Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just Mickey

In the six months that I have been doing this (has it been that long?), I have not come across a more aptly named short than Just Mickey. It’s a six minute short that features only one action – Mickey playing a violin. How can that possibly be interesting? It is, and that’s a testament to the Disney animators.

It’s first worth noting that this is the first Mickey short not by Ub Iwerks. What’s interesting is the title card is very different as well. For the original Mickey shorts, we had a simple Mickey and Minnie on either side of the title, with the “by Ub Iwerks” credit underneath. This is very different, a more detailed Minnie and Mickey, no credits, and a new “Mickey Mouse” title treatment. This is the Mickey that Floyd Gottfriedson would go on to feature in the Mickey Mouse comic books for many years.

But the true experiment of this short is the idea of having Mickey on stage with a violin, and that’s it. The short begins with a neat gag involving some depth, as the curtain opens to reveal another curtain, which opens to reveal another and another and so on. Mickey is revealed at the very rear of the stage, and stomps up to the front, coming closer and closer. It’s a very nice show of depth in the animation.

The fun begins with Mickey playing a fast paced number, getting a little more frantic with each passing moment. The thing that keeps your interest, though, are the expressions on Mickey’s face. He goes from annoyance at a heckler, to passion for his playing to happiness at a job well done from moment to moment, with natural transitions, not just jumping from expression to expression.

The scene is aided by the switches in perspective. The scene jumps from a wide shot of Mickey straight on, back to a close up on Mickey from the waist up, to a scene of Mickey on stage from slightly left of center. It is an amazing way to see this short. When you think back to the side scrolling model of the Alice cartoons, it’s astounding to see how far we’ve come in only a few short years.

Next, we get Mickey playing a sad number, with his expressions reflecting the sadness of the song. He weeps, blows his nose and frowns, all in perfect style. It’s a true reflection of emotion pulled off by the animators, just the way the first song was.

The final song is the William Tell Overture, which goes from the melodrama of the previous tune to an all out comedy. Mickey loses his balance, scrapes along the floor, pops up and down and does some great acrobatics.

Just Mickey manages to make the single premise interesting and entertaining, even though in theory it probably should not be. That’s not to say it’s the funniest of the Mickey shorts or the best, but I can imagine the animators took this as a challenge to create a new range of expressions and emotions through Mickey. I have to say they succeeded.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Cannibal Capers

Alright, so now we have the Silly Symphonies without the men who really created them – Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling. So how does the series hold up in Cannibal Capers? Surprisingly, very, very well.

Director Burt Gillett and his animation team, including Les Clark, took a little different approach to this one. The idea is still simple, the cannibals are gathering for a tribal dance, and are interrupted by the appearance of a lion from the jungle. So there is still a big musical number and silly dances.

The difference is that in this short, the focus is very much on playing with the camera and seeing what inventive things can be done. For example, the opening of the short features what looks like a bunch of trees, swaying in the wind to some chanting music.

As it goes on, though, the camera pulls back and pans up at the same time, revealing the tree trunks to be the legs of the cannibals, and the tops to be their skirts. It’s a very cool opening, and shows some idea of what we are in store for with Cannibal Capers.

After that, we see the four cannibals dance, and then the camera pulls back yet again, revealing the vast landscape of the cannibal village, and showing that these four are not alone, but in fact are performing for their cohorts. It’s a great reveal that moves things forward at the same time.

We see the cannibals preparing for a feast, including mistaking one of their own for a turtle and tossing him into the boiling pot. It’s a fun case of mistaken identity, as the cannibal uses his shield to dance like a nearby turtle, but then gets grabbed by the cook and thrown in.

When the lion shows up, everyone scatters, and another camera trick ensues. The camera shows the lion in the big picture of the village, then zooms in to him, and shows the lion charging toward the camera with a roar. Again, a new trick to the animation arsenal.

The ending is fairly straightforward, as the lion chases our poor friend who had been thrown in the pot. The tables get turned, though, as the lion roars so wide that his teeth fall out, and the cannibal picks them up and uses them on the lion.

