In 1959, Walt Disney released what was called at the time an educational featurette. It’s what we would call a cartoon, and it went on to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.
In just 27 minutes this stunning film manages to convey visually – hardly an equation in sight – just how Mathematics flows through every aspect of our world. The movie effortlessly manages to connect Pythagorean mathematics to music theory. It demonstrates the quasi-mystic concepts of the pentagram, the golden section and the golden rectangle through examples in architecture and works of art such as the Mona Lisa. It also manages to show how structures in the human body and in nature as a whole conform to the laws of mathematics.
There isn’t a section of the film that does not employ sound educational practice. The opening sequence for instance, shows Donald turning up his nose when the narrator says that the film is about mathematics. Donald storms off, saying that mathematics is for eggheads.
The narrator points out to Donald that music is all about mathematics and because Donald likes music he is hooked. Thousands of children, perhaps millions over the years were similarly hooked from the outset.
Time and again the animators first use cartoon format to illustrate a mathematical principle and then step-by-step, transition to film of real-life events. In the case of the music section we are eventually shown a large jazz band in action. In this way the viewer is drawn from the abstract to the concrete.
Another section of the film offers deep mathematical insights into a variety of games from chess to billiards, helping us understand how these activities work.
What strikes you most forcibly is how fresh and original this cartoon is – how contemporary it still looks even after more than half a century. Certainly, the equations and theories which underlie mathematics are universal but it’s the creative way in which Disney’s animators used their artistic skills to expose mathematics wherever in the world it hid, that still impresses most.
There are some visual gags in there too: Trees in Mathmagic land have ‘square roots’.
The movie in its entirety is a great example of the admonition to ‘show, don’t tell’, demonstrating mathematical concepts with almost no need for words.
Another aspect of Disney’s genius here is that in using a cartoon he signalled to children and adults alike that mathematics, presented well, could be fun.
Here we are, fifty-six years after the launch of Donald in Mathmagic Land and the Disney Corporation is still at the forefront of educational movie making. In 2015 they launched their Imagicademy: a series of educational apps for Apple’s iPad, targeted at 3-8 year olds, focusing on early maths skills including counting, sorting, simple addition and subtraction.
The first title was Mickey’s Magical Maths World. Others are in the pipeline. An associated app for parents will allow mums and dads to see how their children are doing from their own devices.
Disney’s transition from those long-ago days of labour-intensive cartoon making – Pinnochio is a good example of the sheer volume of hard work needed in those days to make a cartoon – to today’s digital revolution, has been nothing short of brilliant.
I have one criticism and it’s a picky one – I have never found Donald Duck’s voice easy to understand and this hampered my viewing. Overall however, this is a gem of a movie, deserving of its Academy nomination and one I recommend you watch as soon as you can. Available on DVD here.