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"Hoppity Goes to Town": Capra Corn

by on September 28, 2011

Before there were Looney Tunes, before there were Tom and Jerry, almost before there was Disney, there were the Fleischer brothers. They are best known these days for Popeye and Betty Boop and the theatrical Superman shorts, but they were around long enough and had sufficient skill and ambition that they tried competing directly with Uncle Walt himself to the extent of going into feature production. Their first effort was an adaptation of the Lilliput segment from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and just as Disney had to retrench after Snow White, the Fleischers had to scale back with their second feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town. It proved their swan song. It didn’t single-handedly break their studio, but it was finished and released during a period of turmoil that led distributor Paramount Pictures into taking control of their business. The story would be neater if this second feature were a masterpiece tragically undone by economic factors beyond its makers’ control; or if it were an ambitious, runaway production that pulled the studio down in ruin about itself. It is no pleasure, on any score, to have to report that it is a modest little film of only mediocre charm whose obscurity is largely justified.

That isn’t to say it is entirely without virtue. At its best, Hoppity Goes to Town (to employ the title of a subsequent re-release, and which is used on this DVD) may even remind you a little bit of Pixar. It is clever and inventive, and it prefers character and plot to Disney-style razzle-dazzle and mythmaking. Before it runs out of steam in its second half it is also very good at holding the viewer’s attention with a quirky spririt. It looks good and it moves well. And it is good enough that you’ll find yourself actively wishing it were better instead of resenting that it is merely mediocre.

It’s one of those anthropomorphized animal pictures, like A Bug’s Life or Bee Movie, about a bunch of insects that live in a small yard in the middle of an urban landscape. It’s a mixed lot of bees, ladybugs, flies, beetles, grasshoppers, snails, flies and mosquitoes, all more or less the same size and none of them sporting an extra batch of limbs. Unlike many movies of this type, Hoppity bends its story around the insects’ need to stay out of the way of the humans. It seems that their little quasi-garden was once a safe and happy place, but then the gate in the garden wall got busted, and now the urban humans like to trespass: they step on houses and drop their cigarettes; particularly destructive are the rough-housing street urchins and their games of street hockey.

The only character who is reasonably safe from these depredations is C. Bagley Beetle, the rich, fat, malignant insect who owns the “high ground” where no human foot ever falls. (Exactly how the bug economy works is never explained, but it’s not worth troubling about.) He has his eye on Honey Bee, the comely daughter of the sweet old Mr. Bumble who owns the local honey shop, and he wants to leverage his wealth into winning her hand in marriage. Honey, though, has her eye firmly fixed on a grasshopper, the Hoppity of the title. Bagley is left to scheme and spy and set little accidents that will force Hoppity out of the picture and Honey into his arms.

Eventually Hoppity, who for unexplained reasons is held in high regard by the community, talks everyone into making a disastrous move into a nearby garden, and then gets kidnapped and locked away by Bagley when he stumbles on the latter’s plot to destroy a sought-after haven by waylaying a check that will allow a kindly human couple to keep their home. It’s at this point, when the insect and human worlds fatally intertwine, that the film’s fragile conceit collapses. It’s just too much to believe that the characters are authentic insects when they can understand and intervene in human financial affairs.

But even before things come to this pass, your interest will probably have begun to flag. The movie simultaneously has too much going on–Hoppity’s attempts to save the community; Bagley’s attempts to destroy the same; the garden owners’ plight–and not enough, because none of the many stories can get more than a little bit of screen time to develop, and so never feel like they are progressing toward a conclusion. And so you are left trying to appreciate it for its characters and its sequences.

These have some merit. If the movie’s title doesn’t tip you off, the character and story types surely will. Hoppity Goes to Town is an animated Frank Capra picture–he of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life–and it relies on the same set of stereotypes: the salt-of-the-earth oldsters, the sweet girls-next-door, the unfeeling plutocrat, and the naïve-hero-who-makes-good. It gets some of them better than others. The Fleischers were always good at making nervy but sweet eccentrics (like Popeye himself), and they don’t disappoint with supporting characters like Mrs. Ladybug or with Bagley’s henchmen, Swat and Slap. They are especially good with Bagley himself, who is by turns villainous, comical, and pitiable. The resulting character isn’t complex, but you will have a complicated reaction to him, as he doesn’t seem bad so much as he just seems selfish, vain, and uncomprehending of others, and at no point will you be convinced that he is unredeemable. The movie is lively and entertaining when he and his henchmen are around.

Were that the same could be said about Hoppity. Unfortunately, the writers couldn’t do anything with him after deciding that he would be the “Jimmy Stewart” character. He is amiable, but every time he tries to help he screws things up. (Early on, he even manages to pour gasoline–not water–on a raging fire.) He only accidentally learns of Bagley’s schemes. He spends a huge chunk of the climactic act sealed up inside an envelope, hidden away and forgotten about. He constantly lands himself and a lot of other people in trouble, but he isn’t much good at getting them out of it. Mostly he hops around making little nonsense exclamations like “Gee weeds!”

The movie has some very good set pieces, including a scene where Hoppity tries to cross a busy street, and another where, in the throes of electrocution, he does a jitterbug. The animation is uniformly excellent without being dazzling, and the backgrounds and settings are vivid and beautiful; the film also does a very good job of reminding you that its insect world exists at ground level in a much bigger world. It is also a great relief to see character designs and movements that break from the typical Disney style. There is one very bad musical number (“Oh Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy”) but a number of others by the estimable Hoagy Carmichael (including “Katy Did, Katy Didn’t”).

Despite its flaws, Hoppity Goes to Town is absorbing entertainment for most of its running time, and small children will find it as bright and fleet and exciting as any Pixar or Dreamworks picture. Older viewers will be more cognizant of its lapses, but even they are unlikely to turn against it until late in the show. They may also find its story and characters corny. But it’s neither the best nor the worst animated feature you could spend twenty dollars on. It is, rather, the kind of feature that makes you regret the passing of the kind of independent TV stations that used to show this kind of feature as a weekend matinee. Though it’s not worth going out of your way to find, it is the kind of thing that can delight if stumbled over when there is nothing else to watch.

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