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Director: Dave Fleischer
Premiere Date: December 4, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mr. Bug Goes to Town © Max Fleischer‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ was the second and last feature by the Max Fleischer studio.

In almost every aspect, the film is a great improvement on the studio’s first, ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘. Its story is more engaging, its characters are more likable, the animation is of a higher quality, the stylized New York backgrounds are more impressive, the score (by Disney veteran Leigh Harline, of Pinocchio fame) is much more inspired, and the cinematography more interesting.

In a way ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ is the inverse of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Where Gulliver was a human giant in a land of tiny people, Hoppity and his friends are tiny (four-legged) insects in a land of human giants. These humans, all heavily rotoscoped, are faceless giants who seem to have walked straight from a Superman cartoon. Nevertheless, two of the ‘human ones’ (as the insects call us), a songwriter and his wife, become important to plot, as owners of the land the little insects live in. The plot resolves on the insects’ struggle to survive after the fence has been broken, and their houses are being trampled by crossing pedestrians, or set on fire by discarded cigarettes and cigars.

Hoppity, the James Stewart-like hero of the picture, tries to help, but his actions are thwarted by the evil Mr. Beetle (voiced by storyman Ted Pierce) and his helpers Smack the Mosquito and Swat the Fly. The creepy Mr. Beetle has an eye on Honey, the lovely daughter of Mr. Bumble and Hoppity’s love interest. It’s this setting which propels the film forward, and the film only ends when Hoppity and his friends are safe, and he and Honey united in marriage.

The trio of villains is a great improvement on the trio of spies Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: their interaction is delightful to watch and provides the necessary comic relief. The love story between Hoppity and Honey, of course, is more interesting, too, than that of the bland prince and princess of the earlier film. Unfortunately, Honey remains a terribly bland stock figurine, and has no personality whatsoever of her own. Hoppity is better as the typical optimistic underdog who will fight to the very end, no matter how dire the straits.

The character designs are a little old-fashioned and remain rooted in the cute designs of the second half of the 1930s. Some of the dialogue even is in rhyme, harking back to these more childish days. There’s none of the experimentalism that can be found in the Disney features of the time, including ‘Dumbo‘. The most advanced scene is when Hoppity gets electrified in the nightclub. This accounts for some pretty surreal images.

The cinematography, however, is great overall, and at several times the tiny insects are juxtaposed to the huge world of human hands and feet (a film like ‘Mouse in Manhattan‘ (1945) is by all means tributary to this feature). Because rotoscope is restricted to the faceless humans, who remain in the background, the technique is less irritating than in Gulliver. On the contrary, this feature makes the humans blend within the background of the story that is about insects, after all.

In any way the film is certainly worthy to watch, even though it’s no masterpiece. The songs, for example, by star writers Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser, are unmemorable. Worse, the film retains an awfully relaxed pace without ever reaching real excitement. There are also some plot twists that are hard to swallow: the film’s greatest drama, when Hoppity’s dream garden appears to be less perfect than expected, is very weak and unconvincing. Then we are asked to believe that a sprinkler floods all the insects back to their original lot. Later, when Mr. Beetle and his helpers imprison Hoppity, they do that in the very letter Hoppity desperately had been waiting for. Moreover, when he has thus disappeared, nobody seems to go looking for him. And the finale, in which the insects climb a new skyscraper, while its being built to reach a rooftop garden in full bloom, stretches the concept of time beyond believe. Nevertheless, this finale is pretty exciting, and makes a fantastic watch. I’ve no doubt that it’s this spectacular trip that will stick into the viewer’s mind.

‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ absolutely shows that the Fleischers were very able to make feature films. Unfortunately, they weren’t allowed to make another one. ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ premiere date preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor by just two days, and after the attack its general release was postponed. By the time the film got a wide screening (as ‘Hoppity Goes to Town’) in mid-1942, the Fleischers were already out of business. Paramount hardly promoted the picture, and the feature unfortunately flopped. Since Fleischer’s successor, Famous Studios, never made a feature film either, Walt Disney remained the virtual monopolist of feature length animated entertainment in America for more than forty years…

Watch ‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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