Monday, August 31, 2009

The Bird Store

You remember a few days ago when I lavished praise on the Silly Symphonies for having advanced to a real story based piece of work? How The Ugly Duckling was so well done and that I felt the Disney animators were now working with something special? Well, they managed to undo all that work with The Bird Store, easily one of the worst of the Silly Symphonies.

Story has been jettisoned in this short, in favor of cheap gags and quick cuts. The lavish storytelling in The Ugly Duckling gives way to chirping birds. No, I’m not exaggerating. It just seems like the first three quarters of this short is merely some birds chirping, with no real point in mind.

Sure, there are some gags, but they’re not particularly good, nor relevant to each other. The quick scroll past the lovebirds where one set is chirping in love to each other, while another set has one bird chirping to one in an adjacent cage while its mate cries is a good gag. But that gag goes by in about five seconds, while we move on to others.

We get to see a wide variety of birds, some imaginative and some not. The birds that look like natives from Cannibal Capers are interesting, but the beginning of the short features some simple birds that do a little dance, which is repeated on a larger scale later on in the short with some multicolored birds in a larger cage.

There’s just no originality or artistry to this short. There’s no characters, only quick scenes of birds in cages. The only character to stand out is a parrot, who takes over about a minute of the short, pacing back and forth out of his cage, answering the phone, and killing some bugs with a typewriter. This same parrot shows up later on in Mickey cartoons, so it’s a decent design that was looking for a better vehicle.

Our friend the cat from the 1931 Mickey cartoons shows up for the final sequence of this short. First, a small canary is trying to learn to chirp properly, and when it finally does so, it falls out of its cage into a bag of seed.

The cat manages to enter the shop, and chases the canary about. From there, it’s a similar sequence to what we’ve seen in other shorts, as the birds break loose and torment the cat. They manage to stuff him into a cage, launch him through the roof and he ends up on a pole in the middle of a dog pound. That part is good, but for someone who has seen many of these Silly Symphonies, it’s nothing new.

It really seems as though The Bird Store was a deadline short, as in one that was running close to deadline and had to get out the door. Backgrounds are nearly non-existent, and most of the scenes are just quick snapshots, not any kind of character work. It’s not the finest work by the Disney Studio, and probably my least favorite Silly Symphony so far.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Ugly Duckling (1931)

The years of 1930 and 1931 in the Disney Studios were ones of great change, if the shorts offer any insight. We’ve looked at the changes here, from Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling leaving the studio, to the slow but steady shift away from musical based shorts to more story based subjects. With the release of The Ugly Duckling, Disney has finally made a Silly Symphony that follows one story from beginning to end, and in doing so, created a template for future prosperity at the studio.

I know that constant readers of the site are probably sick of my constant refrain of story vs. music, but it is a part of this early life in the Disney Studio. Iwerks, Stalling and their particular talents were built for creating cartoons that featured impressionist or silly visuals to accompany songs, such as in The Skeleton Dance. But with the loss of those two, the shift occurs to telling stories, which is what Disney would be known for in decades to come.

In The Ugly Duckling, we get a clear example of what Walt and his team are capable of when they attempt to tell a story. The characters are imbued with personality, pathos and life in a way that other Silly Symphonies have been unable to accomplish. When the duckling is cast out by his mother, a hen, the tears that he cries are heart breaking.

The animation here is not a standout in its artistry. Other than the duckling and its mother hen, the majority of the other characters are very simple, and the backgrounds and effects are nothing special. That does not detract from the storytelling, though, which is superb. As a viewer, you are always aware of where the action is, the emotions going through the characters’ minds, and you wait to see what will happen next.

That is the other thing that is accomplished here, probably for the first time. As I watched, I felt a real sense of suspense. I wanted to find out what was going to happen to the duckling. While I knew the story, I still was intrigued by what was happening and wanted to see how he would resolve things. The final scene, where the duckling rescues his brothers and sisters from their precarious perch in the river is very well done. The whole time that scene is running, the outcome is obvious, but it’s still compelling. That is the mark of a well done story.

The story is a familiar one – a duckling is born to a family of chickens, and is ugly compared to the cute little chicks. The mother hen pushes the duckling out of the family. But, when a tornado comes through, the duckling manages to warn the hen and her chicks, then saves the chicks from falling over a raging waterfall.

