There aren’t a great many movies about charismatic raccoons. Dogs, sure. There are plenty of cats with leading roles. There are even a surprising number of heroic mice. But raccoons? You’d be a bit hard-pressed to find any. Perhaps the success of Guardians of the Galaxy will solve that problem, Bradley Cooper’s much-praised performance as Rocket the space raccoon catapulting these much-maligned creatures back to the spotlight.
Not that I would hold my breath if I were you. But if you’re still in the mood for an anthropomorphic raccoon flick, here’s one from the classic catalog of Walt Disney Pictures.
R’coon Dawg may not be the high water mark of the Golden Age of Animation, but it’s worth a look. It’s a Mickey Mouse cartoon starring Pluto, the eternally lovable mutt without even an ounce of intelligence. This time he’s ostensibly out with his master to hunt raccoons.
Raccoon hunting was having a resurgence in the early 1950s, after a decline in interest in furs before World War II. The peak would come a few years later as the result of a coonskin cap craze due to another Disney film, 1955’s Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.
But back to Pluto. His killer snout is sensitive enough to follow a raccoon’s footsteps, which are made quite obvious by the animators. Theoretically this should be an easy job, especially with Mickey trailing behind with a rifle. Yet the raccoon in question is a clever creature, one that quickly becomes the real hero of this bizarre little short. It outsmarts its canine pursuer with glee, creating genuinely amusing set pieces of canine confusion. A particularly charming gag involving Mickey’s own coonskin cap is a highlight, along with a creative use of a fish.
R’coon Dawg was directed by Charles A. Nichols, an important Disney animator with an impressive resume including the Coachman in Pinocchio and the Oscar-nominated short Toot, Whistle Plunk and Boom. After the cartoon world shifted from theatrical shorts to television series he found his way to classics like Johnny Quest, Top Cat and The Jetsons. Later on, his IMDb page reads like a long list of TV cartoons you forgot about, from The Magilla the Gorilla Show to The Atom Ant Show. He was also the animation director on over 100 episodes of The Flintstones.
In part due to Nichols’s involvement, R’coon Dawg is a transition point in the style of American cartoons, between the experimental aesthetics of Disney’s best and the workmanlike comedy of the television era. That aforementioned creative use of a fish involves the raccoon slapping it and other small animals over its own tracks. The confused Pluto imagines a wide variety of hybrid beasts, bewildered at the prospect of a fish/frog/raccoon. His hallucinations are wonderful. The tracks themselves, meanwhile, look a bit cheap.
Finally, a more philosophical question. The raccoon is saved from death by its cuteness, both in the plot of the short and in its conception by the studio. Disney would never actually kill a raccoon in a theatrical short like this, so it is made into the hero. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film anti-hunting, of course. Neither is Bambi. But how is it possible that so many depictions of violence committed against animals in our culture consist of a rejection of that violence on the basis of cuteness? Moreover, the craze for coonskins caps was brought about by Davey Crockett, a live action film that is hardly opposed to gun ownership. This might sounds absurd, but it seems as if the worlds of classical Hollywood animation and live action are perhaps inherently opposed when it comes to violence in general, and gun violence specifically. Which is more disturbing, a cartoon gun or a more realistic but equally fake prop in the hands of an actor?