Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land (1959)

A thought occurred to me going into this review: I’ve probably written more about Donald Duck than any other cartoon character. Throughout the life of this blog he’s been following me around like a little, white, feathery stalker:

Saludos AmigosMelody TimeFun and Fancy Free, Der Fuehrer’s FaceAdorable Couple, Fantasia 2000, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and of course The Three Caballeros, the movie that turned a regular dime-a-dozen review blog into the seething cauldron of madness it is today.

And I think that speaks to the character’s versatility. Donald’s got layers, man. He can be a skirt-chasing lady’s man, a plucky underdog, a swashbuckling adventurer, a child-like innocent, a scheming trickster, an acerbic straight-man, a devoted and loving parent, a hard-ass authoritarian or a cow-murdering psycho killer and it all feels like the same character. He’ll fit into a lot more situations than Goofy, say, while at the same time retaining a distinct personality and never succumbing to samey genericness like Mickey. That probably explains why he’s the hardest working cartoon character around, he can do it all. Even teaching kids about maths.

“You mean “math”.”

“I mean SHUT YOUR BURGER HOLE YANKEE PIG DOG!”

“Wow, that escalated quickly.”

“Hey who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“Who are you?”

“Who’s this new continent, what’s he gonna do?”

“Um…I’m North America? I’ve been here for ages, guys.”

“North America what?”

“Uh…North America the continent?”

“No, no, no, you need a gimmick. Like Gangsta Asia, or Otaku Oceania or Gullible Latin America.”

“I thought I was Handsome Latin America?”

“Of course you are.”

“Oh good.”

“Come my friend, it’s continent makeover time baby!”

“Guys, c’mon, I got a review to do.”

“Yeah. And we’re padding things out to hide the fact that it’s only 28 minutes long, you have no idea how to start this review and you don’t know anything about maths.”

“It’s math.”

“SILENCE YOU EAGLE FONDLING RUNNING JACKAL!”

Which brings me neatly to Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.

“Smooooth…”

So this short belongs in the long, storied tradition of Disney’s educational output. We don’t really talk about this particular slice of the Walt Disney filmography that often on this blog but Walt was an early pioneer in the use of animation to educate rather than simply to entertain. Such films included Victory Through Air PowerThe Winged Scourge (where Dopey battles  malaria) and of course, The Story of Menstruation which I will never stop bringing up until you realise that was a real goddamned thing.

It is a dark tale, which I shall not tell here.

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land was part of a general push in the fifties to get America’s young ‘uns interested in maths and science to better prepare them for the Soviet Moon Wars of the future. To this day it remains one of the most popular films in the genre of “Teacher’s Hangover is Just Not Messing Around Today” and is still shown in school rooms across the globe.

The short begins with Donald Duck in full Great White Hunter garb exploring Mathmagic Land. And it just me who finds the idea of a duck hunting for sport to be really messed up?

“TRAITOR! TRAITOR!”

Mathmagic Land seems to be on the same migratory route as Wonderland, as Donald encounters a Pencil Bird and also three birds that combine together to recite Pi.

“Pi is equal to 3.141592653589747 etc, etc.”

“Pff. What kind of loser pusses out after only fifteen digits?”

Suddenly Donald is addressed by “The True Spirit of Adventure” (Paul Frees) who offers to take Donald on an adventure in mathematics. You know what? I’m pretty sure that’s false advertising. That’s like if you went to rock camp and the first day the teacher says “Hey guys. You know who really loved Rock and Roll? JESUS.”

Donald says that mathematics are for eggheads and the Spirit asks Donald if he likes music. Donald says “yeah” and the Spirit says that without eggheads there would be no music (snap). He then takes Donald back to ancient Greece to meet Pythagoras, the “Master Egghead of them all!”

Pah! Greater than the mighty Egg Fu? I think not!

He explains how Pythagoras’ mathematical studies led to the discovery of the octave and shows him and his followers having a jam session. Donald says he prefers something with a beat and crashes the session by playing an amphora and introducing the Greeks to jazz which will almost certainly destroy the timeline.

And I would be negligent in my duties as a  if I did not point out that this is probably the first bare ass in a Disney cartoon.

