Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Santa's Workshop

I know it’s only September, about to be October, but isn’t it time for Christmas? I’m sure the malls are getting their decorations out, so why can’t we have a little Christmas fun here on the Disney Film Project? Today’s Silly Symphony is Santa’s Workshop, a fun little film highlighting the activity at the North Pole.

This one is definitely a Silly Symphony, from the music to the activity in the short, it’s silly and all set to music. The subject is, obviously, Santa’s Workshop, and all the activity that takes place to get ready for Christmas. So that means lots of elves making toys set to music. That makes it a quick moving short made of little snapshots of all the areas of the workshop.

There is no overarching story with conflict, etc. here, but instead it’s a progression of scenes moving from the different toys being made, to shots of Santa approving toys or reading his nice/naughty list. The amazing thing about this short, though, is the level of detail.

In seemingly every shot in this short, there is an overabundance of details that make it a richer, deeper looking short than we have seen before. Whereas the Mickey shorts or earlier Silly Symphony shorts featured some sparse backgrounds and focused on the characters, the fun of Santa’s Workshop is the detail in the background.

The wide shot of the workshop starts it, but every shot is full of toys, games and more that are being made by the elves. When Santa is standing and approving the toys, you see a stack of toys all around him. Normally, this would be just neat little boxes, but this short packs in a huge pile of toys, adding more authenticity to the workshop.

The other standout thing in Santa’s Workshop is the gags. I am not a Santa historian, but this has to be one of the first times we have seen modern machinery at work in Santa’s workshop. There are hobby horses being produced on an assembly line, with gears and conveyor belts, and of course, my personal favorite – the dolls that get scared so their hair stands up and they can get a perm applied.

When Santa saddles up his sleigh and leaves, the short ends, but the good feelings don’t. This is not a perfect short, to be sure. It doesn’t engage like other Silly Symphonies have, so you’re left with a little, fluffy piece of work that doesn’t leave any indelible memories. But it does engender some happy, Christmas thoughts, and that may be enough.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Babes in the Woods

We return to the Silly Symphonies today, and also return to color, after the brief detour into black and white for Bugs in Love. It’s also a return to fairy tales, as Babes in the Woods, today’s short, is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, with some added twists.

The short uses a framing sequence, which is something new for the Silly Symphonies. We are greeted by a scene of Witch Rock, a very idyllic scene as nature frolics around the rock while a singer expounds on the scene. We are told that we will learn how this rock came to be, and that is what the story is about.

The meat of the short is driven by the titular babes in the woods, who are Hansel and Gretel, even if they are not named. They are weak character designs, in my opinion, with mere dark circles for eyes and mouth, similar to the mermaids in King Neptune. This limits their facial expressions, which is critical to human characters. Despite that, some great visual gags of having animals form scary faces on the trees and ground get the point across that they are terrified of being in the woods.

This is a precursor of sorts to a similar scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when Snow White runs through the woods and is terrorized by floating logs that look like alligators or trees that look alive. Interesting to see it utilized here first.

The babes come across a group of gnomes, in a departure from the Hansel and Gretel tale. They befriend the gnomes, engaging in some serious partying before the witch breaks things up. Just a fun note – the song the gnomes sing as they dance around the babes is very similar to “The Merry Old Land of Oz” from The Wizard of Oz film that is still 7 years away from being made at this point. I don’t believe that there’s a connection between the two, but just found it funny.

The kids are lured away by the witch, apparently unfazed by the fact that the gnomes scattered and hid when she appeared. It’s pretty funny that the kids don’t worry about that and get on her broom anyway, merely for the promise of some candy. The candy house is there, of course, but it’s a trap, as the witch draws them inside to torment them.

The scenes with the witch in the house are very dark. She introduces the kids to the snakes, spiders and rats that she has turned other children into, and transforms the boy into a spider. It’s quite scary, and shows a side of Disney animation I don’t think we’ve seen before.

The gnomes come to the rescue, of course, in a scene reminiscent of the many insect/animal charges we have seen in other Silly Symphonies. The Witch Rock gets formed when our heroes transform the other kids back into their human selves, and they manage to have the witch fall into a vat of her own potions. She creeps her way across the screen, ending up as the rock from the beginning.

The use of the framing device is very well done, and it makes the story complete. I have to say that the use of color really makes a difference here as well. It’s the first time I felt that this short could not have been done without the color. That was not the case with earlier shorts. All in all, a very solid effort by the Disney team.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Parade of the Award Nominees

A shorter review today, because today’s subject is all about the visuals. It’s an unreleased short, called The Parade of the Award Nominees, that was produced for the Oscars in 1932. Normally, this would not be a very significant short in the history of the company, but this one is. Why? Because it gives us our first glimpse of Mickey and the gang in Technicolor!

