One of the benefits of owning a toddler is their usefulness as guinea pigs in experiments. It is widely known that a toddler has no cinematic taste (controlled experiments prove this) so they are about as blank a slate as you are likely to get. It is interesting to observe their little minds being shaped and warped by whatever you put in front of them.
In this case, it was Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons—about 100 hours from each studio. I painstakingly gathered data and registered their effects on the little guy. I wanted to find out which cartoons were funnier, which ones were scarier or more disturbing.
We watched only the shorts, and to even things out I disqualified all of Disney’s Silly Symphonies—that vast treasure trove of fables and lullabies that tended to induce in the child a desire to snuggle. We kept the focus on Mouse vs. Bunny, brash verbal sass vs. something more silent and Chaplinesque, Warner’s witty limericks vs. Disney’s humorous ballads, Duck vs. Duck. Equipped with only a clipboard, safety goggles, and a sippy-cup, I got to work.
At first blush, one would think that the hyper-violence in Warner Bros. would be more troubling, and indeed, my son did take to Disney slightly sooner. After all, in a Warner Bros. short, it is not uncommon to see a duck getting his bill blown off with a shotgun at point-blank range.
But over time I found that Disney’s universe disturbed them much more. This has to do with their respective environments: the universal laws at play; the powers that be.
In Warner Bros., the environment is backdrop, an inanimate background waiting to be controlled and manipulated at the character’s whim. A Warner Bros. protagonist (often protagonist and antagonist simultaneously) might paint a tunnel road onto the side of a rock, opening up a new dimension to facilitate his escape. It is no problem for Tweety to be in two places at once. Dynamite rigged to blow up Bugs Bunny waits until precisely the right moment to explode in Yosemite Sam’s face. Even the hapless Coyote with his ever-backfiring A.C.M.E. contraptions doesn’t start falling until he realizes that he is no longer on firm ground. If you are Bugs Bunny, you don’t fall at all because it’s the law of gravity, and you never studied law.
But in the world of Disney the background has a will of its own. Things swell and breathe with animated life. Objects almost consciously thwart the characters’ intentions. No matter how many times Mickey Mouse empties a pale of water, the water doesn’t want to be thrown out and returns to the bucket. After his umpteenth try, the water flies around and splashes Mickey in the face. Or witness Donald Duck and a deck-chair, or Goofy with damn near anything. Disney’s universe is often dark, malevolent, and out to get you.
One could argue that the famous cartoon “Duck Amuck” has a Disney-like maleovelence, but that feeling ends once we discover that it is Bugs who is thwarting Daffy, quite literally manipulating the tortured duck’s backdrop. In this sense then, all Disney cartoons are Ducks Amuck, except that we never discover the source of the characters’ suffering, or learn about the demiurge that is driving everything.
Another contrast in qualities is best described in this quote from film historian William K. Everson, via Leonard Maltin’s book The Disney Films:
“Disney used height—skyscrapers, mountains, etc.—far more than other cartoon-makers, and with more concern for perspective and the convincing illusion of dizzy depths. Height gags in Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons were always just that—rapid gags that paid off quickly in a laugh, and without buildup. Disney, on the other hand, used height much as Harold Lloyd did, to counterpoint comedy with a genuine thrill.”
I think this holds more widely as a general rule, with Disney tending to build extended comic sequences and Warner Bros. performing a breakneck succession of stop-gags. Here some exceptions might include “What’s Opera, Doc?” or the series of “How to…” shorts demonstrating various sports, starring “The Goof.”
When it comes to their character rosters, Warner Bros. beats Disney hands down, with more funny stars than you have fingers to count. Who wasn’t touched by that poster commemorating the passing of the great Mel Blanc, with all those familiar characters bowing their heads in respect behind a silent microphone? In comparison, few characters in Disney are really funny. You can count them on one hand and still have left over fingers, but I would argue that no single character from either studio is funnier than Donald Duck. To quote Noel Coward, “Thank heaven for Donald Duck! ...for all his dreadful energy and his blind frustrated rages.”
