Friday, November 28, 2008

Disney's Christmas Part 2 : Mickey's Orphans

If "Mickey's Good Deed" represents the good side of Christmas, with Mickey's benevolence being rewarded in the end, "Mickey's Orphan's" shows the opposite of the spectrum.

It might be an interesting theme for another post, but the lack of parental responsibility seems to be an ongoing motif throughout the shorts. The kittens that Mickey rescues have a close brotherhood with the mice orphans that appear in "Orphan's Benefit" and "Orphan's Picnic" and both sets are as ill-behaved. Maybe, as some have posted, it was Mickey's fault for giving them presents of instruments of mass destruction, but throughout the short they make Mickey, Minnie and Pluto's Christmas a living hell. And even at the end they completely destroy their Christmas tree without a sympathetic thought about what they are doing. It's fairly humorous in a bent sort of way but it does tend to leave a bad taste in one's mouth.

There are two valid connections that we can make. One is to the 1936 Fleischer cartoon "Somewhere in Dreamland" where the poor boy and girl are given their dreams come true, but are at least grateful for their patrons. The other is the 1952 Disney short "Pluto's Christmas Tree" where Mickey's tree is destroyed again (this time by Pluto and Chip 'n' Dale) but there is a trio of carolers afterwards who arrive at Mickey's front door to redeem the evening.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Disney's Christmas Part 1 : "Mickey's Good Deed"

I know it's a bit early for Christmas; we haven't even gotten to Thanksgiving yet. But I thought we'd get an early start and examine some of the Christmas themed shorts that Disney produced through the years. And since time seems to be against me (especially this time of year) we'd better get an early start.

"Mickey's Good Deed" was one of the first shorts where Disney dealt with Christmas specifically. (The first was the 1927 Oswald short "Empty Socks" which I have not had the chance to see and later "Mickey's Orphans" which we'll look at next week.) And it paints a fairly Dickensian view of the season with the poor and destitute helping each other while the rich get their just desserts. It begins with Mickey as a street corner musician playing his cello for what turns out to be a can full of nuts and bolts. To make matters worse, his cello gets run over by a passing car so even his last possibility of making any money to provide for himself at Christmas seems to be gone. But his love of Pluto is deep enough that when he is offered money for him, he refuses. At least for himself.

At this point it seems that Mickey has nothing. It's when he sees a family of destitute children and a weeping mom where his emotions overcome him and he realizes that there's one thing he has that they don't and that is hope. He sells the last thing he has, Pluto, to the rich family in order to provide a Christmas for the starving family. And at this point he really does have nothing in the way of tangible goods left to him.

Pluto, on the other hand, is ending up getting abused by the rich kid Adelbert. It's interesting to note the contrast between the poor kids who are grateful for the gifts given to them and the rich kid who has everything and is never satisfied with what he has. The father, finally tired of the abuse which reins him in as well, kicks Pluto out and gives the kid a well-deserved spanking. Meanwhile, Mickey is feeling a bit sorry for himself but then a newly freed Pluto finds him again. And with a turkey tied to his tail for dinner! So, Mickey's good deed ends up rewarding him in ways he didn't expect.

Why did this mean so much? Lee Suggs wrote in a comment:

Remember that the Christmas of 1932 was probably the worse time of the entire Great Depression. Hoover was still president, and it was probably impossible for most families to buy gifts for their children. They might not even be able to afford a Christmas Dinner. Most Americans must have felt pretty hopeless, and it must have seemed like things were never going to get better. Enter Mickey portrayed as one of them, in a situation similar to their own lives. By being selfless he is able to overcome his own hopeless situation to make a difference in someone else's life.

It's very heartwarming and it has a very simple moral: selfless good will be rewarded, evil will be punished. It didn't always end up that way though. Next week, in "Mickey's Orphans" we'll see how Mickey's big hearted ways turned on out just the opposite.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Identity Development

One theme that runs through a few of the Disney shorts (especially the later Silly Symphonies) is the idea of identity development. That is, that the lead character has to discover who he is and his place in the world. The paradigm for this idea is "The Ugly Duckling" made in 1931 and remade in 1939. The earlier version doesn't play much with the idea. It is simply the story of an outcast duckling who has to earn his place in his family by rescuing them from certain death. The later short, however, stays truer to the original story of a duckling who doesn't realize that he is going to grow into a beautiful swan.