Yes, that’s our friend Mickey Mouse, leading a parade of the Oscar nominees across the screen. The animation is simple and there’s not a lot of characters other than Mickey and the gang, but seeing them in color is very interesting.

Note Mickey’s pants first of all. They’re green! I’m not a toy/merchandise collector, so I don’t know if that’s the case in the toys of this time, but seeing Mickey with green pants is quite a shock to those of us who have seen the familiar red, black and yellow color scheme for so long. Also note Mickey’s outfit, similar to what he would wear in The Band Concert, one of his most famous color shorts.

Next, we’ve got Minnie, carrying a banner announcing the presence of the nominees, but her color scheme is also interesting. We’re used to the pink and white polka dots now, but here we see a Minnie in a teal/light blue number. Very interesting.

It’s also interesting to see Clarabelle used in this short. As we’ve seen, Goofy has been making more and more appearances in the shorts, but he’s not present here. Clarabelle makes her appearance as part of the parade, throwing flowers and the like.

Pluto is the last of the Disney characters, bringing up the rear after the award nominees, with “The End” affixed to his tail. Cute gag. His coloring scheme is a little off as well, more of a muted brown/gray than the orange color we know today.

As far as the nominees themselves, I’m sure they would be good if I knew who they were. As someone who loves some old movies (watch Turner Classic Movies everyone!), I should know these, but I don’t. I believe this is Frederic March, from his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but other than that, I don’t know the others.

As I said, the fun in this one is watching our favorite Disney guys and gal in color for the first time. It’s interesting to see how these simple designs would later become etched in stone not only from the design but also their color scheme.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Klondike Kid

Walt and his crew are in fine form at this point in 1932, producing mainly Mickey Mouse shorts, and taking longer to put out the Technicolor Silly Symphonies. It’s not surprising, then, to see The Klondike Kid, one of the finest of the Mickey shorts, come out of this period.

The Klondike Kid is everything you want from a Mickey Mouse short – it features Mickey in a lead role, Pluto causing chaos, Minnie as a damsel in distress and Pete as the menacing villain. On top of all that, it’s extremely funny, well animated and features some classic gags. All together, that makes it one of the very best Mickeys.

There’s so much to talk about here. Start with the kinetics of the Klondike Bar that Mickey is playing piano in when the short opens. We get a great wide shot of the bar featuring some great work by the animators of making each grouping of people distinct and funny. Take your time, and watch this shot over and over. There are gags everywhere, even though it’s just a wide shot.

Minnie’s appearance into the short is quite different than any other we’ve seen from her. She wanders up to the window to peer in, a quiet, lonely figure peering in at the fun and warmth inside. It’s a much more vulnerable side of Minnie than we have seen in other shorts. Mickey, being the big hearted mouse that he is, pulls her inside and tries to warm her up.

Their dialogue at this point is a high point of the short. Both claim that they’re nobodies who have no one in their lives. It’s clear we are meant to forget previous shorts, which is fine. But the instant bond formed between the two of them is very well done, and the dialogue is clear and well voiced, which has not always been the case.

Pete has to show up, of course, and shocks the entire bar as he does. Within moments, he gets into a firefight with everyone in the bar. This is another great piece of work, as the lights go out, and the only thing we see are flashes of light from the guns, illuminating Pete or his adversaries in turn.

The rest of the short is fairly predictable, as Pete kidnaps Minnie and Mickey pursues, using Pluto as his sled dog. That part is pretty funny, since Pluto is easily distracted, and ends up chasing a rabbit instead. A rabbit? Yes, it’s a rabbit that looks remarkably like our old friend Oswald.

The finale is a big chaotic mess, but in a good way. Mickey crashes into Pete’s cabin, Pluto rolls into a giant snowball, the cabin tears loose and begins sliding down a hill, and finally everything crashes into a stack of logs and snow with Mickey, Pluto and Minnie on top.

Klondike Kid is fun. It takes our familiar friend Mickey and casts him in the role of rescuer again, but provides more of the trademarks from his domestic shorts, like Pluto causing chaos. As such, it’s a great combination of the two types of shorts, and becomes one of the best Mickeys of all time.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Wayward Canary

The Mickey cartoons of the 1930s have really hit their stride, taking cues from earlier Disney animation such as Oswald and Alice and turning the old gags into new fodder. That continues with The Wayward Canary, which takes the idea of animals running wild in the house to a new place with the addition of the canaries.

