This is an animated adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. It was three years in the making, without any dialogue, and intended to be a hit abroad as well as Japan. The film aimed to be nothing less than a second Fantasia.
If you're wondering why you've never heard of this movie, it's because it isn't, politely speaking, any good.
When initially screened, audiences complained that the story was hard to follow. Is that male they keep seeing one character or several? Is it one story or an anthology? Is there a plot at all? The film takes five different stories from Ovid, and though they attempt keep these comprehensible, it requires a working knowledge of these myths to understand what was going on. The repetitive character designs didn't help.
So a narrator was attached to the film and can be heard in both versions available today. In the English version - the first one released - the narrator, no less a figure than Peter Ustinov, mostly succeeds in making the story easy to follow. It's decided that the male protagonist of each story is intentionally the same character, a young boy Ustinov dubs ‘Wondermaker'. I have no idea whether he was always intended to be this or this explanation was just there to gloss over the similar character designs (human women are similarly repetitive).
Unfortunately, the often excellent Ustinov is terrible here - his efforts at humour invariably fall flat and frequently sound inappropriate. More than once the film ignores its semblance of plot solely for the sake of its imagery - leaving Ustinov to state rather self-evidently that a helpful leaf is leading Orpheus to the underworld. Or to point out holes in the plot, or idly wonder what strange creature that is (occasionally making a threadbare attempt to give an image a non-existent mythological meaning). The overall effect is like watching a silent movie with an unwanted uncle who is very convinced he's funny. It's a sub-par riffing effort inexplicably included in the film proper.
The pace meanders rather aimlessly - some segments with more focus than others - and finally peters out with a whimper.
The best thing I can say about the animation is the imagination frequently used. The animators clearly do not feel beholden to traditional depictions of these myths - Pegasus has a strangely snake-like head, Diana's nymphs are more of Sanrio's typically elegant fairies, and so on. I think the film's handling of Pluto is particularly good - a dark, barely visible monstrous presence who changes significantly when hearing Orpheus's lyre.
That said, the blending of some live-action footage (water principally) feels awkward, if not as awkward as other seventies cartoons like Lord of the Rings. Other design choices are either uninspired or just plain strange. Why is Diana a hulking monster? Why do most human characters have that cutesy look? This childish tone often seems to be at odds with the film's occasional nudity, which is most prominent in the more monstrous female opponents.
Despite its best efforts, Orpheus never really reaches the level of animation to which it aspires. It's underwhelming rather than amazing.
Like the film itself, the soundtrack has a certain cult status. Perhaps if you enjoy disco you might like the music - but, frankly, I found it flat, generic, and thoroughly dull. It never compliments the imagery and largely feels like a rather awkward attempt to make the film hip - that the earlier cut used the Rolling Stones also fills one with puzzlement. It goes without saying that Orpheus's lyre is mediocre.
Aside from non-verbal noises, the only vocal performance in the film is the narrator. Peter Ustinov sounds as good as he normally does. However, he occasionally changes his voice to speak for other characters - and his falsetto in particular is something I could have done without.
Both the music and narration give this film a certain camp quality.
As already noted, the film is silent, requiring the characters to be expressed entirely through their body language or Ustinov's asides. These asides are a decidedly unhelpful method of development, though the animated characterisation is decently handled.
Ultimately the characters are about as half-formed as the plots they wander idly through.
In the age of hip seventies animation, Orpheus is nowhere near as abominable as other cinematic aberrations. But with a plot incomprehensible without narration and intolerable with it, some less-than-ideal pacing and a poor choice of music, the film is hardly a success.
I can't claim to like it, but it's an ambitious failure, at least.
Silently telling the tales of many myths involving transformation, a boy called Wondermaker moves through realms of imagination. He becomes Actaeon, a hunter who peeks at the bathing goddess Diana. Then, as Orpheus, he descends into Hades to retrieve his wife Eurydice. He courts a girl named Perce as the swift god Mercury, and as Perseus he is sent to slay Medusa – a creature who turns all who look at her into stone. Finally, Wondermaker becomes Phaeton, the son of the sun god, who seeks to steal his father’s chariot in order to fly.