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 Amigos, Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free, Der Fuehrer’s Face, Adorable 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.
Which brings me neatly to Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.
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 Power, The 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.
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?
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.
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!”
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.
Donald shakes hands with Pythagoras who disappears in a puff of Mathmagic and leaves Donald with a pentagram branded on his hand.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
The spirit uses a magic broom to clean out Donald’s mind (you and your weird fetishes, Walt)…
…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.
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.
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.
It’s the frickin’ Donald man. You know. The good one.
The only villain here is IGNORANCE.
Supporting Characters: 12/20
Paul Frees makes for an engaging narrator.
I get the distinct impression that the movie would much rather be talking about music than math.
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.