Walt Disney lost control of his most popular character, Oswald the Rabbit, probably the low point of his life. He bounced back by starting his own company and introducing Mickey Mouse, a thinly-veiled Oswald rip-off, down to the same short pants, with added alliteration, and the rest is history.
Oswald, of course, faded into obscurity without Disney's hand to guide him, but here's a later talking Oswald cartoon (Mickey introduced sound to the cartoons with Steamboat Willie in 1928, an oddly abrasive toon in which the iconic rodent spends most of his time torturing animals to produce musical sounds. Mickey, at this stage in his development, seems likely to grow up to be a serial killer.)
The wonderful thing about thirties cartoons is how disturbing they are. We first encounter Mickey Oswald here getting his ass sewn up by granny and a cat and a mouse, their traditional enmity forgotten in the excitement of suturing a bunny bottom. (As with a lot of early Disney stuff, the emphasis throughout is on the buttocks, all spanking and stabbing. I will leave it to the cartoon psychologists of the future to interpret this Freudian nightmare.)
This anal idyll is interrupted by a villainous landlord from melodrama, Simon Legree crossed with Peg Leg Pete: nice gag when the cat slides the entire wall behind him so he'll fall out the window instead of walking out the door. And note that Fred "Tex" Avery was an animator on this, so such barmy gags shouldn't surprise us. They're certainly more typical of Avery than Lantz, who went on to invent Woody Woodpecker, The Bird With The Annoying Laugh (voiced by Mrs. Lantz). William Nolan, his co-director here, worked with him for decades: the IMDb also has him down as the editor of several Doug Fairbanks epics, and sure, it's possible, but it's also possible there were two William Nolans.
With typical cartoon lowbrow fecklessness, this movie turns out to be a variant on Jack and the Beanstalk rather than Alice in Wonderland: the most repulsive and uncanny gag comes when MickeyOswald Jack, dragging the cow to market, accidentally pulls its head off, and its tail, comes along, sucked through its entire torso to create a kind of bovine spermatozoa, still alive and capable of finally rejoining its wandering body to become merely a cow with grotesque, serpentine throat.
Once our hero climbs the beanstalk into that celestial kingdom whose existence and physics are never adequately explained in folklore, things don't really get any weirder than they already are. He rescues a she-creature of indeterminate species but with ringlets and bloomers to denote femininity, and we meet the giant, a curiously sympathetic figure as always, for all his pig-snout and devil-horns and black curling toe-nails.
The evil landlord actually saves the day by chopping down the beanstalk and killing the giant, which gets him flattened. The dead giant's feet are inexplicably transformed into a kind of maypole for the ensuing festivities.
So what have we learned?
There's a lot going on in this cartoon. Oswald, like Mickey, has no personality, and the relentless bizarre action allows no time for him to express one if he did have it. The fantasy setting is an awkward mix with the surrealism and slapstick, adding a kind of double or triple voodoo of madness piled on madness. Tex Avery's later, even zanier toons benefitted from simple premises usually parodying a single well-known genre or building from a basic concept, however demented (using a plant growth formula to enlarge a canary, a cat and a dog in King-Sized Canary, for instance). This cartoon has no internal logic, no charm, and more moments of shock and revulsion than laughter. It's easy to see why Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was soon swallowed up by the dustbin of cartoon history. But am I glad Wonderland exists? You bet I am!
is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.