Monday, May 22, 2006

LITTLE GRAVEL VOICE (1942)

So, what sort of appeal does a small, cute burro character have on his own, away from the slightly more famous bear character with whom he was introduced to the cartoon world? If we are talking about Benny Burro, MGM's sweet-natured donkey, then the answer is: very little, outside of the fact that he is small and cute and makes the kiddies go "Awww!" in a empathetic way. So, does he have enough personality to carry his own film?

Given the results shown in Little Gravel Voice, released in 1942, he does not have enough. He might be secretly strong enough to carry an enormous pack of mining supplies up the trails of the Grand Canyon (as he did in his 1941 Barney Bear introduction, The Prospecting Bear, reviewed yesterday here), but he buckles under the pressuring weight of a story built roughly around his single character trait (which he didn't even betray in his first film): a loud, grating, spine-rattling, earth-stopping bray that he emits in times of sadness, happiness, danger... well, at any moment that he is called upon to speak. Because he has no human voice (unlike most cartoon characters), the film will have to rely on its being largely silent in the dialogue department. While it is nice once in a while to have a cartoon that is told entirely through expression and action, here there are really only two expressions at large, happy and sad, and the seesaw between the two grows wearying after, oh, the first three minutes, if not sooner.

The resulting film starts out with a series of incidents in which 1) Benny meets a cute little animal that resides in the Grand Canyon; 2) the cute little animal is more than eager to befriend the sweet-faced donkey; 3) out of happiness and joy, Benny unleashes his paint-scraping bray; 4) the animal (and if with them, the animal's parent) is frightened to bits by the noise and hightails it for cover from any further disaster; and 5) Benny walks off sad, crying his eyes out, and often, continuing to bray. This pattern allows Benny to run through the quick friendships of a bluebird, a roadrunner (which looks more like a real roadrunner than the Warner Brothers version), a mother and child prairie dog duo, and a turtle. A squirrel watching from the sidelines also considers the situation, and then hides. The actions and reactions of the animals are largely trivial, so I will not further elaborate on them, except to point out that when Benny finally walks off out of their home, the animals reflect on the situation and seem remorseful of what occurred. Then Benny brays again loudly and offscreen, and the animals hide once more.

A wolf spies Benny and stalks after him for a while. When the little burro seems at his most helpless, still continuing to cry over his lost friends, the wolf attacks. Benny, completely unaware of the predator's advances, brays yet again in sadness, and the wolf is practically shattered into pieces from the cry. The wolf tries again, but another bray brings him down, and then Benny realizes his danger. The chase is on, but when Benny gets cornered in a box canyon, he brays again and the force of the cry sends the wolf falling off a cliff. He returns, but a series of sharp brays sends the wolf packing for easier and quieter prey. This he finds in the form of the friends that betrayed Benny. Seeing the wolf coming, the bluebird tries to warn them, but the wolf easily captures the baby prairie dog and easily holds off the brave attack of the other animals. The baby escapes into a hole, but the wolf digs his way down until his teeth are practically filling the circumference of the hole... and the baby prairie dog... but then...

Benny returns! Having heard the commotion, and knowing that only he can stop the vicious wolf, Benny starts to bray over and over again, an action that causes the wolf's head to almost explode with madness, and the slobbering beast throws itself off the nearest cliff. The other animals are just as scared of Benny's voice as they were of the wolf, so they hide again, causing Benny to shed tears once again. The animals take pity on him and surround him, which makes Benny smile and open his mouth to unleash a bray of joy, but---! The animals pounce on him, and after a flurry of busy dust-raising, Benny is revealed with his ears tied through his mouth like a gag. The baby prairie dog, perched atop Benny's head, leans over and kisses him on the nose.

Well-done animation, as most MGM's were apt to be, and cute, cute, cute... also rather banal. Certainly, I do not find Benny interesting enough to warrant a series of these films. Perhaps, it was just MGM grasping at straws, trying to get any character they could to stick in the public's consciousness. A dozen years down the road, little Benny would get another chance to team up onscreen with his good buddy from the Dell Comics line, Barney Bear, in a short called Half-Pint Palomino. It would be the last time that Benny would appear on the silver screen, but I guess the fact that he managed to hang around 12 years, even in limited duty, has to be considered some kind of success.

Cuteness can get you pretty far, but to last, you have to have personality. Unless you are a Hollywood starlet.

Maybe they should have outfitted Benny Burro with boobs and a push-up bra.

Little Gravel Voice (MGM, 1942) Dir: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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