I’d known about this 1986 feature for some years, first reading about it in VideoHound’s Movie Retriever, but it had eluded me for years; VHS copies are seemingly scarce, at least in the wild, and the DVD – part of a set compiling the works of Faith and John Hubley – is so out-of-print its very existence seems more rumor than fact. However, it is available to view online, and I finally sat down and watched The Cosmic Eye.
A trio of extra-terrestrial creatures (Dizzy Gillespie, Linda Atkinson, and Sam Hubley) make their way to Earth, where they observe an international montage of creation myths. A dialogue follows between Mother Earth (Maureen Stapleton) and Father Time (Gillespie) where they discourse on the development of the human race and its growing propensities for greed and violence…which threaten its destruction.
When then see a montage of various Sun and Moon myths, followed by a sequence entitled “Step By Step”, showing the juvenile condition – including exploitation and abuse – and asserting the rights of children to love, health, education, and more. Then follows a passage symbolically depicting the devastation humanity has wreaked on the environment, ending with a plea for conservation.
The extra-terrestrials suggest that making humanity aware of their presence – and aware that other worlds have learned the lessons humanity needs to learn and thrived, or failed to learn them and perished. A sequence called “Sky Dance” follows, subtitled “Reaching for Life in the Cosmos.”
Finally, the extra-terrestrials break out their alien musical instruments (the film identifies them only as “Musicians”) and send humanity two messages: “Hello” and “Peace”, before flying off.
With its environmental/anti-war/one-world message, its use of international (especially Central and South American) myth and legend, its eclectic soundtrack (mainly composed by Benny Carter and Elizabeth Swados), loose, improvisational dialogue, and its theme of art unifying mankind, The Cosmic Eye feels like nothing so much as an illustrated world music concept album.
As such, in some respects it hasn’t aged too well, especially when it gets ham-fisted with its message-making; one sequence has a child’s voice literally shouting “Child sacrifice! Child slavery! Auschwitz! Hiroshima!” over stylized images of suffering and injustice. One wonders if Hubley realized that her abstract animation and lack of conventional character and narrative were not doing much to get the message across, and resorted to blunter tactics.
More effective is the Mother Earth/Father Time sequence, which benefits from Stapleton and Gillespie’s voice-work, which adds humor and character to a film a little too short on both. And it gets across the message that humanity must work together if it is to survive better than the more blatant sequences.
The film is most successful when it marries music and animation; the mythological/folkloric sequences are often striking, and the music, especially Carter’s jazz, is generally delightful. Hubley’s animation is colorful and vivid, and the central trio of extra-terrestrials look rather like Miró figures come to life – which, given that Miró is one of my favorite artists, is rather a good thing.
But as strong as sections of the film are, there’s just not enough cohesion – dramatic or thematic – to sustain its length. Even at 72 minutes, The Cosmic Eye drags, and there’s a distinct feeling of padding throughout. The film was pieced together using fragments of films the Hubleys had made before John’s death in 1977 and material Faith created in the years following, and there are times when the inclusion of older material jars; I only outright noticed the excerpts from their Oscar-winning Moonbird, but it was definitely a distraction, as the style of that film was so different from the newer material.
Ultimately, The Cosmic Eye falls short as a whole, but for its status as a truly independent animated feature – at that point in time, a very rare thing indeed – it’s a must for animation buffs, who’ll also appreciate the artistry on display. For the more casual viewer, however, I’d instead recommend the Hubleys’ shorts, especially Hello, which is basically the denouement of The Cosmic Eye, though I think it might have a different soundtrack.
I’d also like to note that the Oscar-nominated Brazilian feature Boy and the World is not entirely dissimilar to The Cosmic Eye in style and theme, and comes recommended.