The Bootleg Files: Cow on the Moon

BOOTLEG FILES 746: “Cow on the Moon” (1959 animated short by Dušan Vukotić).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Most likely due to a problem with rights clearance.

Unlikely at this time.

During the mid-1950s, Yugoslavia began to make its presence known on the global cinema scene through the output of Zagreb Film, a Croatian-based studio specializing in offbeat animated shorts. At the time, animated shorts were still dominated by the Hollywood studios and their line-up of beloved zany characters. But the Zagreb Film animators slowly found their way into major film festivals and theatrical release thanks to inventive, stylish and subversively funny mini-productions.

One of the early triumphs of Zagreb Film is Dušan Vukotić’s 1959 short “Cow on the Moon.” In many ways, “Cow on the Moon” is surprisingly prescient because it deals with a pair of subjects that continue to dominate the conversation on youth education: bringing girls into STEM studies and dealing with bullies.

“Cow on the Moon” is very different from the Hollywood fare of that era because its hero is a book-smart young girl who is engaged in creating her own spaceship. Although she is given stereotypical eyeglasses to symbolize her intelligence, she is also a cute little moppet.

The villain of the piece is a taller and older boy who is first seen bouncing a soccer ball on his rear end, then sitting on the ball as it bounces along, and then somehow getting his head stuck inside the ball while it bounces along – this makes him look like a giant exclamation point as it springs along to a jaunty-jazzy score.

The boy’s clumsiness is noticed by the smart girl, who has a red dress and large matching red bow atop her blonde hair. She laughs briefly at what she’s witnessed, but then goes back to her work of constructing a scale model of a rocket ship. A large blueprint of the spacecraft is tacked to a tree over her outdoor drawing board.

The boy takes the scale model and bounces it about his body in the manner that he bounced the soccer ball, pausing to pull the girl’s bow. He then sends it flying into the air and watches it smash into pieces on the ground. Smugly satisfied at his mischief, he saunters away.

One might assume the little girl would cry over the humiliation, but instead she briefly scowls and ponders revenge, beaming as her plan immediately hatches. She fills a wagon with wood and a large glass bowl and starts to pull it out of a barn and down a road. In a bizarre sight gag, she steps out of the framed format of her surroundings and tilts the image, which allows the wagon to careen down a hill without her needing to drag it. She jumps back into the frame and drives the wagon to a place where she builds a giant wooden spaceship that she paints purple.

The nasty boy tries to disrupt her work by fooling with the ladder she is working on, but his efforts are in vain. To his chagrin, he realizes the girl has created a rocket that is going to the moon, and the girl will be its history-making pilot. He removes her from the craft and tried to put on the large glass bowl, thinking it is an astronaut’s helmet – the girl helpfully runs a rolling pin across his head in order to get it to fit into the helmet.

The joke, of course, is that the spacecraft isn’t flying into the heavens. Once he is secured inside, the girl puts the rocket on a wagon and takes it along a rocky road to a desolate plain. The boy emerges thinking he is on the moon, and he imagines a wandering cow to be an extra-terrestrial. The girl dresses in oversized gloves and socks and wears a metal bucket over her head pretending to be a hostile alien, scaring both the boy and the cow.

Of course, the trickery can only last for a finite amount of time – the short is only 10 minutes in running time – and “Cow on the Moon” fizzles in bringing its fun story to a close. Nonetheless, it is a fresh and innovative consideration of how wily brainpower can casually dilute the threats from coarse cruelty.

Vukotić doesn’t use dialogue in his short – this certainly helped in selling it to international markets, thus sparing the need for dubbing. Much of the film’s charm is rooted in the energetic music composed by Stipica Kalogjera, who perfectly frames the playfully rude personality of the boy and the surprisingly devious nature of the girl while lacing the short with surprise flourishes – most notably a sampling of Bizet’s “Toreador Song” when the title cow is provoked by the flash of a red cape.

“Cow on the Moon” was released in U.S. theaters by Kingsley International and was submitted for consideration in the 1960 Academy Awards competition for Best Animated Short, but it was not nominated. One year later, Vukotić’s “Erstat” (released in the U.S. as “The Substitute”) won the Oscar, becoming the first European animated film to receive the coveted prize.

Today, sadly, “Cow on the Moon” is little known beyond die-hard animated addicts. Film historian Jerry Beck has sung its praises, referring to it as “a mash-up of UPA, Tex Avery and Ward Kimball” while declaring “I love this film. A pleasure to watch … Beautifully animated in pantomime, timed to the music, with stretch and squash, funny drawings, offbeat character design and frequent breaking the fourth wall.”

“Cow on the Moon” is absent from U.S. home entertainment releases, and a not-pristine 16mm version can be found in an unauthorized YouTube posting. Nonetheless, this second-rate presentation of a first-rate entertainment is better than nothing, so find 10 minutes to enjoy this marvelous gem.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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