"Elmer Elephant" is a good example of this. Elmer, teased unmercifully because of his big ears and prominent trunk is another outcast until he meets Joe Giraffe. Joe teaches him that he should be proud of who he is even though others may find him funny looking. And, indeed, it is because of his, the giraffe's, and the pelican's physically peculiarities that they are able to save Tilly Tiger from an all-consuming fire.

Another is "Lambert, the Sheepish Lion." A lion cub mis-delivered to a mother sheep, Lambert cannot understand why he is different from the other sheep. It is only after the flock is threatened by a wolf that he discovers his "lion-ness" and is able to use that to save the flock.

But the theme does have it's downside. There are also examples of where identity development shows characters trying to reach beyond what they were created for. In "The Country Cousin", Abner Countrymouse finds himself completely out of his element trying to fit in with the demands of city living and his attempts to grow beyond himself are thwarted. Of course, it would have also helped if he hadn't gotten drunk.

The theme reaches it's nadir, hoevever, in "The Flying Mouse." Here, a small mouse dreams of being able to fly. After saving a fairy, he is granted his wish for wings. But in the Disney universe that makes him "nothin' but a nothin'." It's rather sad that his dreams of reaching beyond what he was born with lead him to disaster. But it did give us a catchy little song, at least.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

... and the worst.

"The Simple Things" (1953)

I'm trying to keep this blog as positive as possible and highlight the good things that came out of the Disney studios. But since last time it was all about the best, I thought I might as well get this out of my system and showcase what was probably one of the worst.

And it makes it doubly tragic that this was Mickey's last short; Disney couldn't even let him go out with a bang. What the thinking behind it was,I can't even begin to guess. It certainly wasn't a lack of imagination on the artists part. This was the same year that saw the secellent "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" and the 3-D experiment "Working for Peanuts."

But by this time Mickey has become too bland to support a short on his own. It's sad, really.

Friday, October 3, 2008

In lieu of a specific short of the week this time around, I decided to give a list of what I consider the ten best Disney shorts. They may not be the most popular, or the most historically significant, but just the ones that I enjoy the most, are the most entertaining, or for whatever reason.

Note : this list is subect to change at any time due to the whims of the author. These are only the top ten in my opinion; your mileage may vary.

1 : The Band Concert : I think this would be at the top of any Disney lovers list. Mickey's first full length appearance in Technicolor also had great gags, some nice dramatic action, lots of tension between Mickey and Donald and a lot of subtle touches that you don't realize unless you almost watch it frame by frame.

2 : Der Fuehrer's Face : I'll admit it; I've never been a big fan of Donald Duck (which is proabably why his sections of the website go untouched for inordinant amounts of time.) But this short is Donald at his best against a (thankfully, only seemingly) unstoppable foe. Plus it has the great opening song which became a big hit by Spike Jones.

3 : The Old Mill : I've talked about this one before as the very first post in this blog, so I won't repeat myself too much here. But for animation, mood and drama, this short is as close to perfection as you can get. All without a single word of dialogue.

4 : The Whoopee Party : A lot of the early Mickey shorts were just singing and dancing shows which got tiring after a few minutes. This one doesn't. It's a party with everyone involved. The cops show up and they join the party. Even the house itself joins in the dancing. Everything is tuned in to the music and dancing so at the end when the house falls down around their heads, all they can say is "whoopee!"

5 : Lonesome Ghosts : It's a toss up here between this one and "Clock Cleaners" but I give this one the nod from all the "trio"shorts just because of the way the gags set up. The house looks haunted. The artists were able to give it a real atmospheric feel that makes you think it could actually be full of spooks. And the ending is just a delight and doesn't feel forced at all.