The characters’ social spheres are vastly different, too. Disney was squarely planted in the mid-American psyche, deeper and more in tune with the stuff of dreams and nightmares. His characters started as vulgar barnyard creatures. Next there was a rough period during the Great Depression (exactly why was Mickey on that chain gang in “The Chain Gang” anyway?). Then they spent most of the 40’s as working proles before finally reaching middle class suburbia in the 50’s. Warner Bros. speaks more to the perennial outsider, always making wisecracks. Their trajectory is that of a comic slumming it on the vaudeville circuit and then suddenly being catapulted to instant Hollywood superstardom.
The moods at each workplace must have been far different as well. I think of the Disney Studios as some sort of top secret Manhattan Project, with the animators testing their multi-plane camera in “The Old Mill,” gearing up for the big one: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Uncle Walt was a tough, hands-on boss who would give you whatever he thought you needed. He would send you to art school. Just don’t start any unions. We know that Walt Disney smoked, drank, and fornicated, but when it came to the Disney family image he was something of a prude. It may or may not be true, but one story goes that a couple of animators thought it would be funny one night to screen a pornographic Mickey and Minnie cartoon they had drawn at a party. When Walt walked in he wasn’t amused, and promptly fired them both.
It is hard to imagine an equivalent story at Warner Bros. Those guys were hardcore, exploding-cigar-in-the-face funny. There’s a great photograph of a bunch of the Boys from Termite Terrace in a long line, each man bending down to give the man in front of him the “hot foot.” When is the last time you saw someone get the “hot foot”? And is there anything in Disney to match Warner’s propensity to do drag? Most of the Disney characters had girlfriends. The closest they come to cross-dressing is a few amazingly life-like girl puppets and maybe that time that Donald and Goofy impersonated a blonde-wigged moose floozy in “The Moose Hunters.”
In the realm of music, the contest is almost too close to call. The Disney orchestra could play fast and stop on a dime, whereas Carl Stalling’s gang could play even faster, stop on a dime and probably give you back the dime.
The biggest difference between the two studios’ approaches is the difference between Wit and Humor, with the enjoyment of Wit relating to a general sadism in the viewer, just as the enjoyment of Humor relates to a general masochism.
We take pleasure in watching Bugs Bunny outwitting his opponents and giving them hell, and in those rare instances when Bugs is an outmaneuvered victim it doesn’t sit well. Elmer Fudd doesn’t deserve all he gets, no hard feelings, but we want to see him get it anyway. “What a maroon!” The Coyote is a rare Warner Bros. example of Humor. We don’t identify with the Road Runner, and like the little boys watching the big TV, we’d like to see the Coyote catch him just once. Humor, on the other hand, rules at Disney. Our sympathies are with Donald’s impeded will and explosive tantrums - and not that obstinate deck-chair. We look on Goofy’s clumsy misteps with an aghast recognition. The pleasure is mixed with pain. The Wit in Disney is mostly confined to wry narration.
What can we conclude from this experiment in science? I am still interpreting the raw data. The little tyke seems to love both Warner Bros. and Disney shorts; like father, like son. I will attribute his willingness to sneak up and pop a cap in his Pop’s ass with his toy pistol to the Warner Bros. influence. When I see the wheels in his imagination make that extra turn I think Disney, and I definitely blame Warner Bros. for that insubordinate gleam he gets while munching an invisible carrot, asking “What’s up, Doc?”
As far as life lessons go—things that are downloaded into his operating system—I will let the reader decide which studio’s output will stand him in better stead. He still watches the cartoons, but he has also moved on to things that would have frightened me out of my wits at thrice his age. Any day now I expect to see Freddy vs. Jason on his little shelf of DVDs. The kid is already addicted to Deadwood, and although I can’t make out every word he says, I’d swear that he’s cursing like Al Swearengen. It is easy to overestimate or misjudge his sophistication on these matters. Sometimes it is three steps forward and two steps back.
Yesterday, I heard a loud clank coming from the other room. The source of the noise was my toddler banging his head against the television screen. He was trying to get inside the cartoon.
When I ran in to discover the source of his tears, he had already backed up ten feet and was getting ready to run at the TV again.
“You can’t go inside the television, son. It’s just pictures,” I said.
He rubbed the whelp on his head and confusedly looked around the TV set, then asked, “Where’s the door?”
That’s all, folks.