A soundtrack of rhythmic pop music pulsates as two boys—one purple-skinned, his cranium coming to a sharp point; one white, wearing a pointed yellow hat and with a blue dog perched on his shoulder—stand at a starting line. An orange referee with a similarly pointed head toots a whistle and throws a triangle in the air and the boys start running the length of the field, gazes fixed on the triangle. When the purple boy spots a trio of lissome orange cheerleaders in the crowd, he stops, preens, and flexes for them, but the boy with the dog’s eyes stays on the triangle. The dog looks up as they reach the finish line, easily catching the triangle on his snout as the music reaches its crescendo. The two boys return to the starting line, the purple boy scowling and downcast and the yellow hat-wearing boy with the dog triumphant.
The Point!, a cartoon counterpart to Harry Nilsson’s album of the same name, premiered as an ABC Movie of the Week on 2 February 1971. After its initial broadcast, the film developed a surprisingly long second life, screening at indie cinemas as a midnight feature, filling up late-night space on basic cable, and getting rolled into classrooms as an accessible way to talk to kids about bullying and diversity. What made this film significant on its original broadcast, and why are we still watching it today?
By the time Harry Nilsson had conceived of The Point!, he was a critically acclaimed musician’s musician mostly known to the general public as the Beatles’ favorite singer and group. His music had an enthusiastic following among Hollywood music supervisors; his songs had appeared in Midnight Cowboy, Skidoo, and Head, he’d written the theme song for The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and he made a special appearance on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. While he wasn’t a household name, he’d done well enough with assignments like these that he was able to buy a house next door to Timothy Leary in Los Angeles.
Nilsson had conceived of The Point! on an acid trip. “One time I took some acid someone had left over (after a party),” he told reporter Rich Field in 1992. “I always wanted to take it and never had… I looked out on this picture window and there was this canyon and it was, like, alive. It was beautiful. So I kissed my wife and said ‘Sorry to wake you. I took that acid. I’m going for a walk.’ She said ‘Okay.’ It was dawn.
“I took a walk on this little lane and it came to me, you know, that the trees had points, and the leaves pointed, and the houses looked like they had points… Oh, yeah, that’s it! Everything has a point! And then I thought, what would happen if someone had been born without one?”
Realizing this thought would lend itself well to film as well as music, Nilsson reached out to animator Fred Wolf, who had just won an Oscar for his short film “The Box”. “I met Harry because we were mutual friends with (singer/songwriter/actor) Paul Williams,” Wolf recalled in a recent interview. “We hit it off because we were both from Brooklyn. He told me the idea of a story about a kid from a pointed society being born with a round head.”
The animator agreed that the story had potential and set him up with two writers to help him grow the idea. Working with Carole Beers—who would later work for Walt Disney—Nilsson conceived of a round-headed boy named Oblio who lived in the town of Point, where all the residents were born with points on the tops of their heads. After winning a game of Triangle Toss against the song of the King’s evil aide, the Count, Oblio is banished to the Pointless Forest. Contrary to what he learned in the town of Point, the creatures of the Pointless Forest aren’t pointless at all, a fact that he shares when he triumphantly returns to his ancestral land.
Norm Lenzer, a TV writer and frequent Wolf collaborator, was tasked with writing the script. “There were three of us,” Wolf said. “Lenzer would write the script, Harry would review it, and I would tweak it.” Wolf and Nilsson saw The Point! as a natural fit for ABC’s Movie of the Week series—which launched the career of Steven Spielberg and brought producers Aaron Spelling and David Wolper to a wider audience—and after completing a pencil test and a treatment, Nilsson attempted to pitch the film to the network.
It took some doing. After ABC commissioning editor Marty Starger cancelled three meetings with Nilsson, he booked a seat next to the executive on a cross-country flight and introduced himself by saying “I’m Harry Nilsson. You’ve cancelled out of three meetings. You sure are a hard guy to get to know.” A few weeks later, the network made a formal offer to broadcast The Point! in February of 1971.
Production took almost two months. “I locked myself in a room and worked at night at my apartment in Malibu,” Wolf remembered. Earlier in his career, when he worked as an animator for The Flintstones, the animator had developed some fast-working techniques that allowed him to work independently from a studio. By skipping a full pencil test and going straight to color, he developed a distinctive, scratchy style that accentuated the sharp angles in the town of Point. The use of watercolors gives The Point! a pleasantly tactile quality that plays into the childlike aspects of the film; you can practically feel the page indentations from the uneven pigmentation in some of the shots.
Nilsson wrote and recorded the music for The Point!—which would eventually become an album—while Wolf worked on the animation. “I had to tell him not to visit,” Wolf said with a laugh. “We were two Brooklyn guys and he would come over and force me to drink!” Because the two were working on their versions of the story at the same time, Wolf’s film was able to expand upon some of the details that Nilsson couldn’t include on his record. (While the character of the Count has only one line on Nilsson’s record, for example, Wolf, Lenzer, and voice actor Lennie Weinrib gave the character an oratory style of speaking and a Shakespearean vocabulary that emphasized his villainy.) “The two projects weren’t a mirror image of one another until the final months,” Wolf recalled.
The film version of The Point! got rave reviews on its release in February of 1971, and over two million families tuned into the premiere. “I was pleased but not overwhelmed,” Wolf said of its success. “I didn’t have the cure for cancer.” Though the film was only rebroadcast once three years later, it developed a second life through two disparate audiences—as an occasional feature on the 1970s midnight-movie circuit, and as a 16mm rental for elementary schools that had started to teach about the problems of prejudice and bullying.
Wolf, meanwhile, became the animator of choice for Laurel Canyon musicians who wanted to make movies. His studio had a production credit on the Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels, which was released to theatres six months after The Point!’s premiere, and Wolf would later direct a series of TV films about Peter Yarrow’s character Puff the Magic Dragon.
Harry Nilsson’s profile has risen in the past few years. His song “Gotta Get Up” was used to great effect in the Netflix series Russian Doll, and his final album Losst and Founnd was finally released in early 2020. The film has a gentle innocence not frequently found in Nilsson’s protean, ribald catalog, and it gets lost in the shuffle of an artist who has frequently been lost in the shuffle. The themes of injustice and nonconformity still feel prescient 50 years after its broadcast. As we look back over the events of the past year, maybe The Point! will give us a sense of optimism. Nilsson and Wolf depicted heavy themes in a way that talked to its audience, instead of at it, and their irreverent sense of humor and pragmatic optimism made it a family film that engaged and entertained its audience instead of preaching at it. Perhaps that’s why we’re still watching and talking about it today.