Ralph Phillips is bored, bored, bored. While his schoolmates mindlessly chant their math lesson (“Two and two is four. Four and four is eight …”), Ralph stares dreamily out the classroom window, imagining himself as a bird, flipping and flying freely through the sky–until his reverie is rudely interrupted by his teacher. She, for some inexplicable reason, expects Ralph to pay attention to his lessons, but how can he concentrate when there’s a whole new world to be explored through his oh-so-vivid daydreams …?
From A to Z-Z-Z-Z was released in 1953, at the height of Chuck Jones’ career with Warner Bros., and introduces a brand-new character to the studio’s animated roster. Ralph Phillips is an amalgamation of practically every child–male or female–to suffer through an endless school day. More than that, he is a childish take on the Walter Mitty archetype: an inconsequential dreamer who escapes reality through his imagination. In many ways, Ralph’s adventures are reminiscent of the adventures of another imaginative, Mitty-esque Ralph–Ralphie Parker, the child at the center of the seminal holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983): both characters engage in daydreaming to escape their boredom in school; both imagine themselves as brave conquerors of that which troubles them; both of them are in danger of “shooting their eyes out” (one from a series of makeshift, though imaginary, weapons; one, of course, from the infamous Red Ryder BB Gun).
The animation is this cartoon is utterly fantastic, as Ralph moves from scenario to scenario in his imagination. He floats through the sky with an impish grin; his chalk outline does battle with the day’s math lesson; an array of colorful arrows fly at him as he races across the desert to deliver a letter for the “Pony Express”; he single-handedly fights a “saber-toothed tiger shark” and raises a sunken Navy sub back to the surface; he enters the “boxing ring” and takes down a man four times his size with nary a bead of sweat. The backgrounds of the imaginative vignettes are beautifully detailed and appropriately exotic for each new scenario, contrasting with the bland, institutional design of the classroom scenes. The underwater scenes are particularly incredible (and strangely familiar–in some ways, they remind me of the backgrounds of the Nickelodeon cartoon Spongebob Squarepants).
It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of the voice work in this cartoon was not done by Warner Bros. stalwart Mel Blanc: the teacher is voiced by Bea Benaderet (the original voice of Granny before June Foray took over in 1955), and Ralph is voiced by Dick Beals. This was Beals’ first role as a cartoon voice-over artist, and his knack for capturing children’s voices (due in large part to a glandular problem) turned into a lucrative career (he would later go on to voice other memorable characters, including Davey in the Davey and Goliath series in the 1960s). Blanc, for his part, voiced the incidental characters in the cartoon, making the noises for the numbers, the Indians (a part of the cartoon, incidentally, that is still sometimes censored in broadcast airings, due to its perceived insensitivity toward Native Americans as well as the violence involved), and Ralph’s “fellow” Navy men.
This cartoon was always one of my favorites as a child, if only for that scene in which a chalk-outlined Ralph attacks the daunting math problem on the blackboard–literally, it turns out, as the problem-solving turns into a physical jousting match with a very determined number “5.” It’s a gentle yet effective poke at the struggle some of us have with math (it was always my worst subject, anyway), and Ralph’s “victory” over his numerical foes is nothing less than satisfying to watch, especially since he uses letters to ultimately conquer them (writer Michael Maltese was obviously a fellow word nerd. Die, numbers, DIE!).
From A to Z-Z-Z-Z was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film; in fact, it was the first nomination for the Warner Bros. studio in four years, since the Chuck Jones-directed For Scent-imental Reasons won the prize in 1949 (still, it lost to the Walt Disney educational cartoon Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom). Jones and Maltese brought Ralph back once more in the 1957 short Boyhood Daze, in which the character again indulges in multiple flights of fancy after being sent to his room as punishment. Additionally, around the same time as that second childhood appearance, a grown-up Ralph starred in two recruitment films that Jones directed for the Army–90 Day Wondering (1956–voiced by Blanc) and Drafty, Isn’t It? (1957–voiced by Daws Butler, the “Mel Blanc” of Hanna-Barbera). And in 1970, Ralph even had a vocal cameo in Jones’ theatrical adaptation of The Phantom Tollbooth (this time around, however, he was voiced by Foray). While Ralph may not be nearly as memorable a creation as many of his Warner Bros. brethren, From A to Z-Z-Z-Z remains an indelible portrait of the power of a young child’s imagination–and a very entertaining one, at that.
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