Ralph BakshiDr. SeussCharles DurningClive Revill
The Butter Battle Book
Medium: TV, short film
Year: 1989
Director: Ralph Bakshi
Writer: Dr. Seuss
Keywords: fantasy, animation, favourite
Country: USA
Actor: Charles Durning, Chris Latta, Miriam Flynn, Clive Revill, Joseph Cousins
Format: 27 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0213536/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 6 July 2012
It's another Ralph Bakshi TV special and an adaptation of Dr Seuss. It surprised me. For someone whose work is so violently individual, Bakshi's a startlingly faithful adapter and for me this cast new light on what he did with The Lord of the Rings. This feels like a Dr Seuss book, but in motion. It looks right and feels right. It's preserving all the language, exactly reproducing the art style and sticking so closely to the storyline that it even ends on the same cliffhanger. "THE END (maybe)".
It's been called the most faithful Dr Seuss adaptation. I can believe it. The person who made this claim was Dr Seuss.
I'll be getting on to the story itself in a moment, but for the moment I'm talking about the animated episode. The art carefully hasn't been cleaned up. It has a slightly hairy line, the kind you'll get when you're doing the original pencils and not the "final cut" inked version. The colours are pastels, not primaries. In other words, the animators are carefully avoiding the choices you might expect, for the sake of fidelity.
I also loved the voice actors. This is almost unknown for me in English-language animation. Normally you're lucky to get away with "I didn't notice them", but here I really enjoyed how the cast used Seuss's poetry. Christopher Latta/Collins is particularly juicy as Chief Yookeroo. No one's coming across as enslaved by the scansion (which is strong with Seuss), but they're respectful of it and preserving it while also bringing it alive and having fun. In a real sense, this kind of poetry is harder to deliver than Shakespeare. Iambic pentameter gives you a lot of freedom, while Seuss's language almost says itself.
It's all Seuss, basically. Bakshi is making himself invisible. He's serving his author and getting out of the way. So what about the story?
Answer: that's even more awesome. It's basically a parody of the world.
It's a parable making fun of the Cold War and the arms race, written in 1984. I've seen indignant reviewers who dislike this. The easy ones to dismiss are those who simply think a children's book shouldn't be talking about things like that. Hah. The more sophisticated ones point out that Seuss's frivolous portrayal of the Yooks and Zooks is glossing over the nature of Soviet Russia and thus implying a moral equivalence that could be regarded as almost offensive. This is actually a decent argument, but I think it still fails because it's extrapolating far too much from Seuss's simple satire.
1. The Yooks and Zooks are deadly enemies because they disagree over which side of your bread should be buttered. Jonathan Swift would have loved it.
2. No, that's it.
Everything else follows from premise 1. Seuss never hints that either side might be specifically the USA or the USSR, but instead simply makes fun of idiots. (I have my suspicions that the Zooks might be good at espionage, though.) You see the Yook children being drilled with anti-Zook propaganda at school... and the subversive thing is that their way of doing this is just as believable in an American context as a Soviet one. However what turns all this good stuff into brilliance is the fact that it's extremely funny and has funky Dr Seuss rhyming dialogue.
Yes, the Yooks and the Zooks are being shown as morally equivalent, but that's the point. It's a story about mankind's capacity for picking a fight in an empty room. Anyone arguing that it's wrong to make fun of this needs to take a long, hard look at themselves.
It's perhaps just a smidgin long. The nuclear science song could be argued to have woken me up. I was then slightly disturbed by the sight of our hero walking towards the border with a FIZZING, SPARKING NUCLEAR BOMB IN HIS HAND, but I suspect that's the idea. Besides, they don't actually call it a nuclear bomb. That's me jumping the gun a bit. It looks more like a sparkler that happens to have been made from a ball of chewing gum, so there's no reason to assume that anyone's being fatally irradiated or anything like that. In short, this is brilliant. All children should watch this. It'll teach them about the stupidity of knee-jerk xenophobia... and it'll also be cool and make them laugh. Everyone wins! (Except the Butter Battlers, obviously.)
"We fight the wars that must be fought!"