Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plane Crazy

Alright, so we know that Walt and his remaining crew had to work in secrecy to create the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. For the most part, while the rest of the studio finished the remaining Oswalds, Ub Iwerks worked behind closed doors creating the debut of the Disney Studio’s newest character. It is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing animation achievements I have ever seen.

Not to say that Plane Crazy is perfect, but when watching it, you are drawn into the characters, their situation, and what is going on in Mickey’s head, which is truly amazing considering that most of the short was done by one man. Even the title card acknowledges it, listing the short as “A Walt Disney Comic – by Ub Iwerks.” That singling out of one man as the key animator is something that you would not expect from Disney, but it was vital here.

This time around, I watched Plane Crazy with the sound down, so that I could see it the way it was originally animated, without a soundtrack. I will revisit it again with the soundtrack to see the differences, but I think I can honestly say that the entertainment value could not increase.

The story is simple – Mickey Mouse admires Charles Lindbergh, and decides to get in his own plane and take a flight. The animals of the barnyard try to help him out by creating a plane, but that one doesn’t get off the ground. He creates a second plane out of a beat up car, and manages to get Minnie up in the air with him. Of course, as in any good Disney story, something goes horribly wrong, and the plane comes crashing to the ground.

The real thing to marvel at here, though, is not just that this short was done almost entirely by one man, but that there are no shortcuts. The backgrounds are more detailed than the Oswalds, the characters have more fluid motion, and the point of view changes frequently.

Take the sequence where Minnie is in the plane alone, flying behind a cow, and the POV is from behind her, as it shifts from side to side as an example. Then there’s the sequence when the plane begins to crash, and the POV is looking straight down at the ground, which circles around and around as the plane comes down. It’s simply amazing.

No review of Mickey’s first appearance would be complete without talking about the character design. He is obviously different from the current rounded, smiling mouse we know as the corporate symbol. Mickey in Plane Crazy is a spindly limbed mouse with a fat oval body and circular head. It’s a very different idea from the design of Oswald or even Julius, who each had thick limbs and a rounded feel.

Mickey here is also more of the adventurer and the mischievous soul than he would become later. While up in the plane, he forces a kiss on Minnie, which prompts her to jump out of the plane. What’s great is that simply by looking at him, you can see the mischief in his thoughts, which is more of the great personality animation that Disney is famous for. All in all, an extremely successful debut short for Walt Disney’s most popular character.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.


  1. Good points about Mickey being different to Oswald. It is often implied that the early Mickey was essentially Oswald with round ears and a long tail. However, when watching the earliest Mickey cartoon immediately after the Oswalds, this just isn't true at all. Not in terms of design, movement or personality.

    Mickey is a bit of a rogue in this cartoon which is very different to Oswald. We didn't see Oswald deliberately scare and laugh at Sadie or try and force her to kiss him! Another change is how Oswald was constantly changing shape - getting squashed, losing his head, bouncing round as a ball, removing his tail and ears, wringing himself out etc. With Mickey and Plane Crazy these kind of gags are much less frequent. As a result, some of Mickeys bangs and crashes seem a lot more painful (check out Mickey's face when he crushes his nuts on a branch falling down the tree).

    Another interesting thing to mention is that Mickey is immediately being established as a creature of the barnyard. There's no reason for a cartoon about flying planes to be set on a farm - in Oswald cartoons, the rabbit was just wherever the action was and you're not expected to think where he would live. Here, however, we're introduced to a character who apparently lives on a farm and so all his friends are farm animals (rather than a random assortment of dogs, cats, wolves and elephants).


  2. That's something I've noticed, too, about Mickey being a creature of the barnyard. He seems to be much more of the barnyard than Julius or Oswald.

    I also agree on the design. He is much more spindly, not quite the round, fluffy guy that Oswald was. And he's definitely much more of a rogue.

    I'm interested to see the evolution of Mickey much more than the Oswald or Julius characters. He just seems to have so much development over the years, that it will be very interesting to watch.

  3. According to Michael Sporn, this short was significant historically for another reason.He states: This was the first animated film to use a camera move. The POV shot from the plane made it appear as if the camera were trucking into the ground. In fact, when they shot this scene, they piled books under the spinning background to move the artwork closer to the camera.I think the fact that this and a lot of the early shorts take place in a barnyard may have to do with the fact that Disney just couldn't animated people well yet. So his cartoons had to be populated with animals. Where is the obvious place to find a bunch of animals? In a banyard. Couple that with Walt's fanciful idea of his bucolic youth and the barnyard scenes were a natural fit. It works well in shorts like "The Barnyard Concert"; not quite as naturally in some like "The Barnyard Battle."

    There's also a real change coming in Mickey, and the reason why Donald Duck surpassed him in popularity. Humor derives from pain; either our own or more often, someone else's. But with that, there is the part of our minds that, in order to see it as funny, you had to feel that the character deserved it in some sense. Mickey became such a nice guy that you couldn't feel his pain was comical; you ended up feeling more sympathetic. With Donald, you could laugh at him because you felt he deserved what was coming to him.

    But this one is funny because the character of "Mickey Mouse" hadn't been established in people's minds, so you could get away with doing a lot more to him. And to Minnie.

  4. Good points, Patrick. I'm not sure if this is the first cartoon to have a simulated camera move though – didn't Trolley Troubles have a similar effect? That still doesn't stop the scene of the plane nearly crashing into the car (being driven by a very Julius like cat), and veering from one side of the road to the other before ascending into the cloud from being any less impressive, however.


  5. It wasn't that scene I was talking about. It was one later on in the short, almost at the end after Minnie has bailed out and the plane is spiraling towards the ground.

  6. Sorry, Patrick – it was obvious when I re-read your post! I suppose the scene I was talking about doesn't really count as a literal camera move since it's actually the background that was animated, rather than literally moving the artwork closer to the camera.

    It is cool how the earliest Mickey cartoons keep a constant feeling of movement right from the first frame to the last. They don't even have the traditional iris opening and closing, but instead fill or empty the screen of complete black with a moving device such as panning foliage, a cow walking away from the viewer or a star zooming from a crash.


  7. I think it's also remarkable how often they did the full background animation in these early days. It must have been a pain, but it was doable when they were doing simple line drawings as backgrounds. Unfortunately they had to give up on it as the backgrounds became more and more complex and I don't believe they ever tried again with a full perspective moving background until 1935 with "Three Orphan Kittens."


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