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  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Ben and Me - 4th of July Review

What was your first experience catching on to the legacy of our Founding Fathers? I’ll wager that we first got acquainted with them and their breakthrough contributions to America through history classes in school. Or maybe Schoolhouse Rock, if anyone was lucky enough. Still, the Founding Fathers deserve to be recognized as the pioneers that they were. Watching the newer generations grasp the gravitas of their monumental efforts always makes me feel a sense of pride for them.


So, what would happen if you took one of those Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, and gave him a tiny compatriot: a mouse who helped him become a Founding Father in the first place?


That’s where Ben and Me comes in.



In 1745, leaving his old home in a Philadelphian church to seek out bigger opportunities, Amos Mouse went searching for another place to rest, with barely any luck, before settling on Benjamin Franklin’s admittedly rundown bookkeeping shop. After he and Benjamin Franklin met, Amos quickly steered him on the right path with useful advice, some of which evolved into several of Benjamin Franklin’s more famous creations, from the Franklin Stove to the bifocal glasses and even The Pennsylvania Gazette. Once their first paper became a success, their partnership continued to flourish, and Ben became gradually recognizable among the American public while continuing to do wonders with Amos.


However, not all was as rosy with them as expected. Benjamin Franklin and Amos’ partnership started to hit rocky terrain when Ben became too invested in his own inventions, especially concerning electricity, which almost put Amos’ life in jeopardy. Ultimately, their partnership ground to a dead halt after Amos left Benjamin for being put through a dangerous situation involving Benjamin Franklin’s famous experiment of harvesting electricity through kite-flying underneath a thunderstorm. Worse still, it occurred before protests and rebellions against the King of England were at their peak. Would Ben and Amos have ever found a way to rekindle their friendship? And what would they have done that would’ve shaped the identity of their home country altogether?


Released in 1953 alongside one of Walt Disney’s documentaries, The Living Desert, and based on the children’s story by Robert Lawson, this story took American History and amped it up a notch with whimsical elements to offer a more lighthearted account of one of the most famous Founding Fathers who ever lived. However, this featurette slipped under the radar of most Disney fans, especially average viewers, because it didn’t have very many standout elements that gave Disney its household name. Outside of the mice - I’ll get to that very shortly - the featurette was primarily an animated retelling of the Colonies on the verge of breaking free from the King of England’s rule and forging their own government and country. It seemed more like general moviegoers’ stuff, but not with many of the unique elements that Disney’s known for. But you know something? While there are some things about this featurette that work and others that might not, the way it explored American History with one of our Founding Fathers at its center almost makes it look like it doesn’t get enough recognition, and I don’t think it ever has so far. There’s so much good stuff going on here that I’m surprised that Disney managed to create something like this, let alone something as effective as what Ben and Me turned out to be.


The whimsical elements thrown into this picture may draw children in, but it felt surprisingly subdued, and in some ways, they jibed with the more sophisticated aspects of the story quite well. It’s not like Disney’s Pocahontas, where, despite its artistic strength, its child-friendly aspects and historical representations either didn’t jibe well or reflect how it happened. And it’s especially nothing like The Magic Voyage, where its attempts to introduce Christopher Columbus to a younger audience just crashed and burned. Here, they all worked off each other swimmingly.


Yes, Ben and Me took some liberties with its historical representation so that it’d fit Amos Mouse into the equation. On top of that, think about this. Mice live no longer than three years on average, Benjamin Franklin married and had children before he helped sign the Declaration of Independence, he published The Pennsylvania Gazette before publishing Poor Richard’s Almanac - not after it - and among his contributions that Ben and Me never highlighted were the inventions of the post office, the public library, and the fire department.


But for what it’s worth, Ben and Me kept Benjamin Franklin and the Colonies’ sense of integrity intact while making Amos Mouse feel like he was part of something promising and patriotic.


First, this special did pay brief attention to Benjamin Franklin’s more famous contributions and inventions. The bifocals, the Franklin Stove, Poor Richard’s Almanac, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and even Ben’s experimentations with electricity were all spotlighted and focused on enough to highlight his inventive side without losing track of his and Amos’ friendship. It did a good job of being a tad educational about its subjects concerning Benjamin Franklin and American history while balancing it with good storytelling and even dramatic intrigue to keep the featurette engaging.


