Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Australian Platypus (1949)

The Australian Platypus (A Gaumont Animaland film, 1949) 
Dir: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to take care of some much needed ablutions (to put it bluntly, the dream sequence in my head began to rely a little too much on ocean imagery, and I didn't want to wake up swimming in the Yellow Sea). Jen was awake too, for a similar reason (it's amazing when a couple can sync such events together), and there on our ever-glowing television were scenes from a cartoon that I did not recognize.

At least, I did not recognize the characters, two lovestruck platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever. There was a male platypus and a female platypus cavorting cutely in a river in Australia, carving decorated hearts into the water's surface with their tails. And I, in my half-roused blurry vision said out loud, "Ah, Harman and Ising,” for such was the high level of animal cuteness, combined with lush visuals though without the usual cartoon slapstick, that I immediately assumed it was a little-played MGM cartoon that I had never seen before. And then I went back to sleep.

Of course, I knew all about David Hand: his glory days at Disney directing Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his relocation to England in 1944 head up a new animation studio at Gaumont, only to see the studio sputter and get shut down a half decade later. The stuff of film history. I had only seen one of the nine films of the studio's signature Animaland series previously, and that was Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus, since it occasionally pops up in holiday cartoon collections

Since I had never considered that I might actually see the rest of Hand's British output, I had never really studied much about his career after Disney except knowing the basic information. So, even though there was a cartoon that I had never seen before on television featuring one of my favorite mammalian species -- what's not to love... a duck and a beaver practically rolled into one, an egg layer, and the part that is frequently forgotten when discussing this monotreme: the fact that it is venomous?), I was absolutely clueless as to its origin. I simply shrugged the film off to get some much needed ZZZZZZs.

Waking up the next morning, thinking clearer on the situation, I checked on the computer to make sure that the whole platypus-bathroom scenario hadn't actually been part of a dream within a dream. But there it was in their monthly guide: a showing of Cartoon Alley, TCM's animation reservoir featuring Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of the famous and Oscar-winning Citizen Kane scribe, Herman J. Mankiewicz. And it was an entire half-hour devoted to the partially "lost" films of the great David Hand: his Animaland series.

Of course, I immediately set up my Moxi (the Adelphia version of Tivo, without the annoyingly stupid mascot, and said by pumping one's fist in a Burgess Meredith-Rocky style and a gravelly voice, as in "I've got Moxi! Arrrr!!” -- also, sort of like a pirate, I guess) to record the next showing of the episode -- luckily it was being reshown a bit later -- and eventually I found myself wrapped in an animated Brigadoon. It seemed I had stumbled on a precious, lost land of characters that I was sure was going to disappear like gossamer if I blinked my eyes too much. And the first characters that I would get to meet in this magical land were the two little lovelorn platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever...

In the cartoon, a map of the Australian continent is first seen while a narrator, with a British accent, describes the mysterious splendors and fauna of this seemingly strange world. He first points out the "familiar kangaroo,” which, upon discovering that a camera has intruded into their privacy, wastes no time in collecting its joey into its pouch and hopping well out of the camera's range. We next meet the hyena-laughed kookaburras, which the narrator first refers to as "jackasses,” who laugh at the slightest things as if they were Cheech and Chong riding around in their van made out of weed. Then, as the camera zeroes in on a den laid into the riverbank, while numerous ducks swirl about in the waters adjacent, we meet a lovely lady platypus, who views her reflection in the water with an approving wink, but then bolts into her den due to her overwhelming shyness.

Suddenly, a male platypus crawls ashore on the other side of a log bisecting the riverbank, wrings the water out his tail, and then uses that tail to etch a semi-circle into the riverbank. "Looks like she's going to have a neighbor," the narrator intones, and sure enough, the boy 'pus starts digging into the soft clay of the bank, and then throws the stray dirt up and over the log into the yard of the lady 'pus. At first, she is angered about the uncalled for dumping on her property, until she peers over the log to investigate and spies the handsome new neighbor.

She is immediately smitten, perfumes her face with a flower, primps a little, and then chucks a wad of dirt back onto the head of the boy 'pus. He juts his head over the log to locate his attacker, and is himself smitten by the loveliness of the girl 'pus, and little red hearts spring out of his now love-addled pate, and he swoons, dropping onto his seat. In a most likely unmeant through thoroughly phallic-seeming bit, he jacks himself back up onto his feet with his beaver-like tail, but then swoons again, this time face down in the dirt. The girl makes to look over the log again, but the boy uses his tail to push himself over it at the same exact moment, and the pair meet eye-to-eye for the very first time. The girl bolts for the safety of her den, and the boy 'pus bounces merrily on his tail like a pogo stick (very much like Tigger).

