Talkin’ Oldies: Hoppity Goes To Town (1941)
While Disney has been the top animation studio for the past 70 years, rivals to their supremacy have come along from time to time. Most have fallen by the wayside, although nowadays companies like Dreamworks and, to a lesser extent, Warner Brothers and Aardman make animated movies that could reasonably claim to challenge Disney’s dominance. Things certainly aren’t as one-sided as they used to be at any rate.
Back in the beginning – in that late ’30s and early ’40s heyday when Disney was serving up cinematic banquets like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo and Pinocchio – the main competition came from brothers Dave and Max Fleischer. They had already made a very commendable animated version of Gulliver’s Travels in 1939; and their second film, Mr. Bug Goes To Town (or Hoppity Goes To Town as it would later be retitled), was expected to push them even closer to – perhaps beyond – the benchmark being set by ‘Uncle Walt’ and his animation team.
Sadly, the Fleischer brothers never quite cornered the market. This was partially due to a breakdown in their relationship which affected their ability to work together, but much more pertinent in any analysis of their downfall is the tremendous commercial failure of Hoppity Goes To Town.
Films flop for all sorts of reasons, but this one has a tragically unique excuse for failing to perform at the box office. You see, this was the big Christmas season release which opened across America just a couple of days before the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Unsurprisingly, the American public had something more life-changing to think about than going to the cinema to watch a cartoon. The result was that the Fleischer’s’ attempt to become a top name in the animated movie genre came to an end… and Hoppity Goes To Town faded rather quickly into obscurity. To have lost such a lovely little film is a travesty, but one which pales into insignificance when placed in the historical context of its time.
In a patch of overgrown garden in the city, a bunch of bugs are in dire danger. Humans have been using their land as a shortcut, discarding litter, cigars and other hazards right on top of the insects’ homes as they go.
Honey-shop owner Mr Bumble (voiced by Jack Mercer) fears that the future is bleak, and wonders how he will ever be able to raise his daughter Honey (voiced by Pauline Loth) in more secure surroundings. A highly unscrupulous creature, Bagley C. Beetle (voiced by Tedd Pierce), offers to provide her a safer place to live if she will accept his hand in marriage, but Honey is much more interested in her childhood sweetheart, the perennially cheerful and optimistic Hoppity (voiced by Stan Freed).
Hoppity believes that everything is about to be resolved for the better, but is left looking foolish when Bagley Beetle and his pair of comical sidekicks manipulate the crisis to their own devious end. The other bugs turn away from Hoppity, fed up of his foolish pipe dreams which never come to anything. Only at the very end, when their patch becomes the foundation for a huge new skyscraper, do the bugs switch loyalty back to Hoppity, looking to him to lead them to a new, safe home away from the destructive influence of humans.
What really works in the film’s favour is the delightful characterisation – all the bugs are cleverly developed and designed for maximum audience appeal. The hilarious bumbling villains Swat the Fly and Smack the Mosquito are particularly memorable, stealing virtually every scene they’re in. Equally admirable is the storytelling drive – even the youngest of children can enjoy this story, while at the same time it skilfully conveys a message for older audiences about the way human carelessness can impact upon the survival of wildlife.
Time has inevitably dated some aspects of the film, and a modern audience viewing it needs to accept (and forgive) these signs of general age and wear. On the whole, though, Hoppity Goes To Town is an accomplished, funny and very slickly presented animation with a worthy message to boot.
FMV Rating *** ½