Speaking of which, there’s more than one version of Ben and Me. The first one, arguably the definitive one, lasted about 20 minutes and highlighted Amos and Ben’s story from beginning to end. However, in the Mini Classics VHS and the Disneyland episode ‘The Liberty Story,’ Ben and Me came with a five-minute prologue highlighting Amos Mouse’s ancestry, going as far back as 1568 in England. It generally felt inconsequential to the story on a larger scale. It felt like it was there to highlight how some of Amos’ ancestors were borderline risk-takers themselves, including Jason Mouse, who, with his family, unknowingly fled to America on the Mayflower and eventually landed on Plymouth Rock. In retrospect, though, the last portion of this prologue would’ve added another good chunk of historical lessons to take out of this. I can think of no other animated media that highlighted this outside of either Schoolhouse Rock or even ‘The Mayflower Voyagers’ from This is America, Charlie Brown.


While my mind is still fresh on this, let me tell you of one experience I had with it. I was just in the early stages of high school, and it was then that I watched this featurette in my own time. However, the more I acknowledged the featurette’s artistic merits, not to mention its historical aspects, the more I greatly appreciated it. I eventually took it upon myself to personally request my US History teacher to show this as part of our studies in American history. In retrospect, of course, maybe we weren’t the right age to watch a featurette like this. And trust me; you’re talking about the same kind of class who was well-acquainted by then with more mature films as part of class work. Good Night and Good Luck, The Long Walk Home, Hotel Rwanda, Pirates of Silicon Valley, and even The Pursuit of Happyness were among such movies we’ve seen for class viewing. Ben and Me, by comparison, felt like it was meant more for middle school than high school. But we still went through with it, not just because it made for good entertainment as the class neared its end, but because I noticed nuggets of valuable history lessons in the featurette that felt apropos to what was being taught around that time. My classmates and I didn’t finish the last 3 or 5 minutes of this featurette before class wrapped up, but from what I could show of it to them, I bet it at least amounted to something unexpected, regardless.


Getting back to Ben and Me, let’s pay attention to the aspects thereof that made it so wonderful.


One is the animation. As is expected from Walt Disney and his animated repertoire, Ben and Me came with plenty of distinct and expressive animation custom-made for each character in the story. And the backgrounds carried a more folksy, almost picturesque quality that conveyed Philadelphia’s optimistic atmosphere and the murkiness that lurked when the chaos of the forthcoming riots and rebellions that would’ve led to the Revolutionary War started spilling in.


Of course, a good portion of its animation seemed too familiar. When I first saw Amos Mouse, I could tell he was animated by the same animators who did the mice in Cinderella. And, at one point, during Ben and Me’s prologue highlighting Amos’ ancestry, the mice and even some of the cats they ran into shared the same likenesses as either Cinderella’s mouse companions or Lucifer the Cat. Half of the other cats in Ben and Me were different, but it’s still worth noting.


Nonetheless, it doesn’t diminish its overall effect on the featurette. Likenesses notwithstanding, Amos felt distinct enough to be judged accordingly to his own merits, and all the other characters, like Benjamin Franklin, were perfectly expressed to hone a more simplified portrayal of some of America’s biggest historical icons.


Two, the voice acting. All the voice actors carried a semblance of familiarity while dishing out the right inflections and tones necessary to convey more naturalistic expressions underneath Ben and Me’s family-oriented flair.


Bill Thompson, who you might recognize as the Dodo from Alice in Wonderland, did the tour guide’s voice at the beginning and end of the featurette, as well as that of Governor William Keith. With both characters, he conveyed them with a dash of class and a cheerful nature. He did a good job with the class already as Dodo, but it felt most appropriate for Keith, for Thompson’s expressions gave him a pleasant demeanor that complimented his social status.


Thomas Jefferson appeared at the end of Ben and Me and was voiced most convincingly by Hans Conried, or, as he’s more famously known, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook from Peter Pan. Vocal familiarities aside, he gave off a more down-to-earth and equally distinguished take on Thomas Jefferson as he struggled with how to start what would eventually have become the Declaration of Independence.


Overall, the voice acting applied to the minor characters throughout the featurette also felt terrific. There wasn’t one voice performance that felt off-key; the roles were each played most efficiently and in a way that complimented the setting as much as they did the characters.


