This weekend was a good time for animation. On TCM as I write this they are showing rare animation from as early as the 1900’s to the late 50’s. The first feature film shown was the Fleischer’s first feature Gulliver’s Travels, a superb film, one of my favorite animated films, and then after I got the opportunity to see Mr. Bug Goes to Town, the Fleischer’s 2nd and final animated feature. Unfortunately this film was sabotaged by extremely poor timing, when the film opened only two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and all that month no one in America could even think about going to the movies. This marked the end of the collaboration between brothers Max and Dave, who split apart after this film. Paramount had loaned them the money to make this feature, but when it fell apart, Paramount took their studio away from them turning it into what became known as Famous Studios, which continued for a little while to make Popeye cartoons and other shorts, but none of them were ever as brilliant as when the Fleischer’s made them. Mr. Bug had a second life on television for many years until eventually classic cartoons were stopped being shown on TV.
So this was my first time watching Mr. Bug Goes to Town. And quite honestly….its a very nice film. But I don’t think it’s as funny or enjoyable as Gulliver. Mr. Bug has a lot of good things going for it. For one, it was the first animated feature to have an original story (set in modern times). Most animated stories were based on children’s literature or fairy tales. This one stands on its own. There are also some great, well developed characters. The one thing I like about the Fleischer characters over Disney is that no one is inherently good or evil. The villains in most of their shorts (like Bluto, King Bombo, and Bagley Beetle) aren’t so much evil as they are just kind of….sons of bitches! And that’s great. Mr. Beetle in this film causes trouble, but he’s in just as much danger as everyone else when the shit hits the fan. He was my favorite character in the film. Hoppity the lead bug, I wasn’t so enthralled with. He’s happy go lucky, but some of that would come off as annoying, with some really corny lines (“Gee Weeds!”). I liked that much of the time while Hoppity is ever the optimist, most of the time he would fall on bad luck, where every time the other bugs would side with his plans, they almost always fall apart. One other character I loved was Mr. Creeper, a crabby, antagonistic snail character always spelling doom for Hoppity (“I told ya so!”).
There is also some lovely animation, and terrific use of rotoscope on the human characters (which we never see the faces of). It’s feature quality animation, but the characters still exude charm with their designs, and often very funny bits of character animation. There is also an interesting sequence where Hoppity gets electrocuted, with the animation drawings seen with a glowing orange outline against a black backdrop. Its a very unique and technically cool little moment. As opposed to Gulliver, the story for Mr. Bug isn’t as engaging. It moves at a fairly slow pace, and it feels like it takes awhile for the story get going. Bagley Beetle has plans to marry Hoppity’s girlfriend, Honey, and Bagley occasionally tries to ruin things for Hoppity. But despite being well designed and being an engaging character, many times he never really felt like a serious threat. In Gulliver, Bombo was very bombastic and cartoonish, but the threat with his spies using Gulliver’s gun to try and kill Gulliver built more tension, and it was a very real danger scenario. Beetle doesn’t quite achieve that level of threat, and usually his celebrations for victory are premature (like in one scene when he kicks a burning cigar butt towards Honey and Mr. Bumble’s home, and Beetle celebrates before the cigar has a chance to set the house on fire. There’s also a good moment in that sequence where Hoppity tries to get water to put the fire out, but accidentally goes to a puddle of gasoline, and we assume Hoppity is going to get the blame when he causes Mr. Bumble’s house to explode. But that doesn’t happen, and Hoppity merely gets black faced when the cigar just explodes by itself instead, and tension dies.
While Mr. Bug is not a great film, it has its moments of fun, and there are plenty of technical achievements that the Fleischer’s developed with this film, as there are some beautiful backgrounds, camera moves, and definitely some fine character animation. There are some pretty good gags too. The Fleischer’s didn’t deserve to have their studio run into the ground after this, and there was just some tremendous unfortunate bad luck that resulted in the studios downfall. But if you haven’t seen this film, its worth discovering and checking out. And then go back and watch all the Fleischer’s great work from the 1920’s and 30’s, with Popeye, Betty Boop, Koko the Klown, Bimbo, and many more. Many of their technical achievements in animation are still used today. They were a truly great and innovative studio, and it would have been amazing to see the competition continue with Disney had they gotten to make more feature films. The one thing I admire most about the Fleischer’s is that while they were Disney’s biggest competitors, they rarely ever copied Disney in their storytelling. They had their own unique voice, as this was the first animated feature to have an original story. By all means check it out if you can.