as the feature film Yellow Submarine (1968). He would later direct Nelvana's first feature film, Rock & Rule (1983). Here it must be be pointed out that The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be historic as the first Nelvana project to feature the familiar Nevlana logo with a polar bear at the end.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse debuted on the CBC on October 5 1978. It would be syndicated to American television stations that same month. Nelvana Records also released a record album based on The Devil and Daniel Mouse in 1978. The following year Avon/Camelot released a storybook written by Ken Sobol and featuring lyrics and music by John Sebastian. The special would continue to air for the remainder of the Seventies and throughout much of the Eighties.

Of course, today The Devil and Daniel Mouse might be most famous for providing inspiration for the cult film Rock & Rule. Initially intended as a children's movie not unlike the holiday specials Nelvana produced, Rock & Rule would ultimately be an animated feature film that was definitely intended for an adult audience. That having been said, it is easy to see how The Devil and Daniel Mouse inspired Rock & Rule. Both incorporate rock music with animation. Both deal with diabolical figures. Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two is that both use the idea of music being able to defeat evil (as Dan says in The Devil and Daniel Mouse, "...a song from the heart beats the devil every time."). While Rock & Rule would have a very limited theatrical run  that prevented it from making any money at the box office, it would go onto become a cult film and is now widely regarded as a classic.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse would have a somewhat spotty history on home video. It was released on both VHS and Betamax. In 1980 it was included in the collection Nelvanamation. It was also included on the collection The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction was only released on CED Videodisc, a format that lasted only briefly in the Eighties. It would later be included on both the two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-Ray releases of Rock & Rule. Unfortunately the version included with Rock & Rule was a later one edited down to 22 minutes from the special's original 25 minutes to make room for commercials when it was syndicated.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be historic for many reasons. First, it was one of Nelvana's earliest projects. Nelvana would go onto become one of the most important Canadian animation studios. Second, it was a Halloween special at a time when Halloween specials were rare. Before The Devil and Daniel Mouse, there was It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and not much else. Third, it was the first of Nelvana's projects to feature the familiar polar bear logo. Fourth, it provided the inspiration for Rock & Rule, now regarded by many as a classic. The Devil and Daniel Mouse is rarely seen these days, but given its place in history (as well as the fact that it is rather well done), it really should be seen more often.

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