Friday, May 12, 2006

Neptune Nonsense (1936)

Neptune Nonsense (A Van Beuren Studios Rainbow Parade cartoon, 1936) 
Directors: Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer
TC4P Rating: 5/9

Fish, outside of halibut, have nothing to fear from me. I've gone through my "keeping fish as a pet" phase, having inherited, through some means of indistinct origin, an unbelievably huge fish tank in the mid-1980s, and mainly through my own lack of interest, except in my strangely personable plecostomus, Quint, it soon became quite apparent that fish were not for me. I am solidly a cat-and-dog guy, which I also owned, and once poor foot-long Quint died (though certainly not from malnutrition, as he made quite a run through my goldfish and various other species) after a few years, I quickly shed myself of the tank and all of its trappings.

As for the devouring of fishy flesh, it is also not for me (outside of halibut). Fish sticks are too bland and weird; salmon disgusts me (I have spent much of my life avoiding it in two households devoted to it, though smoked salmon has its charms); and while breaded catfish is okay, there are too many other things at Cajun restaurants that I am interested in to ever consider the ordering of such an item. I am fairly devoted in my lack of seafood interest (outside of halibut), and if there is a section on the menu with fish dishes in it, I am almost 100% unlikely to even cast it the slightest glance. So, whether for companionship or dinner, fish can stay in their original water for all I care. (Except sharks. I love sharks.) 

But such is not the case with Felix the Cat in the second cartoon of his Van Beuren "comeback" attempt from 1936, Neptune Nonsense. Felix has a lonely pet goldfish, and Felix goes to extreme lengths to bring his sweet little baby some piscine happiness. However, the Van Beuren staff rather fails to bring any real life to Felix, and after the trio of films (which also included The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg and Bold King Cole, both reviewed on this site), it would be a couple decades before the magical cat was allowed another shot at success, only the next time, it would be on television.

In a room encased by near-total darkness, we hear a buoyant whistling rendition of Pop Goes the Weasel, as a shadowy figure, which one must surmise can only be sunny little Felix, moves across the room and springs up a window shade. Brilliant light fills the room of Felix's home, and he wastes not a second in removing the cover from his birdcage. "Good morning!" he chimes to his pair of lovebirds, and after feeding them, he skips, still whistling, across the room to a pair of terriers asleep on a rug (in the way that terriers actually don't sleep in the morning -- believe me). "Good morning!" he shouts cheerfully to the yawning pups, but they have not one bit of compulsion to arise from their mat. Felix's famous exclamation-point tail flashes briefly while he considers the situation, and snapping his fingers, he arrives at a solution. He pulls a dog biscuit out of a box, and saying "Good morning!" again, he waves the tempting object before their eyes. The dogs, much like mine would, immediately jump up and wrestle over ownership of the biscuit. With each dog tugging on an end, Felix fixes the problem by cutting the biscuit in half with some scissors.

In the next room, Felix awakens his goldfish Annabelle with the same greeting. He shakes her breakfast into her bowl, but she is listless and droopy-eyed. He asks, "What's the matter, Annabelle? Don't you feel well?" and she shakes her head sadly, "No." "Aren't you happy?" he follows up, and her answer is a clone of her first reply. Felix paces and thinks, in that clenched-behind-the-back, furrowed-brow way for which he was famous at one time, and arrives finally at the reason. He tells her that she is lonesome, and that he will go out and find her "a little playmate,” a statement which has Annabelle jumping high out of her bowl with joy and anticipation. Felix carries his pet fish outside, but as he walks merrily with her bowl, he trips on a rock, and the bowl, water and fish all go flying up out of his grasp. He scurries and catches first the bowl, then he runs forward to retrieve the falling mass of water, and then runs further still to allow Annabelle to plop back in her bowl. Her rescue is accomplished at the very spot to which Felix was bringing her: a cliff beside the ocean, where Felix conveniently has already placed a fishing pole and apples for bait.

