Movie Review: Donald in Mathmagic Land

Posted: August 3, 2010 in Cartoon Review, Movie Review, Reviews
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Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959 Buena Vista Film Dir. Hamilton Luske*)
*Luske was the supervising director, with three other’s listed as Sequence Directors.

Like a lot of Walt’s extended short subjects, this half hour production was actually given a theatrical release. Shown with Darby O’Gill and the Little People of all things, this movie interestingly offsets that one. I’m not sure why math and insulting the Irish with stereotypes was thought to have synergy, but there it is. The chief problem is that I’m not sure how educational this movie actually is in the format of a theatrical release. It isn’t that this is a bad movie or anything, it just seems like it’s more to stir your mind rather than actually teach you anything. I can understand it being a film shown in schools, because it seems like your teacher should come out and start talking as soon as it ends. It feels like a discussion tool rather than a piece of general admission entertainment.

Don’t you bring me none of yer fancy book learnin’ boy!

So we begin with Donald, walking alone through what looks like a forest in a typical 1950s style of Disney Short animation. You know, lots of vague backgrounds, just dark patterns. If you pay attention though, you’ll notice that the trees are shaped like numbers and what not. Donald seems to be hunting, as he’s dressed in a khaki shirt and pith helmet, and is carrying Elmer Fudd’s shotgun. One of the first things we get is a pun about square roots, because the trees have strange roots that are squared off and hold the tree several feet above the ground. Then a creature forms itself out of a circle, a rectangle and a triangle, and then proceeds to get the equation for pi wrong. It’s not a big deal, but if you’re going to rattle off the digits for pi in an educational film, you need to get them right.

Everybody wants into the crowded line. Breakdown, takedown, you’re busted.

A spirit voice then introduces itself and informs Donald that he is in Mathmagic land. The spirit explains tat he’s the spirit of true adventure and he’s going to take Donald through an adventure through the world of Mathematics. Now, at first, Donald is slightly reticent, or rather offensive, claiming math is just for eggheads. He also demands to see the Spirit of Adventure’s birth certificate, but that’s another story of igornace and hatred of intellect. On must remember after all, Donald was a Nazi for a brief period during the 40s, to the extent that he had swastika wallpaper and everything. The Spirit is having none of it though and begins to narrate its every thought and feeling, explaining that he’s going to kill Donald all kinds of dead and… no, that’s a different Spirit, isn’t it? Well, the spirit of adventure isn’t having any of it either and takes over Donald’s life, ripping his clothes away and replacing them with a toga.

This stuff is AMAZING! You’ve gotta try it.

The Spirit of adventure, who really took the “Egghead” crack personally, then transports Donald to ancient Greece. There he explains how the eggheads Donald mocked before are responsible for all music. He steals a thread from Donald’s toga and tells him briefly about how the octave works. The pentagram is mentioned but we’ll come back to that. Donald grabs a vase and turns a basic bit of music into a jazzy jam session. We’re then told how that music from back them translates to the music of today, and we’re shown film of what has to be the whitest jazz band on record. After that, to make sure we’ve got the point we then see a lot of filler of musicians. This thing has too much filler in it, they waste time that could be spent talking about math. I want more math, which is not something I thought I’d ever say, but there it is.

Not a good place for learning.

After that, we’re shown a lot of how a pentagram star can be cut into smaller bits, but it all looks sort of arbitrary. They then go on about golden shapes, but again, they sort of have to stretch the point by extending things out and unfolding the star. They then sort of talk about the golden rectangle, but never really explain what it is beyond it being a perfect shape. It feels like a lot of filler without a lot of education. Golden rectangles are explored through art, pentagons through nature. Again though, we’re not really ever told why it’s perfect, just that it is. We’re sort of shown examples, but really what they mean. Geometry is tough, and this only makes it look more mysterious to me. I get that it all comes down to rules and numbers, but not much beyond that. In a way, this is good. It makes me want to find out more. In another way, it’s bad. If I end up so confused I might just shrug and go read a book about a fat, orchid loving detective instead.

Yeah, it’s a dress. So what? Man can wear a dress if he wants.

After that, we’re shown how mathematics is used in games. We get some comedy filler with Donald being chased by chess pieces while cross-dressing as Alice. We’re told the game of chess is mathematical, but we’re only actually shown the pieces moving around. We’re then told that most other games have geometrical playing fields. Then we’re shown how three cushion billiards works. I’m glad they explain the rules, since I’ve never once seen any ever play any kind of billiards outside of movies. Usually, it’s all pool although you might get some snooker once in a while. It doesn’t much matter though, because you will see all you want to of billiards in this movie. Five full minutes is dedicated to this piece, even though 4 minutes of it is purely repetition. Remember, this thing is about 25 minutes long so they’re wasting a fifth of the run time showing this guys shoot pool. Put simply, you need to count the diamonds and work your angles.

Told him not to eat the brown acid.

After that long piece on billiards is done, we enter Donald’s mind, and what a mind it is. It’s full of false conceptions, superstitions, beliefs that we never landed on the moon and porn. The Spirit of Adventure tut-tuts and then cleans out Donald’s filthy mind. Then we get some shape play in the mind. A sphere is cut to make a lenses, a cone is cut to make a gear and so on and so forth. It’s math, yes, but it’s really just an artist playing with shapes. It’s more that it’s neat to see how they transit from one form to another, rather than educating me about math. Now if a teacher were on hand to explain or go into more depth, it would be very helpful. It’s not much use while sitting here on my own, but I’ve got the internet if I’m really interested. After the theatrical release, this was shown in schools, where a teacher could help students along, so it’s not all bad. Actually, for what it is, this is pretty good. It was a midpoint between a popular short and an educational film, so I’m trying not to be too hard on it. As a piece of entertainment, it’s perfectly fine if a little short. As a piece of education, it at least wets the appetite and maybe can gt a kid wanting to learn more. The animation is nice and the setting is somewhat inventive, so we’ve got to give it a positive rating.

Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.

Official Score: 56 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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