Cannibal Capers is by no means high art, and I’m sure it would be offensive to African-Americans today. However, all that aside, it’s entertaining. The plot flows smoothly throughout, but still manages to squeeze in some fun dancing sequences and craziness. There are the nifty camera moves I mentioned above, but otherwise the animation is a little simpler than the earlier shorts, as the cannibals are very much stick figures that use rubber hose animation in their movement. Overall, a fun short, a good story, but it lacks some of the greatness of something like The Skeleton Dance.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling

In today’s post, I won’t be reviewing a single cartoon, but instead, looking back at what Ub Iwerks, and to a lesser degree, Carl Stalling meant to the studio. Now that we’ve finished the last of their shorts, what did they bring to the table, and how did their leaving impact the studio?

As I documented before, Ub’s arrival to the California studio was a shot in the arm to the Alice series, resulting in better animation and more interesting cartoons. He was the one who created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s design, and that was definitely an artistic success. Ub’s work on that series is simply stunning.

But, of course, the thing he should be remembered for the most in this period is the creation of Mickey Mouse. No matter what story you believe about how Mickey came to be, it’s undeniable that his design was all Ub Iwerks. That, combined with the near single handed animation of Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and Steamboat Willie, is enough to credit Ub with launching Mickey’s career.

It’s definitely debatable whether Mickey became the mega star that he was because of the animation or the sound revolution, but either way, without Ub, he would not have existed. I think the best way to look at Mickey Mouse is that without Ub Iwerks, Mickey would not have been the sensation that he became in the 20s, but without Walt Disney, he would not be the icon he is today.

That doesn’t even get into all the other things Ub began before leaving the studio, such as the Silly Symphonies and their experimental new techniques. I think it’s fairly safe to say that without Ub’s assistance, Walt’s little studio might not have survived through the Alice Comedies, and then again once Oswald was stolen if Ub had not been around.

Stalling is a different story. It’s hard to realize it now, but much of the aural language of cartoons was created by Carl Stalling. The sounds you expect to hear in cartoons when a character does a certain action were things that Stalling pioneered. First his work on the Mickeys and Silly Symphonies began the work, but once he left the studio and went to Warner Bros., he took it to a new level.

Both men made unique contributions to the Disney Studio. It was Walt Disney’s guidance, however, that led the studio forward, from being a small cartoon studio with one main character, to a multi-million dollar corporation with a theme park empire, live action films and a library of cartoon characters. I think it’s safe to say that Walt was always focused on the future, and how his work would play in a few months or years. I don’t know that this was the case with Ub or Stalling. I think they were focused on making the best damn cartoon they could for that day. Neither approach is wrong, I just think that conflict might have something to do with the friction.

I won’t even try to cover the reasons that Ub left. I will defer to fellow blogger David Gerstein’s post about this. Read it in its entirety, and be back here for a review of the first post-Ub Silly Symphony, Cannibal Capers, on Monday.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Take a long look at the title card for this short, Autumn, because it’s the last time that we’ll see Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling together on a film. In January of 1930, Ub had just signed a deal to create his own studio. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the deal was set up by Pat Powers, who was hoping to use Ub to squeeze Walt into a less favorable deal. It didn’t work, but that is a topic for another day.

Ub’s last directorial work for the Disney studio was the third of the “Four Seasons” set of Silly Symphonies, Autumn. To me, it’s the best of the series so far, with all kinds of great imagery and a good framework that the action is built around.

I know you guys probably get sick of me complaining about the lack of story in some of these early shorts, but to me, that’s what Disney is all about. The thing that makes some of Disney’s efforts stand out is the storytelling. Not necessarily that it has to be a superb, mind blowing story, but having a framework and plot that drives the action is key for my enjoyment.