Felix baits his hook and throws his line into the ocean, and almost immediately, with the impatiently wriggling Annabelle looking on from her bowl, he pulls a fish out of the ocean and swings him straight into the bowl. The problem? The slightly larger fish chases and then swallows Annabelle whole, and Felix has to squeeze his little pet out of its throat as if he were handling a tube of toothpaste. Rest assured, the fish is thrown back, and Felix gives it another try. The second apple attracts the attention of a small goldfish much like Annabelle, but the fish is wary of the bobbing prize. A sawfish, however, bigger and armed with a schnoz-equipped weapon, can afford a little more curiosity. It peels the apple with a few deft strokes, and then puts its mouth about the tempting fruit. Felix tugs on the line, the sawfish tugs back, and after a brief war, Felix is pulled into the ocean and down to the bottom. He loses his pole as the sawfish swims away, but he soon spies an entire school of goldfish. He grabs one, but it is too slippery and small to hang onto, and it flees swiftly away.

An octopus policeman with glowing eyes turns them red and whistles fish traffic to a stop, then turns about, his eyes now glowing green, and whistles the school of goldfish through his intersection. One of the fish gets caught in his hand, smiles at him, and zips after his fellows. Felix arrives to ask him if he has seen any goldfish "come this way." The octo-cop mimics Felix's questions in a mocking fashion, and then tells him, in a much higher pitch of voice, that he has seen "some go this way (points right), and that way (points left), and this way!!" He then tickles a delighted Felix, though the octo-cop goes back to being a stern officer of the law once Felix departs the scene. Meanwhile, the goldfish school has run smack into the open mouth of a large sleeping grouper, and when the enormous fish breathes out again, each fish returns encased in their own individual bubbles, which pop as the fish continue to swim. Felix's arrival causes the grouper to awaken, and after Felix asks his question about the goldfish, the grouper spits out a huge bubble which floats casually over to Felix. It pops in a huge burst, and a very waterlogged "No!" is spat at the cat, knocking him down.

Felix spies the goldfish ahead, and just as he is about to grab his quarry, another slightly larger fish zips in and eats the goldfish. Then another fish slightly larger than the previous one swallows that fish, and then yet another slightly larger one follows suit, and then another, and finally, a huge blue-backed fish completes the food chain, and swims contentedly away from Felix. As the sawfish swims past, Felix grabs him by the tail, and when the sawfish grabs a nearby piece of coral with his fins, Felix propels the fish as if he were an arrow in a crossbow. The sawfish flies sharply into the keister of the blue-backed fish, and then each fish is spat up by each succeeding fish in the chain. The fish all turn around to swim away from the tiny little goldfish who started the chain, but he opens up his maw larger and larger as he swims to each fish and swallows them all whole. Bloated like Eric Cartman on a Snacky Cake bender, the now-titanic goldfish floats up to Felix and burps loudly. Later, after an electric eel finishes tormenting a lobster and a starfish, sending them reeling and spinning with jolts from his charge, Felix wanders into the area, and the eel wastes no time in shocking the feline. Felix's insides light up, and in the process, light up the whole ocean floor, before Felix runs off to resume his search elsewhere.

The goldfish, playing child-like with a bubble, is finally discovered by Felix. When the cat grabs him, the fish cries for "Help! Help!" and the entire ocean community rushes to his aid. The citizenry of the sea all begin chanting, "Help! Police! Kidnap!" and "Murder!" and other additional crimes. A beat cop manages to get on the shell-o-phone and reaches his dispatcher, who sends out the call to the squadron. "Calling all carps! Calling all carps!" (Many fish cartoons seem to love this gag, up to and including television’s Fish Police.) The call is repeated inside what comprises a fish paddy wagon: a frightening deep-sea monstrosity with enormous needle-sharp fangs, with a carp riding along on its side while listening through a back-mounted horn. Everyone gives chase after poor Felix, and he is finally tracked down and dog-piled by the carps. They throw him in the paddy wagon and wheel him away towards the forbidding gates of King Neptune's castle.

Neptune is busy charming a small beautiful mermaid (with prominent and clearly naked breasts, which she jiggles as she dances, but they are sans the nipples that would apparently make her "nude" -- nowadays, they would place little off-flesh-colored dots over the nipples, like they do on the mainstream newsstand men's magazines, as if to say "Hey, sorry, boys! No nipples here! Just little dots - shaped exactly like nipples."). King Neptune plays Aloha Oe (Farewell To Thee) on the tines of his trident, and the mermaid giggles and dances, spins and swims in circles, and kisses Neptune on the cheek over and over. (One wonders why he ever bothers with looking at the fish.)