It is clear watching this short that story telling is where the talent of the Disney animators lies. They have the ability to create compelling characters, give the viewer a narrative to follow using those characters, and pay it off with exciting action, even if it’s just emotional action. Seeing this makes it no surprise that this was the first studio to successfully create a feature length animated film.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Mickey's Orphans

The streak of pure fun in the Mickey cartoons continues with today’s short, which is one of the absolute best of the Mickey black and white shorts. In Mickey’s Orphans, we get our first Christmas themed short, and an amazing piece of work that shows Mickey as a “parent” for the first time as well.

The basics are that a cloaked figure leaves a basket full of kittens on Mickey’s front door, in the middle of a snowstorm. The snow itself is a wonderful piece of effects animation, but the heartwarming scenes of Mickey getting ready for Christmas, playing “Silent Night” on the tree with a candy cane and the fire roaring inside are just wonderful.

Mickey brings the kittens into the house, where they proceed to wreak havoc everywhere. There’s a slight difference in the animation from the opening scene of the kittens, where they appear out of the basket to Pluto, to later scenes where they are much bigger, about half the size of Mickey and Minnie. Perhaps just a problem with not following a model sheet, or were they using model sheets yet? I’m not sure.

The scene that gave me the biggest laugh, though, was Mickey and Pluto pretending to be Santa and a reindeer. Seeing Mickey ride in behind Pluto with a sack full of toys was a delight to behold. It really showed what a good use for Mickey is, to be a person who spreads joy and finds the silver lining.

This short also gave me an insight into the limitations of Mickey. There’s no doubt in my mind that you could do this exact same premise with Donald as the homeowner and it would be funnier than this. Donald would not put up with the rampant destruction that the kittens caused in Mickey’s house, and his frustration would feed the humor. It’s easy to see how the animators were worried about having Mickey be too angry.

For example, we see the kittens sawing up couches, knocking over vases and shooting down dishes. But never do we see Mickey or Minnie show any concern or anger over these developments. That keeps the short feeling fun or happy, but it’s not entirely realistic. Since realism is not the goal, it’s fine, but you can easily see how a different character would have played this short.

The finale scene of Mickey and Minnie unveiling the Christmas tree, only to see it savaged and torn to shreds by the kittens, is a fitting cap to the short. The point here is just to have mass chaos, fast moving gags and good natured fun. All of that is achieved in spades.

It does seem that the 1931 Mickey shorts have started to fall into a good pattern that features a lot more dialogue and acting from Mickey, beyond just the singing that he did earlier. The more recent shorts feature great gags, clear storytelling and a sense of light hearted fun that makes them true classics.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mickey Cuts Up

I wrote yesterday about the “magic” that you feel when watching a good piece of Disney entertainment. But there’s something else that tends to fill your heart when watching Mickey and his pals, and that’s fun. In Mickey Cuts Up, Mickey manages to make yardwork fun, and that’s no small task.

Notice that I talk about Mickey as though he were a real person. That’s a credit to the animators and the work that has happened on the character since his debut in Steamboat Willie to this point. In this short, I noticed how little I was concerned with choices that the animators made (why make him do this?) and focused more on what Mickey was doing. He really is alive, and has become a character that lives apart from the drawing board.

Mickey has a lot of fun here, using Pluto to drag along the lawnmower and dancing along on the back. Let me say that as someone who hates to cut the grass, I found this sequence very charming. Even though I hate cutting grass, there’s some sense of satisfaction of a job well done and the smell of a fresh cut lawn when you’re done. Watching Mickey go through this really gave him more appeal to me.

Of course, Mickey can’t help but get into some mischief, and when he sees a bird sharing a song with Minnie, he climbs into a birdhouse to get in on the action. The animation of Mickey sticking his hand out of the birdhouse to imitate a bird is very well done. The interplay between he and Minnie made me smile, as did the inevitable cat that chases Mickey off the pole of the birdhouse and into a pond.

The splash into the pond starts off another great sequence, where Mickey acts like a turtle with the birdhouse on his back. It’s a simple idea, but it’s the playfulness of his actions that make you love him even more. He dances and sings like he has done so many times before, and with such a childlike innocence that the viewer falls in love.

I’d have to say though, that the dance sequence that follows the turtle scene is the weak point of the short. It’s nothing new, and doesn’t add anything to the short. It’s just Minnie and Mickey dancing and playing harmonica.

The fun ends when the cat that chased Mickey out of the birdhouse attacks Pluto, who is still chained to the lawnmower. The chase that ensues all around the yard is hilarious, with multiple instances of the lawnmower upending Mickey and Minnie, with Minnie landing on a bucket or a hose and spraying Mickey with water.