That’s what I love about Autumn. The idea is a simple one, that the animals are getting ready for winter. That’s it, but we get to see it carried out in a variety of ways. The squirrels are up first, gathering nuts. These are the most interesting characters in the short, because their design is so well done. They look like a hybrid between Julius, Oswald and Mickey, but in a good and original way. The squirrels have Mickey’s ears, Julius’ eyes and Oswald’s body type, but with a squirrel tail. I love the design, and they are very appealing characters, happy and free though they are working. It would be nice to see them again.

The other animals in the short are similarly engaged in preparing for winter. We see ducks on the pond, crows gathering corn and beavers building a dam. The ducks are probably the most interesting beyond the squirrels, because they march in military precision through the lake as the snow of winter comes in, and then fly in formation south for the winter, all to the marching music of Carl Stalling.

There are some other interesting bits, like watching one of the ducks get a boot stuck on his head, and move the boot like a bill. The other neat thing in that same scene is noticing the level of detail in the water, as the bank and the duck are reflected. It’s the same effect that was seen in Springtime with our Flip the Frog prototype, but a little more detailed here.

Autumn is just a fun short, and it moves quickly and happily along, pulling the viewer with it. That’s really what you want from a cartoon, and Autumn delivers in spades.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The second of the “Seasons” Silly Symphonies is Summer, following on the heels of Springtime. It’s truly an Ub Iwerks film, with silly dances, a succession of gags, and a series of actions that end with a spider eating some of the protagonists. But on the whole, it’s really unremarkable, not the best work from the Silly Symphonies so far.

It’s a beautiful short to behold, as the animation and the backgrounds are extremely well done. The characters’ movement is very fluid and enables the action to be moving constantly. That’s good, because as with most of the Disney shorts at this time, there is little story to hold the cartoon together.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing in this case. This short is truly a celebration of nature, as it features all sorts of creatures of the bug world in various incarnations. If the boys at Pixar did not watch this before they did A Bug’s Life, I’d be shocked. So many of the characters from that film are similar to ideas here that I would think it had to be an influence.

The short begins with a quartet of caterpillars, doing the by now patented Ub Iwerks four abreast dance sequence. It is very interesting that a man so amazingly talented and creative as Ub kept returning to the same idea – four creatures side by side doing a silly dance. Not to say that it’s not entertaining. There is a new twist here as the characters roll, stack on top of each other, and then turn into butterflies. But it seems odd to me that so many of Ub’s films feature this sort of sequence, from the Skeleton Dance forward.

Of course a lot of that could be do to production schedules. Animating and releasing so many films a year had to make it a temptation for Walt and his team to take shortcuts, and by all accounts they did so. That’s part of what makes Summer a little interesting, is there is no reuse of story or sequences from other films here. As far as I can see, all the material is original except the four abreast dance scene.

There are some very imaginative sequences here. After the caterpillars become butterflies, they land on a preying mantis that does its own crooked dance, then falls in a pond. Water bugs do a skating routine on top of the pond, before being interrupted by a dragonfly. The dragonfly is pulling a lady bug behind it like a skier, which is a great idea.

Of course the real coup de grace is the final sequence with the flies. After some ladybugs are pushed aside by a flower spurting out of the ground, four flies appear on top of the flower and do a dance as the lady bugs spin the flower. Then, the flies pick up a sleeping spider, by each of them grabbing a corner of its web. They bounce the spider up and down on the web, using it as a trampoline. But the spider gets his revenge, swinging a web line up to a tree branch and then devouring the flies. It’s a dark ending to be sure, but very funny and somewhat deserved. I mean, the spider was minding his own business, and these flies messed with him, right?

Summer is entertaining and silly, no doubt. But after what I saw with The Haunted House and Wild Waves, I’m somewhat surprised that there is not more consistency and that this short is not up to par with those. Sure, it’s a Silly Symphony versus a Mickey, but there is none of the experimentation we saw in Springtime or the lighting effects like in The Haunted House. By this time, though, Ub Iwerks was getting fed up with being at Disney, so that could have something to do with it. More on that later.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wild Waves

It’s almost as if sometime before The Haunted House, Walt went into a story meeting with his animators and said, “Why is Mickey always bursting into song? Give him a reason to sing!” I don’t know if such a thing happened, but if it did, the result would have been The Haunted House or this short, Wild Waves.