Donald shakes hands with Pythagoras who disappears in a puff of Mathmagic and leaves Donald with a pentagram branded on his hand.

“Aw man, am I going to hell again?”

And oh my, if you think that one scene hasn’t made the conspiracy theorists go ka-ka-koo-koo over the years you haven’t been paying attention. Apparently, this is the Illuminati’s way of brainwashing the youth of America to accept their shadowy world government. Which is ridiculous because we all know that the world is actually being run by the Silurian lizard people who live in the centre of the Earth.

“That’s just what the Grey Council wants you to believe!”

“Pah! Just what I’d expect a Freemason stooge like you to say!”

“Wake up Mouse! The Freemasons are just a front for the Rotschilds!”

“The Rothschilds haven’t been a player since they were sidelined by the Bilderberg group!”

“I don’t doubt the Bilderberg Group’s involvement, Mouse, but at a lower level.”

“While you fools are chasing your tails the Moon Nazis have you right where they want you.”

“Oh come on!”

“Moon Nazis? Really?”

“Horseshit!”

“That is just ridiculous.”

“Dummkopf!”

“Hey! It’s Conspiracy Theorist North America!”

“What? No! You can’t just reduce me to a single easily identifiable trait! I’m a complex being with hopes and dreams…”

“Hah! Him and his crazy theories.”

“Classic CTNA.”

Anyway, the spirit then explains that Pythagoras chose the pentagram as his emblem because it grows the brand contains the golden section, which can be used to construct the golden rectangle, a rectangle that can be divided over and over with the same ratio so that it just goes on and on and on forever like The Rolling Stones. The spirit demonstrates how the golden rectangle appears again and again within nature, and can show up where you least expect it.

“Mouse. Don’t move.”

“…”

“Clever girl.”

The spirit goes on to show how the pentagram appears again and again in nature and then, because the Disney animators of the era were taking all the LSD in the world and could only maintain coherent thought for a few brief minutes at a time, the cartoon goes all trippy and we go straight to…

BAHIA!

Donald says “Gee Mr Spirit! There’s more to Mathmatics than two plus two!” and the Spirit replies that nope, that’s it. No, actually the Spirit shows Donald how mathematics runs through games such as chess.

“Wait, why did you need to put me in a dress?”
“Because…of…um…Pi.”

The chess pieces turn hostile and start attacking Donald who escapes by eating one of those “Eat Me” cakes and grows to giant proportions reusing the animation from the same sequence in Alice in Wonderland.

“By recycling, we can all do our part! The power is yours!”

Next, the Spirit shows Donald how various sports make use of mathematics before finishing with a display of three cushion billiards, where an actual live action player uses geometry to make multiple incredible trick shots that manage the near impossible feat of making it almost interesting to watch billiards.

The Spirit then says that it’s time to play the greatest game of all…HUNTING HUMAN PREY.

Wait no, he says that they will have to go inside Donald’s mind to play this game. Donald’s mind is revealed to be a mess of overflowing filing cabinets full of “antiquated ideas, bungling and superstitions.”

But where’s the all consuming rage?

The spirit uses a magic broom to clean out Donald’s mind (you and your weird fetishes, Walt)…

“BROOOOOOOOM!”

…and that gives Donald Bahia eyes (am I being trolled here?) and then the Spirit talks Donald through visualisations of how various shapes make up all human inventions.

And the short ends with the Spirit quoting Galileo, saying that mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.

“Hey, hey, hey keep it in church, pal.”

***

Very much a throwback to the Never Heard of ‘Em era, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land is a loose, shaggy, but weirdly charming and at times visually gorgeous serving of mathematical hors d’eurves. Not surprising that it’s maintained such a hold on the memories of generations of school children, and that’s only partially due to the Illuminati brainwashing.

OBEY.

Scoring

Animation: 10/20

Obviously you’re not going to see Sleeping Beauty level animation for a direct to TV short, but it’s still miles ahead of most fifties TV animation.

Leads: 15/20

It’s the frickin’ Donald man. You know. The good one.

Villain: n/a

The only villain here is IGNORANCE.

Supporting Characters: 12/20

Paul Frees makes for an engaging narrator.

