director Dave Fleischer
The Fleischer studio’s second and final feature film, Mr. Bug Goes to Town is a semi-obscure gem of pre-WWII animation, a sample of an alternative to the monolithic Disney style that failed to take hold. The Fleischer studio has long been my favorite of pre-WWII animation, and pre-WWII animation in general is my favorite period of animation. And yet, I’d never watched either of the studio’s two feature films.
Mr. Bug, or as it is also known, Hoppity Goes to Town, was made in the studio’s latter days, moved from New York City to Miami in an attempt to rival Disney, an attempt that failed the killed the studio. It was notoriously released a couple of months after Disney’s Dumbo (1941) and two days before Pearl Harbor.
Whether Mr. Bug could have been as viable as Disney winds up as a moot point, had all things been equal. But Mr. Bug is a beautifully animated film, a marvel in its own right, if not a masterpiece in really any other.
Having never seen the studio’s first feature film, Gulliver’s Travels (1939), I can’t say whether Dave and Max Fleischer really got the structure of telling a story of greater length than their short subjects, but Mr. Bug does suffer from a fairly weak overall narrative construct.
The story is simple enough. A group of insects lives in the backyard of a run-down home in a growing city, a home of a songwriter and his wife, hoping to make it big. The fallen fence has given way to garbage and trespassers that has endangered the little bug village. Returning to the town, Hoppity, a grasshopper, comes to find the troubles and tries to come up with solutions. Above the town’s lowlands lives a beetle kingpin, the villain of the film, who woos the young Honey Bee (Hoppity’s gal), and who tries to undermine the village any way he can to coerce her into marriage.
The film is a riff on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), though maybe in name more than narrative.
The film feels like an extended version of the Fleischer’s “Color Classics”, short features of anthropomorphic universes with tight, contained stories. It’s not bloated nor errant or anything, just extended, and no more remarkable than some of those of such a series.
That said, the animation is gorgeous. The Fleischers were innovators and managed to craft amazing bits of screen beauty that at times certainly rival the best of Disney. They didn’t necessarily have Disney’s knack for characterization and development, nor perhaps of storytelling with the heights of Disney. Disney invested a lot in developing these qualities at his studio. And this, and Disney’s vision, are what ultimately separated his studio from the many that existed at the time before the animated feature film became a thing, when short subject animation was the norm. It’s interesting to note that Mr. Bug‘s failure scuttled feature film plans at other rival studios. It would be decades before Disney had a real rival in the feature animation game.
For an animation aficionado, Mr. Bug Goes to Town is a real treat. It’s beautiful, clever, and fun, an alternate reality movie from a time long gone. It’s a treat for most anyone, I would hope, too, animation aficionado or not.