The thought is simple – Mickey brings home a beautiful canary as a present to Minnie. They start playing music and encourage the canary to join in, then it is revealed that the canary actually came with a flock of baby birds, who proceed to get loose from the cage and join in the fun. Of course, as in any good Disney production, something goes horribly wrong, and hilarity ensues.

The animation of the canary and its babies is superb. Seeing that many birds flying around Mickey and Minnie, going back and forth from foreground to background, you realize how difficult that had to be. Now, those effects would be done with computers, duplicating the birds. But in 1932, it was all done by hand, and done very well.

This is a repeat of some earlier shorts, in theme if not the entire story. Mickey’s Orphans and Mickey’s Nightmare featured his children running through the house and destroying things, whereas this features the canaries wreaking havoc. That makes this somewhat unique, and very interesting.

There are some interesting little Easter eggs hidden in this short as well. As the canaries are playing throughout the house, we see some framed portraits autographed and addressed to Mickey. One is of Douglas Fairbanks, and the other looks to be Mary Pickford, although I’m not certain on that one. But the inclusion of these is interesting, since Walt wanted Mickey to be a cartoon version of Fairbanks when he started out.

As has been the case with most of the recent Mickeys, the gags are fast and furious in this one. Watching the canaries run wild in the house, we get them dipping themselves in ink, so that they leave a lengthy trail everywhere they go, staining shirts, carpet and more. Pluto even gets into the action, as one of the canaries flips a hot coal from the fire into his bottom. And of course, Mickey and Minnie’s efforts to catch the canaries are just as funny.

The finale is cliché at this point as well, but it works, so why change? Pluto and Mickey chase the last canary through the yard, trying to save it from a cat while also trapping it. Predictably, they destroy everything in sight.

The fun of this short is seeing the creative ways that the animators had the canaries do their damage. Having them drop creative ink patterns on a shirt, or having Mickey run with flower pots on his feet are just a couple of examples. It feels like they took some extra time with this one to come up with more creative gags, and it shows.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Touchdown Mickey

Touchdown Mickey! I love Touchdown Mickey! It could be because it’s football season, or it could be because I love football, but this is a fantastic short. Of course, it also could be because I remember seeing it played at Casey’s Corner in the Magic Kingdom, so it brings back some great vacation memories.

Of course, it’s also a sports themed short, which is a little bit of a departure for the Disney studio. We have seen some bullfighting, boxing and the like, but nothing with the major sports. Sports themed shorts are some of my all time favorites, especially the Goofy “How To” shorts and one of my non-Disney faves – Baseball Bugs.

This one features old time football, with leather helmets and no pads, and is packed full of gags from beginning to end. The short even opens in the 4th quarter of the football game, with Mickey scoring a touchdown. It’s a very effective opening, too, because it drops you right into the game with the tension mounting, as Mickey’s team is down 7 after he scores, with only minutes to go.

The remaining time after that is a wild ride, with Goofy in the radio booth providing commentary. As far as I know, this looks like the first time that Pinto Colvig has given the Goof a voice outside of his trademark laugh. But it shows that Goofy is assuming more of a role in Mickey’s cast, as he, Minnie and Pluto are all featured here, but Clarabelle and Horace are not.

The opponents to Mickey’s Manglers is of course, a team full of Pete clones. This makes for some great comedy as the Pete team goes up against Mickey’s team of misfits. Mickey’s team is a smaller, mismatched team, including a goat, a dachshund, a large pig and more animals.

The gags in this are fast and furious. There is some great, funny stuff here. Just a few examples: as Mickey runs downfield, his pig teammate turns into a steamroller, flattening the Pete team one by one. Another – when Mickey’s team kicks off, Mickey as the holder of the ball gets kicked into the air as well, flying across the field. That’s just two examples, but there are gags flying by in every frame of this short.

Of course, this short includes the cliché of Mickey scoring the winning touchdown, this time as he’s dragged underground by the Petes. Mickey and Minnie get carried off the field on the torn down goal posts, and manage a quick kiss as they march off.

Touchdown Mickey is exactly what I want from a Mickey Mouse short. It’s fast paced, funny and features characters I love. There’s no outstanding technical achievement or groundbreaking animation that I can find, but that’s okay. It’s entertaining, and that’s fantastic.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bugs In Love

For some strange reason, the latest Silly Symphony, Bugs In Love, returns to black and white, after the advent of color with Flowers and Trees and King Neptune. Despite that, it remains an extremely entertaining short that features some top shelf animation.