The climax is the patented chaos and destruction that is becoming a pattern with Pluto and Mickey. Pluto knocks over a set of dishes and emerges from the wreckage covered in dishes, pots and even a tea kettle. It’s the same thing we’ve seen before, but it’s still fun, just like everything else in this short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Beach Party

In my opinion, when you’re watching a Disney short, you should feel good at the end. The “magic” that is associated with Disney these days is probably more a corporate marketing term than anything else, but the origins of that came from the great feeling you would get watching Disney entertainment. The Beach Party is a great example of that. After watching it, you just feel happy.

Much of this short reminds me of one of my absolute favorite Mickey shorts, Hawaiian Holiday. Instead of Donald and Goofy joining the festivities in that short, it’s Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow here. But these gags are some of the best in Horace and Clarabelle’s career.

Mickey and the gang head to the beach to enjoy an afternoon of recreation, including a picnic. The fun ensues as we see each member of the party proceeding down the beach in a line. Horace and Clarabelle come first, then Pluto, then we see Minnie looking like she is wearing a huge hoop skirt. Then, we slowly get the reveal that it’s actually Minnie riding on top of a huge beach umbrella carried by Mickey. It’s a very fun visual trick by the animators.

Pluto again has some of the best gags in the short. Like in the later Hawaiian Holiday, he gets into it with a crab. His involvement here is limited to some circling and a quick fight, but it’s funny stuff. He also gets to drag in the main antagonist of the short, an octopus.

It starts when Mickey flings a chain of link sausages towards the ocean, and Pluto chases them. As Pluto dives into the water and manages to grab hold of the sausages, something pulls them back. It turns out to be an octopus rather than the sausages! The octopus quickly scampers onto land, menacing the beach party.

The resulting food fight with our heroes attacking the octopus is hilarious. Clarabelle serves as a cannon, getting jars loaded in her throat that she fires at the octopus. The others throw all sorts of various items at the octopus, in a futile attempt to cause retreat. Mickey finally saves the day by throwing an anchor over the octopus’ head and catching it with the tail end of the rope attached to the anchor.

That’s just a few of the gags. There are many, many more. Clarabelle gets her rear end in a tube, then loses her bloomers. Horace dives into the water as it retreats and hits his head. Pluto drinks coffee trapped on his head. All of it makes the whole short really funny and a great example of fantastic Disney animation “magic.”

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Spider and The Fly

One of the things I’ve often said is lacking in the Silly Symphonies so far has been a clear protagonist/antagonist conflict. Most of the time we have an introduction to a situation, where we get some dancing, playful gags, etc. But in The Spider and The Fly, we have a fantastic example of clear conflict.

As you can imagine, the conflict is between a villainous spider and a fly, but in truth, it’s more about the community of flies attacking the spider. We start out in an unoccupied house, where the flies have taken over. It’s much like scenes from Alice Rattled By Rats or When The Cat’s Away, only substituting flies for the rats in those earlier shorts.

The fun part of this opening is that we start on a tight shot of a fly dancing, then widen out to see that he’s upside down on the ceiling. The shot shows the entire room upside down and the flies right side up, then rotates around to the opposite way. It’s a very effective way of literally turning the viewers’ expectations upside down.

From there, we single out a small fly and his female companion, who head outside to cavort together. The evil spider shows up, though, showing obvious menace from his first appearance. This is a great example of good design, as the spider is an obvious villain, which acclimates the viewer to how things will go in the rest of the short.

The real action begins, though, when the spider traps the female fly. At that point, the male rallies his brothers, and all out war is declared on the spider. The flies conduct a military style campaign to attack the spider and release the female fly, and their methods are both effective and hilarious.

From the obvious puns of the flies riding horseflies to attack, to the bombing of the spider with pepper sacks dropped from dragonflies, this is some of the most inventive pieces of work I have seen from the Disney animators in the 1931 shorts. It’s just really good, funny stuff.

Again, though, we see a war motif here, like we have seen in some of the other shorts. Walt definitely drew on his experiences from World War I in his work, and it obviously influenced his thinking later as World War II hit the studio hard. It’s fun to see here, but will be a different tone in the wartime shorts.

