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.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very ambitious cartoon for Disney. I agree that this one is a bit more "serious" and the drama is certainly increased in this one, although it's never completely forgotten that this is a cartoon, with a wealth of clever visual gags throughout the battle.

    Certainly Disney are trying to do things they haven't attempted before and some things don't quite work yet. I imagine the aim was to create beautiful and naturalistic mermaids, but the artists can't quite pull that off just yet.

    There's a few little things in this cartoon that we may not expect to see from Disney. First off the mermaids are topless, I suppose the idea was to keep them naturalistic, but they are nipple-less in most (not all) scenes, an attempt to tone down the nudity perhaps? Still certain references to sexuality can be found throughout the cartoon with Neptune playfully trying to grab at the mermaids and the rather brutal pirates who pull at the red-head's hair and jump on top of her. Gee, I wonder what they plan to do to her! I suppose she'd be safe from the one stereotype gay pirate on the ship, however! This one also includes rough, drunken violence and a pirate with a bloody sword!

    I think some of these early colour cartoons would benefit from a more extensive restoration. I do think colour is put to good use to this one – watch how it changes to suit the mood of the scene.

    In addition to colour there is another important change happening with the Silly Symphonies – the use of original songs. Walt Disney often used original songs in his entertainment. It's hard to think of many Walt Disney films, T.V shows or them park attractions that don't have at least one unique song. So far in our journey, however, we haven't seen much of this. Carl Stalling wrote Mickey a theme song and "Mother Goose Melodies" set nursery rhymes to original tunes, but that's it! With Neptune though, the frequency of Disney songs begins to increase. "I'm Neptune King of the sea and a jolly old king am I!"


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