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.