Thursday, November 8, 2018

Disney's Challengers, part II: A bug's life

(aka Hoppity Goes To Town aka Bugville)

Consider the mystery of why hardly anybody ever mentions the Fleischer Studios' pair of feature-length cartoons to be solved.

Directed by Dave Fleischer and Shamus Culhane
With Stan Freed (Hoppity), Pauline Loth (Honey Bumble), Jack Mercer (Mr. Bumble and Swat), Margie Hines (Mrs. Ladybug and Buzz), Pinto Colvig (Mr. Creeper), Carl Meyer (Smack), and Tedd Pierce (C. Bagley Beetle)

Spoiler alert: mild

Well, give it this: Mr. Bug Goes To Town is not as narratively destitute and structurally broken as Gulliver's Travels, Max and Dave Fleischer's first foray into the territory marked out by their competitors at the Walt Disney Studio, and it is therefore not as completely and totally worthless.  Of course, it's still not any good at all, and, between the two, you wonder if you like or even respect the Fleischers and their studio's output—or if they're just promethean figures in the field of animation, so you have to care, whether you want to or not.

That does no justice to their legacy, I suppose—their body of work is prodigious and groundbreaking, no matter how you slice it—but despite the grim perseverance of a small number of animation nostalgics, it's hard to make the objective claim that they had any idea what it took to make real, feature-length animated films, either on the scale set by Disney's own great contemporary indulgences, or taken simply as themselves, without any unfair comparison to the fabulous resources lavished upon, and sometimes squandered upon, the several passion projects undertaken by Walt Disney during his Golden Age.

So: while it's never as in-your-face offensive about it as Gulliver, Bug is (once again) pretty much just a comedy short that could've been made at any point during the preceding decade, but instead was made in 1941, and had money and color thrown at it until it was stretched out to around 78 minutes.  The slight difference in quality between the two is down to a single set of interlocking facts: Bug didn't exploit a literary source as a basis for its dubious comedy; Bug at least represents itself as the frivolous nonsense it fundamentally is; and, thankfully, Bug isn't nearly as much a Disney bandwagoner.  On the minus side, it's not ever as stylistically bizarre as Gulliver, demonstrating none of the abrasive clashes in animation technique that at least made Gulliver formally interesting.  Back on the plus side, it's not ever as stylistically bizarre as Gulliver.

Instead, then, what we get is an odd little tale that's sort of about love in the big city during the Great Depression, except with insects.  The central figure animating the plot (though, as it is the 1940s, you will not be surprised to learn she is not a character as such) is Honey Bumble, a honeybee or possibly a bumblee, in any event "a bee," who lives in the "Lowlands" on a grassy field outside a garden, which has a busted fence, and has thereby been left open to the indifferent depredations of the giants the insects call "the Human Ones."  Honey's community is one of vague poverty, but also (what we're invited to interpret as) quaint folksiness, and her father owns the Honey Shop, a hub of social activity, which Honey helps run.  (I don't believe we're supposed to infer that he sells her, but not a lot of thought went into these names.)  She pines for the return of Hoppity, a grasshopper, and it's not long before he makes his way back to the Lowlands, much to the chagrin of Honey's other, less-favored suitor, C. Bagley Beetle, a wealthy, older bug who owns property higher up in the grass, presumptively safe from the lit cigar butts and occasional garden hose floods that threaten to destroy the Lowland bug community entirely.

Beetle is naturally willing to use his wealth and promises of safety as leverage to procure Honey as a wife; but when this fails against her father's willingness to let her heart take her where it wants, and against her honest love for Hoppity, Beetle's willing to play even dirtier than that, and he tasks his comic relief ("comic relief") henchbugs—Smack, a mosquito, and Swat, a fly—with getting rid of this handsome locust.  They fail, nominally amusingly, yet Hoppity is perfectly capable of undoing himself.  Having discovered the garden up the hill as a paradise, he gets it in his head to move the Lowlanders; unfortunately, albeit through no fault of Hoppity's own, this leads to near-disaster, and having lost his community's respect, he turns away in shame, leaving Honey with nowhere to go but to old Beetle.  What Hoppity doesn't know, but will find out, is that the garden is still waiting, and still as idyllic as he believed—but it may not be there for long, because Beetle has hidden a letter containing its songwriter owner's royalty check, and in the absence of that revenue, this man and his wife will have to give up their house, and a skyscraper will be built on the whole lot in its stead, rendering every one of these insects homeless.

