08 January 2009

Hoppity Goes to Town (1941)

Directed by: Dave Fleischer
Written by: too many to name
Full credits at IMDb

A bug lurches its head over the edge of a Manhattan skyscraper’s rooftop and watches the bustling Midtown mobs below. “Look at the humans ones down there,” the insect says. “They look just like a lot of little bugs.” The point being that we are the bugs—and they are us—in Hoppity Goes to Town, by contemporary standards a politically radical animated feature that pushes a progressive, quasi-socialist agenda in its depiction of a multi-species insect community harassed by land owners and, more severely, by shadowy and impersonal humans who function as fire-crashing, town-destroying Old Testament gods: callous at best and malicious at worst.

Also known as Mr. Bug Goes to Town and Bugville, Hoppity was the second feature film from Fleischer Studios, following Gulliver’s Travels two years earlier. Known for their shorts—Popeye, Betty Boop, Superman—the Fleischers were the only serious U.S. rival to Disney and its fledgling features division until this film’s failure: the Fleischers were removed and the company, renamed, resumed producing shorts. Hoppity, then, is a sort of small scale Heaven’s Gate, though it’s not a bad picture; its failure had to do more with a stroke of incredible misfortune: it was released in 1941, two days after December 7.

The title plays on Frank Capra’s film about Mr. Deeds, and it’s inaccurate; Hoppity, a lanky, Jimmy Stewartish grasshopper, does not “go to town” so much as he returns to his close-knit community—a weedy, overgrown lot in Manhattan—to find it in hard times, suffering frequent fire outbreaks from carelessly discarded smoking materials; a wealthy beetle maliciously plotting to steal a honey-peddler’s daughter; and the threat of neighborhood annihilation in the face of skyscraper construction. Sadly, there’s something so familiar about all of the buggy troubles in Hoppity: the misery of foreclosure; the forced sacrifice of happiness for security; the destructive effects of overdevelopment. When dreams of a new, Edenic garden home are flushed with a flood from a busted sprinkler, I couldn’t help but think, absurdly, of Hurricane Katrina.

Hoppity is both class and environmentally conscious. The bugs are exploited by a jowly beetlebaron, who’s exploiting their unfortunate situation for profit. But the real threat to the bugs is mankind (despite the picture’s odd reverence for postmen and songwriters—tunes by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael, though, excepting the lilting “We’re the Couple in the Castle,” they’re not as lovely as those names might suggest.) Unlike Wall-E, though, the movie’s not about humanity’s propensity to litter; repurposed detritus, in fact, makes up a bulk of the bugs’ world. As they can turn grass blades, flowers and spiderwebs into a wedding chapel, so too can they turn a harmonica into a pipe organ; a lady’s compact into a ritzy bed; a postage stamp into a poster. The animation’s clever and detailed backdrops are its greatest virtue.

Conspicuously anti-smoking (watch where you throw yer matches and half-smoked cigars!), Hoppity is also worried with gentrification, the torching of tenement towns and the elimination of open spaces. It ends happily of course, with all the bugs’ dreams fulfilled, but not before exposing the gang of insect heroes, in one final act of cynicism, as a nasty mob quick to complain and cast blame. They are an ungrateful society of buck-passers; there are few true good-guys here. It’s not often that kids’ movies assume such a provocatively nasty position on the world and its inhabitants. If Wall-E marked a grand return to the intelligent and responsible animated feature, rediscovering Hoppity helps to reveal the deep dark roots of the tradition. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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