Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Donald Duck Ruined Everything?

For some ridiculous reason (to which, however, I've no desire to be disloyal), I really love seeing negative contemporary reviews of things that are now considered classics. With that in mind, here's a piece I found while looking through the new London Times archives. The article, credited only to "our film reviewer," is from April 8, 1953, it's called "Film Cartoons: Recovery After Decline," and is based on the idea that cartoons have consistently been getting worse since Disney's very earliest color cartoons, and that Disney really sold out by creating Donald Duck, leading to terrible cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Tweety, but cartoons now have a chance to get better thanks to the new hope of UPA.

I'm not quoting the critic to make fun of him (all of us are even now writing things that will look weird even a few years later); it's just an interesting look at where the state of cartoon criticism was in the early '50s. The reviewer was really espousing conventional wisdom, that funny-animal comedy/gag cartoons were hopelessly lowbrow. It's a window into why UPA was considered the saviour of cartoons in this period.


There wete once two Disneys: the humorist who amused himself with Mickey and, incidentally, made a most brilliant use of the new invention of sound, and the lyrical versifier -- poet is putting it too high -- who created the entirely successful Flowers and Trees. They worked in close and happy harmony with the nature of the medium they used, and the lunatic distortions, the exaggerated raucousness, the frenzied fantasies, with which Donald Duck assailed the screen were as far removed from the adventures of Mickey as the dubious prettiness of Fantasia was from the flowing, graceful lines of the Silly Symphonies.

It is possible to see Donald Duck as a heroic rebel, a last-ditch individualist, or to argue that he represented the frustrated fury felt by the common man as the thirties drew to their catastrophic close, but, whatever the motive for his peculiar behaviour, it had a disastrous effect on the cartoon. From the pleasant exaggerations of an inventive humour, the cartoon descended to the depths inhabited by Such creatures as "Bugs" Bunny and " Tweetie-Pie," where all is a chaos of insensate physical disaster, and the point and essence of fantasy are lost in wild and witless extravagance.

There were always, however, isolated cartoons, such as the French Joie de Vivre, to keep the true tradition alive, and there are welcome signs to-day that the cartoon is recovering a proper pride in itself. Perhaps the cartoon will always be happiest with animals, and perhaps the human figure, at least if it is drawn as stiffly as Snow White or Cinderella, will always prove something of an intruder into the lovely, animated world of cartoon nature, but the new U.P.A. films at least make their humans expressive, funny and individual. Gerald McBoing Boing may owe his reputation to an entrancing trick with sound, but he is a boy in his own right, and many people number a Mr. Magoo, that bumbling, short-sighted old gentleman with a dash of W. C. Fields in him, among their acquaintance. The cartoon, indeed, may be starting on a new phase. A form of three-dimensional cartoons is promised, and meanwhile Peter Pan is waiting round the corner to write another chapter in the Disney story.


10 comments:

Thad said...

Jaime, you've found the ultimate example of the "British cinema snob." And I thank you.

There is no reason NOT to make fun of him.

J Lee said...

Ralph Stevenson's early 1970s book, "The Animated Film", which came out in England just before the new generation of animation historians and film critics started turning around the image of Hollywood theatricals, showed that the mindset in that London Times article held sway for the next two decades.

The negativity in the Times' piece towards the type of cartoons that proved the most popular is also the germ of what became in modern times the overreaching political correctness movement against the chase-and-violence type of cartoons (though it's ironic today, reading the Times story, that the sainted UPA's Mr. Magoo finally got ensnared by the PC nannies, when groups champion the rights of the blind protested he was making fun of sight-impaired people).

Rob G. said...

Funny, Donald is about the only Disney character I care about. The others are just too bland for me.

Interesting piece. Thanks.

Brent McKee said...

I agree with Rob with one caveat - some of the very early Mickey's are pretty good before the theater owners and parents got Disney to tone down the wildness of Mickey's adventures. Mickey went from being a character who went to prison (where he picked up a dog named Pluto) and got chased by monsters (only to have it turn out to be a dream), to being a fairly staid and conservative suburbanite, whose biggest crisis was when a baby seal stows away in his car. No wonder a lot of people prefer the Gottfredson's comic strips to Mickey's movies.

Anonymous said...

Ralph Stevenson's clueless "The Animated Film" was once a rather popular supplemental volume in colleges, during the last animation scholarship dark age. Stevenson actually refers to the Road Runner as "Mimi, the Road Runner" in that thing. Where on earth did he get such a name?

PCUnfunny said...

This is one the most ass-backwards things I ever read. The decline of cartoons began when characters were with distinctive personalities ?

Stephen Rowley said...

The opening chapter of Joe Adamson's Tex Avery book includes some amusing swipes at Ralph Stevenson, and a general rant that is a good little time capsule of what early historians like Adamson, Michael Barrier, Leonard Maltin, and Jerry Beck faced, and what they must have felt at times.

Anonymous said...

That's what the Road Runner says: "Mi-mi!"

Donald F. Duck said...

Donald is SO a heroic rebel. That's why Daisy, Gus, Gladstone, Gyro, Fethry, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and even Uncle Scrooge look up to me—I mean, him. Every day, the great Mr. Duck's words are quoted by thousands of adoring iconoclasts. And—

Oh, hi, Uncle Scrooge. What are you doing here? Hey, don't read that! Awright, awRIGHT! Only Fethry looks up to me. And that in itself is immensely disturbing. Stop hitting me, Unk! I'll stop typing right n

oswald t.l. rabbit said...

Gerstein, if you're headed out there, I'll be at Jay's tonight, k?

O