6: Woodland Cafe : This was one of the first shorts that Ward Kimball worked on. It was an homage to old jazz clubs of the 20's and 30's. This cafe full of jitterbugging bugs has a bucketload of style, and some crazy music that just won't quit.

7 : Mickey's Good Deed : Here, Mickey is at his best. He's caring, self-sacrificing and the short (one of Disney's first Christmas themed cartoons) has a lot of pathos for those who deserve the better things in life. And very little for the ill-mannered Adelbert.

8 : Symphony Hour : Yes, you might have noticed that most of the shorts I consider the best revolve around music. That seems to be where the artists could really let themselves shine. There are few shorts where the plot is very involving and characterization can be such a subjective thing. But if there was music involved, it almost always made a top notch cartoon. This is no exception as the Spike-Jonesish shenanigans at the end was a omic highlight of the Disney shorts.

9 : Music Land : As if to cement the point made above, here is another one where the story is told almost completely through the medium of the music. And here, the medium is the message as the Isle of Jazz goes to wat against the Land of Symphony only to be joined by the Bridge of Harmony.

10 : Runaway Brain : This "late in the game" Mickey Mouse short was a shock to many, but a revelation to those who thought that Mickey had become too much of a cultural icon to be really interesting in the short format. Sadly, it was a one-shot deal, but it was an exciting break from his bland, nornal character.

That's it! I'd love to hear yours and the reasons behind them. Maybe if I get enough, I'll set up a special section of the website for them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"The China Shop" (1934)

I had told myself that I wasn't going to feature another Silly Symphony quite so soon. And yes, I am updating early since the fiance and I will be heading to NYC for the weekend to catch "The Lion King"on Broadway. But while reformatting the site I rediscovered the 1934 short "The China Shop" and was struck by how the Disney artists made everything work together to achieve their goal.

The short begins by focusing on the proprietor of the store and Disney seems to spend an inordinate amount of time examining the character and his relationship to the shop. He is shown to care about his shop to the extent that even the positions of the figurines on the shelf draws his attention. This may seem like needless padding, but this is not a time wasting device at all, as we will see later.

"The China Shop" unfolds on two levels and as the proprietor leaves for the night the second level reveals itself as the figurines and pottery come to life and begin to dance. I'm tempted to think that the Silly Symphonies series might have evolved differently had Ub Iwerks stayed with Disney. (Note the number of qualifiers in that sentence!) Most of the early Symphonies were simply dancing montages and it appears that this one will be as well.

But it is an abbreviated sequence. One of the critiques of a later Symphony, 'The Cookie Carnival" was that it had so many characters that you never had the time to get invested in one before moving on to the next. Here, Disney chose not to overpopulate the china shop, but instead focuses in on two figurines; a boy and a girl who dance (in a departure from the usual style) not for the camera but for each other.

Another thing that strikes you as you watch the short is the way the backgrounds are used to help establish mood and character. These are not static backgrounds, but reflect the action on the screen. Where things are happy and jolly, the plates in the backgrounds are all smiles. When the demon is introduced, snakes are added (actually to the foreground.) As the action evolves the expressions on the plates become more fearful. And even as the fight progresses and shattered pottery is flying everywhere, the broken parts of the plates become part of their expressions as well.

The story within the story concludes as the proprietor returns the next morning. We can now sympathize with his view of the ruined shop because of the way his character was set up in the opening scenes. Contrast this to the lamplighter in "The Clock Store" who introduces the short, but is never an integral part of the story. This also gives the "story within the story" a context to work in and gives the short more depth than it would have had had it been just another "anthropomorphic items singing and dancing" short.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Clock Cleaners"

When I started this blog I thought that I would mostly feature shorts that were hisorically important or showed some insight into Disney's creative process. But every now and then it's good to feature one that's just fun."Clock Cleaners" is one of those. I've said pretty much all I wanted to say in it's entry on the website. But the Disney artists were at the top of their form in this short. From the almost balletic dance of Goofy's tightwire act to Donald's fight with the mainspring; this short has it all.

