Saturday Matinee #89, Finding Nemo Week: "Sea Salts" (April 8, 1949) - published September 15, 2012
by Albert Gutierrez
Finding Nemo returns to theatres this weekend, with a brand-new 3-D conversion that allows viewers to better immerse themselves in the "big blue world" created by Pixar. While the film's title would suggest Nemo is the main character, much of the time in the film is spent with Marlin, his woebegone father. After losing Coral and hundreds of other children to a barracuda, Marlin becomes extremely protective of his remaining son, Nemo. Thus, it's understandable why he'd go to such lengths to find him again. On the way to finding Nemo (haha, title reference!), Marlin ends up with Dory - a childlike regal tang whose short-term memory loss leaves her extremely trusting and optimistic for most everybody. Their unlikely pairing is what ultimately helps both to better understand each other and themselves. It's one of my favorite aspects of (reviewer's bias warning) my favorite Pixar film. To celebrate the strange friendship of Marlin and Dory, we'll take a look at another strange friendship in the Disney shorts canon: "Sea Salts," which pairs up Donald Duck with Bootle Beetle.
Donald and Bootle are two shipmates who've known each other for years. As an elderly Donald goes out for the day, elderly Bootle narrates to the audience about how they became such good friends. "We made a strange pair, the captain and I," Bootle says. The pair of them had been shipwrecked for some time. Like any responsible captain, Donald had rationed the water - although sometimes he'd cheat and hold Bootle's straw. One day, their twenty-seventh at sea, the pair discover that their raft has finally set to shore on a small island. Donald sees a coconut on a palm tree, and chops it down with his teeth. Donald punches three holes in the coconut in order to drink its milk. As usual, he ends up stopping Bootle's straw, allowing him to drink all the milk.
There's still delicious meat inside the shell, and Bootle climbs in to take it out. Instead, he enjoys eating as much as he can. When Donald asks for some, Bootle takes the remaining piece, trying to push it through the hole. It's too big, so he eats around it, in order to make it fit. By the time it's the right size - a mere crumb - he throws it out, expecting Donald's angry rant. Another episode during their shipwreck is Donald's attempt to fish. Needing bait, he pretends he dropped his hat in the water, asking Bootle to retrieve it for him. Bootle is confused as to why Donald keeps shaking the line, before he realizes that Donald's using him to capture fish. All is well in the end, as they did enjoy plenty of fish.
Soon, a ship appears on the horizon. In his excitement, Donald rows out immediately, forgetting about Bootle. Saddened, Bootle is resolved to a life on the island, when Donald throws out the fishing line once more. He tells Bootle to hook it onto his hat, and pulls him back into the raft. Since then, they've been good friends. Elderly Donald returns just as Bootle finishes his story. He bought a soda for them to share. And, as usual, Donald plugs up Bootle's straw. Some things will never change!
In Donald Duck's early days, he was the recurring star being featured in a Mickey Mouse cartoon. His success and popularity is what led to the creation of his own cartoon series. By this point in Donald's career, he was already the established star, and now his cartoons were used as launching pads to other recurring characters. Bootle Beetle, another contender for his own series, was featured in three "Donald Duck" cartoons: "Bootle Beetle" (1947), "Sea Salts" (1949), and "Greener Yard" (1949). The first and last were typical "Donald versus... " cartoons, in which he butts heads with a diminutive creature, then naturally loses because of his own shortsightedness. "Sea Salts" is the exception. Here, we see Donald and Bootle as old friends. However, like all the Bootle cartoons, it's still told in flashback. This time, we get to see the why-for of their friendship. Then again, when shipwrecked together, there's not much else to do but join forces to survive. For me, the short is superior to Bootle's others, because his friendship with Donald is shown to last beyond their shipwrecked adventures. For once, a "Donald versus... " cartoon is not about rivalry.
True, we do see a fair share of one-upmanship between the two: rationing water, eating the coconut, fishing, etc. But each one could potentially be attributed to the more primal instinct to survive at whatever cost, even the expense of one's friends. However, I sincerely hope that's not the message the Disney animators were trying to convey. The lasting friendship seems more in line with Disney's modus operandi. The theme of unlikely friends has continually been explored in various other Disney projects. Some of their most beloved films are built on that premise. The entirety of The Fox and the Hound is based on challenging societal norms for what a friendship can or should be. Tod and Copper - the titular fox and hound - become friends because they like each other. It's only everyone else who tells them, "No, you should be enemies instead." Ultimately, their friendship is stronger than any primal instinct or master's orders. If a dog and a fox can become the best of friends, so can a duck and a beetle.
Despite the majority of the cartoon featuring young Donald and Bootle, my favorite parts are the framing narrative with both of them when they are older. Elderly Donald is a rarity seen in Disney characters. The animators did a fine job in showing him older. His eyes aren't as widely opened, and he's got a fuller face. Even his hair is longer, its design feeling more mature than the short cut he'd sport. Of course, Disney really didn't need to go far in aging Donald. They had debuted his elder uncle, Scrooge McDuck, a couple years earlier. Both characters naturally have similar elements, though Donald doesn't sport spectacles. Bootle does, along with white whiskers for sideburns. Both also sport walking sticks, a nice touch.
Disney rarely will portray their characters as aged, and for good reason. These are timeless characters that most of us prefer to see frozen in time. Sometimes, marketing will show them as babies. But it's slightly jarring at times to see them older. When Mickey Mouse appeared at the 2003 Academy Awards to present Best Animated Short with Jennifer Garner, he actually took out a pair of reading glasses. Although his general design hadn't changed, the reading glasses definitely brought notice to his age (then 75 years old). While it was a cute joke, those reading glasses have fortunately never been seen since.
Image courtesy of Entertainment Weekly
"Sea Salts" (and all of the Bootle cartoons) can be found in "Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald, Volume Three." The set was released in 2007, and has become one of the rarest in the Treasures series; you'll be hard-pressed to find a copy for a reasonable price. I didn't get a chance to purchase the set when it first came out (with its original list price of $32.99), but ultimately acquired a sealed copy a few years later from a good-hearted Disney fan in Australia.
Fortunately for those without that set, "Sea Salts" had been previously included as the bonus cartoon on the two-disc "Vault Disney Collection" DVD for Swiss Family Robinson, originally released in 2002. That set is still in print and can be found for fairly low prices in stores and online. It's one of the best DVD sets Disney has ever produced, featuring the film, audio commentary, and "Sea Salts" on the first disc, while the second houses nearly three hours of bonus material. Hopefully, when Swiss Family Robinson arrives on Blu-Ray, we'll see the restored version of "Sea Salts" (from the Treasures set) accompanying the film once again.
Unrestored to the left, restored to the right