You'll recognize most of that as the same basic plot as practically every single romance ever made before the era of women's liberation, including what I conservatively estimate to be at least a literal thousand films made during the 1930s, except now this plot has been crudely retrofitted onto a world of arthropods (and, although I did not mention him, one mollusk, a crotchety snail).  However, you're almost certainly overestimating how much "retrofitting onto a world of arthropods" there is here, and—while I'm not going to ask stupid questions about why they don't have six legs or why they wear clothes or where those clothes come from or why there's so pitifully few of them—it becomes increasingly apparent that this movie would be vastly more palatable and sensible if it were just about a tribe of tiny little humans (dare I say Lilliputians?) who lived in the grass, because that's all this ever amounts to anyway.  The annoyance reaches gallingly critical levels during Hoppity's attempted exodus of the lowland bugs to the garden, whereupon a sprinkler goes off, breaks, and floods the ground, sweeping them all back down the hill... and you're sitting there, saying, "You are insects.  You have wings.  You can fly.  ALL OF YOU CAN FLY."  Meanwhile, you wonder what happens to these poor evolutionary dead-ends when it simply rains.

The insectiness of Bug is therefore limited to the laziest and dullest things: Hoppity's beanpole design and his penchant for jumping; the antennae on the characters' heads; Smack's pointy proboscis; one of the secondary bee characters stings somebody.  Needless to say, there is no thought given to what it means that a grasshopper and a bee love each other; this is not a metaphor.  It's obviously not literal, as you certainly noticed when I mentioned Honey has a father.  It's not anything.  It's not even charming.  It's charming least of all, perhaps, this film's cleverness topping out at "insect slang" typified by wordplay like "gee weeds."  Hell, it's even dumb as a brick about human society, its third act hinging upon the idea that a lost check cannot be reissued (or, for that matter, that a songwriter receiving $5000 in 1941 wouldn't know his payment was coming, and wouldn't have signed a contract to precisely that effect).

It's a cartoon comedy, you say.  World-building shouldn't matter.  And this isn't unfair.  Yet it's never actually funny, which is hardly a shock, given what it is, a dopey melodramatic programmer that, for some reason, was done in animation.  The leads are featureless voids—if Honey's not a character, Hoppity only barely is, and even that's only in the sense he does things, whereas the best thing you can say about either one of them is that Honey is a fascinating attempt to make a bee sexy, the results being somewhere close to an anachronistic caricature of Amanda Seyfreid.

Thus the responsibility for comedy falls upon the side characters, all of whom are tired stereotypes, tired even for 1941, especially Swat and Smack's duo of inept goons, who are also this 1941 production's chief vector for racist jokes that usually aren't even jokes, rather than literally just gestures toward the mere existence of non-whites.  "Ching chang chung.  You know, Chinese!"  Let us also not question why characters this mystified by "the Humans Ones" could make a joke about a subset of humans in the first place, because then our heads would explode.  Anyway, one of Bug's few stabs at experimentation comes part-and-parcel with its stabs at minorities, when Hoppity gets electrified, and is transformed into a whooping neon Indian.  Perhaps you recall Dumbo's "Pink Elephants On Parade"?  Imagine that, but at 1%, and bigoted.

