Friday, June 23, 2006

THE KING OF BUGS (1930)

Consistency isn't something that you expect from the early days of Van Beuren's Aesop's Sound Fables, what with still working out the sound gimmick and all, and you certainly don't get it in any measure with The King of Bugs, put out by Van Beuren workhorses Harry Bailey and John Foster in 1930. Neither in the relative sizes of bugs to backgrounds or bugs to mammals, character motivations or the lack thereof in most cases, nothing really works in this film. Sometimes, even with these demerits against an Aesop's flick, they would still come through by pouring on the charm. While a couple of their flicks from 1930, such as The Haunted Ship, are rather accomplished for the day, many rely on this charm factor alone. Relying on this "charm", though, can prove deadly when you absolutely nothing else going for you...

The King of Bugs, who will soon arrive in his pumpkin coach, is preceded by four guardsmen who march in formation, and then pick up a caterpillar, who has weirdly transformed himself into a long flute, and play a tune on his stretched-out and suddenly-holed body. The coach is also preceded by a pair of armored knight-bugs who ride upon horses. Yes... I said horses. Behind them, we see the coach, also drawn by a quartet of horses. Yes... yet again, I said horses. How freakin' big are these bugs? Does the government know about this? Is Mothra on his way next? Just as I am getting all worked up over the proportional limits of insects and their exoskeletons, we are shown the side of the pumpkin coach, and it appears that it has all been a mistake. The horses drawing the coach all have little sets of wings on their backs (which were not shown in the shot before it), so it now seems that they are actually horse-flies! Whew! A close one, that...

As the parade continues past mushrooms that tower over the road, we see that the king is annoyed with a little fly who marches directly behind the coach, tooting incessantly on his horn with the music of the band. The king yells some nonsense gibberish at the fly, who toots raspberries back at the king. This causes the monarch to fall out of the coach, and when he yells at the little fellow again, the fly's only response is to play some magic tricks on the much larger king in a very nonchalant manner. (In his detached calmness, he could almost be either Van Beuren's Don the Dog or his direct animated descendent, Jerry.) Just as I had gotten over the horse incident, the fly pulls a rabbit out of his horn and then a duck from the king's crown! That's right, a rabbit and duck, each half the fly's size, and then he lets them run off. As the bugs are shown as being smaller than the flowers and mushrooms, then just how freakin' tiny are this bird and this mammal? They can't be babies, because even ducklings and kits at birth are far bigger than most insects. Oh, my head... whatever the answer, the king fails at his own attempt at a magic trick and runs back to his coach, which is still rolling off into the distance. He reaches it with the fly close behind, but the king turns about when he jumps into the coach and knocks the fly on the head.

The coach then enters the arena for "Ye King's Tournament", and the little fly is denied access by the knight guarding the door. A caterpillar strolls up, and when it hands the knight its invitation, the fly pretends to be one of the caterpillar's segments and sneaks inside. With much fanfare, the king and his daughter, the princess, are introduced to the crowd, and then the contestants in the tournament are marched through for review. A huge, black burly spider puffs his chest and salutes the royals, and then, much to my surprise (though I shouldn't have been by this point), march a hare and a tortoise, both far smaller than the spider. (Sound effect of me rubbing my eyes in astonishment.) The games begin, and the contestants take off on a race across the arena. After much cheating and punching, the spider knocks his two rivals out of the race, and he dances across the finish line. As the king applauds his pet spider's victory, the fly shows up, sits next to the throne, and starts hissing at the spider. The angered king throws the fly onto the spider, and the much larger arachnid gives the little fellow a good beating. The princess hops down to stop the fight, but the spider's instincts get the better of him, and he grabs the princess and runs off with her.

As the king's men chase after him, the spider drools, though not with hunger, but rather with lust. The spider climbs a tree and heads out on a branch. Clutching the princess in one hand, he beats down the advances of about a hundred of the guards, all of whom fall to the ground in defeat. (I do find it very amusing to see that there are four bugs attempting to catch each fallen bug on a trampoline, and they miss every single one of their compatriots.) As the spider makes unwarranted advances on the princess, the fly marches up the road, quite literally tooting his own horn to announce his attack on the villainous fiend. He climbs the tree, and with dagger in hand, he and the spider, who produces a sword from out of nowhere, engage in a furious battle back and forth on the treebranch. At one point, the spider runs his sword down through the center of the fly's dagger, and the fly has to use it like a pair of scissors. He finally succeeds in snipping off the spider's sword (this could be a Freudian thing) every few, uh, millimeters or centimeters or inches, whatever scale they are on at this point, and then the fly stabs the spider through the heart, even producing a dash of blood which spurts past the fly. The spider shakes, yells "Mammy!" and throws his arms out Jolson-style, before plummeting to the ground below. (We never see him hit nor do we hear his "thud" as he does -- there is only a weird silence.) The fly and the princess dance in victory and joy, they kiss the kiss of newfound lovers, and the movie irises out.

There are several instances where this film could have turned out to be really enjoyable, but its proportional inconsistencies, its introduction of characters well out of the scale of the rest of the characters, the horsefly mistakes (we never do see the wings on the ones that the knights are riding, so are they also horseflies or still horses?), and the fact that the pumpkin coach suddenly is sitting at the base of the tree when we never see the king again after the tournament, along with other oft-putting editing problems points to a film that was either poorly conceived or was poorly edited... or both. As it stands, while I want to enjoy it like other Van Beuren's, even the crappiest ones which still coast by on charm, it fails to win me over, and I consider it a substandard effort.

And while I'm willing to suspend disbelief enough to engage myself in a rabbit that dresses in drag to bedevil his enemies, which include a dopey hunter, an ornery cowboy, a Tasmanian Devil and a goofy Martian, I simply can't go along with a pair of bunnies that are smaller than the tiniest fly in the kingdom. The only way that I could buy such a scenario is if the filmmakers had placed little wings on the buns' backs and referred to them as "rabbit-flies".

"Bugs bunnies", indeed...

The King of Bugs (A Van Beuren Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Harry Bailey and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

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