Friday, October 30, 2009

The Night Before Christmas

I’m a sucker for Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday of them all. Halloween is a close second, but Christmas is my favorite. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that The Night Before Christmas was a great delight to me.

This is an unofficial sequel to Santa’s Workshop, the earlier Silly Symphony that featured Santa and the elves getting ready for Christmas night. Here, we get to see the fruits of that labor, as Santa delivers the toys to the boys and girls who have been waiting for them all year long.

This is presented as an interpretation of the famous poem by the same name, but the poem is used as a framing device more than anything. The words of the poem are sung at the beginning, until Santa arrives at the house. From that point until near the end of the short, the action is all about Santa delivering the toys, which does not follow the poem.

The Santa presented here is the same one that was in Santa’s Workshop, with a red bulbous nose and overstated girth. You might recall that I did not enjoy that style then, and I still don’t. But in this short, it seems to fit better, because Santa is the magical person in an ordinary world, which makes it seem more realistic, if that makes sense.

The fun part of this is looking at how people were celebrating Christmas in 1933, versus how things are done today. I had forgotten about the fact that many people, per the German tradition, did not set up their tree until Christmas Eve, to reveal it to the children the next morning. In the short, Santa brings the tree and the toys help him set it up.

We get to see a parade of the toys, which is a familiar Disney theme. We saw in Santa’s Workshop, in an earlier Silly Symphony, Midnight in a Toy Shop, and it pops up again later in things like Babes in Toyland and in the parks with the Christmas parade. Here, we even get a familiar face in the parade.

This Mickey Mouse toy is a cute addition, because it really was a popular toy at the time. I have one that was my grandfather’s, and have copies that were made later as a “retro” toy that my son played with. It’s a nice little Easter egg for this short.

Of course, the Christmas spirit is front and center in this. It really warms my heart to see the toys gathered around the tree, and how they dive for cover when the kids come down the stairs. It’s like an early version of Toy Story. Funny how these early shorts seem to influence later films again and again. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The final scenes where Junior gets a puppy and Santa leaves the house just add to the overall fun of the short. This is one that tugs at the heart strings, and leaves you in the mood to hang some twinkling lights. If you’re like me, the malls already have them up, so start getting in the spirit!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Uncle Mickey Mouse is something we’ve seen a few times so far, in shorts like Mickey’s Orphans. Mickey seems like a good parent, and in Giantland, today’s subject, he goes to the time honored tradition of telling your kids a story. What a story it is, too.

Mickey tells his nephews the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, with Mickey playing the role of Jack. What’s so interesting to me is that this is a story that would be retold later in the Disney features, as part of Fun and Fancy Free. That story features Donald and Goofy as well, and fleshes out the story over a featurette rather than a short.

This short skips the portion of the story with Jack and the cow and the magic beans, and goes straight to Mickey climbing the beanstalk to Giantland. We are told it is Giantland by the sign on the ground as Mickey reaches the top, then hitches a ride on a butterfly to the castle of the Giant.

It’s not long until we are introduced to the Giant, who comes trodding down the path, singing that he is “the King of the Giants.” That’s rather odd, because there are no other giants in the short, so I’m not entirely sure who he is the king of, exactly. His introduction is a great piece of animation, though. We see the full shot of the giant, then go to a close up of his feet, and the world seems to turn underneath the power of his feet. It’s quite a good effect, and the first time we’ve seen something like that in a while.

You can imagine what happens from there. Mickey gets onto the dinner table of the Giant, unbeknownst to the big guy. He hides in the sugar bowl, in the cheese, and eventually gets swallowed by the Giant in a sandwich. That leads to the funniest part of the film.

Mickey hangs out in the Giant’s mouth for a good minute or two, dodging peas as the Giant drops them in, then sticks a pipe in and starts smoking Mickey out. The pipe is the one that gets Mickey, as he blows back into the pipe and spurts tobacco all over the room.

The mouth segment is funny, but then you have Mickey’s escape, which is pretty good as well. He manages to launch pepper into the Giant’s face, with an elaborate fork/spoon lever system, and escape out the front door.

