Friday, June 20, 2008

What a Character! - Professor Owl

His career was brief, but oh so significant.

Professor Owl has quite the pedigree. Imbued with the creative energies of Disney Studio veterans such as Ward Kimball and Bill Thompson, he found his way into two Disney cartoons, both of which remain critically celebrated and historically significant: Adventures in Music: Melody and Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.

The two cartoons, both released in 1953, are largely credited with infusing the then emerging cartoon modern style into Disney animation. In addition, each short represented an animation first; Melody was the first cartoon presented in 3D, while Toot was the first cartoon to stretch across the widescreen Cinemascope format. Toot would also be honored with that year's Academy Award for Animated Short Subject.

In many ways Professor Owl became a stylized incarnation of a similar character that was featured four years earlier in the film So Dear to My Heart. The Wise Old Owl of that movie delivered morality tales via animated vignettes to film's young protagonist played by Bobby Driscoll. In Melody and Toot, Professor Owl replaced morality with music education and taught his lessons within a birdhouse schoolhouse, populated with the likes of Bertie Birdbrain, Penelope Pinfeather, Suzy Sparrow and the Canary Sisters.

Kimball provided Professor Owl with his more minimalist but still dynamic aesthetic design while Bill Thompson supplied the character's personality rich voice. Thompson's resume at Disney had also notably included the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland and Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore from both Donald Duck and Humphrey Bear cartoons.

Professor Owl was certainly a non-traditional design and a clear departure for animators such as Kimball. Colored in shades of blue with large oversize spectacles, he was a stark contrast to the studio's prior canon of animal characters, and his two star outings ushered in Disney's 1950s era of cartoon modern-influenced productions.

Image © Walt Disney Company


action-packed said...

Another good article. Professor Owl was pressed into service in the 90's when the Disney 'sing along song' video tapes came out. There are lots of middle school kids (and their parents) that would recognize him and his classroom from those tapes. The theme song from that series is still etched into my brain.

Anonymous said...

Same here. The old Sing-Along videos were my first exposures to the character of Professor Owl as well.

Also, FYI, he made cameo appearances in the "House of Mouse" TV series in a couple of episodes.

Anonymous said...

Me too! And now my kids are starting to sing it as well. Some of those old sing-a-longs are on DVD now. Professor Owl lives on!

Jenny Lerew said...

Super appealing character-nice to see him brought up.

And in addition to the wonderful animated incarnations there was his 3D version (or a relation) at Disneyland in the old "Great Moments" reception area opposite Walt's offices. IIRC wasnt it Hans Conreid who voiced him for that little show(of the True-Life clips)?

Simple as it was, that animatronic was so well done.
I once saw a lone kid, about 6 or so, transfixed, by himself, sitting on the benches watching the Owl's spiel; he raised his hand to ask a question, keeping it up for a good while before disappointedly lowering it. Believing in the illusion like that! Totally charming.

Danielle said...

In the two 1953 10-minute films and Disney Sing-Along Songs: Disneyland Fun, Professor Owl is actually a girl.