Monday, June 15, 2015

Mr. Bug goes to Town

Mr. Bug goes to Town is a feature-length cartoon directed by Dave Fleischer.  The animated picture, clearly made with a great deal of care and ingenuity, was released in 1941, two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed and so the movie sunk with neither splash nor ripple.  Although it lacks the frenetic, macabre brilliance of many of the Fleischer Brothers' earlier short films, the picture has several remarkably inventive and beautiful sequences.  The film's premise is that a community of insects, all of them cute and anthropomorphized, lives in detritus scattered across the lawn of an old cottage incongruously located in mid-town Manhattan.  (The cottage is old with ancient stone walls and a thatched roof and it looks like Rothwang's medieval lodging in Metropolis).  A fence protecting the bugs from pedestrian traffic has fallen down and the insect village is threatened by "the human ones", colossal faceless giants who hurl burning cigars the size of sequoias into the town or who play field hockey with tin cans on the lawn.  A brave grasshopper, the lanky Hoppity (he looks like Jimmy Stewart) leads the bugs to a penthouse garden fifty stories above the cottage.  Hoppity has a cross-species girlfriend, Honey, a sweet-faced Betty-Boop-style bee.  The bugs' homes are like Hobbit-houses on the shire, funky little burrows made of cans and matchboxes half buried in the grassy knolls, glowing with amber yellow windows at sunset.  Hoppity has an antagonist, the wicked C. Bagley Beetle, a rival for Honey's affections.  Beetle, in turn, has two comical henchmen, a Pinocchio-nosed mosquito and a near-sighted fly.  The beetle villain looks like Charles Laughton, sleeps regally in a make-up compact, and is prone to saying things like:  "Hoppity, bah! I'll get that long-legged leapin' Lochinvar."  To which the fly and mosquito are apt to reply in Bronx accent:  "We'll extoiminate him, boss!"  The movie is sentimental and the insects are drawn so anthropomorphically (for instance, they don't have six legs) that it's a bit pointless to even posit them as bugs.  They don't act buggy at all and species distinctions are generally completely ignored.  Accordingly, the film might as well be about a race of tiny humanoids living in the cracks and fissures of the big city.  It's a defect in the film to so thoroughly anthropomorphize the insects, although obviously the film was expensive, planned for distribution to holiday crowds in 1941, and, accordingly, the "ick" factor associated with insects is minimized to the point that there is nothing in the film even remotely frightening or bug-like.  Indeed, the phrase that comes to mind is one that I have never understood before seeing this film -- "cute as a bug."  Nonetheless, there are some very good things in this movie.  Perspectives and scale effects are spectacularly accomplished -- the rotoscoped humans seem gigantic and anonymous compared to the tiny swarm of insects.  The film has a wonderful song by Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser about "castles in the sky".  The song, in fact, plays an important role in the plot and is convincingly integrated into the action -- a human couple sing the song and royalties that they are supposed to receive for the composition are melodramatically delayed resulting in a double eviction:  the humans lose their home and the bugs have to move to the top of a new skyscraper under construction.  The Fleisher brothers pioneered proto-music videos and they excel at song and dance numbers including one surreal sequence in which an electrocuted Hoppity dances a wild jitterbug involving neon-like colors moving so swiftly as to become almost wholly abstract.  And the climax of the film, a spectacular montage involving the erection of a skyscraper, money being minted, and the popular song becoming a hit has a remarkable rhythmic swing -- coins rise in piles, girders are riveted to girders and the bugs rise on steel piers lifted by huge cranes higher and higher above the metropolis.  It's an extraordinary sequence of pure cinema.   

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