Wednesday, May 27, 2015

195. Donald Applecore

SERIES: Donald Duck
DIRECTOR: Jack Hannah
STORY: Bill Berg, Nick George

Donald Duck has an apple orchard, but soon finds his fruit is getting devoured by Chip 'n' Dale, who are living in one of his trees. His attempts to evict them quickly escalate to poison and finally "atomic pills", but in the end Chip 'n' Dale survive and Donald blows himself to China.

"Donald Applecore" is one of those shorts that a lot of people seem to have fond memories of from their childhood. And I am one of those people. Perhaps this is partially due to it appearing on one of those VHS collections that Disney put out in the 1980s. It's fun, and the colors are bright. People also seem to most remember the "applecore" game, even though many have know idea what it is or what it means. If you don't believe me, go to Google and type in "what does applecore mean?" or something like that. As it turns out, it's a child's game that perhaps people knew better in the 1950s. Perhaps it's also a regional thing, as many of us never played it. But the essence of it is as follows:
        A person eats an apple, then holds up the core and says "applecore"
        Others respond with "Baltimore" (or sometimes other rhyming words or phrases)
        "Who's your friend?"
        And then the core is thrown at the identified "friend".
Basically, it's like a knock-knock joke with a prank thrown in, similar to a "Hertz donut" or "interrupting starfish" (do I have to explain "interrupting starfish"? Tell me in the comments!).
This short is actually not the first instance of the "applecore/Baltimore" rhyme. In the Johnny Appleseed sequence of Melody Time, the call and response "Applecore! Baltimore!" is chanted in the middle of the party scene.

The "applecore" game is a nice bit of business for this cartoon. It's totally in keeping with Dale's character as it is being defined, bringing out his playful side. It's a fun way for the chipmunks to stall Donald and provides a good running gag. And after all, running gags are hallmarks of classic cartoons. The game also seems to lend meaning to the title, which may also be a pun on Johnny Appleseed.

Something else I noticed when I watched this cartoon again is that it contains a very rare sight: it is one of the few times Donald Duck wears pants. When he's on the beach he wears swim trunks sometimes, but this is the only time I can remember seeing him wear full-length trousers. Even in "Old MacDonald Duck" he doesn't wear pants. Thus, his overalls in this short, if not a first, make for a very rare sight and an interesting image. He almost looks out of character in pants!

I love when little moments of animation can pop in some way. In this one, I am always amused by Donald's tip-toe walk behind Dale. How does a duck tip-toe? The animation cleverly figures it out by having him walk with his feet sort of sideways. And there's character to it as well. I find the "sneaky walk" charmingly amusing, and the moment where they walk up the tree is just perfect cartoon logic. This short has several great creative uses of cartoon logic which I will explore a little later.

Something I appreciate a lot about this particular cartoon is the color design, with the use of primary colors. The apples are focal points to the story, so they are painted with a red that pops. Donald contrasts in blue (the overalls make him more blue than usual), and the greens and yellows in the trees are nice. Donald's plane is a slightly orange red color, which also pops against the blue sky. I almost wonder if we could consider the use of red as indicative of Donald's property (meaning both the plane and the apples), but this is probably reading too much into it. Regardless, when I watch this one in comparison to other Donald, Chip and Dale cartoons of the period, the colors pop in a way that seems a bit unique to this short. The simplicity I think helps the short rest on the strength of its gags, as it really is a gag-driven cartoon, with a story that at times relies on the ridiculous more than some other cartoons of this period. So the art style presents it a bit more matter-of-factly, and I think that helps sell it.

In a similar vane, I find the tree design very interesting. The treetops are pretty stylized when compared to everything else, being basically just painted circles with some leaf squiggles defining their shape. Their uniformity helps sell Donald as the conscientious farmer (these are his crop and not wild trees). It's worth noting that Disney cartoons rarely get this stylized in this period. They don't start getting fully stylized and "outside the lines" until the early 1960s, when the modern look was used for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. That makes this cartoon unique in that the background art is ever so slightly hinting that way with the treetops ten years before the company would embrace that style.