Once again, the story of the short provides a way into a musical number, which makes the music piece so much more enjoyable. This short’s story is kind of a rehash of the Oswald short, All Wet. Mickey is serving as a lifeguard, same as Oswald did, and he has to save a girl, in this case Minnie. There are very similar scenes to All Wet, such as Mickey on the lifeguard stand and his careening through the waves.

Whereas in earlier Mickey shorts the copying from the Oswald shorts was more derivative, this seems much less the case. The animation is much fresher and more detailed than that earlier work, and the characters are so different that it makes this a fresh take on the subject.

Where Wild Waves branches off is when it comes to the second half of the short, which is the musical number. When Mickey saves Minnie, she cries because of the ordeal, and Mickey decides to comfort her by performing a dance to “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” Soon, the other animals join in, and the patented Ub Iwerks silly dances ensue.

What is interesting about this short is the subtle changes in Mickey from his early appearances. The evolution of his design is almost complete, as we see here the rounded shoes appearing much as they do today, a little more bulbous and full. His limbs are thicker, and his eyes are much more expressive. This has evolved over the past few shorts, like Jungle Rhythm and The Haunted House, but it’s very noticeable here.

The other change I noticed in this short is the difference in Mickey’s character. In the early shorts, he was aggressive and rude, grabbing Minnie in Plane Crazy and planting a kiss on her, regardless of her wishes. This time around, after performing his dance, Minnie professes him to be “her hero,” Mickey shifts his shoulders and blushes, obviously embarrassed. If you had not seen the other shorts early on in Mickey’s career, you wouldn’t notice it, but it’s a big change in his character.

This is part of what Leonard Maltin talks about on the DVD, that as Mickey evolved, Walt and his crew found him more and more uninteresting. It was hard to find situations for Mickey to be funny, because he was always heroic and upstanding. Soon, the focus would shift to Mickey’s supporting cast, at first Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar, but later Goofy and Donald Duck.

Finally, one last interesting thing about Wild Waves. The short features two instances of Mickey singing, and a few instances of him talking. We know that Walt provided the voice for Mickey when talking, but his singing voice seems totally different. I would guess that Walt did not sing for Mickey, based on this short. Does anyone know who did? I do not, but would be curious to find out.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Haunted House

With The Haunted House, I’m finally getting what I want out of Mickey Mouse cartoon. This is a truly great short, and one that I am hoping more people will come to recognize as a great Mickey Mouse vehicle. There’s everything one could hope for – story, music, great animation and funny gags. It’s all here.

Let me stop my gushing and get on with it. The Haunted House breaks the formula of putting Mickey into a setting and having the music start immediately. Instead, it starts off with an establishing shot of the titular house, which looks like a menacing face on the horizon. Then we see Mickey struggling through a storm trying to reach the house. The music, the rain animation and the blowing wind that moves the objects in the foreground all help to give a sense of foreboding.

Of course, Mickey enters the house, after being prodded by a nearby tree. Once inside, he is frightened by a succession of creatures, including bats that fly straight at the viewer, a spider that drops in and swings and finally the sounds of ghosts. The sound here is key, because we don’t see any ghosts, but Mickey gets progressively more frightened, and it’s the sound that puts him over the top. It’s a very clever use of the sounds to create more suspense.

The next sequence is particularly good, mainly for the skill in the animation. Mickey enters a hallway, where the lights almost immediately blackout.

Then, he is able to light a match, and look around to see what is going on.

The sequence is incredible, because it takes two different disciplines and makes one flowing scene. First, the ability to highlight only Mickey’s face and hands in an otherwise dark room and get across emotions and feeling is amazing. Then, to do the match light scene, and have the flickers of the match play with the lighting is another step up. This is the first time I have seen this level of craft in the Mickey shorts, but it’s a major step forward.

