A Year in Shorts Day 277: "Paul Bunyan"
The tall tales of American folklore certainly captured a great deal of my imagination when I was in elementary school. I remember being in a play about Johnny Appleseed when I was in third grade, and reading about Pecos Bill in my free time the year after. And while they don’t take up nearly as much of my time as they once did, I still enjoy watching a good animated short about them. Oh sure, some of them can be pretty awful. But sometimes they’re pretty good, tapping into a deep well of childhood nostalgia. Naturally, such a situation applies to the 1958 Disney short Paul Bunyan.
Directed by Les Clark, Paul Bunyan is neither the first nor last time Disney tackled American tall tales. The 1948 film Melody Time (which was part of Disney's series which could be described as "Poor Man's Fantasia"; in those days, Disney had so little competition in the field of animated features that they had to rip themselves off) had a segment based on Johnny Appleseed which was... well, it wasn't the worst segment in Melody Time. In 1950, Disney released The Brave Engineer, a very silly short about Casey Jones. And much later they released the excellent 2000 short John Henry, which contains some great music and tremendous animation. (While all these films would be released together on a 2001 video, Disney sadly only did an Avengers-style crossover in the live action film Tall Tale.) Quality wise, Paul Bunyan kind of sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, I suppose. Artistically it isn't particularly ambitious, and at seventeen minutes it's a bit on the long side. This is probably due to the fact that it feels as though the filmmakers wanted to fit in every single Paul Bunyan tall tale they'd ever heard into one movie, which is just silly. Come on Disney, you gotta save some of that shit for the sequels. Nevertheless, the film certainly has plenty of charm, as you can see for yourself.
In many ways, Paul Bunyan fits rather neatly with the similarly educational shorts Disney was making in the 1950s. Why exactly Disney decided to make so many educational shorts in that decade I don't know; I presume it somehow involved fighting the spread of Communism. Still, there are worse ways to learn than to watch a cartoon I suppose. Divided into three segments with different narrators telling the stories of Paul and Babe's various exploits, the film has the same episodic structure as something like Donald in Mathmagic Land. Now admittedly, Paul Bunyan isn't as funny as that short. (Try as he might, the title character is no Donald Duck, even if he is voiced by Tony the Tiger himself, Thurl Ravenscroft.) But a couple of jokes here and there aside, Paul Bunyan isn't really trying to be funny. Instead it mostly sets out to tell some stories of American folklore in an entertaining way. And, thanks to the beautiful animation and the fun songs performed by Disney regulars the Mellomen, it definitely succeeds. Even though it's a little long, it moves at a pretty good pace, and the film is packed with a lot of fun set pieces and asides. It's not a great Disney short, but it's a very watchable one!
The animation, in particular, is what really elevates this short for me. I've mentioned several times how much I love Disney animation from the 50s, although I've never really been able to explain why. Still, now seems like as good a time as any to give it a shot. It's strange, because, on a sheer technical level, I think one could make the argument that the animation in a short like Paul Bunyan is "worse" than something you might see in a Silly Symphonies short or the like. Certainly it's far less realistic, its character designs less detailed, its backgrounds less traditionally beautiful. But what these shorts may lack in these areas, they more than make up for in terms of style. Yes, the characters in Paul Bunyan might have simpler designs, but they have plenty of character, less concerned with realism and more about personality. (Plus they don't have those disgusting hands Disney characters in the 40s were afflicted with.) And while I love the meticulously painted backgrounds from Disney's Golden Age, the more limited layouts they did in the 50s have a delightfully off-kilter aesthetic which is just plain fun to look at. The backgrounds in Paul Bunyan might be simple (no doubt inspired by the limited animation styles pioneered by UPA), but that just gives the animators more room to experiment. The great thing about animation is that its artists are not tethered to reality, and the Disney shorts of the 50s really allowed them to take full advantage of that. And when that looser style was combined with the budget of a feature, you get some truly spectacular works like Alice in Wonderland or Sleeping Beauty. (Which, unfortunately, were also far less profitable works, leading to the cost-cutting measures seen in the 60s and 70s, easily the ugliest period for Disney animation.) Aesthetically Paul Bunyan might not be on that level (how could it be?), but it nevertheless serves as a perfect demonstration for why that period in Disney history is my personal favorite. At least on a strictly visual level.
But all of that wasn't enough to snag an Academy Award, and Paul Bunyan lost the Oscar to another American icon- Bugs Bunny. I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, Knighty Knight Bugs is not exactly an iconic Bugs Bunny short, and I have to admit that I like Paul Bunyan a bit better. But Disney certainly had enough Oscars by that point, and Bugs Bunny had never won one. And seeing as how it's certainly not the worst case of a screen legend finally winning a career Oscar at the expense of a worthier nominee, I suppose we can let it slide. At least for now. We'll see how I feel when we cover that particular short later this year. But until then, let's keep a great American tradition alive (and by that I mean the tradition of letting Disney control every aspect of our lives) and celebrate Paul Bunyan!
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