“Monsters University” has been out in theaters for a few weeks now and we can argue the merits of whether it works either as a sequel or its own piece of filmmaking. But, surprisingly, it seems as though the same applies to the short that appears before it. “The Blue Umbrella” has been described by Criticwire members as everything from “stunning” to “uninspired.” For those who haven't seen it, the short follows a blue umbrella who spots a potential companion red umbrella amongst the crowd of countless similar black ones. Once the two are separated, Mr. Blue must withstand more than just the rain to find her again.
But if you’re longing for a similar story from six and a half decades ago, look to a segment from another Disney film, “Make Mine Music.” Instead of a chance meeting of umbrellas on a busy street, “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet” begins with the titular pair of headwear meeting in a storefront display. Like “The Blue Umbrella,” the two are soon parted, leading the male counterpart to withstand tremendous uncertainty and physical torture on his quest to be reunited with his lost love. If you've never had the chance to see it before (and enjoy the accompanying shot of happiness to your soul), it's worth seven and a half minutes of your time.
A direct, one-to-one comparison of the two is a little unfair. Naturally, The Andrews Sisters’ song narration gives “Johnnie Fedora & Alice Bluebonnet” a little more character depth and a story that spans more than a single night. But the pair of shorts have a similar sense of danger. It would be cynical to expect anything other than the promise of a happy ending, but the love that either of these films get probably comes from the joy of overcoming the adversity of the human world. Also, in its day, “Johnnie Fedora & Alice Bluebonnet” wasn't universally loved either; Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called the segment "a silly romance."
Both of these shorts also share DNA with last year’s “Paperman,” a similar tale of finding an elusive love through throngs of indifferent people. All three prove Disney’s grand tradition of manipulating emotion through music. In “Paperman,” our hero’s search to find the woman from the next building builds to a frenzied effort, all scored to a pulsing sense of impending triumph (featured in the trailer below). Jon Brion follows up his absolutely stellar work on “ParaNorman” with a simple, yet effective score that captures the perfect tone for “The Blue Umbrella.” And there are few things more purely touching than Johnnie’s impassioned song, straining above the bustling city streets to find his lost Alice. (I...I’ve got something in my eye. Excuse me while I find a tissue.)
It’s interesting to note that “The Blue Umbrella,” with its simple story, still opted to make it a boy-seeks-girl narrative. It seems like the simple framework would have been ideal for flipping that traditional gender relationship. But, in terms of innovation, the real star of Pixar’s latest short is the technology. Come awards time, we’ll probably have the conversation again about whether visual innovation trumps story originality. In the meantime, those looking for a classic version of love between inanimate objects need only look to the past.