A Year in Shorts Day 238: "Donald in Mathmagic Land"
You know what I don’t like? Movies about math. And why would I? Math isn’t very interesting, so it’s really not surprising that movies about it aren’t very interesting either. A Beautiful Mind? Boring. Hidden Figures? Meh. Stand and Deliver? Surprisingly very weird. And don’t even get me started on Moneyball, which proved that making a movie about two incredibly boring subjects (math and baseball) results in an incredibly boring movie. (Sorry, Moneyball fans.) And so it stands to reason that today’s short, the 1959 film Donald in Mathmagic Land, would be boring as well. It isn’t, of course, because there’s one important factor in this equation which you have to remember- Donald in Mathmagic Land stars Donald Duck. And Donald Duck may be many things. But he is never boring.
If you've ever attended public school in America, chances are good that you've seen this short, so I won't waste too much time explaining it. While he's out hunting one day (which is something Donald Duck does surprisingly often, come to think of it), Donald finds himself in Mathmagic Land. While my first instinct would be to pull a Frank Reynolds and start blasting, Donald is instead welcomed by the True Spirit of Adventure (voiced by Paul Frees) and invited to explore the world of math. What follows is a series of vignettes (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, Les Clark and Joshua Meador, with Hamilton Luske supervising) extolling the wonders of mathematics. It might not sound super exciting (as Donald says, math is for eggheads), but thanks to some excellent animation and a keen sense of humor, Donald in Mathmagic Land is a pretty damn good time!
I've said this a few times before, but on a purely aesthetic level, it's hard to beat Disney's animated output in the 1950s. While I love the more realistic look they strived for in the 30s and 40s or the more fluid and revolutionary techniques they employed during the Renaissance, there's just something about the style of 50s Disney which I absolutely love. And Donald in Mathmagic Land is certainly no exception. This hardly comes as a surprise; as the title suggests, the animators in this film take a lot of inspiration from Alice in Wonderland, which came out eight years prior. For my money, Alice in Wonderland is one of the best-looking films ever put out by Disney, rivaled only by Sleeping Beauty (which came out the year this short was released) in terms of sheer beauty. Donald in Mathmagic Land takes a lot of cues from that film, not only in its strange and evocative backgrounds, but also in the wide variety of creative visuals employed throughout. You would think that after nearly a year of covering short films I'd know how to describe animation a little better. Still, I know what I like and what doesn't, and hot damn I like the animation in this.
If I had one complaint about the animation it would be that I don't necessarily care for the character animation as Donald Duck when compared to the 40s shorts. I know, I know, that makes me horribly inconsistent, but hear me out! I'm not saying it's bad, far from it, it's just different, and not necessarily for the better. The original Donald design was more detailed and textured, which made his outbursts funnier to watch, I think. Donald's smoother design just doesn't have as much personality, I think. I don't know, like I said, I'm not an animation expert. And obviously Donald's new look fits in better with the style of animation that the short is going for, and said style is something I'm clearly a huge fan of. So what am I complaining about? Absolutely nothing! I just wasted a whole damn paragraph for nothing! And I keep doing it! I need to stop! Will I? Eventually. When will that be? Who can say. I like to remain unpredictable.
Less consistently successful (from a visual standpoint at any rate) is the use of live action in the film. While it leads to some funny moments (such as the scene in which Donald Duck gets extremely horny for math), for the most part it just clashes with the animation in a way that I don't much care for. I guess it was necessary to demonstrate the Golden Shapes, but I don't know. (Part of the problem might be that the live action footage hasn't been as well-preserved as the animation.) The combination of live action and animation in certain moments is fairly rough too, even if it is fairly understandable as to why. It gives me a Three Caballeros vibe, which isn't a terrible thing, but not exactly great either. But it's not entirely without merit either; the use of live action for the billiards scene, for instance, is pretty appropriate. I don't know about you, but I really enjoy watching billiards tricks on screen, and that's just not something that's nearly as impressive in animation. So once again- what am I complaining about? This post is long enough as it is, it's not like I need to pad it out!
Donald in Mathmagic Land is also frequently funny, which helps explain why it's so popular as an educational tool in math classes. (Well, that and the fact that sometimes math teachers don't want to teach, and who could blame them? Teaching math is probably almost as boring as learning about it.) Admittedly, some of the humor may be a little unintentional; the sight of Donald magically receiving a pentagram on his hand carries with it certain connotations that Disney certainly would not have approved of. And other bits may not have aged as well as others (such as the gag of Donald being in drag to appear as "Alice"). Nevertheless, the short is consistently entertaining, as one can only hope from Donald Duck. Paul Frees' steady delivery is the perfect counterpoint to Donald's manic delivery, which is essential to the short. You need that kind of contrast to make an educational film like this. Could you imagine Mickey in Mathmagic Land? No one would watch it!
Still, while the film is undeniably entertaining, how does it work on an educational level? After all, Donald in Mathmagic Land IS supposed to be an educational film! Hell, it was nominated for Best Documentary Short, not Animated. (It lost to Glass, a Dutch documentary about the making of glass. I'm sure it's a good film, but does it star Donald Duck?) And as to that I can say- I have absolutely no idea. I have heard some criticisms that this short only offers a Eurocentric view of mathematics, ignoring the contributions of Arabic and Chinese mathematicians in favor of the Greeks. And that's certainly true, but considering the horribly offensive cartoons we've seen before, I'm almost tempted to give this film a pass for that. Even at thirty minutes, this short couldn't cover everything about math, and so it can be forgiven for sticking primarily to Euclidean geometry. And those omissions at least make it so I don't have to dedicate a paragraph talking about all the horrible racial stereotypes which would have inevitably been on display. I know that saying "This short isn't racist because it never had the chance to be" isn't exactly high praise, but it's not nothing.
Other than that, I think the film mostly succeeds at what it sets out to do, which is to teach math in an interesting way and to explain how it applies to people's every day lives. And sure, it's pretty simple stuff on an educational level, but it's made for kids, so that's to be expected. While Donald in Mathmagic Land may not be the best Donald Duck short we've covered, it's nevertheless a good film with some great animation and a good sense of humor. It's really no surprise it's become a mainstay for classrooms ever since its release. If my math teacher ever played this for me, I certainly wouldn't complain!
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