Friday, January 06, 2006

Football Now and Then (1953)

Football Now and Then (Disney, 1953)
Dir.: Jack Kinney
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

I'd say that I'm really at a loss of words for this film, but that would be a lie, because I am going to blather on about it regardless. This film vexes me: I'm not sure of its purpose, or the reason that Disney even made this film. Warner Brothers was great at doing one-shot cartoons (such as One Froggy Evening), and not all of their one-shots seem to be failed experiments in making a new character stick. But Disney's output was far smaller than Warner's, and most of their films seem to have some explicitly corporate reason for having been made. Whether book adaptations (The Little House), mythical reinventions (The Brave Engineer or Casey at the Bat), or bold experiments (Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom), Disney rarely even puts pen to paper without some sort of master plan in tow.

That is why I can't figure out the bland, barely humorous construction that is Football Now and Then. As usual, the Disney animation is solid, but there is barely the hint of a well-considered gag in the film. The story could be served from a jar of pabulum: a cantankerous old coot is told that a modern football team could have cleaned up the field with the team from his youth, and this gets the codger riled up but good. A scenario is imagined where the two teams clash, the differences between the two are explored and ground into the dirt, and the not-unexpected assumption is that the ancient team will win out in the end through perseverance and a lack of reliance on modern methods that lead to an athlete's "softness."

This is would all have been fine and well in a film with some real energy, but even without the ending being obvious from the start, every joke is telegraphed practically before they begin. In character shorts, such as a Bugs Bunny or even Mickey Mouse, this is acceptable because the characters have a well-established set of traits that they must, no matter what happens to them in the course of the picture, eventually drift back into to finish the picture. No matter how suave and sophisticated Daffy Duck might "act" within a scene, he will most likely devolve back into the manic Daffy by the end of it. The gags are set up depending on Daffy's character to complete them in a certain way. You know the gun is going to explode in his face, and it's funnier every time that it happens, even episodes apart.

In this film, there is that feeling of "Yeah, they're going to do that, and then they are going to do this" through the whole picture. The only thing that I found striking about the film is not the disparity between the two teams in the film, but the similarity between the "modern" team within the story and a modern team of today. It seems that by 1953, the blueprint for today's football team was already set (apart from the fact that none of the players are anything but white). Not just multiple lineups for doing every little thing on the field, but they even have players being psychoanalyzed during the game. (This would have been a good gag in the film, but it just sits there like many of the gags. However, it was an interesting addition.) I can imagine a rabid football fanatic (of which I am not, though I do like the game) finding this whole thing hilarious, and that's fine. I don't want people to avoid this film. It is pleasant enough for the football or Disney nostalgist. But for me, unfortunately, I find the setup and payoff are so obvious, without any real investment being made in the characters. And this makes this cartoon a very dull film.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/29/2015.]

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