One interesting twist here, though, is instead of chopping the beanstalk down when the Giant chases him, Mickey lights it on fire. The Giant is menaced by the firelings, my favorite little guys. Seriously, I want a plush of the little firelings. Disney, get on that.

In the end, Mickey prevails, of course. This short offers a good glimpse of Mickey the hero, who we don’t get to see as often anymore. It suffers though, from not having any of the supporting characters around. No Pluto or Minnie to offer a foil to Mickey. That’s really the only flaw I see, however, as this is a very entertaining and fun short to watch.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Pet Store

Mickey as a working stiff is not something we’ve seen a lot of in his shorts, but in today’s subject, The Pet Store, Mickey is out on the town and picks up a job. As is the usual in Disney shorts, something goes horribly wrong, leading to hilarious consequences.

The main focus of this short is Mickey getting a job in Tony Dinero’s pet store. As you can imagine, Tony is an Italian stereotype, but that doesn’t stop him from being funny. One of the great little jokes in this short are all the signs littered around the pet shop that features writing in an Italian accent, such as “Birda Seed Cheep.” They’re in almost every scene, and you have to have a sharp eye to catch them, but it’s worth the hunt. All of them are very funny.

As I said, getting the job is only step one for Mickey. After that, he has to perform the job, and that proves a little trickier. Tony leaves the store for lunch, leaving Mickey in charge. Mickey reverts back to his earlier self a bit, using some of the birds in the store as tools to get his job done, like sweeping trash into a pelican’s mouth or using another exotic bird as a grabber to stack bird seed. This harkens back to his earliest shorts, when Mickey always used the local wildlife as tools.

Minnie comes into the store and distracts him, as any good woman is wont to do. Minnie is thrilled to see Mickey in the store, and comes in to say hello. She then starts singing and gets the animals involved. They all start singing along, and Mickey and Minnie start dancing. Seriously, if you’re an employer, why would you hire someone who starts dancing at the drop of a hat? Not a great example, Mickey.

The twist in this one comes with our old friend Beppo the Gorilla. Beppo is in a cage in the store, and starts reviewing a movie magazine. The first picture he comes across is Stan Laurel, and Beppo does an imitation of him. The second picture he sees is King Kong. You can guess what comes next.

Yes, after grabbing Minnie, Beppo scales a tower of cages and boxes, and fights off the attacks of birds and other pets trying to knock him down. Mass chaos ensues in the pet store. It’s a throwback to some of the Silly Symphonies, like The Spider and The Fly or The Bird Store, where the inhabitants team up to attack an interloper.

Mickey and Minnie choose discretion as the better part of valor here, and after Minnie is freed, they run for the hills. It’s funny and quite different than what you would expect. Normally, we get to see Mickey give his embarrassed or sheepish face when the boss shows up. This time, though, Mickey runs like crazy. Can’t say as I blame him.

This is a great short, full of good gags, great work on Mickey and Minnie by the animators, and fun stuff with Beppo. They even make Beppo sympathetic by introducing his wild side as a result of the magazine, not a natural characteristic. Good work all around and well worth the viewing.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Steeple Chase

The Steeple Chase is the first Mickey short in a while to feature a sports theme. As a long time Disney cartoon lover, it’s only natural that you would compare this to the later Goofy shorts, where the loveable Goof showed us how to play sports. This is not one of those types of shorts, but it shares many of the traits with those Goofy classics.

The set up to this one is actually rather complex for a Mickey short. Mickey is the jockey of Thunderbolt, a prize horse ready to run in the steeple chase. The horse belongs to the Colonel, an old man who is sponsoring Mickey in the race. The Colonel wants Mickey and Thunderbolt to win.

Unfortunately, when Mickey and the Colonel leave the stables, Thunderbolt gets into the moonshine, and drinks a whole bottle. That leaves Thunderbolt out cold, after some crazy antics at the expense of the stable boys.

