Monday, March 27, 2006

The Cuckoo (1948)

The Cuckoo (David Hand's Animaland/Gaumont, 1948) 
Dir: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

Cuckoos creep me out. I know they are just birds, and not particularly horrid looking birds at that. There is nothing in their appearance to bring this mood out in me. No, it is the parasitic behavior of their kind that brings this feeling to my chilled bones. The way they lay their eggs in the nest of a different host species, and then, when the egg hatches, the way that the invading hatchling will then push the other eggs out of the nest, or if they have already hatched, the way it will terrorize and push the other offspring out and down to their doom below just gives me the willies.

It doesn't help that this mood is escalated by the horror film music that often accompanies the cuckoo's portrayal in any number of nature documentaries, as the bird insidiously kicks one of the host birds' eggs out of the nest to make way for one of its own, often colored quite similar to the egg that is being bombed to the forest floor.

Then, when I was a teenager, a reading of The Day of the Triffids (after I saw the movie, naturally) led me to another novel by that book's author, John Wyndham, called The Midwich Cuckoos, a story about aliens who knock out an entire town, and after the town wakes up from their forced slumber, every woman in the village is pregnant, unknowingly, with an alien child. These children have terrible and deadly mind powers (much like in Scanners). They look odd with their cold, staring eyes, and they try to control everyone that crosses their path. Whatever the faults of the book overall, it was made into a terrifically suspenseful and eerie film called Village of the Damned (1960, and remade in 1995), and once I saw that film a little while later, the cuckoo was completely evil in my head, even if the story has nothing to do with the creatures, and is nothing more than a metaphor. Regardless, damage done.

Some fought in the cuckoo's defense, but despite the combined efforts over the years of Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Nurse Ratched and the beloved family cuckoo clock that we grew up with in our home, I still have this negative picture of the cuckoo in my head, and no damn crazy bird was going to get my Cocoa Puffs. And all of this without ever seeing, while in my adolescence, the David Hand Animaland cartoon, The Cuckoo, from 1948. If I had, it certainly would not have changed my impression to the positive at all, but would have instead firmed up my resolve in the cuckoo department for all times.

The beginning plays much like the documentaries that I have mentioned, though the music is a bit less menacing as a lurking and shadowy cuckoo sneaks across the screen from branch to branch as it she were an avian Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps, she is, for all intents. She leaves her egg as described, and not surprising from the supervisor of Bambi, the film does not pull back on her action in sending the sparrow's egg falling to the ground below. We do not see the impact, nor is there the saving grace of seeing a little baby pop out of it at the last second. The egg is gone for good. To that point, the narrator mentions that the cuckoo wastes no time in "destroying the egg". The mother housesparrow sits on both the alien egg and her own for a good long while, but eventually she feels a kicking beneath, and soon enough, her actual offspring kicks his way out of the shell. He is a round-headed little cutie pie, who proclaims, "Hello, Mummy!" when he emerges.

Mr. Housesparrow arrives to check out the new family member, but after he joyously meets his real son, the other egg starts jumping, smacking the father repeatedly under the chin. The egg bounces high into the air, and Father Housesparrow, believing it to be his other real egg, has to run to catch the egg before it smashes to pieces. He catches it successfully, but soon he will wish that he hadn't done such a thing. The alien egg cracks open and the cuckoo baby, nearly four times as big as the sparrow chick, dumps into the straining arms of the much smaller father.

The cuckoo is extremely dopey looking, with a huge schnoz substituted for a useful beak, a goofy smile, and a never-ending appetite. This is evident in the next scene, where the pair of mismatched brothers rock back and forth in the nest as the cuckoo baby grabs food left and right from the parents, leaving not even a morsel for the real sparrow chick. That night, the pair of chicks are abed in the nest, but the snoring cuckoo kicks the sparrow child out of the nest, perhaps not so accidentally, given the cuckoo's track record. The sparrow kid uses the cuckoo's foot for a pillow, as the narrator tells of the mournful condition of the doomed bird. "Poor baby sparrow," he intones. "Nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat. His world becomes a nightmare..."

Suddenly, the air around the chick goes dark as the film enters the nightmare within his head. The stomach and two legs of the cuckoo expand and puff up around the baby. He pushes them apart, and they turn into three mushrooms, which then roll over, turn into sundae cups, and then are filled with delicious ice cream and toppings. A spoon lies by the sparrow's seat on the black floor of the nightmare chamber, but before he can gather even one bite of the dreamland desserts, the first sundae turns into a cuckoo and begins singing a song called The Cuckoo Ain't So Cuckoo After All. Each of other sundaes turn into two more cuckoos, and all three of the malicious fiends torment the baby sparrow with their song, teasing him with food, but then keeping it from him throughout the course of the dream.

"Oh, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, a cuckoo ain't as cuckoo when he's full!
Hunger makes you crazy
Takes wings to make you lazy
A cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

When you're blue, go cuckoo like the cuckoo in the spring.
Realize he's really wise and not a silly thing!

Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, the cuckoo ain't as cuckoo as his call! (Cuckoo, cuckoo)
He never toils or labors
He borrows from his neighbors
The cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

Oh, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, the cuckoo ain't as cuckoo as his call!
Sail the whole world over
He's the clown who's found the clover
No, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

Oh, a cuckoo ain't so [indeterminate at this point; sung drunkenly]
He knows which are lemonades and which'll fizz
He's a hearty smarty
His life is one long party
Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Ain't so cuckoo (cuckoo, cuckoo)
Ain't so cuckoo (cuckoo, cuckoo)"

The cuckoos adopt a variety of disguises throughout the sequence, including that of Napoleon (when the word "crazy" is mentioned) and a trio of sailors. When the nightmare is over, the baby wakes up to morning, and the fat, lazy cuckoo kicks the baby off the branch. The seemingly doomed sparrow plummets to the ground below. No sooner does he hit the turf than he is met by a weasel, and he has nothing but bad designs on the kid's future. However, he talks himself into the bird's confidence, and tricks him into his cave. The hungry bird is more than willing to learn what it takes to make the menu item called "inside soup" with which the weasel tempts the starving little runt. He convinces the bird that to make "inside soup,” you first crawl inside the pot. Then you stir it inside the pot as you sit there. And then, finally, he slams the lid on the pot, trapping the baby bird inside.

But the smell of the soup drifts out through the opening of the cave, and inevitably, it reaches the nostrils of the always ravenous cuckoo. He waddles into the cave, and then comes back out with the entire pot. The weasel steals it back and carries it into his home. But the cuckoo intercepts him, and when the weasel thinks he is gnawing on a bird, he ends up chewing his own tail up instead. 

So obsessed with taking everything in the world from the baby sparrow is the cuckoo, that he doesn't understand that the baby is the main ingredient in the soup, and roughly shoves him out of the pot as if he were trying to steal it. He then drinks a ladleful of the soup, but the weasel distracts him, and then starts punching, kicking and throttling the cuckoo. The lazy bird calls out for help, and the baby sparrow tries to rescue him by picking up a club and bashing the weasel's tail with it. All it does is turn the weasel's attention to the smaller and weaker baby. He chases the sparrow throughout every inch of the cave at lightning speed, while the cuckoo, who has seemingly already forgotten about his distress, returns to devouring the "inside soup". 

The sparrow runs to the cuckoo for protection, but the schmuck kicks the sparrow away and then returns to his gluttony. The sparrow, however, has discovered the fire upon which the pot was cooking, and lights the tail of the weasel on fire. The weasel runs off and out of the picture for good.

The sparrow, feeling his oats from vanquishing one villain, now sets in on lambasting his larger "brother" for his behavior. The cuckoo actually begins to feel ashamed, ducking behind the pot as the tiny bird berates him, and a final verse of the Cuckoo song plays over the action:

"Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo, he's just mad
Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo, he's a cad
One way or another
He will rob his little brother
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo, not a friend!
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo!
Just a cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo, not a friend!"

While the song finishes, the cuckoo takes off after the angry, strutting sparrow to explain himself, but then remembers the remainder of the soup, and returns to drink it all down. Then, he picks up the empty pot, opens his enormous maw as wide as it can go, and swallows the entire cast iron pot. It plops to the bottom of his stomach, and he drags it with him as he runs out of the cave.

Serious shades of Pink Elephants on Parade on display here, but that's fine. Disney has swiped from that Dumbo sequence numerous times themselves over the years, and probably will continue to forever. Some great atmosphere throughout the entire cartoon, excellent characterizations, and the chase in the cave yields several fun camera angles. There may also be, inside the cave, a morbid Disney reference when the weasel is leading the little tyke deeper into his lair. There is a skull on the ground, that the weasel rests his foot atop momentarily, which is probably just a generic duck, but it looks remarkably like that of Disney's beloved Donald Duck. As Hand left Disney for not necessarily greener pastures, is this a hidden cheeky swipe at Walt and Co.? Or is it mere coincidence? A weaker second half keeps the film from being a true lost classic, and instead, leaves it being a still nearly excellent piece of animation. 

Regardless, this film renders fully that ol' cuckoo creepiness into my being. Now, I know that not all cuckoos behave this way. Most of the North American varieties do not take on host species like the European ones do (you can read whatever you want about Old World imperialism into that statement. I am too tired during this writing to pursue it any further.) Of course, some would say that there is an abundance of pro-cuckoo propaganda out there, too. Roadrunners, after all, are members of the cuckoo family, and there is a plentitude of Warner Brothers' cartoons demonstrating the remarkably versatile capabilities of their Road Runner. Of course, this presumes that I am not on Wile E. Coyote's side in this dispute.

But I am on his side. The Coyote is the true and much put-upon hero of those cartoons. Cuckoos... you suck.



And in case you haven't seen it:

[This article was updated with new photos on 12/19/15.]

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