Music: 16/20

I get the distinct impression that the movie would much rather be talking about music than math.

“It’s maths.”

“Ha! No backsies!”

“FUCK I HATE THIS BLOG!”

FINAL SCORE: 66%

NEXT UPDATE: 05 July 2018

NEXT TIME: I am going to be in Alaska, battling bears and writer’s block at the Last Frontier Theatre conference in beautiful Valdez! I will hopefully be posting here to let you know how things are going but I understand that in Alaska broadband has to be delivered by teams of huskies battling to get through the blizzards so we’ll see how that goes. When I return, we’re going to be looking at the moment the X-Men movies started to go off the rails.

 

37 comments

  1. Donald is indeed the best of the characters in the Disney group, and the ones focusing on him are almost always the best. Also, I like the Last Stand… well enough parts to enjoy it.

  2. MMMMMMPH *chef finger-kiss*

    I have missed these animation posts SO MUCH. Good luck in Alaska. In case of bear, this method seems to work pretty well:

  3. My brother loved Donald in Mathemagic land and would watch it at every opportunity, to the degree that by the time I hit high school I could recite pi to fifteen digits just because I heard the owl do it so often. Just reading your review has made the long forgotten music blossom in my brain.

    I still can’t multiply for shit, though.

  4. I swear I saw this (or part of this) in grade school at one point. Did they ever talk about billiards in this? Or was it in a distant sequel? As for X-Men, can’t wait to see you tear up The Last Stand. For me, that might be one of the most frustrating comic book based movies I’ve ever seen.

      1. It’s good stuff. Loved the original, but the characters and humor in the new series are fantastic.

        Animation style is a little less pretty, but it moves very well, and the comic-booky backgrounds are wonderful.

  5. Still love this short, it’s probably a good 5% of the reason I’m a nerd (I used a percentage cause math is cool). My uncle had a pool table when I was a kid, and I can’t tell you how many times I tried to do something like that billiards player, and thought it was pure sorcery when I managed even one accurate ricochet.

    Yay, after so many years, my home continent finally becomes a character in this blog. Thank for tactfully refraining from making us “Increasingly Determined to Destroy Our Credibility on the World Stage” North America.

    Have fun in Alaska! I don’t think there are many blizzards for the huskies to deal with this time of year, but the moose can be quite amorous.

  6. Yep, this one’s a classic, I still remember the first time I watched it in middle school… and discovering all the conspiracy theory crap years later when I looked the short up on Youtube.

    Xmen the Last Stand may not be as good as the first two, but when you compare it to what followed… it’s really not that bad by comparison.

      1. To be fair, First Class is very good, Deadpool is a hoot and Days of the Future Past is rather decent. And Wolverine Origins is a guilty pleasure of mine; damn, it’s bad but I always have fun watching it like with few other better X-movies.

        I haven’t watched Logan yet because I’m not at a point of my life where I really need or want depressing movies no matter how well made or Deadpool 2 because I haven’t been able to allow myself a movie ticket for freaking months.

      2. I seem to be part of the small percentage of people who really really don’t like First Class. It’s nowhere near Last Stand or Origins levels of bad but it is very not good IMO. Actually it’s a lot like Last Stand where it has some stuff that’s really good but a lot more that’s really bad.

  7. I am all in for the maps doing Hamilton.
    I am only partially in for math, but I guess if Donald Duck is involved it can’t be that bad.
    X-Men the Last Stand, yikes. It had wonderful versions of Beast and Kitty, and a few fun action sequences, but, oof, I do not remember it being that good. I think it’s the movie that made me think, as a child, that a change in director after the first two was always a bad sign. Something the Mummy trilogy reinforced but the MCU finally defied. Looking forward to the review. And enjoy Alaska.

  8. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!!!!

    I love this little film. There’s just something about Ancient Greek jazz and mind-broomsticks that makes my heart glow.

    I just recently found the illuminati/wiccan/etc. conspiracy theories about it myself. Wow, are they weird. They could’ve just stuck to Pythagoras banning his followers from eating beans or something for weirdness rather than the whole “Donald Duck is brainwashing your kids to serve the overlords from planet Zot and feed you to their platypi.”