Regardless, Mickey realizes that he has to run the race and win, or he’ll break the Colonel’s heart. It reminds me a lot of old Spider-Man comics, where Spider-Man thought he had to do things all the time because otherwise his poor old Aunt May would pass away, presumably from the shock to her system. What is poor Mickey to do?

With the help of the stable boys, he grabs a horse costume and enters the race riding on the backs of the stable boys. One interesting thing to note here is that the stable boys look like a thinner version of the Beagle Boys, the villains from the Scrooge McDuck cartoons and comics. I don’t think they are officially appearing as the Beagle Boys, but the design is the same.

Regardless, the race itself is the fun part of the short, as the costume horse struggles to catch up. The gags aren’t the best ever, but they are fun, including the horse going under hurdles and throwing Mickey over, the horse waddling into a pond and getting attacked by bees. As you could imagine, the bees are the impetus for the win by Mickey and crew.

While the other horses tap the beehive with their tails while going over a hurdle, the costume horse gets tangled up and is stung repeatedly. This is where it really reminded me of the Goofy cartoons, because it was non stop from that point forward. The bees kept hitting the horse, spurring it on and over other horses until Mickey won.

In the end, having won the race, Mickey accepts the prize for the Colonel. What’s interesting is that we do not see the Colonel again, after the beginning of the short. Since his happiness played such a big role, you would expect to see him again, but there’s only Mickey’s mention of him in his acceptance speech.

The Steeple Chase is good, but not great. I enjoyed it, but it is not as good as the Goofy sports themed shorts, nor quite as entertaining as some of the 1933 Mickeys. Still, it’s a pretty good short with some interesting elements, that I hope everyone will enjoy.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Pied Piper

If you’re like me, you are somewhat familiar with the tale of the Pied Piper, even if you don’t know all the details. That made the prospect of viewing Disney’s Silly Symphony version a happy one. And it did not disappoint, but the ending was quite a surprise for me, because I had forgotten that particular aspect of the story.

Start with the animation work here. It is fantastic. The animation of the characters is extremely well done, with each human figure having different features, and even the rats of Hamelin are distinct and different from one another. That’s quite a feat when you’re drawing rats or a crowd scene of people, but the people we see up close are all distinct. This short had to have taken a long time to draw.

You also get amazing characterization in the animation. There are two main characters in the short – the Pied Piper and the Mayor of Hamlin. Both are instantly recognizable as the protagonist and antagonist, respectively. The Mayor’s grubby hands and scheming eyes come to the forefront first thing, as does the Pied Piper’s earnest eyes and carefree, innocent nature.

As far as the story goes, it’s familiar, I’m sure. The rats have overrun the town of Hamelin, and the populace is revolting. The mayor promises a bag of gold to the person who can rid the town of the rats. He says this just as the Pied Piper strolls into town, so naturally, the newcomer takes him up on the offer.

As the Pied Piper plays, he leads the rats out the front gates, and off into a field, making them believe that there’s a large block of cheese there for them. However, when he returns for his bag of gold, the Mayor decides to double cross him, and refuses.

This is the part I did not remember. The Pied Piper curses the town, because it’s not just the Mayor who jeers at him from above. The Piper tells the townsfolk that he will steal their children, because the kids should not grow up as evil as they are. The Mayor challenges him to do his worst. Bad move.

The Piper’s playing brings out the children, who follow him to a mountain hideaway, full of toys, as the song “Toyland” plays. I do not know the history of this song, but I know it’s a popular one today at the Disney Parks around Christmas time. Was this the first time the song was performed? Or was it a popular song before this?

Regardless, the short ends with the children in the Toyland, and the townspeople mad at the mayor. It’s a great story, with real consequences, and not necessarily a happy ending, which is rare for Disney. The ending is really a morally ambiguous one, and that’s not something you see from short cartoons. Very interesting and extremely well done.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Puppy Love

Poor Mickey. He has been attempting to woo Minnie for around six years as we reach today’s short, Puppy Love, and he still hasn’t figured out how to do it. I guess the problem continues to this day, since they are technically not married. Puppy Love demonstrates the problems that Mickey keeps running into when trying to win Minnie’s affections.

