As Jim Korkis informed us last month, Walt Disney found great success with non-theatrical educational films, especially ones that could double as theatrical featuettes and eventual fodder for The Wonderful World of Color. Disney was already using Donald Duck in a group of educational (or “edu-tainment”) subjects for several years (including the classic Donald In Mathmagicland) by the time Donald and the Wheel made it theatrical debut (6/21/61 on the bill with The Parent Trap).
Donald and the Wheel is more ambitious (and entertaining) than it needs to be – but I guess that’s what makes it a Disney short. What’s most interesting about it is its use of live action. The film is narrated by two ghostly live action silhouettes representing “The Spirits of Progress Sr. and Jr.” (voiced by Thurl Ravencroft and Mel Leven). There is an interesting experimental use of xerography using live action cars when Donald’s on the freeway at the 8-minute mark, plus the use of some X. Atencio (uncredited) stop motion miniature wheel devices (at 10:52). Caveman Donald is also shown interacting with live figures – a throw back to The Three Caballeros as he goes ga-ga for a miniature live action ballerina.
It must have been hard for the publicity department to market a Donald Duck short that wasn’t a gag-filled short cartoon, and that featured Donald (for the most-part) as a caveman. The press book (below, click thumbnails to enlarge) plays up the special effects – and fact that the film uses “the revolutionary Xerox and Sodium Screen Processes together for the first time”.
I recall seeing this on the Disney Sunday night show as a child, shaking my head trying to understand it. Now I revel in it’s oddness. A strange film, but strangely entertaining.