Of course, we have a musical number in this short, but it makes perfect sense. The ghosts corner Mickey, and we see him turn to the camera to express his fear.

The ghosts force Mickey to play the piano, so they can dance. And the next few minutes of the short are devoted to the skeletons around the house. Much of this is derivative of The Skeleton Dance. There is animation of four skeletons dancing that I would swear is lifted directly from that earlier film, if it didn’t end a different way. But similar ideas to The Skeleton Dance are all around, like a skeleton playing himself like a xylophone, for example.

Finally, Mickey finishes the song and makes a break for it, running into skeletons all along the way, even in the outhouse. Mickey’s run for the hills signals the end of the short.

With a simple twist on the musical number, The Haunted House manages to give meaning and purpose to the silly little dances that these early shorts have featured to this point. It will bear watching to see if this is the beginning of a trend or not, but it’s an encouraging sign to see the story provide the framing for the music.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Merry Dwarfs

Okay, I know why the dwarfs in this short are merry – they are all drunk! Seriously, The Merry Dwarfs is one long ode to the joy of beer. If I drank like the dwarfs here, I’d be pretty darn happy all the time.

That aside, the rest of the short is entertaining, but mostly unremarkable. It opens with a nice scene, that features a great deal of depth, showing the dwarf village, with the dwarfs engaged in some dancing and working all at the same time. It’s interesting because it shows the cast in full before then zeroing in for some slice of life pieces.

The small vignettes showing the various dwarf craftsmen and workers was my favorite part of the short. We start with a street sweeper, who ends up using his beard as a broom, then over to a shoemaker (cliché, isn’t it) and finally a trio of blacksmiths. All the little pictures of life in the dwarf world are good, because it does what I think animation can do best – give us an entry into a world that we can’t see anywhere else.

After that beginning segment, though, the short evolves into another all dancing short, with the patented Ub Iwerks’ silly dancing scenes. First, though, everyone has to stop for some beer, then they dance. A whole parade leads the beer into a field where four dwarfs get to drink, then start dancing.

The four drop down to two, and they go through several different iterations, including using a leaf as a skirt, pulling their hats down over their entire bodies and a few more. The most inventive piece comes at the end, after the two dwarfs fall into a barrel of beer. As they continues dancing after getting out of the barrel, the entire background starts swaying in waves, and the dwarfs stay on the ground dancing. That experimental look alone makes this short notable.

Another interesting thing is that the design of the dwarfs is very similar to the first iteration of Mickey. The small circle stomach and then rubber hoses leading off the body make the dwarfs look like Mickey with a beard. It’s the beards that are the fun features of the dwarfs, as they use them much like Julius or Oswald would use their tails. The beards are brooms, instruments, a second pair of legs or whatever the scene requires.

It is very interesting though to contrast the themes and flow of the Silly Symphonies to the Mickey Mouse cartoons. In the Silly Symphonies, the action is always centered around the music, but it features more adult themes, like hell, drinking, skeletons and the like. There’s also a bit more experimentation in the Silly Symphonies. The Mickeys, while mostly following the same formula of being built around the music, follow a more innocent tone, with Mickey interacting with the animals to provide entertainment or make friends. It’s an interesting contrast. When I can tell you what that helps me deduce about Walt and his mindset in 1929, I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jungle Rhythm

Jungle Rhythm is the latest Mickey musical number, and this one is a little different. Although it still suffers from the issue of having no real conflict or plot, you can see the story influence starting to creep in. With just a few minor tweaks here or there, Jungle Rhythm could have been as good as any of the Oswald shorts.

The basics are that Mickey is riding an elephant through the jungle, on a hunt. He climbs down from the elephant, shoots at a bird, which flies away and leaves him in a confrontation between a bear and a lion. A group of animals nearby starts playing music, using Mickey’s accordion that he left on his elephant, and the lion, bear and Mickey begin dancing. The rest of the short focuses on the musical numbers.

