Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Willie can Wail: Disney's all-time worst character

Ah, childhood! Was it ever as grotesque as this? Probably not, because until recently I never saw the animated version of what we used to call "Willie the Whale". We had a set of 78 rpm records telling the story, with a lot of long, boring, unnecessary narration to fill in the gaps. There was a picture of Willie dressed as Pagliacci on the cover, with a gigantic fake nose and a tutu.

It was decades later that I learned that Willie's melancholy story was actually an animated short tacked on to the end of a little-seen Disney movie called Make Mine Music. I don't know much about it, and frankly I don't feel like looking it up.

I am sorry to say this, but Willie was one of the most grotesque Disney figures of all time. You can't animate a whale, not like this anyway, with his mouth in the middle of his stomach. He looks like a foam-rubber toaster, and his inside is worse than his outside, with three gross-looking tonsils (or whatever) hanging down, indicating that he could sing tenor, baritone and bass all at the same time.

Disney did a much better whale with Pinocchio, but this one was spozed-ta be a friendly one, the reason for his loveable squashy shape. What ruined the effect was the bizarre opening in his stomach where hot air (and arias) blasted out. (And if his mouth was on his underside, how could he get a decent breath?)The story is about "a voice that sang at sea" that turns out to be Nelson Eddie pretending to be a large rectangular sea creature. Soon a demented scholar named Tetti-Tatti goes after him with a harpoon, claiming "the whale has-a swallowed a hoppera-singer!". (Though most hoppera-singers look like they've swallowed a whale.)

It's confusing to me at the end, as it's not really clear if his career singing "grand opera" (a creaky term if ever there was one) at "the Met" (which I assumed was the Metropolitan, a local department store) was all just a dream. At the conclusion there are some ferocious Melville moments, and the ending is more depressing than Old Yeller. But we get to see Willie at the end, presumably in heaven, now colored lavender with green wings and a halo. The Pearly Gates have a sign hung on them: SOLD OUT. We always suspected "our Willie" was a sellout: success spoils everybody.

The Whale who Wanted to Sing at the Met: Part 1

The Whale who Wanted to Sing at the Met: Part 2