Polar Trappers (Walt Disney, 1938)
Dir: Jack King
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9
"On polar caps, we set our traps
for walrus, bear and seal.
We fill a zoo with caribou -
depends on how we feel.
Oh, we bring 'em back alive!
We bring 'em back alive!
We don't know why we catch 'em,
but we bring 'em back alive!
On this refrain alone I have based nearly my entire sorry impersonation career of Walt Disney's Goofy. I say "nearly," for I had to seek elsewhere to collect the marvelous noise Goofy emits when he has fallen from a great height. You know the noise. It is difficult to put into words, so if you don't know, seek it out in nearly any solo Goofy cartoon where he was learning to do something or other that he is ill-equipped to perform. You can ask me to do my impression of it, but you will only leave disappointed. Fred Travalena, I ain't.
When I first saw Polar Trappers in the 1986 on a Disney videotape called The Importance of Being Donald, I was simply overjoyed at the fact that I had three more Donald Duck cartoons in my then meager collection, and didn't really submit the film to any sort of detailed analysis. To be sure, I did notice the horrid transgression of nature taking place within Polar Trappers, but I accepted it in the way that people today should be willing to accept Chinese and Malaysian actresses playing Japanese geishas: that the "actors" called Donald Duck and Goofy were portraying characters within the film, and that Donald Duck would not actually try to devour an entire population of penguins.
What's that you say? Donald Duck eating penguins? Sorry, folks, but it's all too true, for the middle section of this film might as well be called Bataan Death March of the Penguins. You see, Donald and Goofy are live animal capture experts working out of their camp at the Pole. Which Pole? One can't really determine this. Walrus, bear, and caribou, are mentioned in the song at the opening which would place the story at the North Pole, but they also mention seals, which occur at both Poles, and then the bulk of the film has penguins, which could only place it at the South Pole. But, let's call it the North Pole, and only because much of America still thinks penguins live there.) Goofy spends his portion of the film fruitlessly trying to capture a walrus, but his antics are largely forgettable when compared to the horrors at play in Donald's half of the picture.
Donald is left to do the cooking for the pair of hunters, and as he sings "Beans Porridge Hot" (instead of “Peas”) in his igloo kitchen, he is struck by just exactly how sick he is of eating beans. He is surrounded by endless cans and boxes of the horrid things (his opinion, not mine… I love beans), but just as his temper starts to swell, through the igloo's sole window, he spies a passing female penguin. Donald immediately imagines her body as a delicious roast chicken. Donald puts a tuxedo on over his head (he must have packed it on this trip to Whatever Pole It is for just exactly this purpose), and tries to convince the penguin hottie that he is her type of guy. She plays coy, so he opens up a case from “Spiffanys” and offers her a very fine, sparkling goldfish. He attempts to lure her to a chopping block but before he can remove her head with an axe, she whisks herself and the fish away to safety.
For much of the film, Goofy is off on his own search to trap a walrus (alive, of course -- the Goof is no cruel monster like Donald), and he wanders through an ice cave, tipping his hat to his shadow in the naive way that only Goofy can, and believing that he is having a conversation with his echo, even though it is only repeating exactly what he says. The cave is dark and ominous, and Goofy is extremely cautious, though his need to perform his duties for this cartoon guide him to his usual disaster. He assumes the disguise of a walrus, but his attempts to replicate the walrus' vocal patterns causes the massive icicles in the cave to crash all around him and send him flying.
Chasing the lady penguin, Donald discovers just how many penguins there are at the Pole, at least a hundred of them, and he hatches a plan to do in the entire lot of them. With flute in hand, Donald plays the part of a villainous Pied Piper to the birds, and leads them on a seemingly jovial, musical march back to the camp to meet their doom. A baby penguin keeps taking the lead in front of Donald, so thrilled is he at the impromptu chance to parade, but when Donald imagines the baby penguin as dinner, it is as a much scrawnier meal, and he rejects the baby again and again.
Finally, the tearful little penguin cries a single tear, that hits the hillside, turns into a ever-growing snowball that chases Donald and Goofy (who runs on his skis, of course) all over whatever Pole they are at. Finally, the massive snowball overruns the hunters and drops them violently onto their camp, leaving Donald and Goofy trapped inside their own cages. A can of beans hits Donald in the head, and then a second one falls into his beak to close the picture.
It goes without saying that the picture is well-animated; with Disney, even the worst film has some high standard of craftsmanship to it. However, the story isn't awfully clever; the Goofy section seems like just so much busywork, though his opening song is for me the highlight of the picture. It truly astounds me that the Donald/chicken scenario wasn't looked on by someone at the studio as being just a little too weird. It's entirely possible that such a scenario struck Disney as hilarious, because they used it in two consecutive Donald films (Donald's Nephews directly preceded this one).
Now, don't get me wrong: Donald is a free duck and can devour whatever he likes. I'm not going to stand in the way of his perverse poultry fixation. But is it really Donald appearing as his true cannibal self in these pictures, or is he just an amazing actor and it is simply a character that Donald is portraying? This could explain why Mickey, Donald and Goofy are constantly working in different occupations from picture to picture. If they are playing themselves, then they are either incredibly well-rounded and talented individuals, or else they are unbelievably inept employees who hop from job to job at the drop of a badly-placed bucket into a waylaid ladder.
But if the character isn't Donald, and he is taking a job from some other cartoon actor that would naturally devour a chicken, is this wrong? It seems to me that the Big Bad Wolf wasn't doing a lot at that point, and he was a pro at chasing and threatening smaller, weaker creatures. And just how did Donald get the part? Did he get the job sucking up to Walt? Did he have some dirt on Hamilton Luske? Was he trying to stretch his actorly wings into a truly villainous part? And just why is Beijing-born Zhang Ziyi playing a Japanese geisha? Who cares? A girl that gorgeous should be in every movie, no matter the location of the story. Maybe they could do a modern, live-action remake of Polar Trappers, where she could even play a hot girl penguin at the North Pole that gets set upon by a ravenously evil duck.
And in that case, maybe I should play Donald’s part instead. I eat birds, and I love Zhang Ziyi. Where’s my tuxedo?
[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/4/2015.]