A Year in Shorts Day 289: "Educated Fish"
Fellow Oscar Baiters, I have a confession to make. A deep, shameful confession. I am unfamiliar with most of the Fleischer Brothers’ work, from their black-and-white Popeye shorts to pretty much anything featuring Betty Boop. In my defense, I have an excuse (although not a very good one)- most of their work was ignored by the Academy! And yes, I know, I should remember that “the Oscars don’t matter” and “I should watch their shorts anyway” and “what the hell is wrong with me?” and the like. And look, you’re not wrong. But my brain likes organization when it comes to these things (just not in any areas in which organization would be useful), and it helps to have an easy list of films to choose from when trying to see a wide variety of shorts throughout the years. Not to mention it’s fun to try and figure out exactly why certain shorts got nominated. For instance- why the fuck did the Academy nominate a film like Educated Fish?
Released in 1937, Dave and Max Fleischer's Educated Fish is an installment in Paramount's Color Classics series, one of the multitude of Silly Symphony knockoffs that cropped up to try and compete with Disney's shorts. We had Color Rhapsodies, Happy Harmonies, and doubtless more I've forgotten about. I suppose the Merrie Melodies could also be counted among their rank at first, but they quickly developed their own identity. And if Educated Fish is any example, the Color Classics developed a unique identity of being fucking terrible. (Kidding. The Color Rhapsodies and Happy Harmonies were terrible too.) Which is a shame, because it's not as if the short didn't have potential. The Fleischers are famous for their high quality and innovative animation, after all. And the premise- of a young fish rebelling at school (get it?!), only to get caught on a hook and learn the error of his ways- has promise. And at times, the short lives up to that promise! There are a handful of clever visual gags here and there, and the short's action-packed climax certainly looks decent enough, even if it's not up to the standards of a Popeye or Superman short. But unfortunately, none of that amounts to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things. You see, Educated Fish suffers from the same problem which afflicted a great deal of cartoons in those days- it's really fucking annoying.
Just about every single aspect of this short drives me up the walls. The voice acting is obnoxious, with the actors not even trying to bring more than the most basic personality to their characters. Of course, they aren't done any favors by the strange tinny quality to the audio recording (something which afflicts a lot of the bad cartoons of this period; was this an issue then, or is it just because people only bother to remaster the good cartoons?) or the wall-to-wall aquatic sound effects which prove more distracting than immersive. All of this is bad enough in regular dialogue, but it becomes borderline unbearable during group singing numbers, as grown adults pretending to be children sing a terrible song in unison through what sounds like a tin can attached to a piece of string. Then again, given the quality of jokes the short has to offer, perhaps it's a good thing we can't hear any of them clearly. This is the kind of cartoon whose idea of slapstick is just random violence for the sake of it, which only gets you so far. Still, at least there you have a semblance of an idea as to what they were going for. More baffling is the decision to portray the worm on a hook as a sexy, Mae-West like figure trying to seduce young Tommy Cod. Apparently worms make good bait for fish not because they want to eat them, but because fish desperately want to fuck them. Speaking as someone who is not a particularly big fan of Mae West, I still feel confident in saying she deserves better than this!
All of this would be... well, if not forgivable, at least considerably less aggravating, if the short had been better animated. But I hate to say that the Fleischer magic just isn't here on this one. Like I said, some of the action beats are cool, but that's all I can say in its favor. But for the most part the short is just ugly to look at, with uninspired character designs and a surprisingly drab color scheme for its aquatic setting. (I'm willing to concede that the latter might be due to the low quality prints available online, but no amount of restoration can make those fish look good.) And at times the short feels weirdly cheap and out-of-sync; the characters' mouths don't move quite right when they talk, and sometimes they move when they're not talking at all, presumably due to some recycled animation. It's just not a good-looking short, especially when you compare it to Disney's representative in the category that year. If the Color Classics were meant to be Paramount's answer to the Silly Symphonies... well let's just say it's no wonder that Disney won that particular competition. Nor is it any wonder that people remember the Fleischers for their work on Popeye or Betty Boop instead of shorts like this. Really, all that's left to wonder is exactly how Educated Fish managed to snag an Oscar nomination. After all this writing, I still don't have an answer.
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