As I’m sure everyone is almost excessively aware, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (aka “POTC4”) is opening this weekend. This time around Johnny Depp will be sailing around with Penélope Cruz and Ian McShane looking for the Fountain of Youth, perhaps in an attempt to restore the vitality of the franchise. Yet unfortunately for us, neither Cruz nor Depp, nor even director Rob Marshall worked in short film in their own youth. So instead, I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at another Disney film inspired by that elusive spring: 1953’s “Don’s Fountain of Youth.”
Let me just say first that Donald Duck is probably my favorite classic Disney cartoon character. He’s just so petulant and ridiculous, the sort of irascible but lovable uncle that inadvertently adds humor to every situation. Yet he’s never quite as wonderful as he is when around his three equally stubborn nephews. In this particular short Huey, Dewey and Louie join their uncle Donald on a trip through Florida (a decade before Walt Disney would select the state for his figurative fountain of youth: Walt Disney World), annoying him as usual by refusing to look up from their comic book and appreciate the sights. And so, also as usual, he fights back with a bit of trickery that gets them all into some trouble.
The three nephews and their friendly harassment of their poor uncle come from a long tradition in studio shorts of bothersome hordes of small young creatures. Kittens show up en masse in 1932’s “Mickey’s Orphans,” children drive Old King Cole up the wall in 1933’s “The Merry Old Soul,” and the list goes on. Disney’s Huey, Dewey and Louis cartoons are so uniquely wonderful, however, because they play on this trope by making Donald just as childish. And “Don’s Fountain of Youth” is perhaps the crowning achievement of this dynamic. Their cranky uncle is so bothered by their devotion to a comic book (here simply titled Comic Book, in huge letters), that he tricks them into thinking he’s been turned into a baby himself. Now it’s time for the kids to take adult responsibility for Donald, and the results are appropriately silly and increasingly witty.
Also, the song which plays over the opening credits is delightful. This ironic ode to the irritable duck, which I don’t think I’d ever heard before watching this particular short, will make your day. It’s a great way to open, especially for those of us with a fondness for the character from childhood, an inside joke for the fans. And honestly, who isn’t a fan of Donald Duck?