    1. Conspiracy Theories are ALWAYS weird – that’s why we make jokes about them, though preferably not within earshot of their most passionate adherents (if only to spare ourselves a monologue or worse yet a full-blown Presentation!).

    2. I, for one, firmly believe in the benevolence of our Reptilian Alien Shadow Government Overlords.
      But yeah.. the cult of Pythagoras was hella bizarre enough on its own to get kicked out of several city-states, nothing additionally really needs to be tacked on.

  9. Mouse, please allow me to send Best Wishes to you and to all your Mischief* whom I trust are keeping Very Well. Be assured that I enjoyed your latest review (though one must admit to being more of a Goofy than a Donald – one enjoys his laid back charm, by gosh).

    *Why yes, this IS the proper name for a group of Mice (much to my own delighted surprise).

    I would also be interested in learning whether or not you’ve seen “SOLO – A Star Wars Story” as yet, because I saw it myself last week and thoroughly enjoyed it; not a film for the Ages, but almost certainly destined to be enjoyed long after films that did bigger business at the Box Office start showing their age to disadvantage.

    Put simply PIRATE COWBOYS … IN SPACE (with Wookies!**) is a film I can heartily recommend, always assuming you have yet to see it (which is admittedly a fairly hefty assumption, quite possibly even mule-sized).

    **Wouldn’t want it to be mistaken for COWBOY PIRATES … IN SPACE (with disquieting Confederate undertones).

  10. Wait a second. Here, you review a short starring Donald Duck yet you claim the ancient Greek guy is the first Disney character with a bare ass?

  11. As the son of Guyanese parents who were taught British English in school due to being a former British colony, I am so used to hearing them say “maths” instead of “math”, lol. Actually they pronounce it like “mats” due to our accent.

    I remember liking this short back in the day, but it’s been a long time. I do love math (math, mind you) and even was minoring in it once upon a time.

    Have fun in Alaska! Try to see Russia from there!

  12. I’m totally putting “eagle fondling running jackal” in my profile description 😀
    Fractals man. Fractals are the best. Especially when you are a teenager sick with a kidney infection and are only very peripherally connected to anything happening that day and your math teacher has mentally checked out and puts on a NOVA special about fractals. There were day-glo colors and the instrumental track of some godforsaken acid rock band and I don’t remember a single damn thing about that day other than real-time fever dreams about mandlebrot sets and zithers set to throbbing back pain. Oh, and the formula because boy did I ever connect with recursive math on a fundamental level that day.

  13. There’s a neat barely-noticeable thing early on (about a minute and a half in), where it shows numbers flowing down a river – when a number hits the rocks, it breaks “in two”, blurring and rearranging itself to become half its previous value. (A 6 becomes a 3, and a 2 becomes a 1, before the animation starts to loop)

    1. …. oh, man, and I just noticed that Pi is *wrong*. The last two digits the triple-bird recites should be “93”, not “47”.

      … yes, I’m a math nerd.

  14. Relevant partially to this review, I just wanted to point out that this is something that exists now:

    That’s right! They’ve made a TV show based on your FAVORITE Disney movie! 😀

  15. Wait, Donald has kids? Why am I first hearing about this? I thought Goofy was the only father of Disney’s renowned trio. Guess I haven’t seen as many cartoons as you have. I certainly haven’t seen the one where Dopey gets malaria, oy vey. Did he need to be cured by a prince’s kiss? Actually, scratch that, apparently that guy’s the damn grim reaper. Also, I absolutely don’t mind the padding with the map banter, t’is always hilarious. Guess North America gets to be this blog’s equivalent to Paranoid Parrot.

    As for ducks going out hunting, I guess if a mouse can worry about pests in his house (Chip and Dale certainly have bothered Mickey, which has made me wonder if they’ve ever invited Gadget and Monterrey Jack on their crashes in his rafters), a duck can be a hunter. I mean if a primate can go hunting for other primates… Wait, the first bare ass in a Disney cartoon? Fantasia had a bunch of au naturelle fairies and cupids and what not, didn’t it? Though I guess that wouldn’t constitute as a human’s, but still…

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