Mickey and Pluto turn up at Minnie’s door ready for love. The gags all around them support the flavor of amour in the air. We see a pair of birds cooing to each other, squirrels snuggling up and even a fountain of Cupid and his paramour. The scene is set quickly and efficiently for a romantic rendezvous.

Mickey arrives with chocolates and presents them to Minnie before we get the two of them involved in the short’s main theme, “Puppy Love.” I’m not sure if this was a popular song or an original composition, but it’s a catchy, jazzy tune, and Minnie takes the lead singing and dancing around.

You know that this cannot last, and that’s obvious from the set up. In past shorts, you might have seen the two simply get along and dance through the rest of the cartoon without any worries. But something is different about the Mickey shorts now, and conflict and story telling is paramount now.

The twist here is that Pluto is the one who gets things started. He steals the chocolates and presents them to Minnie’s dog Fifi. While Fifi loves them, Minnie is understandably upset when Mickey presents her with the package, and she sees a bone there instead of chocolates. Of course, Pluto had put the bone there, but that doesn’t stop everyone from getting upset and storming off.

Mickey, in a nice subtle gag, even gets so upset that he grabs Minnie’s hat by mistake. It makes for a nice juxtaposition as he slams the door on the way out, knocks over Minnie’s fence, and goes to pout on a trash can, Pluto by his side.

Of course, all gets resolved, and Minnie finds out that it was Pluto and Fifi who had the mix up, not Mickey. But in the meantime, after she was the one who got mad, she starts crying that Mickey is upset with her. It’s funny, because of the sudden mood shift, but also because it’s relatable.

Puppy Love isn’t perfect. The musical number goes on a bit too long, and the character of Fifi isn’t there for much other than a plot device. But those are very minor quibbles on what is a great short overall.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lullaby Land

If you’re going to follow up Old King Cole, which was a Silly Symphony that I did not like, with another Silly Symphony, then it better be a good one. Lullaby Land is that, and in spades. It is an absurdist dream, full of creativity and extremely engaging.

So what makes this one so good? Let’s start with the main character – it’s a baby. A toddler if you want to split hairs, but the design is more of a baby. But rather than go with the overstated features and out there designs of Old King Cole or King Neptune, this child is designed with realistic features and proportions. It makes a huge difference.

Taking an exaggerated child and placing him in a surreal world would not have worked. By having the child be realistic and the environment around him change into fantastic visions, the animators made each of them better. And boy, did they ever come up with some amazing things in the Lullaby Land.

Everything from the moment the child falls out of a tree and lands in Lullaby Land is absurd on a whole different level. This is somewhat new territory for the Disney crew, as most of their past films have dealt with real world situations, or fantasies established by fairy tales. This is a completely new world, developed by the animators, and it shows an amazing amount of creativity.

Here we get to see trees made of rattles or pacifiers, a parade of diapers and accessories, a room filled with sharp objects that attack each other and giant matches that spark, then turn into smoke and finally green monsters.

These monsters are probably the most amazing creation of all. As I said, it begins with the baby sparking a couple matches, which sparks many of the other matches. Then, the matches chase him, finally falling into a lake. But they don’t die. Oh, no. The steam from the matches becomes clouds with faces that follow the baby, before then evolving into large green monsters. It’s crazy, but it works.

When the Sandman appears to finally put the baby back to sleep, it’s almost a relief. The short moves so quickly that you get drawn in, your eye drawn to several different things every second. It moves fast, keeps the viewer engaged, and manages to be both funny and thrilling at the same time. That’s quite a feat.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Old King Cole

You knew it had to happen. I’ve been lavishing so much praise on the 1933 Disney shorts, that you knew one day would come when I had not so nice things to say about one of the cartoons. Well, today is the day, because Old King Cole, the latest Silly Symphony, is probably my least favorite of the color cartoons to date.

Why? Because it’s just not likeable or memorable to me. The entire thing is a rehash of the old black and white cartoon, Mother Goose Melodies. The basics are that a bunch of books open up to release the characters within, who all gather at Old King Cole’s castle located in his book. From there, silly dancing ensues, until midnight when the characters scramble back to their own books.

