The Devil and Daniel Mouse

(2014 update: you can now get this on instant video!)

Dan and Jan Mouse are a couple of folk singers struggling through the late 1970s, when folk was passe, in this Canadian special that deserves to be rediscovered. When Dan and Jan are fired from the last folk club in town, Jan sits down and says "I'd give ANYTHING to be a rock star."

On cue, the devil arrives with a contract in hand, which he asks her to sign in blood. She signs without waiting for Daniel, who has gone to pawn his guitar, and is soon singing dance rock songs with her new band - Funky Jan and the Animal Kingdom. The disco party, usually an ending scene, comes in the FIRST act of this Halloween special.

Of course, any idiot ought to know that a devil's bargain is a fool's bargain. After Jan sings a terrific (and quite apropos) song called "Can You Find My Soul" at a concert, the devil arrives to collect his due - under the terms of the contract, on midnight of the night of her greatest triumph, Jan is required to render up her soul.

Given until midnight to say her good-byes and come to terms with her own shortcomings, Jan runs into Dan, who is still playing folk and demands that the devil give Jan a trial. The devil calls a jury including crooked record execs, agents, and bitter former singers. Dan, who finds that he has a natural talent as a lawyer, closes with a song, "Look Where the Music Can Take You" (his singing voice was provided by John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful).

I LOVE a good Faust story, and I can't believe this animated adaption of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" slipped under my radar for so long (it WAS Canadian, and didn't attract much notice here in the states, I guess). This is a a standalone special with a decent visual style, a good script that doesn't pussyfoot around, and TERRIFIC music. It's not afraid to be scary from time to time, either. I wish it'd been feature length; the 25 minute runtime just doesn't give it a lot of breathing room. The story comes off as a little bit rushed, but many of the scenes are great. I also like that they managed to do it without getting even slightly preachy about religion, which I was afraid was going to happen in any cartoon where the lesson was not to mess with the devil. As it turns out, the lesson is "music can save your soul, and a song from the heart beats the devil every time," which I just LOVE, and which would actually tick the religious right off.

There are a couple of other Halloween cartoons that take "The Devil and Daniel Webster" as an inspiration - in The Pinky and the Brain Halloween Episode, the Brain challenges the devil to rhythmic gymnastics instead of a trial. The Simpsons did it in Treehouse of Horror IV, probably the best of the series, when Homer sells his soul for a donut. Both of those are fairly brilliant parodies, but there's something to be said for playing the story straight, too. So many cartoons are afraid to be scary - this one isn't exactly terrifying, but they certainly decided to give the kids a little credit.

The piece was one of the first couple of cartoons produced by Nelvana, a Canadian company which went on to produce several Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake cartoons, as well as the "Ewoks" and "Droids" series, among other notable cartoons from the 80s and 90s, up through the present. The look of the weasels and birds in the show, along with the progressive values expressed, made me think that maybe, despite being Canadian, they also did The American Rabbit, the forgotten mid-80s feature that, now that I think of it, has kind of a Canadian feel to it (it's not a political movie, exactly, but it's FULL of left wing in-jokes about the evils of big businesses controlling the means of production, the virtues of workers getting organized, etc. The kind of stuff that would probably be easier to get away with in Canada) (yes, I know that most critics HATE The American Rabbit, but I have a soft spot for it and think they ought to re-watch it; as with E.T. most of the bad reviews I see are written by people who vaguely remember seeing it as kids.).

But, anyway, seeing as how Nelvana had nothing to DO with The American Rabbit, I'm veering way off topic. "The Devil and Daniel Mouse" was broadcast as a Halloween special in on October 22, 1978 on CBC in Canada, then released on VHS in the 80s. Their success with "The Devil and Daniel Mouse" led Nelvana to do a feature length rock cartoon, Rock and Rule, which features Catherine O'Hara, who is also in Witch's Night Out. A slightly trimmed version of "Daniel Mouse" is on the DVD as one of the "special features" - it's missing about two minutes.

You can also now get it via instant video!

Here's a "making of" documentary that's almost as long as the short! Oh, how I'd love to see a "making of" for some of these other specials, too!  (update: lo and behold, there are "making of clips" produced to promote the dvd of Witch's Night Out).


Belle Dee said...

I love Devil & Daniel Mouse. I loved it when I was a kid, and I love it now. I actually have a VHS tape that has this, plus 3 other original cartoons from Nelvana. They produced some fantastic work in their early years. I wish that all 6 of their 30 min. animated specials would be released to DVD.

Julie Arsenault said...

I loved this special after I watched in Junior High

C-Man said...

Daniel Webster Or Mouse


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