Of all the actors in this featurette, the most natural sounding was Charlie Ruggles as Benjamin Franklin. His normal and almost pleasant vibes infused an American icon like Benjamin Franklin with personality and warmth. Even when things started going south for him and Amos, or when he rose to fame and became the Founding Father that he was, Ruggles still gave him enough personality to keep him entertaining through his ups and downs. Ben started as an everyman who started low but was later on his way to becoming one of the chief pioneers of American freedom, and you can feel it through Ruggles’ performance.


And then, you have Sterling Holloway as Amos Mouse. And I’m just going to say it: the tone and deliveries of his voice performance were just perfect.


With Amos Mouse’s likenesses matching those of Cinderella’s mice, including Jacques and Gus, you’d think he’d have spoken with an equally cutesy voice. But no, what you hear instead is a more thoughtful, mature, and elegant voice highlighting Amos’ sense of knowledge, astuteness, and vulnerability. His vocal performance helped make Amos feel like he truly belonged in the pages of American history with his more confident expressions and fitting attire. You can say this character reflects the featurette altogether: cutesy and entertaining on the outside but engaging and surprisingly dignified on the inside.


Now, how about the characters? Where do they lie in all of this?


Amos Mouse was an insightful, knowledgeable, and observant mouse determined to excel at whatever he did. Of course, being a mouse, he had to avoid being noticed by other people before and after he ran into Benjamin Franklin. As Amos puts it, mice were “a downtrodden race.” I can barely find any faults with this character in terms of his personality, though that could be a turnoff since it makes him look too righteous and ahead of his time. But I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s his design, or Holloway’s voice, his goals, achievements, or whatever. But altogether, they added up to an astounding character whose methods of helping Benjamin Franklin still felt enticing enough to lend some value to him, despite his potential shortcomings. And while he’s thankfully no puppeteer, Amos is a rare example of the type who steers people into greatness with their best interests at heart…unlike several politicians nowadays.


Benjamin Franklin was sort of a bumbling man who was skillful with his printing business and even his own inventions, but not on paying his rental bills, before Amos Mouse walked in. From there, he became enthralled by Amos’ ingenious ideas and worked off them as the two of them went along. However, when Ben had his things to worry about that didn’t have Amos in mind, like his inventions with electricity, he expressed a slightly sneaky demeanor to him that put him at odds with Amos from time to time. That tells me that while he was seemingly unskilled in a few aspects, he’s still talented in others. Now, I can imagine some people feeling a little turned off by this as it showed a more, not desecrating but rather aloof representation of one of America’s Founding Fathers. The idea of Benjamin Franklin having received his ideas of some of his inventions from Amos Mouse might not help, either. But heck, for all I know, even Benjamin Franklin might have not been perfect, despite him being undeniably a revolutionary. It’s just that I don’t know exactly how imperfect he was, especially when compared to the Benjamin Franklin of this featurette. And I may as well throw this out: anyone who thinks that because some of the Founding Fathers had slaves, they were automatically evil, is completely misunderstanding them as people. But regardless, Benjamin Franklin was portrayed as being a bit goofy, but not excessively so, and he still had enough likable and inventive qualities to showcase him as a budding Founding Father, and to not make Amos Mouse look like he was pulling all the strings concerning Benjamin Franklin. If anything, Amos contributed to some of Ben’s inventions, many of them by coincidence, while Ben played his own hand on the rest, resulting in a back-and-forth process going on with them. The featurette even showed that after he and Amos parted ways, Ben likely carried on what Amos left him with for many years, rising to be established among the American elite and becoming the Founding Father as we know him in the process. Only when things were getting too overwhelming for him did he attempt to patch things up with Amos and ask him to return. So, Benjamin Franklin felt portrayed just right in the story.


Whenever I rewatched or reflected on Ben and Me, its child-friendly images balanced out with its more mature themes always left me awestruck. There’s something about not only Ben and Me but also Disney’s take on such tales as Paul Bunyan and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that offer a deft blend of Disney’s lighthearted and bouncy imagery with the subtle and more robust elements of historical Americana. Looking at all these featurettes makes me wish they were feature-length films because who knows how much of an audience they would’ve drawn in? And I don’t mean just families.


