Monday, November 01, 2010

What a Character! - Willie the Giant

Willie the Giant has become a somewhat iconic Disney character, despite a resume that only includes two films and a number of television show cameos.  He made his debut in the 1947 animated feature Fun and Fancy Free, and then returned to the big screen thirty-six years later as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Mickey's Christmas Carol.  He has appeared in recent years on the House of Mouse and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse television shows.

Though initially introduced as a villain in the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment of Fun and Fancy Free, he quickly evolved into a more benign, comedic character.  He threatened Mickey, Donald and Goofy quite effectively throughout their adventures at the top of the beanstalk, but his was certainly a more child-like villainy as demonstrated by his frequent juvenile frolicking and quick to ignite temper.  Willie's directing animator John Lounsbery masterfully injected both menace and silliness into the giant's split personality.  Willie appears to meet a tragic end as most beanstalk giants do, falling from the sky to his implied off-screen death.  But he is quickly resurrected for the film's epilogue in which he lifts the roof off Edgar Bergen's home and politely asks if anyone has seen a mouse.  He then lumbers through Hollywood on his search, pausing momentarily to appropriate the California Crazy architecture of the famous Brown Derby restaurant and use it as head wear.

Willie was voiced in Fun and Fancy Free by then veteran comic actor Billy Gilbert, who had played the part of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a decade prior.  As with Sneezy, Gilbert again used his trademark exaggerated sneeze gag with Willie in Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Willie essentially won his second film role, the Ghost of Christmas Present in the 1983 extended short Mickey's Christmas Carol, more or less by default.  The part called for a giant and Willie was pretty much the only such entity in the Disney canon.  Though in the film he generally maintained his lumbering, oafish personality, he acquired out of necessity an underlying quality of wisdom needed to stay true to the Dickens character.  It was an interesting contrast that ultimately proved heartfelt and well realized.  Prolific voice actor Will Ryan replaced Billy Gilbert in the role, as Gilbert had passed away in 1971.

Willie remained generally under the radar following Mickey's Christmas Carol. His image appeared on the marquee of a Toontown movie theater in Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988.  As previously noted, he has cameo-ed  on television in episodes of House of Mouse and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

But Willie does have the distinction of being featured in a subtle but very clever theme park detail within the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.  The Sir Mickey's store located just behind Cinderella Castle in Fantsyland presents a theme that is an odd amalgamation of Mickey and the Beanstalk and the classic 1938 cartoon The Brave Little TailorThe most elaborate of the store’s interior design elements involves Willie, but ironically seems to go mostly unnoticed. Directly opposite the shop’s primary entrance, Willie can be seen lifting up the roof in an attempt to peek inside.

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Tom said...

Oh that's cool...I'll have to check out that store when I'm at Disney World. Nice post.

Gator Chris said...

That's one of my favorite details in the Magic Kingdom.

Thanks for the character bio. Never noticed the WFRR cameo.

Unknown said...

Delightful character and take on Jack & the Beanstalk and the giant character, but it really bothers me that they didn't run with the idea of his magical powers- in the end chase he could have transformed to catch up with Mickey. I suppose when the harp is taken you assume he transformed into a lightning bolt.