Mr. Magoo wasn’t supposed to become the star of a continuing series of cartoons, much less one of the biggest figures in ’50s animated shorts. Compared to the other stars of the field—your Bugs Bunnys and Mickey Mouses—he was a little old man, not a funny animal, and he was downright mean. But in the hands of the United Productions Of America animation studio and directors John Hubley and Pete Burness, Magoo became one of the most beloved creations of that decade. The feature and all but one of the shorts were released in the ’50s, and UPA actually shut down in 1959, meaning that Magoo decamped for television, where he met with less success.
On the big screen, however, Magoo was the chief creation keeping the lights on at his studio, despite seemingly having a more limited series of potential jokes and interactions than even, say, Tom and Jerry. Magoo was meant to be a parody of reactionary old people, and Hubley and writer Millard Kaufman intended him as a bit of a prank on the Red Scare, as both of them had fallen under suspicion for their activities. The Magoo of the earliest shorts is an irascible son of a bitch, ranting and raving in mumbled fashion, voice actor Jim Backus keeping him just on the right side of completely unpalatable.
All of this anger and destructiveness is packed into a feeble little package that can’t really do anything but mumble. This was most often expressed via Magoo’s near-sightedness, the fact that he was largely unable to make out anything that appeared even within a few feet of him and seemingly navigated his life through memory. (One of the most famous Magoo gags is that he goes to one place but ends up somewhere else nearby, because he never remembers precisely where he’s going.) But that near-sightedness becomes a more pointed look at how age eventually makes all of us dependent on someone or something else—and how that dependence inevitably provokes rage toward the ravages of time. Magoo is angry and embittered, but he’s also a reminder of mortality.
The first two discs in Shout! Factory’s new Magoo collection are packed with terrific shorts, including two that won the Oscar for best animated short feature. Once Burness permanently took the character over from Hubley, he sanded off many of Magoo’s rough edges. This could have been a detriment for a character with such a specific—and political—point of view, but the cartoons Burness produced around the middle of the decade represent some of Magoo’s finer moments. The UPA house style was always more abstractionist in terms of animation and design than other studios, and the world of Magoo sometimes seems like a collision of shapes and forms that inadvertently form people, buildings, or animals. Burness wedded this to a healthy dose of ridiculousness, a sense of the preposterous that meant Magoo and his nephew, Waldo, could do just about anything and go just about anywhere. Making him a successful actor allowed him to participate in scenarios he wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Magoo, conceived of as a character at least slightly more realistic than a talking rabbit, ended up being as versatile as Bugs for a short while.
That while was sadly too short. The last disc of cartoons here—to say nothing of the single theatrical feature, 1,001 Arabian Nights—is much more hit or miss, as Burness and the UPA team bump up against the limitations of the character and formula. After a while, the endless iterations of Magoo cheerfully wandering into danger because he can’t see properly start to get wearing, and there are only so many times Magoo can befriend a deadly animal because he thinks it’s a close personal friend or family member before the gag becomes threadbare. UPA was also frantically trying to stay open at this point in time, and the later cartoons become more slapdash—nothing like, say, 1954’s Academy Award-winning “When Magoo Flew,” a wonderfully silly and inventive tale that imagines just about everything that could happen to Magoo on an airplane. (Fittingly, he thinks he’s at the movies.)
Yet Magoo endures to this day because of something seemingly unintended—even at a point when the character is meant to be poking fun at a very specific brand of American intolerance and overreaching, Magoo speaks to that sense in all of us that kicks in when we wind up somewhere we’re not supposed to be but don’t want to let on that we’re utterly lost. In the late cartoon “Magoo’s Homecoming,” the protagonist heads back to his beloved alma mater, Rutgers, and wanders into the elephant house of a local zoo, thinking it’s his old dorm. Staring at an elephant’s butt, he opines about how the view is just as beautiful as ever, and the gag—like so many in these shorts—gets at something elemental. How much of life is getting somewhere, realizing you’re in way over your head, then pretending to marvel at the beauty of that big, gray behind? Magoo may not have much, but he has his self-certainty. And in that way, he speaks to everybody else who’s in out of their depth but keeps swimming.