Saturday, April 17, 2010

What a Character! - The Aracuan Bird
By Jeffrey Pepper
Originally published February 18, 2008

A 1940s era Disney cartoon star that breaks the fourth wall and circumnavigates the borders of the movie screen, engaging in inspired insanity that ranges from mischievous pranks to over-the-top attempts at suicide.
Wow . . . . what a character!

Born out of the 1945 animated feature The Three Caballeros, the Aracuan is that rare bird that at times was more akin to his Warner Bros. or Walter Lantz counterparts than to his slightly more benign Disney cartoon costars. His antics bears strong associations with avian cartoon cousins Daffy Duck and Woody Woodpecker, but with a South of the Border sensibility owing to his origins in the Disney Latin American film canon.

The Aracuan Bird debuted in the Rare Birds segment of The Three Caballeros, memorably emerging from a home movie screen and crawling up the projector beam to shake hands with a befuddled Donald Duck. He reappears later in the film to derail the train taking Donald and Jose Carioca to Baia. As the train travels through a stunning chalk drawing-inspired landscape, the Aracuan cleverly uses his own piece of chalk to draw new rails that split apart the engine, its cars and the caboose.

Studio veteran and Disney Legend Eric Larson created and animated the Aracuan Bird for The Three Caballeros. Despite the character's relatively brief appearances, Larson infused the Aracuan with a frantic, mischievous personality, yet combined it with an innocent, endearing nature that ultimately made him both entertaining and very memorable. In his book Walt Disney's Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation, author John Canemaker observed:

"Larson animated the the mad bird like a mechanical doll, puttering along, turning an occasional cartwheel as it goes on its giddy way. The Aracuan is a spirit of the film medium itself and its elements . . . he toys with the substance of film itself and its mechanics, literally running off the film frames as they race by--thus affecting the audience's perception of what they are watching."

So great was the character's impact that he was brought back in two subsequent productions. He returned first in the 1947 Donald Duck cartoon Clown of the Jungle, and appeared again with Donald and Jose Caricoa in the Blame It On the Samba segment of 1948 package film Melody Time. He would also bear a distinct physical resemblance to another Larson-created character: Sasha, the little bird with a similar red tuft of hair from the Peter and the Wolf segment of Make Mine Music.

Clown of the Jungle extended the premise first visited in The Three Caballeros, as the Aracuan disrupts another South American birdwatching vignette. But the cartoon quickly spins away from the prior film's generally benign trappings into a fast paced outing very reminiscent of earlier Elmer Fudd-Daffy Duck confrontations. Director Jack Hannah recreated the bird's trademark song and the here-there-and-everywhere popping in and out of frame innovated by Larson. But suddenly, and hilariously, the short exhibits somewhat darker humor. Responding to Donald's rebuff, the Aracuan becomes the centerpiece of a suicide gag where the bird engages in the plausible impossible act of hanging himself from his own arm. The gags continue fast and furious, culminating in an uber-violent machine gun attack by Donald that the Aracuan naturally, and quite casually dodges. The escape results in Donald losing hold of his own sanity, and the cartoon ends with him mimicking the Aracuan's now very familiar song and dance.

While his crazy nature remains intact in Melody Time, the Aracuan's malicious mischievousness is replaced with the more noble purpose of cheering up forlorn friends Donald and Jose. As Disney character scholar John Grant notes, ". . . they are in this feature really less like characters and more like 'experiencing objects,' battered around by the whims of the turbulent, pulsing music." The sequence is clearly a return to the style and presentation of The Three Caballeros, but this time making the Aracuan Bird the catalyst for the eye-popping visuals and stunning mixes of live action and animation. The climactic exploding organ sequence featuring Ethel Smith remains one of the most amazing moments in a Disney film, and it was the Aracuan Bird who planted the dynamite stick under the foot pedal.

While Melody Time would be the Aracuan's last big screen appearance, he would return in the television show "House of Mouse." But more significantly, like his Samba costar Jose Carioca, the Aracuan would go on to enjoy a successful incarnation in comic books produced in Brazil. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he would be a featured character in a series entitled Os Adolescentes (translated Disney Teens).

Images © Walt Disney Company