The perspective animation with the apples rolling out of the silo right at camera is very nicely done. I'll try to point out things like this when we get to older cartoons and this type of thing is new and experimental. But even in this one, it shows the animators at the top of their craft who've got it down to a science. Shots like that make the moment more dynamic and thus make the cartoon more engaging.

There are aspects of this short that feel inspired by Warner Bros. It has more "cartoony" elements and sight gags than some others. I love that the silo has a flip-top. But nothing seems more "out there" than the climax with the "atomic pills". First, check out the assortment of poisons Donald has at his disposal. Besides pesticides, lye and arsenic, he's got "essence of TNT", which is pretty funny. He also has "atomic juice" and "atomic dust" apart from the "atomic pills". Just where does he get this stuff? And what could he possibly use it for on an orchard? That doesn't matter; the cartoon is about escalation and somehow in "cartoon logic" it makes perfect sense. Then we get to the funniest business, when the "atomic pill" is swallowed by his chicken, who then lays a ticking egg bomb (as you do). This is such a wonderfully outlandish cartoon idea, and yet in cartoon terms it makes a kind of sense. It's a beautifully timed gag with a payoff that ends the short with a bang. I love the little moments of Donald's thought process as he muses the wonder and terror of a ticking egg.

On the matter of the "atomic" attack, it's well worth remembering the time in which this cartoon was made. We had just entered the atomic age. After the bombing of Japan, we were engaged in a Cold War with Russia and developing better atomic weaponry. America at the time was engaged in combat in Korea. Many viewed Truman's bombing of the Japanese as ending World War II. The finality or threat of the "nuclear option" was probably quite prominent in their minds. Today, I doubt we'd ever have casual cartoon plotting with atomic power like this (complete with a little mushroom cloud when he drops it into his plane!). Yet for the time, I can see how it makes total sense for frustrated Donald to "go nuclear" on his enemies (Truman would be so proud). In shorts of the 1940s, Donald's anger often led him to pointing shotguns at his enemies. Full-on bombing with atomic power is a natural progression to his extremity. We might also view the ending from the perspective that Donald's bombing does not end up harming his targets, but only threatens or destroys his own property (his silo, his chickens), and ultimately he his hoisted by his own petard. Thus, while the "nuclear option" is very much of the time, we might view the cartoon as subversively reminding us of the danger to ourselves that we risk with such a weapon. All of this of course is subtext or critical examination after the fact, as the main concern is to be funny, which this cartoon is. But this is the only time I can recall a Disney short using atomic power in such a way.

Finally, we must come to the other element of the ending that is very much of its time, and that's the Chinese stereotype voice. For the final gag, Donald literally blows himself to China (through a hole in the earth). And so we hear from the hole an outlandish "ah so" voice that also plays the "applecore" game with Donald. It's a fun way to bring the joke around one last time, and playing on the old joke of going straight through the earth and coming out in China is a good one. I don't think we need to consider this moment particularly racist, and it's certainly not malicious in intent, though the depiction can be uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. And yet, because we never see the other party, it's possible that contemporary young audiences won't even get that it's a racial joke. To be honest, when I was a child and I first saw this cartoon, I never ever thought it was a Chinese voice. I had no idea who it was or why it sounded funny, but I figured maybe it was because of the echo down at the bottom of the deep hole. For all I knew, Donald was talking to some Mole Man or something. At the time, I didn't have context for blatant vaudevillian Asian stereotyping. Looking back on it now I think, "oh of course! He came out in China!" Because it's an audio gag rather than a visual one, I think it works okay out of context. Even if kids don't understand exactly what happened there, the recognition of the running gag still makes it work.

Sure, it would be easy for some extremists to write this one off as an example of racist cartoons that promote nuclear weapons or some such, but that would be to entirely miss the point. While this isn't the strongest cartoon from an animation standpoint, isn't particularly groundbreaking, and is fairly simple, it is that simplicity which gives it charm. The extremity and silliness of the "atomic pill" gag is unique and enjoyable, as well as the running applecore joke. Somehow, this cartoon manages to distinguish itself apart from the many similar shorts of Donald vs chipmunks. If nothing else, it's led whole generations to fondly remember "applecore, Baltimore" and seek out the origin. And perhaps the fact that it lingers in the memory like that is the best that can be said for any cartoon.

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