Saturday, April 13, 2013
Best Documentary Short Highlights: Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959)
Well, I've probably mentioned before and will undoubtedly mention again, but Walt Disney is the most honored individual by the Academy, with his 22 competitive wins and 59 nominations. Much of it was from the Academy's old strategy of honoring the producers in those short categories that he dominated. And yes, we all know that much of the domination came in the category that we care so deeply: that of what is now known as Best Animated Short. 39 of his 59 nominations and 11 of his 22 wins were in this category. However, he had some success in other categories as well. He received six awards in 12 nominations in the Best Live Action Short category (along with its predecessor, Best Short Subject One Reel/Two Reel. This would lead to one of the most interesting nominations that we'll get to in a couple weeks.) He had two wins in four nominations in the Best Documentary Feature category (including two when there was one massive Best Documentary category in 1942.) And he had two wins in three nominations in the Best Documentary Short category. And he was nominated as producer for Best Picture for Mary Poppins.
Of those three nominations in the Best Documentary Short category, two were for live action films about Eskimos. And one was an animated documentary. Most people probably haven't even heard of The Alaskan Eskimo or Men Against the Arctic. However, the name of the animated documentary is probably one that is familiar to many students: Donald in Mathmagic Land.
Yes, that one film that most elementary math teachers showed you near the end of the school year is actually an Oscar nominated film. It was made because Disney felt that they needed to make a film to stimulate interest in mathematics, an important but often detested field of study. And what better way to do that by taking your most successful character and have him go on an adventure through the wonderful world of mathematics.
And that's exactly what happens in Donald in Mathmagic Land. The film opens with Donald entering a strange landscape dominated by structure that look like numbers. He is awestruck and quite confused by the proceedings and calls out. His cry is answered by a disembodied voice, who introduces himself as the True Spirit of Adventure, and tells Donald that he is in Mathmagic Land and will be going on an adventure in mathematics. Donald dismisses the idea of math as being for eggheads, but TSoA takes Donald to ancient Greece, where he shows how Pythagoras discovered the association between math and music. After a jam session with Pythagoras and his friends, Donald becomes more accepting of idea of mathemetics.
From there Donald went on to learn about the geometrical secrets hidden in the pentagram, including the golden triangle, as well as geometry's role in generating the spiral, its role in architecture, art, and nature. He learns about the mathematics involved in games such as chess and billiards with real life demonstrations. He sees how geometric concepts have come to shape not just art and leisure, but also in practical everyday life. But the Spirit of Adventure ends by saying that there is one thing powerful enough to turn all of the mathematics into ideas: the mind.
I grew up watching Donald in Mathmagic Land quite frequently so I admit I'll be a little bit biased, but this film is a great piece of edutainment. It takes a rather dense and intimidating topic like mathematics and turns it into something curious using real world examples of things people might find interesting in music, art, nature, and games. The filmmaking reflects this transformation. The film opens with something dark and forboding but livens up with plenty of actual examples. The film does seem to spend a bit too much time talking about geometry, but I suppose that is much easier to show visually than something like calculus. The animation is good but where the film really shines is in its portrayal of geometry into something visible. I'm still not sure how some pieces of art they show have the golden proportion, but it's still fascinating to watch. It even makes you think you can do well in billiards until you actually try it on a real pool table. There are some good mix between live action and animation, especially in the billiards scene.
Yet Donald in Mathmagic Land is not just a "Hey, look at how fun math is" type film. It seems the real purpose of the film is to challenge the viewers to use the mathematics that they had just spent 20 minutes learning about and using it to take it to a new direction to make new discoveries. I don't know how successful it was at accomplishing this task, but the fact that it ends on an empowering note is pretty encouraging. I'm sure there are some people that watched this film that went on to do great things. And then there are people like me who sit around writing useless reviews nobody reads whenever I'm not busy with ponies. Yeah.
Donald in Mathmagic Land wound up getting nominated for the Best Documentary Short Oscar. However, it wound up losing the Oscar to a Dutch film titled Glas, which is a film about glass. Glass may have won the Oscar, but Donald in Mathmagic Land is the film that is better remembered today.
Anyways, enough talk. Here's the film for you to enjoy.