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.


  1. There's a very good reason for the start of all these new camera moves. I learned from Merritt and Kaufman's Silly Symphony book that "Cannibal Capers" was the first cartoon to be photographed with Disney's new Universal camera which was more flexible and easier to use than the studio's Pathé camera which had been used on all of Disney's previous cartoons since 1923. Suddenly more camera moves were possible and it's clear Disney took advantage right away.

    One interesting thing about this cartoon is the ending which has only recently been restored to the DVD. I'm not sure when the scene was originally cut. Leonard Maltin suggests it was cut when shown on the Mickey Mouse Club, but Kaufman and Merritt suggest it may have been cut before it was even released. I would guess it was intact on its first release, but cut when it was reissued to theatres.

  2. I'm surprised that they even showed this on the Mickey Mouse Club at all - when I think of MMC, cannibalism isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind...

    It's interesting to see the innovation in film making techniques on display in this film - I wonder if the Universal Camera was a distant precursor to the famous multiplane camera?

  3. As far as I'm able to ascertain, the cut predated the Mickey Mouse Club, dating back to at least the 1940s reissue print.
    The original ending was certainly still on the cartoon in the mid-1930s, when home movie cutdowns were made: it's from one of those that Disney recovered the lost sequence.

  4. As for cannibalism and the MMC, B. D., I'm damn sure that bratty little Moochie was eating bit-player kids when nobody was looking.

  5. That's funny! I remember when I was a little kid reading about Disney cartoons and all I knew of this one was the title. I wondered what the heck it was like since the idea of jungle natives didn't come to mind. I was picturing Psycho cannibals in a bloody kitchen and wondering how that fitted in with an early 30's cartoon aesthetic!

  6. I was more concerned with the depiction of African natives than the fact that they were cannibals. They're very stereotypical to say the least. Not that I'm offended, but I can see where some would be.

    Mac, I've got to get that book. Sounds like it has a lot of info I need for this. The new camera is very much on display in the shorts after this as well.

    David, I have to agree with you on Moochie. That kid had shifty eyes. Didn't trust him.


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