Wednesday, June 3, 2015

193. Goliath II

DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Reitherman
STORY: Bill Peet

Goliath is a massive elephant and leader of his herd, but his son, Goliath II, is an elephant the size of a mouse. Goliath II gets in a lot of trouble being so small, until he saves the herd by wrestling a mouse. After all, why should Goliath be afraid of something the same size as him?

After the expensive, artistic endeavor that was Sleeping Beauty, the Walt Disney studio was heading into the 1960s with a more modern direction. Their next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was in production and a new animation process, Xerography, was being used to ink their cells. This would eliminate the need to hand-paint all the spots on the dogs. As he often did in the early days, Walt had a short subject made to test the new process. Goliath II (read: Goliath the Second) was the first cartoon made with the new Xerox process.

As an animation test, it's successful. However, I must admit I have never been a fan of this particular cartoon. That doesn't make it bad. It's not bad. But it also never reaches for me the quality of the other Bill Peet shorts, and I'm a big fan of Bill Peet. Something about the story feels like there's not quite enough to it. It begins with a charming idea, an elephant the size of a mouse, but I don't ever care enough about the proceedings. I appreciate what Peet is going for, but somehow I come away thinking "so what?" Part of the problem may be that some of it feels like a retread of Dumbo, with an opposite focus. This time around, the elephant and mouse are enemies. But it's still ultimately about the outcast mutant elephant who is shunned until his deformity brings him notoriety.

Let's talk about Bill Peet. He was a story man in this era, and one of the best they had. He worked on some of the very best short subjects the studio ever made (they're higher up on the list). He had a wonderful sensibility for clear but whimsical stories. He also wrote the screenplay for The Sword in the Stone, the first Disney feature to have a one, something often attributed to Beauty and the Beast. After his time at the Disney studio, Peet would go on to write and illustrate a number of picture books for children. Goliath II has a children's book sort of feel. I just don't think it's on par with some of his other work. In keeping with some of the other Peet stories, it is narrated by Sterling Holloway, which is nice.

This is also the era of Wolfgang Reitherman. "Wooly" Reitherman would go on to direct much of the animated content throughout the 1960s and '70s. I think he directed every feature from The Sword in the Stone through The Rescuers. Goliath II is a perfect opportunity to talk about Reitherman because it features something that's a hallmark of his work: recycled animation. Reitherman felt that it paid homage to the talents that came before and had no qualms about it. I understand the sentiment, and agree to a point, but unfortunately he could go overboard at times. Robin Hood is criticized for relying too heavily on animation reuse at times, and this short does fall into the same trap. Watching this short, it's easy to spot just how much content appeared in prior works.

Maybe that's another reason this one doesn't grab me so much; what content there is has recycled elements. Then again, if you're a Disney fan, you might enjoy watching it to try and catch all these little moments. There are bits from Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, and Peter Pan. It makes sense to re-use the croc design from Pan, and I think the use of animation here is successful and works in context of the story. However, there are other moments that don't work and the worst culprit for me is the "Baby Mine" shot lifted from Dumbo. Here, Goliath and his mother bond with their trunks but it makes no sense in context given Goliath's size. For the sake of re-used animation, our main character is suddenly very much out of scale. The notion of an elephant who is so small is a difficult mental image to maintain and when the film breaks that scale it's unsettling.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that among all these recycled elements are moments that originate in this short. You probably thought the marching elephant stuff with the traffic jams and all comes from The Jungle Book, but those moments originate in this short. You can also see shades of the Col. Hathi family relationship in this story. Because this short is lesser-known to some, many won't recognize the parts of The Jungle Book that actually have a genesis here. Some of the jungle musical motifs in this short seem to recur or get further developed in The Jungle Book as well.

If I mention a Disney tiger named Rajah, your mind immediately goes to Princess Jasmine's pet in Aladdin, doesn't it? Well, there was a Rajah over 30 years before that, and he appears here. The Rajah design is very similar to the design on the lion that cropped up throughout the mid-1950s in Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons. It's also a very Bill Peet kind of design. Echoes of the design can also be seen in the wolf in Sword in the Stone.

It's funny what a different world we live in today. You'd never see a child spanked onscreen like that now!

The rough xeroxed black outline for the characters doesn't mix well against the backgrounds for me. It works very well in the rough, modern world of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but the studio didn't always know how to blend that look against the different backgrounds. The gorgeous backgrounds of The Jungle Book always seem to clash with them to me. In this case, the jungle backgrounds are a very stylized, angular look with a kind of airbrushed stencil design. It's interesting, but as everything is in blocks of color with nary an outline in sight, the character outlines don't quite seem a part of the world they way they do in other cartoons. Then again, maybe that was the intent. The backgrounds are more painterly. They actually remind me of children's book illustrations of that period. The color palette and design feels a lot like a storybook to me. But while I think some of it looks interesting, I personally never quite embrace the aesthetic. It's also very very green throughout, and that sameness of environment makes it harder for me to get into the story.

I know I've said very little about the story, but honestly there isn't much to tell. Goliath is small, so he falls in holes or is chased by predators. Then a mouse attacks, but he stands up to the mouse, the wrestle and ultimately Goliath runs him off. The way the mouse taunts Goliath reminded me of the clowns and children taunting Dumbo. It also seems like they love having elephants call each other "clumsy ox," as it happens again in this cartoon.

The story is cute with a sweet cartoon idea, even if it falls a little flat for me. There is a lot of recycled animation, but also original moments that would soon find themselves recycled in other projects. For being the first film to prove the success of the Xerox process it deserves a place in Disney history. It was also good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Cartoon Short Subject. And for better or worse, there is no mistaking that this is the work of Bill Peet and Wolfgang Reitherman. Obviously other artists worked on it, but the stylistic stamp of their authorship is pretty clear. These two Disney legends would go on to make other wonderful films; an earlier film like this, though I'm not the biggest fan, still stands out as an amusing Disney curiosity.

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