Astonishingly, this cartoon often can't achieve this general kind of broad physical comedy, as somebody clearly got the notion that action is funnier when it's unseen and left to an audience's imagination, which is maybe sometimes true, in a vacuum.  And yet it is not very funny at all when the obligatory corporal punishment meted out by Beetle to his incompetent underlings occurs for the third or forth time in an offscreen netherrealm defined entirely by wacky sound effects.  It is, of course, equally plausible that Dave or Max Fleischer believed this would be cheaper and faster.  And you can't argue with that: it's definitely cheaper and faster, and on the rare occasion the film is required to actually show anything, rather than just vaguely allude to it, you can see they needed every penny and every man-hour, with rampant and obvious repeated animation cycles filling the gap where imagination and work would preferably go.  (It's insane that Bug cost over $700,000, putting it only a bit below Dumbo's budget; the most technically-interesting thing that ever happens in the whole movie is right at the start, when we swoop down through a model of the city by way of Max's "Stereoptical Process," which could generate effects similar to multiplane, only with actual objects.)

But I said it's better than Gulliver, and that's mainly down to it just being less fucking boring.  At least things are happening, even if they're not compelling; at least the main characters, uninteresting as they are, speak before the fourth reel; at least the modal image of Hoppity isn't a static background painting; at least the songs aren't actively terrible; at least racist japery gives you more to respond to than a half-hour-long treatise on how to animate pulleys and ropes.  It is not even entirely bad: Bug offers some pretty watercolor backgrounds, especially in the uphill garden; it has a climax that, while neither well-animated nor particularly sensible (it involves climbing a skyscraper as it's built, seemingly over the course of a few hours), does involve some momentum-building montage, and given that momentum is something Bug's conspicuously lacked, it's welcome despite its weaknesses; and, occasionally, Bug does manage some neat things with scale, like the characters dodging around rotoscoped human feet, or Hoppity and Honey walking to an insect music club in the cracks in a street.  On the other hand, it's almost annoying: one of my little problems with Dumbo is that sometimes it anonymizes its humans, and sometimes it doesn't, depending on whatever's easiest in the moment; Bug actually commits to the conceit of never, ever showing a human face.  And, sadly, that commitment is wasted; in this context, it's nearly pointless.

The playfulness with size is also where you realize that Bug has no idea how big insects are or even how big it's already established its insects to be.  But this is still better than the unbelievably shiftless moments where it forgets what insects mean, like when a bunch of grasshoppers and bees and snails start swarming right in front of a human being yet generate no response at all, rather than a "smash, smash," or (at least) a "shoo, shoo."  I guess in a universe where grasshoppers do sometimes shrink down to half the size of your thumbnail, this isn't wholly implausible.

Truthfully, then, it is not much better than Gulliver; depending on your mood, its lack of ambition may be even more stifling.  Historically speaking, it really is only coincidental that Bug's release occasioned the end of Fleischer Studios... but it sure doesn't look like it.

No, by 1941, the Fleischers had been in conflict for years, and their increasing frictions had exacted their toll—Bug was the last time they worked together, and they didn't work together well, and for all I know November 1941, when Bug was completed and Dave resigned, was the last time they even saw one another.  Likewise, their joint inability to negotiate a non-penurious contract with their distributor, Paramount, meant that their studio's days as an independent entity were numbered already, regardless of how Bug fared.  But it could not have helped that Bug was a leveling failure.  Stories have grown around the film to explain its dire underperformance, which must have come as a surprise after its early December preview screenings reaped the reward of decent reviews.  One such story is that Pearl Harbor sunk it—its actual premiere was moved to February 1942 in response.  Another is that Paramount, in the process of reorganizing Fleischer Studios into Famous Studios, sans Fleischers, had no interest in the Fleischers' film, and therefore dumped it.  Perhaps.  The third story is that exhibitors who saw it during the preview were deeply unimpressed, and basically shrugged their shoulders at it.  And this seems a lot more likely.  The movie's rather terrible; the shock of the new for full-length color animation had long-since worn off; and, if given the option (as, in fact, they were), the average theatergoer would almost certainly have been happier to go see Dumbo for a third time than go see the also-rans' cartoon about insectoid sexual slavery even once.

One is never pleased to see diversity die.  In some ways, it's disturbing how much the story of American feature-length animation winds up being, effectively, just the story of Walt Disney.  Yet for all that, when the Fleischers' very best effort in that field was Mr. Bug Goes To Town, I don't know if anyone could have ever truly missed them once they were gone.

Score: 2/10

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