In truth, this short is really a remake of The Spider and the Fly, an earlier Silly Symphony that also focused on bugs (flies in that case) falling in love then being menaced by a large adversary. In that case it was a spider, but here it is a crow. Then as now, the other bugs rally behind the young lovers to defeat the villain.

The opening of this short shows the bugs at play, and it’s a fascinating piece of work. We see the bugs making makeshift amusement rides from corsets, record players and a plethora of other devices. It brings to mind not only the Pixar film A Bug’s Life, but the real life representation of that film, A Bug’s Land, at Disney’s California Adventure. Again, one always has to wonder how much inspiration for later Disney projects was drawn from these early films.

The young lovers in this case are great characters. The female bug plays hard to get a little, flying into her home to put on makeup, apply lipstick and wait for the male to come and woo her. The personality oozes from both of these characters, in some really fine work by the Disney staff. Without either of them uttering a word, you feel their affection for each other. Okay, they may write words, but the tale is told even before that happens.

The crow that comes in to attack the two is a masterful villain as well. He is instantly recognizable as the bad guy, and the sense of menace is palpable when he shows up. The crow’s movements and attacks are realistic and terrifying. He manages to lock up the male and chase the female across her home, knocking furniture flying along the way.

The bugs attacking the crow is really the weakest part of the short in my opinion. It could be because we’ve seen it so many times before, but the intensity seems lacking in this one.

It’s interesting here that the male bug is not the dominant figure in the short. Usually, in this style of Disney short, the male saves the female from the dangerous villain, but in this case, that doesn’t happen. The male gets bottled up, literally, at first, then once he’s released he gets captured in an eye dropper. It’s the work of the bugs at large and his woman that gets him out.

The final scene ends up with the two love bugs kissing in triumph. The work in this short on these two characters is fantastic. As a viewer, you find yourself rooting for them throughout and hoping for the best. They end up together, as in any good Disney short, and you end up with a very emotionally satisfying and consistent ending. Bugs in Love is just that – an emotionally satisfying short that features some very nice animation.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Whoopee Party

The Whoopee Party may be an odd title for a short, but the contents give us an interesting and funny short that shows a little glimpse of the future. In many ways, this is a transitional short, with the integration of some of Mickey’s past and future all in one package.

As we’ve seen, Mickey started off his career with a couple of friends in addition to Minnie and Pluto – Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar. In this short, he adds Goofy to the mix. And, for the first time, Goofy mixes things up with Clarabelle, Horace and Minnie. Pluto’s absent in this one, but it’s all good, as Goofy shows his comedic chops.

The subject of the short is really just one big party. Mickey and Minnie are the hosts, but a plethora of animals have joined the fun, with a huge dance floor full of eager dancers. Minnie provides the music at the piano for the majority of the short, while Mickey opens up with Horace and Goofy in the kitchen making food. Goofy gets the honor of unveiling the food to the masses, causing the predictable stampede to get snacks.

This is another Mickey short that has a rhythm and flow to it, with every action taking place to a steady beat. The music picks things up, as there’s really not a lot of story here, but having the characters swing along to the rhythm keeps things swinging. Even inanimate objects get into the act, such as a pair of lamps flipping on and off in time with the music.

Ultimately, the cops show up to break up the party, but instead decide to join in the fun. The final scenes of the short feature Minnie and Mickey dancing up a storm surrounded by the policemen. It makes for a cute and emotionally satisfying ending.

There are some issues with the short, however. For one thing, Minnie doesn’t have much of a role. She spends the majority of the cartoon seated at a piano, and with the exception of an animated stool giving her trouble, there’s not a great gag associated with her. In fact, most of the characters in this short get upstaged by Goofy.

In addition to his role in preparing the snacks and unveiling them, Goofy gets another great gag when he takes a party noisemaker and uses it to goose Clarabelle. The interaction between the two of them is very well done and very funny. It makes me smile thinking of how they would interact in The Three Musketeers, the direct to video film with Mickey, Donald and Goofy that came out a few years back. That film seemed like a throwback at the time, and it’s nice to see that there was a basis for the Goofy-Clarabelle relationship in that movie.

And of course, the story in this one is pretty weak. There’s no real conflict or struggle for Mickey to overcome, so you’re left with a short, fun but fluffy piece of work. And that’s just fine for one short, but it’s not sustainable for multiple shorts. That’s why you’ve seen more of the Mickeys feature fun stories with conflicts as we move on through the years.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 18, 2009

King Neptune

Color continues to play a role in the Silly Symphonies with King Neptune, the second in the series to be produced in Technicolor. The colors here are still not overwhelming, and they fit the short, but perhaps are not used as well as they were in Flowers and Trees. But the big thing that struck me from this short is how much it had to have influenced a later Disney animated production.

