Wednesday, November 11, 2015

186. It's Tough to Be a Bird

DIRECTOR: Ward Kimball
STORY: Ted Berman, Ward Kimball

A friendly cartoon bird constantly under fire from hunters narrates an educational discussion on the importance of birds in human society. After a brief history lesson, we are informed about modern birdwatching from the National Audobon Society, and are treated to documentary footage of the Buzzard Festival in Hinckley, Ohio. Finally, the short culminates in a bizarre surrealistic explosion of cartoon images.

"It's Tough to Be a Bird" was the last animated short Disney put out in the 1960s, and really the last one made for awhile apart from educational material for schools. And it's not even fully animated; a large portion of this short subject is live action documentary footage that is hosted by the cartoon. For this reason, I questioned whether it even belonged on the list, but as at least half of it is animated and because there are elements that make it unique, I included it. If you've never seen it, it's worth having a look if only for a few brief moments of inspired lunacy.

This short has Ward Kimball's name all over it, and it definitely feels like him. The bird narrator character has a look of Kimball's design, and the sometimes silly moments of humor seem to reflect some of his sensibilities, or at least what I've gleaned from seeing interviews and footage of him. Kimball was one of the famed Nine Old Men of the Walt Disney studio, those top animators that helped shape the things we know and love. Notice also the very rough black lines from the xerography process. I believe I've read Kimball liked it rough like that because it preserved every scribble of the artist.

So what's it about? Well, it's about birds and how great they are. As is often the case in these Disney educational presentations, we begin with a kind of history lesson. One place where I criticize this short is in the evolution segment. I suppose it's fine to discuss the evolution of birds, but did it really need to go all the way back to fish? I don't think so. It's really unnecessary, because what matters is that the birds develop from reptiles. Going all the way back to sea life is irrelevant to the discussion, I think. Also, "archaeopteryx" is pronounced wrong, and I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. The narrator does have this particular accent that sometimes intentionally says things wrong for comic effect (like the way he says "Leonardo Da Vinci"), but I don't think doing so in a scientific context here was smart because kids for whom this is new information will then be saying it wrong.

The importance of birds to humans throughout history is an interesting subject, and though it's glossed over very quickly, I think it's a nice sequence and reasonably informative. However, there's the bit about how early armies based their battles on whether or not the sacred chicken said it was okay. While I'm entertained by it, I seriously questioned the veracity of this claim. We are told this is the origin of the phrase "to chicken out." It may be true, but it does seem to me like one of those bizarre etymologies you find in a book that may not be accurate (like all the rumors about where the F-word came from, most of which are nonsense). In doing some quick research, I found that some Roman histories do cite the feeding of sacred chickens as omens from the gods. Whether this is truly the origin of our English phrase, I do not know. But if it is, then I really did learn something from this short.

There's a great little visual gag during the Noah's ark sequence when the animals come out two by two, and when he gets to "mustangs", two cars drive out. This short is filled with little absurd touches like that which make me laugh.

I enjoy the theme song of the cartoon, perhaps because it has rhymes in triplicate which I always enjoy. It's a catchy little tune, with some very clever lyrics ("you pluck our feathers out and call us dressed"). And it illustrates what I think is the primary focus of the short: stop hunting and eating birds to extinction. By highlighting the historical and cultural significance of birds, it hopes to change America's views of them. Perhaps to curb hunting altogether. It's funny how much the studio's output shifts from the early 1930s to a very anti-hunting message by the 1950s. If anything, this short seems like a commercial for the National Audobon Society, who get their own little sequence in the middle. We see documentary footage of birdwatchers. Remember when they were called "birdwatchers"? Back before they turned "bird" into a verb and started calling themselves "birders"? I miss those days. And speaking of the birdwatching sequence, did you notice the one man with the tape recorder? I'm not positive, but it looks to me like that's Ward Kimball himself. If so, perhaps this short was a subject of personal interest and that is why he made it.

