Friday, April 14, 2006

Little Brother Rat (1939)

Little Brother Rat (Warner Bros., 1939) 
Dir: Charles M. "Chuck" Jones
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Here's the scenario: a cat sleeps comfortably by the fireplace, and as he slumbers, a small clothed mouse sneaks into the room, and tiptoes stealthily up to the sleeping cat. He gets as close as he can to the feline, risking certain death… and yanks a whisker sharply and painfully out of the cat's face!

Mouse with a death wish? Mouse ghost with the ability to make itself tangible long enough to perform such a feat? Mighty Mouse? (Even worse… Super Mouse, Mighty before the name change?) Or is it something totally unexpected, like -- a little mouse determined to win himself a scavenger hunt?

As it turns out, it's the latter, and the little mouse that pulls off this death-defying feat is none other than the squeaky-voiced, super-cute, sinus-suffering, Warner Bros. rodent, Sniffles the Mouse. In Little Brother Rat from 1939 (the title of which is an in-house play on Warner's college hi-jinks fest, Brother Rat, from the previous year, though they have nothing in common plot-wise), Sniffles pulls the cat's whisker as the penultimate gag on his list of derring-do, which squarely puts him in the lead, and commits him to performing the final and possibly fatal task on the list: stealing an owl's egg.

But first, Sniffles has to escape from the cat whose whisker he has mercilessly plucked. This actually proves relatively easy to achieve, for there is a mousehole nearby, and he has an escape path plotted out. The fun part is watching his short legs scurry along the path, with some wonderfully detailed backgrounds on display throughout the journey. He ducks out another mousehole back into the house proper, down the stairs, out the front door, and into a tunnel near the front steps. 

The tunnel comes out into a typical party scene with balloons, crepe paper, party favors and food -- typical except for one thing: it is entirely populated with mice. Little mice dressed up for a shindig, dancing and drinking and chatting -- and all waiting for Sniffles to return with the cat's whisker. Who knew that mice threw parties? Who knew that mice held scavenger hunts? Who knew that mice -- who have enough problems with the outside world and their reputation -- would be so eager to court danger and bodily harm like a bunch of modern-day YouTube-bred nimrods?

Sniffles returns to the party, alright, and it is here that we discover that all mice talk apparently exactly like Sniffles. Some call it annoying; I think it's swell, especially when turned on others who find it annoying. I like to call the style "up-squeaking", and while Sniffles may be its most visible practitioner, it is quite apparent from the reaction of the other mice that it is the very real standard in their world. "I got it!” he shouts upon entering the party, and the immediate reaction to his success is a round of disbelief. "Sniffles really got it!" "Really, Sniffles? Did you reeeea-llllly get it? Really?" is the response, and it is echoed throughout the room, even as Sniffles affirms their queries with his nods. One mouse has a ledger that shows a chart detailing the progress of the mice entered in the scavenger hunt. Sniffles is clearly in the lead with his daring raid of the feline's face, but he has one item left to get, and it is, as mentioned earlier, that almost suicidal mission involving the theft of an owl's egg.

Sniffles doesn't hesitate for a second. "Gee Whillikers!" he exclaims, and then bolts out of the party excitedly on his quest. He marches to the barn next to the house, but he is unaware of an equally dire threat to his health upon his approach: the cat from whom he stole the whisker, rubbing his face and looking for revenge. The cat leaves the house and follows Sniffles to the barn. Just as Sniffles enters the building, the cat (clad in shadows in a marvelous bit) makes an ill-timed leap to capture the mouse, and just misses his prey.

Inside the barn, Sniffles climbs up, up, up to the loft where the owl resides, and, fortunately for Sniff, also sleeps deeply. The mouse finds a tiny crib marked Junior, and resting inside on a bed of comfortable straw, is a bright blue egg about half of Sniffle's size. The scavenging rodent picks up the egg and turns around to make off with it, but there is a problem. The owl, who was thought to be asleep on the side opposite the crib, is now standing in Sniffles’ path out, and he is not amused.

The owl asks, "Well, having fun? Hmmm... what have we here?" Sniffles, with the egg tucked behind his back with one hand, holds out his other to show that he has nothing that the owl would want. The owl studies the hand, and then slaps it suddenly, causing the egg to pop up over Sniffles' head and into the owl's wings. "An egg!" he says in mock surprise. "And a very pretty blue egg, too! I once had an egg. It was pretty, too." The owl then leans his face close to Sniffles' face and glares into it, "It looked a lot like your egg! And now, shall we put the pretty egg back in the nest...?", and then building up to a yell as he backs Sniffles up, "before a CERTAIN LITTLE MOUSE FINDS HIMSELF HURT??!!!" Sniffles fumbles the egg, catches it, and runs the object back to the crib, places it down gently, blows on it, and shines it with his coat sleeve. When Sniffles returns, the owl continues talking, but more calmly as they walk. "Now, don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against mice. Why some of my best friends are mice!" The owl then leans in again and yells, "BUT I DON'T LIKE YOU!"



