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Here's a little treasure that's rarely been allowed outside the Disney
Vault. When watching 'Cannibal Capers (1930),' one is faced with two
options: you can be angered by the cartoonish racial stereotypes, or
you can simply laugh, as I did, at the silliness of it all. Nowadays,
most viewers are willing to dismiss perceived racism as "a sign of the
times," but I think, particularly in this case, to do so is to do both
Walt Disney and 1930s audiences a disservice. The caricatures of
African tribesmen in 'Cannibal Capers' are so outlandishly exaggerated
that they could only have been intended as a spoof, perhaps satirising
the xenophobic generalisations that were admittedly prevalent in the
popular culture of the time (and they're still around today, so don't
feel too vindicated). This cartoon, in line with many of the earliest
Silly Symphonies, simply chooses a setting and devotes its inhabitants
to a few minutes of dancing: 'The Skeleton Dance (1929)' had skeletons,
'Hell's Bells (1929)' had scary imps, 'Flowers and Trees (1932)' had
and so 'Cannibal Capers' has cannibals.
A major theme of the cartoon seems to be the perceived "primitiveness" of the cannibals, as they are frequently mistaken both by the viewer and other characters for lower forms of nature. Or perhaps, less cynically, it's more a commentary on how harmoniously the cannibals exist in their environment. For example, we first glimpse the dancers by their stick-thin legs, which are initially mistaken for trees swaying in the breeze. Later, a cannibal attempting to imitate a turtle is mistaken for one by his own villagers, and is promptly tossed into the boiling pot. But this gag can run both ways. An angry lion (introduced with a stunning zoom into his gaping jaws) loses his crown as King of the Jungle, humiliated so decisively by a cannibal that he winds up more closely resembling a (white) man in a lion suit, fleeing on his hind-limbs. Is this British Colonialism getting nipped in the bud by the locals? Also note how closely the cannibals resemble the title character in 'The Ugly Duckling (1931),' reinforcing that cartoon's status as a racial allegory.
An interesting note from the audio commentary for this cartoon; as
Leonard Maltin states, the cartoon is not so much of a racist joke
again African natives, but perhaps a caricature of the Hollywood
caricature of African natives.
Any number of movies and shorts from that time showed those from Africa as vicious savages in extreme forms. While offensive today, audiences at that time would have had a good laugh on such an obvious spoof.
All in all, remember that all of the studios at that time used these same gags and stereotypes. Disney's use of them is just more obvious since the studio is one of the few major long-term companies from this era that we can use as a reference.
Cannibal Capers was an interesting cartoon from a historical
perspective, but over time not everybody will be enthused by it I don't
think. The basic story is rather simplistic, the characters are
stereotypical and the character features are outlandishly
over-sized(though I imagine this was purposeful perhaps). However the
rest of the animation is good with striking black and white and fluid
backgrounds, and the music is outstanding, the string orchestration is
especially rousing. The pace is crisp, and the action forming the
cartoon is not really hilarious but skips along nicely with some
niftily choreographed dancing.
In conclusion, Cannibal Capers is not for everybody and I have seen better and funnier Silly Symphonies but for a cartoon of that time it is an interesting look. 6/10 Bethany Cox
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an early Silly Symphony released by Disney, with elements which
might be offensive to many. There will be spoilers ahead:
In some ways, there isn't much to say with this short, which is the case with quite a few early Disney shorts. The studio was still finding its way and a lot of the staff was basically learning on the job. If it weren't for the stereotypical elements, this would be quite forgettable. Apart from a few funny short bits and the best part of the short toward the end, involving a lion, this one's rather boring.
The characters are all natives, with the typical rubber limbs found in early 1930s shorts. The best bit other than the lion is one of the natives interacting with a turtle, using a shield to make himself resemble the turtle, which gets him into hot water (literally).
This short is available on the Disney Treasures More Silly Symphonies DVD set, in a separate section because of racial images which will undoubtedly offend some people. The set is worth getting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
To modern viewers, "Cannibal Capers" could be easily seen as something
very insensitive and stereotypical. Personally, I consider it a product
of its time. I'm sure that back then, this wasn't considered as
something racist at all, and it was probably conceived as a harmless
slapstick cartoon for children.
That being said, this short wasn't particularly memorable: The animation was way too simple (specially compared with the incredibly beautiful animated shorts which were produced by the Disney company just a few years later) and the gags weren't as clever nor original as the surreal shorts from the Fleischer Studios.
It wasn't something bad, but it wasn't anything great either. I guess that it could considered just watchable at best, but there are plenty of much better Silly Symphonies than this.
Before you can get to see "Cannibal Capers" and a few other 'special'
cartoons on the "Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies" DVD set,
you are forced to watch an introduction by Leonard Maltin. He talks
about the times in which they were made and how politically incorrect
the films are. I am not against this, but hate how once you view it,
you must ALWAYS view Maltin's speech again if you come back to any of
the offensive cartoons. The same thing happens in some of the other
Treasures DVDS--such as the second Donald Duck set.
When you see "Cannibal Capers", it's immediately clear why the cartoon was considered bad. The characters are all big-lipped Ubangis--and very stereotypical ones. My wife, oddly, thought they were ducks--though she might not have thought that if she'd seen the title first.
Yes, this one is offensive but it's also charming if you can totally divorce yourself from what you are seeing (huh?!).
The sort of line-drawing animation that is used in this Silly Symphony
about cannibals in Africa is interesting.... a sort of animated line
drawing, eked out a bit -- arms and legs thin lines, hands and feet
big. But the modern viewer will be offended. The extreme stereotype of
Blacks will offend the modern viewer, just as, doubtless, some of the
modern images we hold to be normative will offend people three quarters
of a century hence .... or indeed, now. All comedy, after all, is
transgressive behavior at some level, but the line between amusingly
transgressive and offensively so depends on viewpoint. Consider the Jew
of Malta, Shylock and Fagin or the comedy act of Stepin Fetchitt. One
of his stage acts was to sit in a chair and read a paper while one of
his comedy recordings was playing.
But this one is offensive to the modern viewer and should be viewed purely as a product of its time. And should be watched and commented on if only to keep the reality that 'Uncle Walt' was an artificial construct, just as much as his cartoons.
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