Retro Rewatch – “Donald in Mathmagic Land”

“Math is for eggheads!”

Yeah, and it doesn’t have any practical applications once you’re out of school, right?  It’s just like science – once you’re not learning about it, you don’t really need it.

Now, I admit, I never liked Math (or Science).  I did well with both subjects until 8th grade, but struggled once I got to high school.  Where I was a solid A/B student in English/Literature and History, I was more along the lines of a B/C+/C student in Math and Science.  Don’t get me wrong, I find concepts of both subjects interesting as an adult, but when I was in school, I was frustrated constantly.  I loved how equations looked and loved working on solving them.  That was usually where I did ok.  Word problems, however, are the worst.  My high school required three years of math, with the maximum requirement being Algebra 2.  You just hoped you could start Algebra 1 in ninth grade so you could finish the math requirement, as mandated by the state of New Jersey, during junior year.  No Pre-Calculus or Calculus for me – I was done with Math!

As for Science, again, love the concept of science, loved 3-2-1 Contact as a kid, but it frustrated me.  I did well in ninth grade science – it was a introduction to Biology and Chemistry (I think it was called Bio/Chem Tech), but it was so much fun, and I was a solid A/B student.  We had a great teacher and once in a while, we got to watch Bill Nye The Science Guy when it was relevant.  However, once I got to Biology in 10th grade (and the dreaded Chemistry in 11th grade), I struggled.  I never got anything above a C in Chemistry.  I loved my teacher, and he seemed to understand that not everyone was good at the subject, but he would work with the ones who struggled the most.  I was grateful for him, but Chemistry was the final required Science class in New Jersey, so yeah, I didn’t move on to Physics.

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11th grade (1999-2000). And yes, my hair really was that long!

During college, I had to take (for non-major requirements) two Math classes.  In my case, it wound up being three, as my SATs put me in a workshop/basic skills Math class for my first semester.  I actually liked that class, it was like Pre-Algebra, but not taught by the former nun I had in eighth grade.  We also met regularly one-on-one with the professor, and she was a nice, very approachable person.  She knew why we were there, and was great with us.  And the next class I took, which was the first required class everyone at college had to take (can’t remember the name of it), was actually fun.  By the time I got to the Algebra 1-level class I *chose* to take (there were other classes, this one sounded interesting to me), I loved Math.  Where I struggled in high school, I excelled in college.  It was 1000-level Math, but still, I loved it, and I was actually good at it!

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College graduation (2005)

My college also required one science-type class, so I took one that I had heard so many amazing things about – Atom, Man, and Universe.  It was a 200-student class (no social distancing there!), taught in a theater-style classroom by this adorable older gentleman from Israel.  He was wonderful, and the material was so interesting.  I got a B in the class, but I felt like I learned so much, and grasped it.

These days, my favorite kind of science involves planetariums and museums, and my favorite kind of math involves practical applications.  While there were times I certainly thought “I’ll never use this again,” it was a teenage mentality and it certainly is not the truth.

The best kind of math and science, for me, is the surprise kind.  Where you didn’t think you’d learn either subject, it comes out of its way to teach you something.  That type of “surprise Math” is the basis for a very entertaining – and educational – short from 1959, featuring someone else who believed there was not actual use for Math.  It’s also my Retro Rewatch for this week!

A “Mighty Strange” Place

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Donald In Mathmagic Land is a 1959 short film by Walt Disney, released theatrically on a bill with Darby O’Gill and the Little People.  The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and made available to schools beginning in the 1960s, considered to be one of the most popular educational Disney films ever made.

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Donald Duck is hunting, when he wanders into a “mighty strange” place – a land where numbers flow over waterfalls, trees with square roots, and then is encountered by a walking pencil that wants Donald to play Tic-Tac-Toe with it.  As he wanders further, a geometric bird recites all the numbers of Pi.  It is then that the unseen “True Spirit of Adventure,” merely a disembodied voice, welcomes Donald to Mathmagic Land and “the wonder of mathematics.”

Donald is immediately resistant to the whole idea, as “math is for eggheads.”  But the Spirit decides to strike a “chord” with Donald, by piquing his interest in music.

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Alright True Spirit of Adventure, you have him, he’s listening.

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The early origins of music, as created by Pythagoras and his contemporaries (and their “jam session”) in Ancient Greece, is explored.

