As Mickey Mouse was for the Depression and Bugs Bunny for World War II, so the acutely nearsighted Mr. Magoo was for the atomic age: An animated mascot, whose 53 theatrical cartoons have been repackaged in “Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection (1949-1959),” a four-DVD box from Shout! Factory.
His cheerful adenoidal mumble supplied by Jim Backus, Magoo was, along with Betty Boop and Popeye, one of Hollywood’s few human cartoon stars. The diminutive, permanently squinting codger made his debut in 1949, created by United Productions of America, an outfit which, largely staffed by dissident Disney animators, began by producing educational cartoons for the Navy and the United Auto Workers and distinguished itself from Disney naturalism with its flat, jazzy so-called limited animation.
The UPA style was not only innovative but also self-reflexive. Gerald McBoing-Boing, the studio’s other recurring character, was a toddler who created his own language out of sound effects, while Magoo’s poor vision produced a purely subjective world in which he freely confused animate beings and inanimate objects.
Magoo cartoons rarely share the protagonist’s hazy perspective with the spectator. Their humor is predicated almost entirely on his stubborn refusal to recognize his myopic mistakes. “They don’t make these gadgets like they used to,” he grumbles after drenching himself in an attempt to light his cigar with an old-fashioned seltzer siphon.
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The surreal substitution of Magoo’s perceived world for the actual one is reinforced by the cleverness of the visual analogies and the voluble character’s muttering commentary (much of it improvised by Backus). The degree to which Magoo lives in his head was made most explicit in the Oscar-winning “When Magoo Flew” (1955) wherein, wandering onto an airplane and even out onto the wings, he experiences the entire flight as a movie.
As conceived by John Hubley and Millard Kaufman, Magoo may have been a parody of a New Deal-era reactionary, the personification of shortsightedness.
“Use your eyes, boy!” he thunders in browbeating his hapless nephew and frequent foil, Waldo. Initially cantankerous, Magoo was softened as he became UPA’s mainstay and made lovable once the studio’s five-year contract with its distributor, Columbia, was renewed in 1954.
Magoo’s best cartoons are found on the Shout! set’s first DVD, although the second disc includes “When Magoo Flew” as well as the late masterpiece “Magoo’s Private War” (1957). Here, he plays an officious civil defense coordinator whose panic response is triggered by the premiere of a science-fiction movie. Most of the cartoon takes place inside the theater, where actual newsreel footage is juxtaposed with Magoo’s ineffectual if self-congratulatory attempts to organize a totally static audience. “Private War” coincided with an article by a Yale psychology professor, “Mr. Magoo as Public Dream,” proposing that in his inexplicable survival and unshakable denial, Magoo is us.