Who hasn’t seen at least one of the classic Donald Duck cartoons from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s? You know, the ones where, in the later cartoons, the theme says “Who never never starts an argument?”
Sadly, it seems that Disney has forgotten what made those so special. About 5 years ago, when I had the opportunity to borrow the Chronological Donald box set  , I saw that it ended with an example of a modern Donald Duck cartoon from Mickey Mouse Works which Leonard Maltin referred to as proof that Donald was still alive and well.
The problem was that, in that cartoon, we see Donald at the zoo, trying to take a picture of the Aracuan Bird for Daisy, while the Aracuan Bird keeps tormenting him… I felt sorry for Donald and that’s not supposed to happen!
What Disney seems to have forgotten is that classic Donald Duck cartoons are supposed to be a caricature of our own failings. That short felt more like a Warner Brothers cartoon in disguise.
I gave it some thought and I managed to come up with three rules:
1. Donald is the maker of his own misfortune
This rule is satirized right in the opening song. They sing about how Donald never loses his temper and so on, and Donald is listening and agreeing, but we all know how false that is.
Look at Donald trying to make waffles. What goes wrong? He leaves his scrapbooking rubber cement out and mistakenly uses it in the recipe… and why was he using rubber cement for scrapbooking in the first place?
What about getting into a fight with Huey, Dewy, and Louie? Same verditct. He starts it by smashing up their snowman with his toboggan and then refuses to concede defeat as things escalate.
Getting into a fight with a robot butler in a museum of modern marvels over whether he can keep his hat on? Not only is it stupid to argue with a machine, the jerk cheated the turnstile with a coin on a string!
2. Animals are innocent
Look at the cartoons. whenever Donald gets into a fight with an animal, he always throws the first punch. For example, look at when he goes on a picnic. Sure, the ants show up to cart off his food, but that’s just ants being ants! How does Donald respond? He provokes them by playing mean-spirited pranks on them.
Donald the Beekeeper? He keeps escalating the fight when the bees don’t take kindly to having their honey stolen. Donald the highway-builder, assigned to remove Chip and Dale’s tree? He pranks them when they mistake his steam shovel for a dragon.
This is the biggest mistake that the modern cartoon made. Warner Brothers has antagonistic slapstick between two characters who, if you really think about it, tend to be jerks. Disney is supposed to do better. (eg. Classic Pluto cartoons are caricatures of things you can easily imagine your dog actually doing. Classic Goofy cartoons began as parodies of wholesome father-and-son shows, then became parodies of “how to” videos.)
3. Inanimate objects are antagonistic
While you probably haven’t gotten mocked by a clock spring or taunted by a steam piston (“So!” “Ssssoooo what?”), we’ve all had those moments when we felt so frustrated because “Why won’t you just work!?“.
These moments are Donald Duck’s bread and butter, with inanimate objects like rocks, bike pumps, and machinery doing the wildly improbably or, sometimes, even the impossible in order to produce the most frustrating outcome for Donald Duck.
From a pebble under his camping cot getting thrown and landing in the one place where it can trigger a rock slide, to his rubber-cemented waffle batter behaving in a very familiar way to anyone who’s ever used a not-brand-new tube of rubber cement, Donald Duck spent a ton of time being a send-up to all of the little frustrations of day-to-day life.
So… how would I have done it?
The key is to make it completely clear that Donald’s troubles are his own damn fault.
After Daisy asked Donald for the picture, I’d have started with Donald getting frustrated with the view and deciding he knows better than the posted zoo rules… maybe climbing a tree or fence to get a better angle for the photo.
Then, when he encounters the inevitable pratfall, the Aracuan Bird can laugh along with the audience, egging Donald on further. From this point on, it’s clear that Donald’s at fault.
The episode could then take on that Roadrunner and Coyote-esque quality that happens when Donald provokes an innocent creature, except more focused on antagonistic inanimate objects since the Aracuan hasn’t truly been given cause to fight Donald.