The fun thing about doing research for this sort of thing is surprising yourself. I’ve seen this cartoon probably at least a hundred times in my life, what with the early childhood Disney Channel and all, and I just right now looked up who played Joseph for the first time. “Gordon Jump . . . I feel I should know that name. Thumbnail’s too small . . . Mr. Carlson?” And frankly, aside from that, the man’s career is pretty dire; I am strangely intrigued by “Mormon Temple Film” from 1969, but almost everything else he’s done, I can give a miss.
A nameless boy (Sean Marshall) is working on the family farm in Galilee, where he cares for the donkeys. The eldest of the four, Small One (Clarence Nash), is growing incapable of doing even a lesser amount of work, and the boy’s father (Olan Soule) says the donkey must be sold. The boy insists that he will do it himself, hoping he will be able to find a kindly owner who will take in an elderly donkey who cannot earn his keep doing heavy work. But of course the only one who wants him is a tanner, until the end of the film when a kindly man promises that the work of bearing his pregnant wife to Bethlehem won’t be too hard for the donkey.
It’s the last thing Don Bluth did for the studio, and it definitely looks like his work. If you grew up, as I, on The Secret of NIMH and An American Tale, you’ll be familiar with the style. It’s not bad, mind; I have no problem with the art. Especially considering when it falls in the Disney era. But it’s like when I figured out that the reason so much Disney animation resembled children’s books I loved was that Bill Peet had worked for Disney. This may, in fact, have been part of how I learned about artistic style as a kid.
Apparently, it’s the first Disney cartoon to have explicitly Jewish characters. I don’t think it’s their Jewishness that makes them so unpleasant, for all I’m not sure what the bankers are doing there at all other than padding out the runtime. No, the boy doesn’t look particularly Semitic, but his father definitely does, as does Joseph at the end. And if the father is morally neutral—he may love the Small One, but he’s a lot more aware of realities than his son, and after all he doesn’t just say the donkey will be sold to the tanner without a discussion—Joseph is of course Saint Joseph, for all that implies.
It also does have explicitly religious themes, which is also rare. Perhaps not as much so as the current Wikipedia page for it would have you believe, where it actually says the other donkeys know the boy “represents a forerunner of the Christ in the tradition of John the Baptist,” but still. Again, Saint Joseph brings the story to its satisfying close. The boy may not be John the Baptist, but still.
I’ve always had a fondness for this particular short, which is not terribly well known so far as I can tell. It may not exactly be Au Hasard Balthazar, but it’s also a reminder that this was an animal who put in a lifetime’s work and then could not be supported by the people who were expected to care for him. There was no pleasant putting of the donkey out to pasture, and that’s disheartening. Heck, I was thinking about it, and while there are some cultures that eat horse, I don’t know of any that eat donkey. So basically, most of him would be wasted, and his skin would work as long as it could. Donkey leather is probably not the most delicate stuff in the world.
Help keep my own family going; consider supporting my Patreon!