I had to laugh a bit at something else just tangentially related to this short. The Rev. Donald Wildmon successfully had a video compilation ("Fun on the Job") removed from Wal-Mart's shelfs because he thought he heard Donald saying a dirty word. Whether WalMart actually believed him or not is a moot point; it didn't stop them from bringing it back in for their bargain bins two years later!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

"In the Bag" (1956)

Herewith, your constant correspondent changes his mind. I mean, I'm going to be 53 in a few weeks, I think I've earned the right. And you kids stay off my lawn as well!

But ... Humphrey the Bear ... hmmm. I've written before that I thought Humphrey could have been one of the more major Disney characters had not the company closed down the shorts department after this "In the Bag" was concluded. But watching this one again I'm not so sure.

It's one of the most popular shorts that Disney has ever done, at least going by the number of comments and questions I get about it. Most of the questions are "What is the title of that cartoon with the song"do-do-do-do-do do-do-do-do-do BUMP BUMP?" People love that song. And if the entire short had revolved around that song it might have been a much better cartoon. But it seems to run out of steam after that and doesn't really give Humphrey much to do except move piles of trash around. I've already noted the unfairness of Humph having to go from cleaning up a small square to virtually the entire park. It says something for the quality of a cartoon when the high point is a cameo from Smokey the Bear.

I used to love this short, but it just doesn't do it for me anymore. Sorry, Humphrey ... but you had your fifteen minutes of fame.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"The Barnyard Battle"

One of the things that made Disney cartoons different from, say, Warner Brothers Cartoons was in the use of what I call magical realism. In the Warners cartoons, if Bugs wanted to bonk Elmer Fudd over the head with a mallet, all he had to do was reach behind his back and produce one. There didn't need to be any rhyme or reason why it should be there or even if it physically could be there. It just was. This gave the Warners cartoons a much greater feeling of anarchy; a feeling that anything could happen.

With Disney, though, you had to follow a specific set of rules and although it seems bizarre to follow physical rules in a world of talking mice and ducks, they had to have an internal logic. So, for Mickey to be pulling things out of thin air, he had to be in the character of a magician (such as in "Magician Mickey.") There had to be a mechanism for him to be able to produce effects not in keeping with his worlds internal logic.

(There are exceptions to this. In Warners Roadrunner/Coyote cartoons, the coyote is usually bested by his attempts because of his inventions following their physical possibilities. And in "The Band Concert", Donald pulls an endless supply of flutes out of thin air.)

So not that he needed to in a lot of his shorts, but one of the ways Disney got a lot of animals working and playing together was to have the scene set where a wide assortment of animals would naturally be, such as in a barnyard. So we, have "Barnyard Olympics","Farmyard Symphony", "The Barnyard Broadcast" and this weeks featured short, "The Barnyard Battle" although here it's just the mice vs the cats.

This short was rarely shown until recently. It was never released on VHS and was never a part of any regular rotation back when the Disney Channel was actually showing shorts. But it finally made it's way to broadcast during an all night classic cartoon marathon called "Gotta Be the Shorts." This was the first time I had seen it as I was amazed for one particular reason. But to explain that, let's go a bit forward to the 1939 short "The Pointer."

Most critics consider "The Pointer" to be the watershed Mickey short. The Disney artists had tried to do something different with Mickey in every short they were involved in, doing little updates and tweaks until most feel it finally came completely together into a modern Mickey in this short. Most also point to the scene where Mickey is facing down a grizzly bear as the finest representation of Mickey's "acting" ability to this point.

I disagree because of one scene which took me by surprise in "The Barnyard Battle." Mickey is up against a Pete-like enemy unarmed when he grabs a gun off the wall and fires it at point blank range when he suddenly discovers that it's a popgun. The action (and the music) which has been very dramatic stops.

