Disney Cartoon #35: Untitled Cartoon I Henceforth Dub "Victory Through Rocket Power" (June 21, 1991)
by Albert Gutierrez
This week at Saturday Matinee, we'll take a quick look at one of the shortest cartoons that Disney released theatrically. Actually, the cartoon wasn't released on its own, but embedded within a live-action film. Still, when you compare the percent of animation to that of live-action within the entire film, it is pretty meager. If you haven't already figured it out from this week's title, the cartoon in question is the Nazi Propoganda film that's featured in 1991's The Rocketeer. The film was unique for its time, as it feature various elements that Hollywood wasn't used to blending at the time: a lighthearted special-effects-laden action-adventure-romance set in 1938 and based on a comic book. Audiences were previously won over by Warner Bros.'s Superman: The Movie (1978) and Batman (1989), and Disney saw The Rocketeer as their entry into the comic book film franchise, a genre that had plenty more misses than hits in the '80s and '90s.
As the cartoon starts, the German phrase "Ein Neuer Anfang" appears on the screen, which translates into "A New Beginning." We then see V-formations of Nazis flying in the background, as three more take off in the foreground. A map of Europe shows the Nazis spreading throughout the continent, eventually crossing the ocean and reaching the United States. As the American flag burns down amidst an overtaken Washington D.C., the Nazi flag is raised. The American Eagle is then replaced by the Nazi Eagle, and a new phrase appears: "Heute Europa, Morgen Die Welt," or "Today Europe, Tomorrow the World."
The cartoon lasts a little over 30 seconds, but the running time is extended in the film as the camera cuts from the cartoon to reaction shots from Cliff (Bill Campbell) and Peevy (Alan Arkin). Even with the extensions, the entirety of the cartoon is on screen for a mere 46 seconds, although it is a vital part of the plot and helps to re-establish the importance of the film's MacGuffin: the jet pack that Cliff uses to become The Rocketeer. Up until that point, the jet pack is like any other MacGuffin: a driving force of the plot, but with no real importance of its own. Thanks to the cartoon, the viewers now know why everyone is after the rocket, and it becomes a rarity among Holllywood MacGuffins. It not only drives the plot, but has a useful purpose, and is actually used by the characters. When you compare famous MacGuffins in film (such as the Maltese Falcon or George Kaplan), they are quite unimportant by the end of the film. Thanks to the propoganda cartoon, the jet pack not only becomes important for the rest of the film, but remains a useful piece of technology.
Cartoons as propoganda may seem rather preposterous today, but was one of the more dominant forms of propoganda at the time, for both sides of the war. The U.S. government contracted Walt Disney's animation studio to make both propoganda and educational shorts during World War II, and plenty of other animation studios released propoganda shorts. Just take a look at the likes of "Japoteurs" or "Jungle Drums" (Famous Studios), "The Blitz Wolf" (MGM), or "Daffy the Commando" (Warner Bros.). A quick search of "Nazi Propoganda Cartoon" on YouTube brings about various shorts that were made featuring both sides of the war: those supporting the Third Reich and those condemning it. The cartoon featured in The Rocketeer thus serves as both a reflection of the propoganda of the time, and as a historical element that helps make the time period more authentic.
Mark Dindal, a special effects animator for Disney, made his director's debut with the short cartoon. He would go on to later fame as the director of Cats Don't Dance for Warner Bros. Animation, before returning to Disney for 2000's The Emperor's New Groove and 2005's Chicken Little. Among the animators who worked on the short piece were Gordon Baker (who'd work with Dindal again on The Emperor's New Groove and Loring Doyle, who also worked on visual effects within The Rocketeer. It's rather hard to find any genuine production information on this short cartoon, as most behind-the-scenes articles about The Rocketeer understandably focused on every other aspect of the film except the animation. Disney had high hopes with the film, expecting it to spearhead a new franchise to take them into the 90s and establish their live-action films beyond the 1970s' family comedies and the 1980s' experimental dark films.
Released to theatres in June of 1991, The Rocketeer seemed destined to be a hit, at least based on the marketing bonanza that Disney put out. Instead, the $42 million film (originally $25 million) was considered a box-office failure by the company. Making $62 million at the box office would have been impressive, had the entire $62 million been in the U.S. Alas, only $46 million was from the U.S. box office, with the other $16 million earned internationally (where the film was released under Disney's more-adult Touchstone banner). Plans for sequels were canceled, but in the twenty years that followed, the film gained a huge cult following thanks to home video releases and rampant airings on the Disney Channel throughout the '90s. Last June, Disney celebrated the film's 20th Anniversary with a special screening and Q&A session at El Capitan, the very theater that premiered the film twenty-years earlier. Rumors of a Blu-Ray release followed soon after, and this week, those rumors became genuine news. The film will be getting a Blu-Ray release in December, which will be a day-one purchase for me.