Movies That Ruined My Childhood: Dot and the Kangaroo (1977).
Dot is a precocious little girl who explores Australia’s natural wonders…while learning about all of the atrocities lousy humans create. Fun!
Well, yesterday was Australia Day, the national holiday celebrating the First Fleet arriving in Australia. You know, the fleet of convicts exiled from Britain who ended up displacing the indigenous population. So. Problematic. Let’s think about another Australian institution that’s less controversial: Dot and the Kangaroo. This film featuring a charming little girl and her animal friends, based on a classic children’s book, went on to generate eight sequels. Through cleverness and compassion, Dot manages to help her friends out of peril, usually caused by the awful, no good humans around them. Along the way she only occasionally has to run screaming from ancient cryptozoological animals trying to eat her. So. Totally not problematic.
Dot and the Kangaroo (1977)
Dot lives on the edge of the Australian bushland, and develops a fascination with the wild animals living around her. One day she gets lost while exploring. Luckily, she comes across a mother Red Kangaroo who is looking for her lost child. The two help each other, with the kangaroo introducing Dot to the local wildlife, many of whom distrust humans due to their careless behavior. Eventually Dot is able to return home in a bittersweet ending.
Nature in a Blender.
Yoram Gross does quite a lot on a limited budget. Dot and the Kangaroo (as well as many of the sequels) is made up of animation layered over live shots. Many of the films also have some footage of real animals as well as actors book-ending the main stories. This blend of real and animated gives the projects a unique stamp, and allows Gross to use some filming techniques that would be hard to recreate via animation. It also reinforces the theme of Dot being the strange element in the “real world” of the natural settings.
When Dot and the Kangaroo travel, we get a sped-up first person tracking shot, reminiscent of the iconic final shot in Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead. In fact, the camera in Dot moves around pretty freely, like in Evil Dead (usually a result of not having the budget for proper rigs and dollys to steady the camera). This gives many sequences a floating, tumbling feeling that matches the Alice in Wonderland nature of the story. This unreality leads to much of the uncanny, frightening elements of the story.
One of the long tracking shots is Dot and the Kangaroo running for their lives from the Bunyip. The Bunyip is a legendary creature among the Aboriginal people of Australia, and has quite the list of contrasting characteristics. One depiction has it looking like a big bear/cat blend. One has it look like…well…like this:
Luckily, Dot and the Kangaroo chooses a little bit of a kid-friendlier design:
That’s not so bad. Why did I remember being terrified of the dang thing as a kid? Oh, right. Because everyone else was.
In one of the fascinating mixed media segments, Dot is taught about the Bunyip by watching Aboriginal rock paintings come to life. It’s a clever and beautiful segment, right up until the Bunyip surfaces from a bog and starts chasing the absolutely terrified people around. Coupled with a creepy nursery rhyme song and chanting, the whole episode turns dream-like images into a waking nightmare. It also lasts way longer than it needs to. I don’t care that the Bunyip looks like an amoeba and Kool-Aid Man had a baby, when everyone else is losing their mind and running like their asses are on fire away from it, it becomes something to be afraid of.
The other thing I remember from this show is that many of the animals Dot means are kind of jerks. The platypus Dot meet early on are pedantic pricks who treat her like an idiot. Sure, she’s not very savvy on the way of the outback, but she’s a fricking little girl. Way to dunk on a kid for not knowing the scientific name of platypus, jerkweeds.
The rest of the animals all rightly have a chip on their shoulder, as Dot represents the species bringing danger and destruction to nearly every aspect of their lives. Movies like The Jungle Book show that nature can be dangerous; Dot and the Kangaroo shows nature that is passive-aggressively hostile. It makes you feel sad and guilty that cute, fluffy creatures think you are the scum of the Earth!
It Gets Worse.
Watching the rest of the franchise, you get a sense that we deserve the bum wrap the animals give Dot. From illegal whaling causing suicidal whales, to smugglers tearing apart furry families, to space programs BLASTING DOGS INTO ORBIT on one-way trips, we see people are very much the problem. It’s no wonder the Kangaroo looks so melancholy all the time.
The worst has to be the penultimate movie, Dot Goes to Hollywood. Dot is off to La La Land to raise money for her fuzzy friends. Along the way she gets to see some of the wondrous sites. Just kidding, she gets waylaid in a zoo that wants to display her koala pals. Oh, and why is Dot in need of a cash infusion so desperately? A plague has struck the koala population, leading to blindness and death. Nobody is willing to save her friend Blinky unless she can pony up the cash. Even at the zoo, the vets need to see your bank balance before saving the animal they want to acquire for exhibition. We’re the worst, humanity, just the worst.
For an adult viewer, Dot is surprisingly mature cartoon franchise that’s not afraid to take its environmental advocacy seriously. If you’re like Dot, just a kid who vaguely likes animals, Yoram Gross is going to educate you real quick about what real care for animals means. Protect their habitats. Try to meet their needs. Keep a respectful distance. STOP SHOOTING THEM INTO SPACE TO DIE. The little things.
The blend of styles and inventive camera techniques overcome the budget animation. Gross wisely picks his battles, so that the major characters and scenes look good. The lack of a big budget becomes a virtue, with the live-action footage giving a proper sense of realism. Some of the later films added some animation polish while losing the realism that made the advocacy so impactful. Dot Goes to Space feels like just an episode of The Magic School Bus or Dora the Explorer. There’s less of the frightening but exhilarating dynamic of Dot and the Kangaroo. If you’re interested in the franchise, start at the beginning…and watch out for the Bunyip!