The finale comes when the flies burn the web, and the spider flies off into a section of fly paper. It’s a fun ending to a fun time. The quality of the flies and their companions is not good in the animation, but it doesn’t matter. Similar to The Fox Hunt, the point is not the characters but their movements together, so there doesn’t have to be a ton of detail added to each individual. They are more than the sum of their parts, and that makes The Spider and The Fly as good as it is.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Fox Hunt

I have to admit it, I am an Anglophile. At least I think I am. I love all things British. So if that is not what that word means, then please forgive me. So it should be no surprise that I thought The Fox Hunt was a particularly good Silly Symphony.

The premise of using an old style British fox hunt as the subject for a cartoon is one that we have seen time and again in animation. There’s even a Donald/Goofy version of this short that shows up later in our viewing. But the reason its used so often is that the act involves such great humor.

Simply releasing a fox and having aristocrats chase the fox on horses is absurd enough, but throw in a pack of dogs assisting and you have several opportunities for gags. This short takes advantage of those gags in spades. It’s fast paced and funny from the moment the horn is blown.

The problem is, the horn is blown too late in the short. It’s almost halfway through the short when the fox hunt is kicked off. The first half of the short is taken up with the hunters gathering outside a blacksmith shop, or being seen in silhouette on a local hilltop.

While these are interesting shots, they don’t add to the experience. It’s the type of expository sequence you would expect in a longer film. If you recall, there was a similar set of exposition in yesterday’s short, The Barnyard Broadcast. This is what made the Warner Bros. shorts so fun, is that they gave you a quick premise and then started straight into the gags. The Disney way is possibly better storytelling (although that is debatable), but it makes the shorts a little less fun.

However, when Disney gets into features, you could see the groundwork being laid in these kinds of shorts. Nothing here is a gag for a gag’s sake. Even once the fox hunt begins, the gags feature characters involved in the pursuit. Take for instance the aristocrat who ends up getting knocked off his horse and onto a succession of different animals. He moves from a cow, to a pig, to a porcupine and finally to a log on the back of several of the hunting dogs.

The difference is, this man is the main character in this part of the short, and his pursuit of the fox makes all the difference in the ultimate outcome. He is the one that all the other hunters gather around at the end of the short, when he has the fox trapped in a log. When he ends up pulling out a skunk instead, it gives a fun ending to the proceedings.

The animation in this is rather crude by Disney standards. Most of the action takes place from a distance, with details of the characters not identifiable. Even when we do get close ups, the characters are rather bland. That said, there is great humor in this short from the gags mentioned before to the actions of the blacksmiths getting ready. In all, it makes for an enjoyable, if forgettable, short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Barnyard Broadcast

After a series of Mickey cartoons that moved away from the barnyard setting, we’re right back in the country for The Barnyard Broadcast. It’s a short that uses the pretense of a radio broadcast to set up some fun gags, but is somewhat lacking overall.

Unlike previous Mickey shorts, there’s not a lot of contribution here from the other members of the cast. Pluto had taken over most of the action in some previous Mickeys, but here it is Mickey himself who is the star. He drives the plot, introducing the radio broadcast, and pointing out all the key players.

The cartoon opens in the barn, where Mickey, Minnie, Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar are providing the orchestra for Mickey’s radio broadcast. This opening shot is very fun, because it gives us a new look at Mickey. He is the master of ceremonies and the “business” man here. Mickey is not only running the radio show, but he also goes over to the corner and checks the equipment broadcasting the signal. It’s a subtle difference from the farmer/backwoods guy that Mickey was in the past.

Soon, though, we are given an antagonist, in the form of a cat that appears in the barnyard and starts messing up the show. The cat first meows into the microphone, but soon escapes Mickey and brings in its kittens. The kittens are the real stars of the show. They cause most of the mischief, suckling on the radio knobs, inhabiting a quartet of shoes, and driving Mickey to distraction all around the barn.

What’s interesting about this short is what doesn’t happen. We get an early shot of Pluto in his doghouse, and once the cat shows up, you would expect him to break free and go pursue the cat. Pluto does get free, but he doesn’t come back into the short. Similarly, when the kittens show up inside of a set of shoes, you expect a dance sequence to ensue, but it doesn’t.

On a side note, the kittens remind me a lot of Figaro, from Pinocchio. The main cat is not in that design, but the kittens are similar. They are quite cute characters, and rightfully so take over a lot of the spotlight.

The finale again goes to the mass chaos that we saw in some of the previous shorts. Mickey chases the cat all over the barn, out the side, up a set of telephone poles and eventually through a water tower, crashing into the barn in a splash. The look on Mickey’s face at the end is priceless.