That’s really it. The entire story in a nutshell. So why didn’t I like it? Well, if you’re a longtime reader, you know my preference for story over singing, for a well told tale over silly dancing and songs. That hasn’t changed, which is why I’ve enjoyed the 1933 shorts so much more than earlier ones. Well, Old King Cole is back to the craziness and music model, and not in a good way.

Where some of the early Silly Symphonies like The Skeleton Dance or Hell’s Bells used the music and dance to full effect, here it is merely an excuse to allow short scenes of nursery rhymes to come to life, jumping out of “Pandora’s Box.” The small verses sung over the dancing are fine, but there’s nothing connecting them or engaging the audience. It’s all frantic motion for the sake of motion, with no connective tissue.

Also, the characters in this short were very unappealing to me. I’m not a fan of the animation style used on Old King Cole, with the red bulbous nose and overstated features. Meanwhile, the side characters, such as the Pied Piper or the mice, are not fully formed designs, but are instead just stick figures or less developed than those in other shorts.

Now, that’s not to say that there is nothing good in this short. In fact, it’s a credit to the animators that they were able to draw so many characters by hand and still meet their production deadlines. That’s impressive. There’s also some fun stuff here and there, like Peter the Pumpkin Eater and his wife or Hickory, Dickory and Dock jumping out of Pandora’s Box to sound the midnight bells.

But overall, the gags are not nearly as funny as in the Mickey shorts, the music is much simpler and less story driven than in other Silly Symphonies, and the story falls short. I’d have to say that Old King Cole falls flat for me. I’d be interested to hear what you guys think.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mickey's Gala Premier

Mickey’s Gala Premier may be the first short of 1933 that gives an insight into the mindset of the Disney studio at the time. While the rest of the shorts in that year have been excellent, this one speaks a great deal to the place of Mickey in Hollywood, and what the Disney artists, and most likely Walt himself, think about where their studio and their biggest star belong.

The basic idea of this short is that everyone is arriving to Graumann’s Chinese Theatre to the premiere of Mickey’s latest short. The entire beginning of the short features caricatures of celebrities on the red carpet, like the Keystone Kops, the Marx Brothers, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante and many more that I didn’t recognize. All of Hollywood has turned out to salute Mickey on his big night.

Mickey shows up as well, with Minnie, Pluto, Horace and Clarabelle in tow. Inside the theatre, everyone watches the short-within-a-short, Galloping Romance. This mini-short is really a rehash of The Birthday Party and The Cactus Kid, as Mickey and Minnie are playing music together until Pete kidnaps her and rides away. Mickey saves her, of course. What’s interesting is that despite the rehash, the animation appears to be new. It would have been easy to use old animation in this short, since it is not the focal point of the short, but Disney went to the extra effort to put in new work.

The ending of the short is the telling thing about it. After Galloping Romance ends, Mickey is brought on stage and congratulated by the gathered masses. Finally, Greta Garbo herself strides on stage and plants a big kiss on our main mouse. At that point, Mickey wakes up in bed, revealing that it was all just a dream.

While Disney has used the “just a dream” premise before, I think here it reveals a great deal about the mindset of Walt. Here’s my amateur psychologist take: the short shows Mickey in his rightful place among the stars of Hollywood. Indeed, at the time, Mickey’s cartoons were every bit as popular if not more popular than the stars portrayed in this film. Walt’s asserting his place here. But he couldn’t help to be self-deprecating, and have it all turn out to be a dream.

There could have been a few other endings that would have worked – having Minnie get jealous of Garbo, for example. But the studio didn’t choose that ending or any other. By having Mickey’s stardom turn out to be a dream, it takes the arrogance out of the short and makes it adorable. It’s great work by Disney.

It’s undeniable, though, that at this point in 1933, Mickey is the biggest cartoon star of the day, and he belongs in the Hollywood pantheon. You can sense the shift that has taken place from the early Mickeys of barnyard life to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The current Mickey is a well to do man, living a suburban life. It obviously mirrors the transformation of Walt himself. But more on that to come.

