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Short Film: Disney Gives an Odd History Lesson in ‘The Truth About Mother Goose’

Truth About Mother Goose

Why Watch? Well, don’t you want to know the truth about Mother Goose? This quirky 1957 Disney short film takes you behind the rhyme, explaining the origins of “Little Jack Horner,” “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” and “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Sort of. The cartoon is somewhat more devoted to charm than accuracy, getting a few details entirely wrong. Yet if anything it makes The Truth About Mother Goose even more clever, retelling tall tales with the very loose sense of history that made them fun in the first place.

Your second to reason to watch is Wolfgang Reitherman, who co-directed the short with Bill Justice. Today is Reitherman’s birthday, what would be his 104th. He was one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” the group of core animators that created most of the studios greatest early works. The Truth About Mother Goose was Reitherman’s first outing as a director. He would go on to direct eight more features films for the company, including Sleeping Beauty and The Jungle Book.

The Truth About Mother Goose is in many ways emblematic of the Disney style of this period. By 1957 the use of an imaginary storybook as a visual framing device was an old practice, along with the Greek chorus-style group of three jesters that lead the audience from page to page. In many ways it’s a more educational version of Disney’s 1938 Mother Goose Goes HollywoodYet the film is also willing to go dark, particularly in its honesty about Mary Queen of Scots’ tangled love life and eventual execution. Reitherman and Justice do not shy away from the unpleasantness hidden in these rhymes, but they also refuse to take that sinister underbelly too seriously. They blend earnest warmth with stylized (mostly hinted at) violence, the simultaneity of which is both striking and unexpected for a Disney cartoon.

The Truth About Mother Goose was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, Cartoon. Reitherman and Justice lost to Fritz Freleng, Sylvester and Tweetie Bird.

What Will It Cost? Just under 15 minutes.

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Daniel Walber is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University, loves any movie under 80 minutes, and is gay for Bette Davis.

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