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."