In Ben and Me’s case, it would’ve been nice to see the rodent’s issues, the issues centered around him and his family, the man who met the mouse, his problems, his connections, and the like. But thankfully, there already is a film like that. Before I tell you what it is, did any of what I’ve laid out concerning Benjamin Franklin and Amos’ relationship ring any bells to you?


Yep, it’s because it coincidentally resembles one of my all-time favorite movies from Disney and in general, Ratatouille.


Like Ben and Me, Ratatouille also detailed the rise and occasional fumbles concerning a partnership between a man and a rodent and how the rodent, Remy, helped the man, Linguini, rise to fame. You know, I find it strange how some of my favorite and most generally mature of Disney’s properties happen to involve a man in cahoots with a rodent. You’d normally describe that about Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.


SPOILER ALERT


Getting back to Ben and Me, I also like how the ending was open to interpretation. For example, when Amos wrote out his contractual agreement with Benjamin Franklin, he was about to read it when Thomas Jefferson approached Ben about the beginning of the otherwise finished Declaration of Independence. And when Benjamin Franklin, during Thomas’ struggles, began reading out Amos’ document at his request, it started off with…


When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary…


…which was just the inspiration Thomas needed to polish up the remaining beginning portions of the Declaration of Independence. And when you see Benjamin Franklin reading Amos’s contract to himself while Thomas Jefferson continued churning out from his head the Declaration of Independence, suddenly Amos’ contract transitioned into the written Declaration of Independence as Thomas Jefferson read it out to Congress. You can look at this more than one way. Was it that Amos’ contract with Benjamin Franklin just happened to match what Thomas Jefferson meant to write as part of the Declaration of Independence? Or did the first few words that Ben read off Amos’ contract happen to match the beginning words of the Declaration of Independence while the rest of his contract differed from it? Much like many of Amos’ suggestions to Ben earlier, this long-term contribution felt like it occurred out of coincidence.


Also, throughout the featurette, it seemed as if no one knew about Amos Mouse’s existence outside of Benjamin Franklin. So, then, also at the beginning and end of the featurette, where did his statue come from? That’s never touched upon anywhere in the featurette, but its setup also seemed open-ended. It’s possible that only the neighboring mice caught on to his influence and erected a statue of him in his honor. Or… because his statue was on top of Benjamin Franklin’s statue, exactly where he would’ve been anyway, it may have been that the humans eventually caught on to his contributions and paid tribute to him the same way. Of course, judging from Amos’ statue’s position on Benjamin Franklin’s statue from the human point of view, it may be that the humans must never have caught on to Amos’ involvement after all. You never know, but I love how that was toyed around with.


SPOILERS END


All in all, this featurette is just awesome. The voice acting is strong, the animation is crisp, the backgrounds are lush and laid-back, and its historical application serves as a perfect window with which to introduce American history, especially for kids. Rather than toss aside every historical representation of Benjamin Franklin or ditch the child-friendly elements that would have come with this story, this featurette did a terrific job of maintaining the best aspects of both and had them surprisingly tie this featurette together. Yes, I have shown it late in school to my classmates, but is there any other reason I would’ve shown it to them? The level of sophistication spread out across this featurette gives it a more dignified posture even among Disney’s animated offerings. Of all of Disney's featurettes, Ben and Me is one of my personal favorites, and also one of its more sorely underrated.


Happy 4th of July, and may Disney’s more overlooked material be given the attention they deserve, from sea to shining sea!


My Rating

A low A



Additional Thoughts


— Having familiarized myself with Ben and Me through its Mini Classics VHS release and comparing it to Ben and Me’s presentation within ‘The Liberty Story’, I discovered two of Amos’ ancestors that the Mini Classics VHS never addressed. The first was inconsequential, just a brief – even by Amos – overview of an ale house mouse named Lucius, who was contemptuously dismissed as a drunkard.


But the second was named Geoffrey, who left his family to nestle among the royal family of England and harvest off their royal feasts’ crumbs. Of course, he relished them too much, for he fattened himself up and became, as Amos put it:


…like so many of his colleagues, a victim of Elizabeth, the headsman’s cat.


To me, this exposition of Geoffrey, his habits, and demise felt darkly humorous.


— If you look closely at the quotes hanging above Amos and his family’s beds back in their church home, they turn out to be famous quotes that Benjamin Franklin penned for Poor Richard’s Almanac.

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