The Butter Battle Book

(Check out my previous Ralph Bakshi film review here: Christmas in Tattertown)

1989 was a restorative career of sorts for Bakshi as he was able to create more than one commercial project over the course of the year and firmly established his ability to come through on projects on budget, on time, and without stirring up controversy akin to that on his 1987 series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. He began the year by developing a short live-action film entitled This Ain’t Bebop for the anthology film Imagining America. The film stars Harvey Keitel as a man reminiscing on the events of his past, on his affinity for the jazz of Coltrane, Miles, and Bird, the writing and performance art of the Beat generation, and the paintings of Jackson Pollack. Bakshi himself considers the short film to be ‘the last thing I did with total integrity,’ which should give you some sense of the downward trajectory of his work, artistically speaking, from here on out.

After the completion of that project in June of 1989, Bakshi was commissioned by TNT to create an animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book The Butter Battle Book. He called on his old friends from the Mighty Mouse series (including Tom Minton) to help animate the project and advised them along the way to develop it as closely to the book as possible, as he had an affinity and a respect for the work of Dr. Seuss. This interest in authentically portraying the original author’s intentions led Bakshi to hire Seuss himself as a screenwriter for the new work and as an executive producer with just as much of a hand in the film’s creative direction as Bakshi had.

In the film, a world is presented in which two factions of bird-like hominids live separated as two hostile enclaves only prevented from destroying one another by virtue of a large wall physically splitting their communities. Despite the two groups being physically identical, and only being distinguishable by their attire, the Blue-shirted Yooks and the Red-shirted Zooks hold a mutual hatred for one another and view each other practically as different species. The reasoning behind their divide is not because of some historical reality of separation and intense fear of the Other, or because of a past war or even that caused their current schism, but instead merely because an objectively minor cultural difference: The Yooks spread the butter on the top of the their bread and the Zooks spread theirs on the bottom. The point here being that all human beings in our own world are ultimately the same species, and are only separated by what, upon reflection, should appear to be relatively minor cultural differences such as language, religious practices, and customs.

The movie centers around the character of a Yook Border Patrol guard who watches his border like a hawk and prevents Zooks from crossing over it with the use of his whipping stick melee weapon. His grandson, as an innocent child with untarnished thoughts and a more objective view of the world, does not understand why he must hate the Zooks. As such, the old guard does his best to instill his own xenophobia and propaganda into the mind of the child, just as his school teachers teach him slogans, perpetuate baseless hatred, and warp the minds of their young charges. On top of these forms of local community and familial brain-washing, the boy’s government has rallies and national songs that help to instill into his mind the fear and hatred of Zooks, and frowns upon the teaching of logical, rational thought processes that could potentially aid one in removing the ideological shackles holding back the forward progress of hominid-kind toward resolution of conflict and peace.

Meanwhile, the Zooks are likewise pissed off at the Yooks for buttering their bread on the ‘wrong’ side. As such, they have beefed up their own border patrol and have armed their guards with new slingshots with which to destroy the Yook Border Guard’s whipping sticks. When the old Yook’s weapon is broken, he runs off to town hall to tell his mayor, who then develops a new weapon with his team of scientists (representing scientific advancement’s complicity in nationalism in the 20th century) to combat the slingshot. Eventually, guns are developed, then mortars, bombs, laser technology, and finally, a weapon analogous to our own world’s atomic bomb. But unlike in WWII where only one side developed atomic capability quickly enough to irresponsibly use it, both the Yooks and the Zooks develop their tech at the exact same moment and threaten to destroy one another if either lets up their vigilance at any time.

The situation mirrors Cold War sentiments of the time when both the Soviets and the U.S. had developed weapons and were in a seemingly intractable, permanent stalemate. The wall between the two sides here was physically represented in our world by the Berlin Wall, symbolically representing the Cold War tensions, paranoia, and uncertainties attendant upon and arising from the Soviet Iron Curtain, which was by then a more than 40-year old reality. The film ends in the exact same fashion as the book with the two people perched upon the wall separating their communities. Each threatening to drop the bomb into the territory of the other if either let’s up his vigilance for even a moment. The scene transitioning then to an End credit with the cautionary message, ‘Or is it?’. Dr. Seuss called the work the most faithful adaptation of his work in any medium hitherto and praised its animation style for mirroring his own cartoon style.

However, TNT released the short film on November 5th, 1989. Four days later, the Berlin Wall was torn down and the Cold War tensions that had wracked the 1st and 2nd worlds for decades now began to thaw. The force of the images in the film lost a real-world referent, the same message now needed a new social order to mirror, and life repudiated and refused art outright.


Cody Ward

[Next up: Cool World]

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