This seven minute short gives us much of the same story beats and scenes as The Little Mermaid, which would come over fifty years later. But the similarities are so obvious, that I have to think that Muskers and Clements used this short as inspiration for their classic feature.

The undersea creatures forming a band, the clamshell opening to reveal mermaids, the large magical sea lord rising from the ocean to menace a lone ship, including stirring the sea with a trident – all of it can be seen in King Neptune as well as in The Little Mermaid. The similarities are stunning to someone who has seen both films.

That said, King Neptune is quite an entertaining film, and it’s a definite tonal shift from some of the earlier Silly Symphonies. In fact there is very little “silly” about this short, with most of it being composed of a battle between the sea creatures and a band of pirates.

Once the pirates sail into Neptune’s waters, they try to kidnap the mermaids, and the sea animals take arms to defend their sisters. Octopus stand on two legs and use the others to attack, birds lift lobsters up like bombs, and a whale blasts swordfish out of his mouth as a way to cut the sails of the pirate ship. We even have a whale serving as an ersatz aircraft carrier. It’s a great sequence, but it’s very serious. There is less of the light hearted fun of earlier Silly Symphonies when animals ganged up on an adversary, and more of the life and death you’d expect from a battle.

It’s Neptune, of course, who decides the battle. He lifts up from the sea and impales the ship, then drives it down to the depths. Here, he looks much like Ursula from The Little Mermaid as she menaces Prince Eric’s ship. The evil intent in his eyes as he erupts from the sea and attacks again contributes to a more serious tone.

If I have complaints about King Neptune, it’s in the character designs and the color. The designs are overly simplistic for such a sophisticated storyline. The mermaids are amorphous from the waist up, with mere dark circles for eyes and a mouth. They come off as dead and expressionless. Similarly, the pirates and King Neptune have red bulbous noses that make them look very silly and insignificant for such a serious battle.

The color in this one gets very muted in the under the sea sequences. The rushing white that implies the waves overshadows a lot of the color, but there is less color in this than in Flowers and Trees. It really seems that the animator designs have not caught up to the fact that they can use color now, and they don’t allow for that. All in all, though, I view King Neptune as a nice experiment in a more serious short that succeeds fairly well.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trader Mickey

What to say about Trader Mickey? It’s definitely a classic Mickey short, in the sense that it follows along with many of the things you’d expect to see in a 1930s Mickey cartoon. But it also harkens back a bit to some earlier shorts, giving us a little more music and frivolity than we have seen in a while with Mickey. It all comes together to make a fun little seven minute package.

The basics are that Mickey is a trader, bringing instruments to the dark jungle on his boat, when he gets captured by cannibals. The opening sequence, with Mickey and Pluto on the boat, is a delight to behold. There is so much kinetic energy there, with hippos popping up around them, Pluto barking at the water and the movement of the boat. It’s a fantastic piece of animation that shows what the animators are capable of doing.

Once captured, though, this short runs in familiar territory. In many ways, it’s similar to Alice Cans the Cannibals, but really borrows more from Cannibal Capers, the early Silly Symphony. The characters in this short could have been borrowed from Cannibal Capers, with the exception of the chief and a couple others. That doesn’t detract from the fact that they are good designs.

The cannibal characters start raiding Mickey’s boat and stealing his instruments, but they don’t know ho to use them, which leads to some very funny gags. The chief wears a corset on his head, a cannibal blows into a violin, another sticks his head in the wrong end of a horn and so on. Each one is better than the last. The comedy builds throughout the sequence in inverse proportion to the danger of Mickey being placed in the soup pot. It’s a great contrast, with the hilarity of the cannibals masking the danger of Mickey about to be eaten.

The last half of the short, though, is a throwback to earlier Mickey shorts, featuring an extended musical sequence. But it’s done in a clever way, as Mickey steals the saxophone from the cook and begins playing it to divert the attention of the cannibals. It works, as the chief starts tapping his feet and playing along, and soon everyone joins in.

The continued misuse of the instruments by the cannibals as they join the musical sequence provides great comedy, and the visuals of having Mickey dance with the cannibals is pretty funny as well.

The ending comes with the chief joining Mickey in a dance and falling backwards into the soup pot. It’s another fun visual in a short that is full of them. This short reminds me of the early shorts, in that the focus is on gags and fun visuals, even though there is a good story involved. It contributes to the sense of fun all throughout the short.

Trader Mickey might be my favorite short of 1932 so far. It’s funny, features great characters, and has striking animation at times. This one is highly recommended.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.