Once there was one idea I just thought was rather terrible, and I said
so, and Walt fought me, and he got mad at me; and he could be rather unreasonable,
at times. Of course, he was the boss, but he usually was very understanding.
But not this time. So I took the idea—I didn’t want to—and went into the
director’s room with it. Some time later, Walt came in and I said, "Walt,
I still don’t like it." He said, "Oh, it’s a good one, Dave, you do it.
Do it just the way we told it to you." So I did; believe me, I did. I worked
hard to sell it to the animator, and he didn’t help. They’d just sit there
and [say] "Yeah, yeah." Sometimes they wouldn’t know whether it was good
or bad. The scene came out on the screen—we always had our previews, sneak
previews—and the darned gag fell flat as a pancake. The next day—there was
always a postmortem—I said, "Walt, I didn’t ever think that gag was any
good." He said, "Jeez, Dave, you just didn’t do it right." So I mumbled
to myself and thought, "You can’t win with Walt."
[The episode in question involved a scene in The Flying Mouse (1934).
Hand described what happened in a letter to me in May 1975: "The mouse was
being blown backward through the air, out of control. He was a sympathetic
character in a sad plight. The ‘laugh’ gag was that his rear end would make
a ‘bull’s eye’ into a large thorn sticking out of a rosebush stem. Now,
for me, the idea itself was not funny—especially happening to a pathetic
little flying mouse. But I had been previously overruled in story, so when
the picture got to me, I decided to play the impaling idea down as much
as possible. However, Walt caught up with me when I was getting it ready
for the animator. We had more argument, and I lost. Walt insisted that I
make the thorn long, dark, and sharp—and that the mouse’s rear end get buried
clear up to the hilt. And further to this, that I have the music build up
to a ‘screech’ accent. That poor mouse! The audience did not laugh at it,
but it was one of the many instances where I found Walt to be surprisingly
sadistic. He seemed to enjoy ‘hurt’ gags more than a lot of people."]
Let’s start with the story. The basics are this: a young mouse, who yearns to do something different, tries to fashion some wings for himself. In the process, he ruins his family’s day, and becomes dejected. As soon as he does, though, he sees a butterfly being menaced by a spider, and comes to its rescue. The butterfly turns out to be a fairy, who grants the mouse’s wish to fly.
The granting of the leathery wings, though, does not solve the mouse’s problems. His new flying self is not accepted by the birds, and scares away his family. He gets mocked by a group of bats for not being a bat or a mouse, and ends up going away crying. His tears bring the fairy back, and she removes the wings, sending the mouse running back for joy to his mother.
Does anything about that story strike you as odd? Walt Disney, a man who came up in the world wishing to do something different, to take flights of fancy, if you will, puts out a cartoon saying that such wishes might not be good? The basic message of the short is that you should stick with what you know, and not wish to be different. That just seems very different from the normal message of Disney films to this point.
As I watched the short, this was the thing I could not get over. How would Disney agree with such a thing? After all, this was still 1934, and Walt was heavily involved in the production of the shorts. Sure, I imagine he was not as hands on as he might have been earlier, but this seems directly in conflict with Walt’s values of wishing upon a star and reaching for new ideas.
That conflict is hard to resolve, but should not obscure other interesting things about the short. For example, the fairy in this short is the predecessor of later fairies we will see, such as Persephone in
The Goddess of Spring or the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. It’s a nicely drawn human figure, and shows Walt’s boys thinking ahead.
There is also the mouse character. The main character is a familiar design, and will be used again later in Disney shorts. It’s a different design than Mickey, and the first real 3-dimensional mouse seen in the Disney films. It will be used later in The Country Mouse short, if I’m not mistaken.
I have not said yet if I like or dislike this short, and that’s because I can’t make up my mind. The animation is good, the song “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Nothin’” is also good. But the message of the short leaves me stunned, and I find that hard to get over. Give it a watch and see what you think.
Curiously, Merrit and Kaufmann state in their book that the story was adapted from a story from the 1600's; Jean de La Fontaine's "The Jay Dressed Up in the Peacock's Feathers" (which I'm pretty sure was taken from an Aesop fable). In this story a jay tries wearing some peacock feathers and is mocked for trying to be so oh-la-dee-dah by his peers and also for being a fraud by the peacocks. Here the message is clear: "Don't try to be something you're not because of vanity". In
The Flying Mouse the vanity part of the tale is gone so it's more a tale of be careful what you wish for!