Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ben and Me (1953)

Ben and Me (Walt Disney, 1953)
Dir: Hamilton Luske
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

Who knew that mice not only held the secret history of the United States, but also were instrumental in the development and forging of our nation? Apparently, not only the mice, but also an illustrator and author named Robert Lawson, who published in 1939 a slim volume called Ben and Me. This volume recounted the tale of the rodent assistant to one Benjamin Franklin, one of the revered "Fathers of Our Country," though according to the mice in the story, an ingenious little mouse named Amos deserves just as much of the credit as well.

Lawson, in addition to winning a Newbery Medal for Rabbit Hill in 1945 (he also won a separate Caldecott in 1941, one of the few people to win both awards), also published a similar book in much the same vein as Ben and Me: Mr. Revere and I, the story of the midnight ride of Paul Revere as told by his loyal horse, "Sherry" (short for Scheherazade). Lawson also illustrated many other "children's" books apart from his own writings; his illustrations for Munro Leaf's Ferdinand the Bull and the Atwaters' Mr. Popper's Penguins are justly famous, and the former book was turned into an Oscar-winning Walt Disney cartoon short in 1938, with Lawson receiving a co-credit for original story. He also supplied the drawings for the 1939 edition of The Sword in the Stone, which was also eventually produced as a film by Disney.

In 1953, Disney took Lawson's Franklin book and turned it into a Special Short Subject, that is, a film over twice as long as a normal cartoon release, but still not long enough to be considered a feature. (The film clocks in at around 20 minutes long.) I saw this film originally as a child on the Disney show, and in the 80's I purchased the videocassette release of the picture, which I have only watched sporadically since (perhaps 4 or 5 times over the last 20 years). This is not due to lack of quality or entertainment. No, this is a fun picture, especially for the younger set, and I have a fondness for the film that far outweighs my actual attempts to watch the thing.

Benjamin Franklin invents twerking!
There is not much to relate story-wise that you can't gather from the title and the plot that I have related already. In 1745, Amos, a poor church mouse, goes off to look for gainful employment (partially to help feed his 25 other siblings) and ends up eventually at the broken-down shack of a business run by Franklin. Within minutes of gaining Franklin's trust, Amos has invented what will be known as the Franklin Stove and bifocals. Franklin uses his experiments in electricity to play pranks on poor little Amos, who soon enough quits in disgust. The film jumps to 31 years later. (Who knew that mice lived that long? In this case, as well, only Lawson. Well... and the mice...) The colonies are in an uproar, war is imminent, and Franklin seeks out Amos for help in this time of crisis. The mouse scripts a contract that he wants Ben to sign, but at the same time, Thomas Jefferson arrives to ask Ben for help with the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Ben reads the beginning of Amos' contract out loud, Jefferson steals the language, and a mouse helps create the United States of America.

Fun enough, and not much farther off the track than some of the myths about our history that we have been made to swallow. The difference here is that you know from the start that this story is pure silliness. The other myths you figure out when you grow up. If you are lucky.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/1/2015.]

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