It is at this point that the short goes into full documentary mode for awhile and becomes a human interest documentary about an annual celebration in Ohio of when buzzards return to a small town.  It's a nice curiosity, because who would have ever known about Buzzard Day? The highlight of this sequence, though, is the song "When the Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge" as performed by Ruth Buzzi. Buzzi was a known comedic actress of her day, appearing at that time on the popular series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. She would later go on to other cartoon voice work in the 1980s, and many of my readers might remember her for her run on Sesame Street in the 1990s. Her hilarious vocal performance in this short subject is distinctly Ruth Buzzi. On the YouTube upload of this short, she even stopped by to comment on how much fun she had recording the song. She would later go on to do other roles and voice work for Disney.

There's a part of me that wonders whether the Hinckley sequence might have been better served as its own live-action documentary short subject. The style of this short, switching between the cartoon and the documentary footage, feels very much like the Disney television show. And apparently, that's no accident. An one-hour version of this program did air on the Wonderful World of Color the following year. I wonder if the short came first and was expanded, or if it was made for television and then cut down for theatrical distribution (which Disney did from time to time with other live action shorts of the period). If you perhaps remember it being longer, you are probably remembering the television version.

I like the little George M. Cohan joke at the end where our narrator does the "my mother thanks you, my father thanks you" bit that you might remember from Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What makes the cartoon entirely worth it for me, and warrants its inclusion on this list, is the climactic last two minutes. They don't make any sense, they are just an explosion of surreal images and ideas featuring birds. These moments are very much in the style of animation Terry Gilliam was using on Monty Python's Flying Circus. The earlier sequence with the flying statues getting shot down feels very  very Gilliamesque. And you know what's fascinating? This cartoon was released in 1969, and Monty Python was only just starting in the UK. We wouldn't get it in the U.S. for another two years! Gilliam had done a few similar animations for a series called Do Not Adjust Your Set. All this leads me to wondering just how Ward Kimball or the Disney people came to the decision to do this sort of stuff in this cartoon. Were they influenced by Gilliam? Had they seen any of his stuff? It's amazing because it is so unique in the Disney canon; they never do anything quite like this ever again. That makes these final couple of minutes some of the most interesting Disney animation you can see. It's weird, and funny, and sometimes political. It begins by simply reminding us of the birds that end up on our table, but quickly flashes through all manner of images that get more and more insane. The progression from stills to movement is done well. We see a chicken holding a protest sign that says "eat more fish!" We even get a reference to the political environment of the country with the Vietnam War. Peace protesters were popularly known as "doves" and those for the war were "hawks" (you still hear those terms every now and then, but not as frequently). But here we have this subversive little moment where a dove drops a bomb and a hawk drops a flower. It seems to be making a statement, but what exactly who can say? There's even a bit of more adult humor, like where rooster man hops over to hen lady, but scoots away when she lays an egg. Disney cartoons rarely get this subversive, political, inventive, or bizarre. The explosive nonsense reminds me of the ending of The Three Caballeros, where there seems no logical way to end proceedings so why not a crescendo of surrealism? As the music builds up to its climax, we segue into a montage of clips with dancing birds from previous Silly Symphonies. And after an explosion, just for good measure, a little cutout Mary Poppins flies by. This entire sequence is so unexpected, it is a real treat to watch. The fact that I don't remember Disney ever doing anything quite like this again is a real shame. The first time I saw it I remember saying to myself, "this is a Disney short?"

"It's Tough to Be a Bird" may not have completely iterated why it is indeed tough to be a bird, but it certainly touched on reasons why birds may be more significant to our culture than just being eaten and shot at. It won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject, the last Disney would win in this category for a number of years. As far as the educational shorts go, it isn't bad, and is informative. But the real joy of this cartoon is when its unique brand of humor and animation really shine through. This is a cartoon that just can't be easily categorized. I do wish there were more animation and less live action. Even the animation we have is mostly a bird on a blank background doing a slideshow. But there are sparks of insanity that make up for the blandness in other places. This short demands to be seen at least once, and I don't think it's ever been commercially released on DVD, which is a shame. Definitely look it up on YouTube; you'll enjoy it.

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