The kookaburras, sitting in the tree overlooking the platypus riverbank, start laughing and mocking the boy’s lovesick behavior, and he eyes them with embarrassed scorn. As he is distracted, a female duck climbs out of the river and parks herself alongside the log opposite the boy platypus, so that he can only see her billed head. After drawing some cartoon hearts with arrows in the dust with his versatile tail, the boy spies the duck's head, but imagines it is his new love. He attempts to kiss her, but the lady 'pus crawls out of her den in time to see him making the moves on the duck. He throws her bill up into the air, and parades snootily past him to show him up. As twitter-pated as he is, he watches her march past, and then goes back to his ministrations of love on the sleeping fowl. He then does a double take, checks over the log to realize his mistake, and runs to the side of the lady 'pus. He tries to apologize, but she slaps him in the chin with her tail, and walks off. The kookaburras laugh at him again, and he burns red in the face, and then tries to cover his ears as they continue to mock him.

He then sees the girl 'pus swimming off in the river, and makes a concerted effort to catch up to her. She sees him, and decides to play it coy, and when he gets near her, she ducks under a leaf in the river. He swims into the leaf, which blinds him, and he conks his head on a nearby rock. He goes under, and the girl 'pus believes that he is in trouble, but he is only pretending to drown. Beside A Waterfall, a lovely tune, is sung on the soundtrack, as the girl 'pus watches her new love sink to the bottom of the river. As he lies on the bottom, he slightly opens one eye to see her worried reactions, and then quickly grabs a waterlily and holds it to his chest as if dead. The girl kisses her lost love, and he opens his eyes. He emits a bubble in the shape of a heart, which floats to the surface, where it causes heart-shaped ripples to flow out, which the boy and girl emerge up and out of in their reverie. They spend the afternoon chasing each other about the river, floating on lily pads, sliding down waterfalls, and silently professing their adoration to each other.

Time passes to a short while later, as we see the pair standing in a heart-carved den in the riverbank, and this time, they have a baby platypus at their feet. The kookaburras are heard to be laughing again, and the mammalian pair and their offspring look up into the tree above. This time, it is not the pair of kookaburras that mocked them over and over before. Instead, it is their quartet of bratty kookaburra kids, and the parent birds are cowering red-faced and are no longer amused at anything. The platypuses get a kick out of seeing the kookaburras get a taste of their own medicine, and they chuckle quietly. The film irises out, but to the baby platypus’ surprise, he is left sitting on a blue screen surrounded by a rainbow of flowers and the name of the production company.

The Australian Platypus is cute in a way that normally gives me the dry heaves, but there is so much artistry at work here, that it would be a shame to overlook this film. Simply for the novelty of the characterizations alone, it is interesting to view, and while it seems that the saccharine content would choke a Care Bear, there is considerable charm in how this cuteness is applied. This film is also a subtle reminder that good animation is not always about the "funny". So often, when watching animation, we tend to automatically lean towards what is riotous or even mildly humorous. Because most of American animation has always been about making Americans laugh, we lose track of the fact that animation can be used to express any emotion, even something that sounds as hokey to our ears as simple love.

This loss of remembrance of the range of animation can often be a blessing, though. As a youth, I was shocked into submission when I first saw MGM's Peace on Earth from 1939, a devastatingly somber recounting of man's evil visited upon his fellow man. I went into that cartoon thinking it would be simply cute furry animals, and was rained upon with some of the creepiest and most chilling war imagery that I, though a child of relatively young vintage, had seen to that point. And as such, it helped solidify my personal disgust with the military mindset and hatred of man's macho and absurdist warlike attitude as much as, say, the original 1931 version of All Quiet on the Western Front did. (That one put it over the top for me.)

Luckily, there is a distinct lack of such evil in The Australian Platypus. It is all love and happiness and carefree sentimentality. But, sometimes, well-done animation is enough to make such a film a worthwhile watch. The majority of Bambi is like this; the majority of Snow White is like this. Yes, there are the incredibly jarring sequences of fear and terror that actually form the core of the actions of the characters, and which make those feature-length animated films truly memorable and classic. But a good portion of both films is simple fluff: cute little people and cute little animals acting cutely. While this film does not retain the terror factor of Hand's feature films at Disney, that is not the purpose here. 

That these films seem more like Happy Harmonies than Looney Tunes, especially this film, is no detriment to Hand. (Other films, like the Ginger Nutt films that comprise almost half of the Animaland series, rely more on a light version of Warner-style antics.) Hand was a craftsman, and he created exactly what he wanted to create in these films: happy little worlds for all audiences to enjoy. That the films did not take worldwide is not his fault. They are exceptionally well-made films. This film may not be "funny" in the way that we expect our cartoons to be, and in the way that very few cartoons actually are, but it is mildly amusing. If the cuteness seems a little cloying to you, I believe that its novelty more than makes up for it. And the animation is beautiful and lush enough to keep one watching for merely the design aspect alone.

After all, where else are you going to get to see two cavorting animated platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever...



And in case you haven't seen it...

[This article was given an update with new photos on 12/18/15.]

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