In the meantime, enjoy Mickey’s Gala Premiere, and play name the celebrity. It’s a fun game to play, as you see all the stars rolling in the aisles. Enjoy!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mickey's Mechanical Man

Honestly, I don’t have a lot to say about Mickey’s Mechanical Man. It’s a good Mickey cartoon with a straightforward story and some fun gags. In fact, it reminds me a bit of a Looney Tunes cartoon with its silliness and crazy premise. However, compared to some of the other 1933 Mickey shorts, it is not the best.

The premise itself is very good – Mickey and a robot (I presume made by Mickey, but it’s never stated) have a prize fight against Beppo the Gorilla, who was last seen in the early short The Gorilla Mystery. Just the simple fact of a fight between a robot and a gorilla being accepted as the norm made me laugh. Kudos to Disney for the set up alone.

The twist, and you know there had to be one, is that Mickey’s robot doesn’t fight well at all, until Minnie blows her car horn. When that happens, the robot goes nuts and tears up the gym and punches everything in sight, so long as it has Beppo’s picture on it. Like I said, it’s the kind of twist you’d expect from the Warner Bros. cartoons, but it works really well.

The work on the robot is the best animation in this short. It’s the kind of frantic, kinetic work that you don’t often see from Disney. Mickey, Minnie and even Pluto to some degree are very controlled figures. Even when Pluto runs amok, he is still in control of his limbs. The robot, on the other hand, goes wild, arms and legs flailing everywhere, motion flying all around.

As you could probably predict, the fight goes the wrong way for the majority of the time, until Minnie realizes what’s wrong. She runs outside, grabs the car horn and brings it inside. After a quick squeeze, the robot goes nuts again, destroying the gorilla, then blowing up itself.

The plot is the big thing in this short, and with a good premise and a fun twist, it works really well. Sure, we have some good animation work on the mechanical man, but Mickey and Minnie are the same as we’ve seen before. The real thing this short accomplishes is fun. It’s amusing to watch and easy to digest. That’s something that should not be underestimated.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Three Little Pigs

There are classics in the Disney library, and then there are the iconic pieces. The pieces that are remembered by historians, animators and fans alike as something special. The Three Little Pigs is one of those, and the reasons stretch far beyond the excellent short itself. Instead, The Three Little Pigs is revered for the effect it had on the viewers of 1933, and rightfully so.

Remember your history books, and back in 1933, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the new President, and his tone to the nation was that of hope for the future. Sound familiar? Roosevelt constantly communicated to the nation that the best days were coming, and that fear was the enemy, to be banished at all costs.

This was essential for Roosevelt, because people were panicked. They feared the worst, and some were even calling for socialism, and replacing the democracy to get out of this catastrophe. The Three Little Pigs provided an anthem for Roosevelt’s hope message, in “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

This is the first or second iconic Disney song (depends on if you count “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo”), but its popularity can not be overstated. Viewers of this short took the song as their rallying cry, providing a counterpoint to the doom and gloom of the Depression. And why not?

The short itself no doubt was intended simply as another Silly Symphony. And in that respect, it performs very well. It has a well crafted story, and very believable characters that are well designed. The wolf is frightening from the second he appears on screen, and the pigs are introduced just as you’d expect, standing in front of their various houses.

The music runs throughout the short, as you’d expect in a Silly Symphony, but it turns this into a flowing musical, with the lead characters voicing the parts, and the songs moving the story forward. This approach is what Disney would use later in the features, but you can see the experimentation with it beginning in the last few shorts.

The standout piece of animation here is the characters. Their emotions, facial expressions and movements are very well done. You can see the fear on the faces of the first two pigs as they dive for cover in the third pig’s brick house. The anger and frustration on the wolf is palpable as well.

As a short in and of itself, The Three Little Pigs is straightforward, telling a simple fairy tale. But it is definitely a case of right time, right place and a superb song that made it the instant classic that it was. It endures, though, because of the music and the character work. It’s still entertaining today, just as it was in 1933.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.