Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It's Tough to Be a Buzzard from Hinckley Ridge

With the month of March now upon us, we are reminded that the buzzards will soon be returning to roost in the small town of Hinckley, Ohio. The tradition of welcoming these turkey vultures back to their summer habitats was established in 1957, and to most of the area’s residents, it signifies the true arrival of spring.

But to Disney enthusiasts of the baby boomer generation, it serves to remind us of a once famous, but now mostly obscure Disney production. For the story of Hinckley and its prodigal buzzards became perhaps the most well remembered element of the 1969 animated short subject It’s Tough to Be a Bird, and the subsequent episode it evolved into on the Wonderful World of Disney in 1970.

Now I can only speak from my own memories, but this wacky film was a huge deal to myself and fellow members of my then preteen generation. While my contemporaries viewed most Disney television offerings of the time as little more than a way to kill an hour on a Sunday evening, It’s Tough to Be a Bird managed to elevate itself to a viewing status typically reserved for the likes of The Wizard of Oz and holiday perennials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was the subject of at least a couple Monday morning playground discussions that I fondly remember participating in.

Released on December 10, 1969, It’s Tough to Be a Bird proved immensely popular due largely in part to its zany, fast paced montages and over-the-top humor. It was all a very distinct reflection of its creator Ward Kimball. The film is hosted by the character M.C. Bird, voiced by Richard Bakalyan, who relates (often to his own detriment) the history of mankind’s relationship with its avian counterparts. While rooted in some of Kimball’s sci-fi themed parodies from earlier Disney anthology episodes, it is clearly a departure from the studio’s typical short subject fare, animated or otherwise. Its offbeat nature is more akin to Monty Python than Mickey Mouse, and its cutout style animation brings to mind the later efforts of Terry Gilliam on the Pythons’ Flying Circus shows. In one particular scene that epitomizes the film’s somewhat more irreverent humor, M.C. alludes to Edgar Allen Poe’s reputed alcoholism and how a certain raven salvaged his literary career.

The short culminates with the aforementioned visit to Hinckley, Ohio, and the very quirky reality of the town’s “Buzzard Day” celebrations. The sequence finishes with comedienne Ruth Buzzi’s hilarious and very off-key rendition of “When the Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge.” Kimball’s efforts were rewarded when the film received the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject of 1969.

Originally 22 minutes in length, the short was expanded to fill out a full episode of the Wonderful World of Disney that first aired in December of 1970. Recycled True-Life Adventure footage and a homage to birds in Disney films and cartoons rounded out the television version.

The film’s success would lead Kimball to direct Dad, Can I Borrow the Car, another short similar in style and humor, but this time examining the relationship between man and the automobile. Narrated by Kurt Russell, it arrived in theaters in September of 1970.

Unfortunately, watching either version of It’s Tough to Be a Bird, is quite difficult at best. The theatrical version appeared a few times on Disney Channel Vault Disney programming in the late 1990s. I was lucky to obtain a copy of the television version when it was included on a Wonderful World of Disney VHS collection, and that tape is now well over twenty years old. Hope currently rests on its possible inclusion in a future Treasures or Legacy DVD set of remaining Disney rarities.

5 comments:

Tom said...

OMG, I loved this film. I remember sitting in my local movie palace (not those bunkers they have now) and watching it on a Saturday afternoon. I must have been 9 or 10 when it came out, and the style and humor reminded me more of Bullwinkle/Jay Ward than it did of any other Disney short.

Aganippe said...

I don't remember seeing the film, but I am going to Hinckley on Thursday. It's about a two hour drive from where I live and I've already spotted 7 buzzards in my locale..but hey, it's great fun. We're ready for spring up here ;)

Enjoyed the informative post!

Veronique CheVALier said...

I remember this so well! Even back then I was incubating my propensity towards all things quirky. I beg of you, please tell me how I can acquire a recording of "When The Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge." I loved that song, and want to add it to my performance repertoire. I could find nothing when I googled the song title and the word "lyrics". I would gladly even pay you to manually record the song from your videotape. Please, I must have this song...Merci Beaucoup!

Joy said...

I loved the film. I was raised in Hinckley and was involved in every Buzzard Day for more than 11 years. My father made sure I saw the film because Hinckley was mentioned in it. We have always been proud of those
buzzards. We have many visitors every year. I have missed out on that day for many years. My boys even got to visit their grandparents during March just so they could do a Buzzard day.

Flu-Bird said...

One of the best truly deserving a oscar and if i recall it was DISNEYS 50th award and MC is rights birds just have a hard time surviving