Tim here. Tomorrow, Darren Aronofsky’s longstanding passion project Noah finally opens, continuing the unexpected trend which has found 2014 turning the Year the Biblical Epic Came Back (what with Son of God in February, and Ridley Scott’s Exodus set for December). Compared to a lot of the A-list Bible stories, Noah and his ark haven’t been seen in the movies too terribly often, but there have been filmed versions of the tale stretching back at least to 1928, when Michael Curtiz directed a part-talkie version that contrasted the traditional story with a tale of soldiers in World War I (I haven’t seen it, but it sounds kind of terribly amazing).
But the whole history of Noah movies would be too daunting to talk about in one short post, so I’m just going to focus my energies on the last time that a major studio turned their attention to the story. As good luck would have it, this was a Disney cartoon: the “Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1, 2, 3 and 4” segment from Fantasia 2000, in which the story of Noah was turned, rather weirdly, into a slapstick vehicle for Donald Duck...
I couldn’t find a video anywhere online that didn’t feel like I’d be sending you all to some back alley where your hard drive would be pummeled with viruses, but it’s basically about Noah’s hapless assistant and his girlfriend getting separated from each other during the loading of all the paired animals onto the arc. Those being played by Donald Daisy, for reasons that make sense pretty solely from the standpoint that the boys in marketing wanted a Donald short to go with the Mickey short (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” being the only segment from the 1940 Fantasia to be brought back for the new film).
In the context of Fantasia 2000, really, nothing about this segment feels like it makes any real sense. The decision to use Sir Edward Elgar’s music fizzles the moment that it becomes clear that the filmmakers had no compunctions about re-organizing the material to the point that it’s more of a remix than the actual marches Elgar composed. Donald isn’t a good fit for the story at all: his traditional personality and all of his best comedy come from being short-tempered and selfish, neither of which are a good fit for a concept that re-casts him a sad romantic hero.
Taken as a standalone object, though, it’s not such a bad little thing. The animation in particular is quite beautiful, an especially lovely example of the computer coloring system Disney was working with throughout the 1990s doing what it did best: soft lighting effects; richly saturated colors; clean lines. Also, baldly copying from The Lion King’s opening sequence, with animals marching steadily towards a handsomely backlit central space.
It’s always interesting to see what Disney can do with its classic stable of characters as their animation technology evolves: in this particular case, it was the first digitally-colored Donald ever, and while I am deeply dubious about what the story demanded the character do, the animators were on their very best bevavhior with him, silently revamping his colors to be more subtle and golden in keeping with the tastes of the time, while leaving the character design largely untouched from the 1950s; the class of eras works beautifully, and while this is probably the least ambitious of the Fantasia 2000 shorts, it’s just about the classiest-looking.
But what of its value as a Noah story? For isn’t that the wobbly pretext on which I’ve brought us to this point? Yes, but there’s really just not much to say. The idea of Noah having a slapstick aide is hardly scriptural, and the story is carefully certain to avoid religion or spirituality. The idea seems to have been more “let’s take a story that everybody already knows, as a shortcut to jokes about thousands of pounds of animals falling on Donald’s head” than “what can we explore about the Flood narrative that will be new an interesting”. Like everything else, the scenario of this short is frankly arbitrary. But it’s not like Disney of all studios would be interested in either openly supporting or openly attacking religious tradition, so a carefully meaningless interpretation of the story is probably just what they were looking for.
Allow me to send you off with a deeply bizarre and random curiosity: Disney’s earlier Noah’s Ark cartoon, a 1959 stop-motion epic directed by Bill Justice and written by the legendary gag man T. Hee. And even this wasn’t the company’s first attempt, though it is certainly the least characteristic.