Saturday, May 25, 2013
Best Short Subjects Highlight: Ben and Me (1953)
So as you might have figured out by now, there are three short categories. Best Animated Short is the one we've been focusing on for the past year, and it's been the most stable since the introduction of the short categories in 1932. The only changes is in the name, which was Best Short Subjects (Cartoons) for almost 40 years before changing to Best Short Subjects (Animated) to the current Best Short Films (Animated). The second is Best Documentary Short, which has also been stable since the introduction of the documentary categories in 1941, although there have been some confusion between this and the third category: Best Live Action Short.
The Best Live Action Short has undergone the most changes over the year. In fact, it's only been known as Best Live Action Short since 1957. It debuted in 1932 as two separate categories: Best Short Subjects (Comedy) and Best Short Subjects (Novelty.) In 1936 they decided to change the category into One-Reel and Two-Reel, meaning they will be competing with films of about the same length. I don't have the rules for the categories back then, but I don't presume that they actually have anything ruling out having animated films compete in these Short Subjects categories like they do nowadays. How else can we explain the presence of Ben and Me, a film animated in the traditional style, in the category that would become Best Live Action Short in four years time?
So in the past short films can be divided into one reels and two reels, with each reel representing about 10 minutes worth of film. So one-reel films are less than ten minutes, and two reel films are generally 15-30 minutes. While there have been a few two-reel animated short films*, for the most part these animated short were one-reel films. This includes every single Disney animated short film made up to that point, which includes hundred of films covering over three decades. My guess is that Disney was so impressed with the achievement that they submitted the film in the Best Short Subjects (Two-Reels) category rather than the traditional Best Short Subjects (Cartoons) category. At any rate, no matter what the reason is, Ben and Me was nominated in this separate category.
*The most notable two-reel animated shorts were a series of three Popeye films by Fleischer Studios. The most famous of these films was the Oscar-nominated Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor. It competed in the Animation category.
Benjamin Franklin is one of the most significant figures in American history, being an important inventor, publisher, and statesman in the turbulent 18th century. However, what most people don't know that behind the scenes of Franklin's success is the most unlikeliest of figures: Amos Mouse. Amos was the eldest of 26 children, and he lived in poverty even for a mouse. However, he was rather bright and set off on his own in 1745. He found that there was no job for a mouse. After a long and fruitless day he ended up in the shop of an obscure printer named Benjamin Franklin. Ben was a relatively troubled fellow, socially awkward, clumsy and up to his chin in debt. Amos began assisting the poor guy, helping him create the Franklin stove, bifocals, and the Pennsylvania Gazette. Pretty soon business was booming and the two became an inseparable team. Under Amos's tutelage Ben was able to overcome his vices and become a prominent part of society. However, Ben began toying around with experiments in electricity, and got Amos to ride in the kite during his famous experiment. Amos survived the encounter, but decided to cut ties with his old buddy. Shortly afterward the colonies began to talk of independence from the British. Ben played a prominent role in the negotiations but couldn't do it alone. Can Amos put away his pride and find it in his heart to forgive his old friend for the country's sake?
Ben and Me was originally a novel by Robert Lawson, the author and illustrator best known for writing Rabbit Hill and illustrating the short story The Story of Ferdinand. I actually haven't read the original book so I can't really judge the quality of the adaptation, but from what I've read the story was a complex tale weaving together much of Benjamin Franklin's accomplishments. Disney simplified the story in their adaptation, using only Franklin's most famous contributions: his two famous inventions, publishing the Pennyslvania Gazette, the electricity experiments, and his role in the Declaration of Independence. They did a good job attributing all of these amazing accomplishments to Amos, although I presume much of it was from the original book. For what it's worth the film is that despite the extended length, it feels simplified to the point where it seems like it's made for children, which it likely is, but it is still quite entertaining. There are a lot of visual and situational gags that seems pretty typical of Disney films. For example the scene where Amos and Ben was printing the Pennsylvania Gazette had a lot of slapstick involving the tiny Amos and the massive printing press. Ben's social awkwardness is also good for a few laughs. I've always enjoyed the "Mr. Post" joke.
The animation quality itself is also traditional Disney. There was no nod to UPA. The backgrounds are detailed and vivid. The character design is also quite strong, with Ben being a jovial looking fellow while still retaining the look from history books. They don't really try anything new other than the length, but it's still the Disney that we know and (possibly) love. The voice acting is also of the high quality Disney standard, with Disney veteran Sterling Holloway as Amos and veteran actor Charles Ruggles as Ben. Hans Conreid, the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan (also released in 1953) plays a couple of characters, most notably Thomas Jefferson. And you can hear the voice of Bill Thompson in both his White Rabbit-like high-pitched voice and Dodo-like deep and solid voice. Overall, Ben and Me is a great film that is more entertaining that educational, but it's still a solid two-reel debut for the studio. Unfortunately they had to compete against another Disney film, Bear Country, and the Academy preferred that one more. I don't think Walt Disney really cared, after all a win is a win no matter the film.* Still, the Academy missed out on the chance to award an animated film the Oscar in the category that is mostly reserved for live action films.
*That year Disney also won Best Animated Short for Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, Best Documentary Short for The Alaskan Eskimo, and Best Documentary Feature for The Living Desert. The four competitive wins in one year is still a record.