The outlines of a story are there. There is the brewing conflict between Mickey and the lion and bear. The music serves a purpose, in bringing that conflict to an end. But there is still something missing, such as near the end, after Mickey has abused no end of animals as his instruments, he does the same with a lion. The lion is obviously perturbed when Mickey pulls out his tongue and plays it like a bass, or when the mouse pulls out its whiskers. But the short ends before anything happens, leaving a question mark as to how Mickey escaped an angry lion.

It’s also interesting how many motifs from prior Disney efforts are repeated here. The jungle theme is something we have not seen since the Alice shorts, but it was very popular in those films. Alice riding an elephant and hunting in the jungle was a staple of early Alice shorts.

Also repeated here, I think for the first time since Steamboat Willie, is “Turkey in the Straw” as a musical piece. Mickey plays the song on some animals, similar to the way he did in his debut. It’s interesting to see that, since most people today think of that song as the iconic piece of Steamboat Willie, but here it’s repeated in a much lesser known context.

I also have to say that Ub Iwerks’ silly dancing numbers are constantly amusing. We get two monkeys in one sequence and two ostriches in another. We also get a lion that pushes its mane down to use as a grass skirt and become a hula dancer. All three are great flowing animation that are fun to watch, even if they’re not necessarily story driven.

I must confess, I am a story guy. I pick apart movies today the same way I am doing to these films, so I probably focus on that a little much. But much of the reason that I am a story person is because of the Disney films. Story is always a strong point of the features, so that’s what I am used to. I think watching the shorts is a great introduction, though, because it really is helping me to see where many of the things I came to love about Disney came from.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hell's Bells

After the warm, fuzzy feeling of Springtime, the next Silly Symphony, Hell’s Bells, takes a sharp left turn, leaving the springtime feel of nature for the hot fires of Hades. Hell’s Bells is a macabre tour through the torment of Hell, and it’s also another winner by Ub Iwerks and his animation team.

The short is like all the other Silly Symphonies, merely a pictorial representation of various pieces of music. The music in this one, though, is a cut above some of the others. Sure, there are adaptations here of other songs, but the main song during the devils dancing sequence was so good that Alfred Hitchcock picked it up years later as the music for the opening of his television show.

But the animation is the real star here. It’s a real departure from the now solid Mickey and the animal creatures seen in Springtime. The devils in this short are spindly creatures, and their arms and legs flail about in true rubber hose animation style. That wouldn’t be notable, except for the fact that the trend in the other Disney shorts of this time is moving away from that exaggerated movement and towards more “realistic” forms and movements.

This short was directed by Ub, and it shows. The frantic dances, the darker imagery and the “unhappy” ending of the devil being swallowed by his own flames are all more indicative of Ub’s work, rather than Walt’s. It’s especially interesting to watch this short back to back with Springtime, since they were in production at the same time, and Springtime was directed by Walt. The contrast between the two filmmakers could not be more stark.

Not to be outdone by Walt and his work on Springtime, Ub features some great effects animation in this short as well. One scene features a devil dancing over a fire pit, and the shadow on the back wall dances with him. It’s nice work. Another features a spider swinging over a fire pit, straight towards the audience, blacking out the screen, then all the way to the far away perspective and back again. Again, very nicely done.

The sadistic lead devil, that one would presume is Satan, is an interesting character. He acts how you would expect Satan to act, which is good work by Ub and his team, but it’s totally new in the world of Disney animation to this point. This is a true villain character, feeding fellow devils to the three headed dog, Cerberus, and chasing one when he refuses. Rather than the bungling or bullying villain, this is a new turn towards a more serious and disturbing villain.

The whole short is full of disturbing imagery, that makes it a true work of art. Some of my favorites include a snake swallowing a bat then sprouting its wings, devils milking a dragon and getting fire instead of milk, and the short wanderings of the Grim Reaper at the beginning of the short.

Looking at this short, though, its easy to see that Ub Iwerks had different ideas about the things that one could do in animation. This short is really more reflective of the work he would do after he left Disney than anything I’ve seen to this point.