The Barnyard Broadcast is a fun short, but there are some issues with pacing. The beginning with the animals listening to the radio is rather unnecessary, as the main crux of the short is the interplay between Mickey and the cats. Once the cat shows up, though, it’s a fun ride all the way to the end.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Clock Store

Silly Symphonies have often been talked about as the place where Walt Disney let his animators try new things and experiment with the animation form. Innovations like the multiplane camera and Technicolor started in the Silly Symphonies. You can see a bit of that starting in The Clock Store.

The thing that stuck out to me on watching The Clock Store is the sophistication of the figures. Sure, there is the simple, fun silly dancing that most of these shorts have contained. But there are also a couple of sequences that show some very amazing, lifelike figures, the most detailed and human looking figures to date.

The first of those is the set on the clock that does a fine ballroom dance. Not sure if it’s a prince or princess or what the characters are supposed to represent, but in the majority of their dance, they are stunning. The characters move with grace and poise, and have realistic flow and movement unlike anything that Mickey or Pluto have done. This is clearly a first step towards the human figures that will dominate the features, like Snow White herself.

The second set of figures is no less impressive. A little Dutch boy and girl dance on the front of a clock. When the boy turns to face the camera, his rounded face and clear expressions are better than the cartoon looks we have seen in the past. While not as “realistic” as the previous set, these two people look like just that, people.

That aside, The Clock Store follows in the tradition of Midnight in a Toy Shop, in showing a glimpse of life “behind the curtain,” so to speak. It takes us into the clock shop and we see what happens after hours. That’s a tradition that keeps up time after time in Disney storytelling, all the way through the Pixar films like Toy Story.

And just to show that you can’t un-watch things, the first thing I saw in this film, the old man wandering the street lighting lamps, reminded me of Dumbledore from the first Harry Potter film. It almost made me wonder if the filmmakers of Harry Potter saw this short, because the scenes are so similar. I doubt it, but it’s interesting to wonder.

The Clock Store to me, is an example of Disney animation at its finest. It shows the skill of the animators at creating amazing characters. It also allows them to have fun and diverge into silly dances and fun, playful characters. It’s kind of a “have your cake and eat it, too” type of short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Fishin' Around

First of all, my apologies for not posting last Thursday and Friday. I was traveling and had some issues, but I will attempt to make up for it. That said, on to today’s review!

Fishin’ Around is part of what seems to be a growing format for the Mickey Mouse shorts. The basic idea is that Mickey is engaged in some sort of pursuit, in this case fishing, and is frustrated by outside influences, in this case the fish, while he and his companions endure endless gags. It’s a formula that will be repeated over and over, and it’s the stuff that good stories are made of.

There’s a little bit of the rebellious Mickey in this short, as he and Pluto row out into the lake and stop at the “No Fishin’” sign to drop their lines. Mickey even goes so far as to submerge the sign itself with a pair of horseshoes. That’s a little more of a mischievous streak than we’ve seen in Mickey in some of the other shorts of this time.

The animation in this short is quite good, with some very well done effects and personality work. The first instance of this is the opening scenes of Mickey and Pluto rowing through the water. The reflections of the two in the water, then interrupted by Mickey’s oars or fish jumping over them is a great piece of work. It goes unnoticed because people are focused on the characters in the boat, but that great detail work is part of what separates Disney from other studios.

The personality work shows up very clearly when Mickey is fishing. He constantly gets thwarted by the fish, leading to some great gags. The fish pop up out of the water and blow raspberries at him, and Mickey even manages to hook himself. His body language and facial expressions in these instances make the viewer believe the little guy is alive, not just a cartoon.

Pluto plays a vital role here as well. He engages in some fishing, dipping a line off his tail into the water, and chases the fish to the bottom of the lake. In fact, he follows the fish down and the animation is reused from his first appearance in The Chain Gang. It’s still fun, though, because of the effects of the water and the absurdity of Pluto sniffing a bloodhound trail on the bottom of the lake.

The finale comes when a sheriff notices Mickey in the “No Fishing” zone, and confronts him. There’s some fun interplay there, as the boat takes off with Pluto’s tail serving as a motor, while the sheriff tries to zoom after them paddling a log.

Fishin’ Around isn’t high art, but it’s fun. That seems to be the current mode of these Mickey shorts in 1931, though, simply to have some fun. And that is accomplished here in spades.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.