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.


Hans Perk said...

Just a quick note to draw your attention to this posting of mine in which you will find that Freddie Moore did not work on the Pointer at all, and that the scene you describe was animated by Frank Thomas (who would have had his birthday yesterday Sept. 5th).

Personally, I really like Mickey as he was around 1931 best--his whole personality including, no, especially his way of speaking...

Patrick Malone said...

Fixed it. Thanks, Hans!

ramapith said...

Great post! I'm glad someone noticed that THE POINTER was prefigured by this earlier BARNYARD BATTLE scene (which is itself directly anticipated by scenes in GREAT GUNS and ALICE'S LITTLE PARADE... featuring characterization of Oswald and Julius that's just as much a standout for the period as BARNYARD BATTLE is for Mickey!).

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