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Music gives way to the pentagram, the golden section of the pentagram, and how it constructs golden rectangles, as well as the influence of the golden rectangle in ancient and modern cultures – construction of buildings, creating of paintings, and even dancing!

The golden rectangle isn’t just for construction of buildings, creation of paintings, and dance, but also to humans and nature – the “ideal proportions” of the human body fit the structure of the golden rectangle.

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Well, almost every body.  Not everyone is “mathematically perfect.”

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In nature, the pentagram is found in flowers and animals, with the golden section featured in nature’s designs.

From nature to games, Donald learned that mathematics plays a pivotal role in the games one plays, including chess (which features a nice nod to Alice in Wonderland), baseball (Donald loves this!), football, basketball, hopscotch, and three-cushion billiards.

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After some “mental housecleaning” of Donald’s antiquated ideas, bungling, false concepts, superstitions, and confusion, Donald plays with a triangle and circle in his mind, which gives way to the learning of how the two work together, spinning them into a sphere and a cone, and giving way to the invention of the wheel, magnifying glass, train, drill, spring, propeller, and telescope.

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Finally, Donald learns that pentagrams – and in turn, numbers – can be drawn into infinity – no paper is big enough to accomplish this, and that technological advances and scientific knowledge are unlimited.  The key to unlocking the future, the Spirit informs Donald, is mathematics.

With his newfound appreciation and knowledge of how math figures into everything (my aforementioned “surprise math”), Donald finds out that the doors to the future will be unlocked by the curious and inquiring minds of future generations.

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The True Spirit of Adventure ends the lessons with the words of Galileo:

“Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.”

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Because Math!

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My Reaction

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Donald in Mathmagic Land was released as part of Disney’s Mini Classics collection in 1988. I owned the VHS of this, along with Mickey and the Beanstalk.  I believe we had Wind in the Willows also, or in the very least rented it.  I do remember these Mini Classics very well.  The video went to a younger cousin when I was in my teens (as alot of my videos and clothes did), so I lost track of it for a few years in the 90s, until I was in high school.

My eleventh grade math class, Algebra 2, watched this movie on the last day before winter break.  This was in 1999, and prior to that, it had been at least five years (probably more) since the last time I watched this.  And it was the last time I saw it.  Not something I ever forgot, but not something I approached watching again.

Until this week.

I had a pretty good memory of the animation and the rectangles, as well as the billiard scene and live action band, so watching this again really jogged some good memories of watching this in my living room as a six-year-old.  I really enjoyed this back then, didn’t understand much of it, but as an adult, I get it.  The concept is simple – math is everywhere (even when you least expect it), and its hidden knowledge is waiting to be unleashed from behind a locked door and shared with the world.

The animation is just as beautiful as I remember it, very much on par with Disney animation of the time.  The music is whimsical and beautiful, and the sound effects – especially the ones used to highlight all the rectangles on the Parthenon in Athens, Greece – always got my attention.

Ding-ding-ding!

If any of the concepts were a little fuzzy from so many years of not watching this, the billiards scene is the one that I remember best.  At 4 minutes and 46 seconds, it is the longest of the “live action” segments, but has alot of detail and explanation as to how the game is played, and how the player figures out his strategy. Even as a kid, this was always fascinating.

I’ll be perfectly honest, as soon as the video got to the section on games, I said “the billiards segment!” out loud.  It just always has stuck with me.

I love this video, all of it.  It was good then, it was good as a teenager, and it is good now.  I had so much fun watching it on the treadmill – I actually thought it was longer than 27 minutes.  It made my workout go a little faster, which is not always a bad thing!

Watch Donald in Mathmagic Land

Even if you’ve seen it before, even if you don’t understand all the concepts of math (I don’t, but I get some of it), this is a fun watch.  I have the DVD of it (and I’ve converted it to digital), but it is also on YouTube.

Upload via TrueDisney

Remember, “Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe.”  It may not always seem like you need math, but it is always there, always advancing, always helping science – and life – advance.  And yes, you do need it.

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Because Math!

Have a great day!

2 comments

  1. I remember watching this in Jr. High I believe. When I first started reading your article, I kept thinking “I wonder if this is the one that uses pool to teach geometry” and it is! That’s the only thing I can remember about this video from having seen it probably more than 30 years ago (yeah I’m old). I still use some of the things taught when playing pool too. Good article, I’m glad I know where that segment came from too.

    Liked by 1 person

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