“Escalation”: This 1968 anti-war animated film by Disney legend Ward Kimball is as timely as ever

By on November 18, 2015

Our country seems to be always on the verge of getting into a another war, or perhaps escalating one of the wars we’re currently embroiled in, and that has reminded us more than once of Academy Award-winning Disney animation legend Ward Kimball‘s Escalation, his short anti-war film from 1968, which protested then-president Lyndon B. Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war.

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As you can see here, this short animated feature — which Kimball arranged to have screened at film festivals, and to receptive audiences on college campuses across the country — begins with a dove with a branch in his beak, flying upside down and backwards, before a giant statue of Johnson’s head is wheeled while we hear someone impersonating the president singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

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It goes one from there, with Johnson’s nose showing an obvious hard-on for war, before we flash on iconic images of American personalities — they go by fast, but you’ll be able to clearly see a Playboy bunny, John Wayne, Doris Day, Superman, Aunt Jemima, Lassie, Little Orphan Annie, others — mixed in with images of pure Americana, including a slice of apple pie, a hot dog, a bottle of Coke,  and lots of bare breasts. (This is where we should point out that the film is probably slightly NSFW, depending on where you work).

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There’s also lots of animated shots of bombs exploding, and an obvious escalation of war. You’re free to come to your own conclusions about what it all means, but we think you’ll probably come to the same conclusions that we did.

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We first came across this short film online a few years back, and it was said at the time that Kimball’s granddaughter, Laurey Kimball Boedoe, and other relatives of Kimball’s, had decided to put Escalation online, making it free for everyone to see, saying in an email to friends, “Our family thought it was time to put this short film out there for everyone to see since there are a lot of similarities to what is going on now.”

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Kimball, a lead animator at Disney, was one of the so-called “Nine Old Men” — along with Les Clark, Eric Larson, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, John Lounsbery, and Wolfgang Reitherman — and had directed Disney’s Oscar-winning experiment with stylized animation, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953).

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He also was involved in three Disney TV shows about outer space that put the United States into the space program (check out our feature on Mars here). He is probably best known, however, for animating Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, The Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, the Mice and Lucifer from Cinderella, and and the crows in Dumbo. Birds frequently made appearances in his films, it turns out — he even won the Academy Award for the short animated cartoon It’s Tough to be a Bird a year after this film was made (1969).

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He’d likely had to suppress some of his own ideas along the way, although Walt Disney had tremendous respect for Kimball, and had even called him a genius in the book, The Story Of Walt Disney. Still, they were likely polar opposites from each other, politically, from what we can tell.

By 1968, an national election year coming a few years after Walt Disney’s death (in 1966), he was venturing out on his own, and so Escalation should be seen as a personal and private Kimball film project, and not as a Disney short. It’s actually credited with being the only film made independently by one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. Kimball personally gave 16mm copies to friends and liberal-minded fans.

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Kimball continued to work at Disney up until the early 70’s, working on the Disney TV program, “Mary Poppins,” directing the animation for Bedknobs & Broomsticks and doing titles for some feature films like Million Dollar Duck (1971) and The Adventures Of Bullwhip Griffin (1967). His last staff work for Disney was producing and directing the Disney show, “The Mouse Factory.”

Kimball died in Los Angeles, California in 2002, at age 88. In 2005, the Disneyland Railroad named their newly-acquired Engine №5 as “Ward Kimball” in his memory. Kimball, in fact, had been one of the two animators at Disney who introduced Walt Disney to pleasures of operating a small-scale railroad (along with animator Ollie Johnston), and helped his boss install and operate Disney’s personal 1/8th scale live steam locomotive train that ran on a track in Disney’s Holmby Hills own backyard.

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Ward Kimball and Salvador Dalí

This clip below (shot on April 4, 1948) marks the first time that Ward Kimball and Walt Disney visited the home of Dick Jackson, a wealthy businessman who operated a scale-railroad in the backyard of his Beverly Hills home.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.