Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Mouse and His Child

Another entry in my ongoing serise: "Jean Oppenheimer has no idea what a scary children's film is."

The Mouse and His Child is an animated feature from 1977. The plot synopsis from Wikipedia is as follows:

"The Mouse and his son are the two parts of a single small wind-up toy, which must be wound up by means of a key in the father's back. After having been unboxed, they discover themselves in a toy shop where they befriend a toy elephant and toy seal. The child mouse proposes staying at the shop to form a family, which the other toys ridicule. After falling from a counter and becoming broken, they are thrown in the trash. Outside, they become enslaved by Manny the Rat, who runs a casino in the city dump and uses broken wind-up toys as his slave labor force. With the aid of a psychic frog, the mice escape and meet various animal characters on a quest of becoming free and independent "self-winding" toys."

Essentially the film is about the two main characters suffering an endless parade of humiliation, indignity, and toil from the moment they are born (unboxed) until the film's final moments. The Mouse and His Child is based on a children's book by Russell Hoban, who also wrote the story Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, a filmed version of which was also released in 1977 as a TV special by Jim Henson. While Emmet Otter is the much better known of the two films it makes sense that they sprung from the mind of the same author. I haven't read either story, but comparing the film versions, there is a heavy pall of sadness that hangs over both. Both movies are somber and depressing in similar ways, but Mouse and His Child more so. At least Emmet Otter has cute puppets and catchy Paul Williams songs to lighten the mood a bit. Mouse and His Child, on the other hand, is mostly a bleak, surreal nightmare about the futility of free will. Just imagine imagine if Toy Story were infused with the existential dread of a Bergman movie and then, at the end, a talking rat beat Buzz and Woody to death with a rock. This movie was on HBO from time to time in the early-mid 1980s and it freaked me out to the point that key images have been burned into my brain for decades even though, until a few days ago, I had l forgotten the name of this movie or what it was actually about. The movie was never viscerally scary like Return to Oz, but the ideas and generally unrelenting world view that it presents were extremely disturbing to me as a child. Essentially the film seems to say that all existence is suffering and misery.

I was hoping to find some key clips, but apparently the only Mouse and His Child related post on YouTube is a copy of the entire movie. I guess this isn't so odd when you consider that the film could charitably be called obscure and, in fact, has never been released on DVD. In many respects the film does not hold up well. The animation is shoddy and even at 77 min the pacing feels pretty deliberate. However, it's still pretty disturbing. Almost every scene leaves you wondering why anyone ever thought this would be a good thing to show to kids. One of the scenes that always stuck with me can be found around the 50 min mark when the Mouse and his Child encounter a playwriting, nihilistic turtle at the bottom of a lake and, for some reason, he makes them stare into the infinitely repeating design on the label of a dog food can. Why this disturbed me so much, I can't really say other than six-year-old me thought it was creepy as all get out. Twenty-eight-year-old me still finds it kind of unsettling.

The Mouse and His Child does have some good voice talent. Most notably Peter Ustinov who is "re-teamed" here with Andy Devine who had previously "costarred" with Ustinov as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney's animated Robin Hood. The film was also co-directed by Fred Wolf who later went on to produce the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon show.

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