Mickey and Pete look at the popgun, the cork dangling from the barrel. They look at each other. Mickey picks up the cork and swings it as if in unbelief. Their meet eyes again, and Mickey points to the cork almost as if he's apologizing. He laughs, hoping Pete will join him in his joke. He throws the popgun away and throws up his hands as if saying "that's all I got!" Seeing Pete still there, tapping his foot in impatience, Mickey sticks his hands in his pockets and starts whistling like he's trying to kill time waiting for something to happen. He flaps his hands nervously like he wants to fly away and then gives Pete the "see ya!" sign as if it's just been good fun and it's time for him to go. Meanwile Pete is getting madder as you can tell by his foaming at the mouth. Finally, Mickey jumps up and shoots himself down a mice hole he's been conveniently standing on and the chase is on again.

It's a nifty little sequence. It's only about 50 seconds long, but coming when it does it makes a nice counterpoint in the midst of all the frenetic action. And there's a sense of real danger as well. By the time "The Pointer" came along, Mickey had become such an icon that you knew Disney wouldn't really let him be eaten by the bear. In "The Barnyard Battle", with it's beginning sequences of Mickey being nearly rubber-hosed to death during his induction physical , you're not quite so sure.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Featured Short of the Week : August 24, 2008

"The Old Mill" (1937)

Since Hans Perk has been posting recently about the history of Disney's multiplane camera, it seemed right to begin this blog with the 1937 short "The Old Mill." This was the first short to use this new technology, but it was a departure for Disney in a few other ways as well. The Silly Symphony series had been a boon to Disney animators looking to experiment with depths of character that they couldn't achieve in the regular Mickey Mouse cartoons. (Mickey was already on his way to pretty much becoming a one-dimensional character paving the way for Donald Duck to usurp his place on the cartoon hierarchy.) And where the earlier Symphonies often featured more pastoral moods, it was usually as a showcase for singing and dancing animals.

"The Old Mill" gave Disney a chance to do a short completely based on mood, and some have gone as far to describe it as a "tone poem." There are no real "gags" in the short, although there are some humorous moments (i.e. the owl who keeps getting drenched no matter where he moves.) Everything in the short is carefully timed and laid out to achieve the eventual dramatic effect. It lures you in. The opening shot was magical, as the camera moves through a spiderweb (and not a static web either, but a moving, living object) to focus on the scene of the mill. As the short progresses, it's as if the camera is introducing us to each character so we can empathize more with their travails in the storm that is to come. The music is soft and lush, calming. It draws you into the picture.

And indeed it almost seems as if this is just going to be another "singing and dancing" short as night draws in and the frogs come out from under the lily pads and begin croaking together. But then the winds start to blow through the reeds (an effect that would be used years later in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) which causes the music to become more dramatic as the clouds begin to envelope the sky. Notice how the action, which previously had been slow and almost lazy now begins to become more frenetic and insistent as the storm gets closer.

There is a very subtle thing going on here as well in one sequence where the birds nest is threatening to get squashed by a cogwheel when the rope finally breaks through. These scenes are intercut with the aforementioned scenes with the owl getting soaked. Disney noted that he could realize two effects at once; by cutting between the two scenes, the tension seemed more tense while the gag got a bigger laugh as if from relief from the tension of the previous scene.

Notice also how the short has been edited; where in the beginning sequences we had long, lingering and some tracking shots; now the editing is full of quick, short clips as we go from one occupant of the mill to the other. And as the storm reaches it's peak, it careens from seeing the outside of the mill itself, to flashes of the animals inside until the music crashes with the flash of the final lightning bolt that strikes the mill, almost destroying it.

The scene blacks out and the music returns to it's previous calmness as we see that none of the animals are the worse for the wear and the short is bookended by a backwards pan through the same spiderweb that opened the short.

It's a very dramatic short and a vast departure from the "funnies" that Disney had been making up until that time. And it was even a surprise for some of the Disney artists. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson wrote (in "The Illusion of Life", p. 145):

"Our eyes popped out when we saw all of The Old Mill's magnificent innovations - things we had not even dreamed of and did not understand. We did not know how any of the effects were achieved or who had done what or how it was painted. Even the inked cels and backgrounds did not look like anything we had ever seen before."