But, all good things must eventually end, and Neptune has a court over which to preside. After banging his gavel harshly on a table, the King of the Oceans hears the charges from the goldfish regarding Felix the Cat. "He tried to kidnap me! And cook me! And eat me!" the fish lies (except for the obvious first part). Neptune is outraged, and Felix, clearly the victim of species profiling, is not allowed to plead his defense. "How would you like to be put in a hot frying pan, and cooked until you were nice and brown--?" Neptune asks the cat, "-- On both sides! How would you like to be somebody's dinner? How would you like to be MY dinner!" 

When Felix states that he doesn't eat fish, the King laughs with disbelief. Felix tells the King that he was only trying to give the little guy a nice home, but the victimized goldfish protests that he already has one. However, the little nipper has an idea, which he whispers into the King's ear. Neptune picks Felix up and carries him to a fish orphanage, where Neptune picks out a cute little goldie for Felix and Annabelle. After the remaining orphans give them a sendoff, Neptune brings them back to the shore, where he places the orphan into the bowl with Annabelle. "Bless you, my children!" the cheerful ruler declares, "Good luck and goodbye!" He approximates an awkward dive back into the water, and Felix is left with his two charges. "Now are you happy, Annabelle?" Felix asks the ladyfish, as she smooches her new boyfriend intently. She emits two bubbles from her mouth, which rise to the surface of the water, and pop: "And how!" The fish kiss again, and the film irises out.

Here is the problem with the Van Beuren Felix shorts: Felix is not allowed to be Felix. In each film, he is surrounded by other, bigger characters, and each time, the directors allow Felix to get swallowed up by the events surrounding him. Felix is not allowed, except in brief instances in each film, to do what he does best: think his way out of situations. It's thrilling in the early part of this film to see Felix's tail turn into an exclamation point, as it did nearly every cartoon in the silent days, but then he never uses it for anything, especially to get himself out of jams or try to catch the fish. Felix is too passive in this film in particular. Once he hits the water, he is mainly at the mercy of whatever gag situation he wanders into, and the Felix of old would have found a way out of Neptune's court. This Felix allows all of the other characters to determine his fate, something silent Felix rarely did. Not enough thinking and pacing makes Felix a very dull kitty. Not that the animation of the cat isn't swell, but he really doesn't do very much in this series to warrant such grand design.

Last night, as I was watching this cartoon in preparation for this post, I was at the moment of Neptune's trident rendition of the Hawaiian Aloha Oe song, when I received a call from Jen, just off work, who told me that a friend of ours from Hawaii, Ali, was in town for the night, and wanted to catch up with us at Disneyland. Coincidence? I think not, especially where cartoons are concerned. Once we finally got there, we grabbed a table at the Uva Bar in Downtown Disney, and ordered some tapas while we awaited Ali's arrival. For several days, I had been craving, for some weird probably-Food Network-related reason, fish n' chips (something I rarely do), and I took the opportunity at seeing it on the Uva menu to order a plate. To my horror, though the chips were great, the fish was bland, slimy and highly unpalatable, and I had to douse it in malt vinegar and tartar sauce (which I wanted to save for my chips, for I am all about condiment variety as far as chips are concerned) to get the stuff down.

It was then that I realized that what I had been craving all along was halibut n' chips, which is a commonality in my Alaskan home, but rare indeed in Southern California. Compared to my delicious halibut, the ocean-dweller I had been devouring with my Ali-reunion meal might as well have crawled out of a cesspool. It didn't put a damper on a fun evening, but I came to realize just how picky I am when it comes to my associations with the creatures of the sea, even when its choice seems to be called for by hint of coincidence regarding the playing of a Hawaiian ballad, the viewing of an ocean-visiting cartoon, and the receiving of a phone call from a dear friend.

I wouldn't mind scoring that hot mermaid, though... nipple dots or no nipple dots.

RTJ

[This piece was edited and revised with new photos on September 15, 2016.]

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