The owl grabs Sniffles by the back of his jacket and tosses him out the loft window, yelling, "GET OUT!!" Sniffles falls to a certain death, but when he reaches the ground, the cat is lurking and looking about for him, and Sniffles lands full on its back, bounces up, and back to the perch sticking out just under the owl's window. (I knew Tiggers were bouncy, but regular domestic cats?) Hanging from it precariously, Sniffles tries to pull himself up onto the perch; once he does, he balances on the stick for a moment, before almost falling again. This time, he manages to climb to safety. Inside, Junior’s egg is back in its crib as the owl is seen drifting back into a fitful slumber, but when the camera pans back to the egg again, it is gone -- once more in the hands of Sniffles as he tiptoes away with it. Sniffles doesn't see the head of a nail poking out of the floor, and ends up tripping, causing the egg to fall out of his hands and smash upon the ground!



All is not lost though! From out of the broken shells comes an adorable owlet, which, most appropriately, continually "hoots" over and over again. Sniffles shushes the newborn owlet, and puts the halves of the shell back around the baby and then ties the egg shut with string. But, as he finishes the task, he hears a "hoot!" and sees the baby standing several inches away from the shell. Sniffles looks into the eyes of the owlet, and sees that its pupils roll about crazily, but then settle down before the baby unleashes another "hoot!" Sniffles jumps on the disobedient baby. There is a good deal of dust raised, and when it clears there is another "hoot!" -- and the baby is standing alone next to a rebuilt egg with Sniffles inside! Climbing out of the shell extremely frustrated, Sniffles orders the baby to get inside of his former home. The owlet does so, but as Sniffles ties it together again, the baby sticks his feet out of one end. Unaware of this, Sniffles rolls the reassembled egg on its end, and the owlet walks away inside the shell. Sniffles chases and tackles it, and carries the egg back to the crib.

With the baby back where he belongs, Sniffles slides down the drainpipe on the outside of the barn. He starts to walk, gets a funny feeling, turns around -- and there is the baby owl, who lets out another "hoot!" of course. But Sniffles doesn't have time to deal with the baby, for walking up behind him is the cat. Sniffles hightails it for several feet, but then looks back at the baby, and has to make a decision. He chooses to save the owlet, and dives back to protect him. He grabs the owlet just before the cat can get him, and carrying the baby off, Sniffles runs for their lives from the feline.

Meanwhile, the father owl has heard the commotion and heads out to see what is happening. He sees his son in peril, and Sniffles trying to rescue him, and swoops down towards the cat. We see only their silhouettes against the nighttime sky, but we can make out the owl grabbing the feline by the scruff of his neck, carrying him high up into the air, and then dropping him with a great sooty burst into the chimney of the house.



Back on the ground, the owl, now holding his offspring, shows his gratitude to Sniffles by giving him the pretty blue egg all tied up with string. Sniffles responds, "Gee Whillikers!", and then walks off with his hard-earned prize. The father owl and his child fly off and wave goodbye to Sniffles from the top of the barn. Sniffles marches off to present the egg to finally win the scavenger hunt. But there is a big problem in store for the mouse. There is the sound of another "hoot!" and the top pops off the egg -- and there is the baby owl again! The bewildered Sniffles can hardly believe his little mousey eyes! Iris out.

I find it interesting in this film, that even though Sniffles clearly has a respectful fear of both the cat and the owl during the course of events, that neither creature really makes an attempt to devour him. I suppose the cat might do that by film's end if things went his way, but whenever we see him lurking about, he is rubbing his face because of the whisker-stealing, and clearly is looking for a little payback for that offense. And the owl, even when he has Sniffles right in his wings after the first egg-robbery attempt, only thinks to kick him out of his loft. He even says, "Some of my best friends are mice." This might be sarcasm, but his reactions to Sniffles throughout the cartoon are never in a predatory manner, merely first in a general annoyance at Sniffle's existence in the barn, and later, in sincere gratitude for saving his son from the cat. 

I also like that we meet some of Sniffles' mousy friends and kin, but we don't get to hang with them much in the film, and because of this, Sniffles actually does not speak very much. The film is actually rather a quiet one overall, with the score for the most part bubbling low underneath everything except for those key action flourishes. And with Sniffles not saying much, there is little in the way of dialogue, except for the incessant hooting of the little owl and his father’s speech. Oh yeah, and those "up-squeaking" mice at the scavenger hunt party. One other nice touch is the opening music over the credits, which sounds like a gangster movie version of Three Blind Mice starring Humphrey Bogart and Pat O'Brien.

All told, it all comes off much better than most of the lame attempts at scavenger hunts in which I've been involved. Stupid? Yes... Illegal? Perhaps to certain degrees... Life-threatening? Define life-threatening... certainly nothing akin to a small mouse trying to swipe an egg from the nest of one of its mortal enemies. (In real life, that is.)

Hoot!

RTJ


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