Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Three Orphan Kittens

I talked yesterday about Music Land, and how it was a strong story that played off of and integrated the music. That is not what Three Orphan Kittens is, but it still is a great example of how the Silly Symphonies series can work. And it features some top shelf animation that show the Disney crew honing their craft as well.

Three Orphan Kittens is much more like the “cute” shorts that we have seen, such as Water Babies or Funny Little Bunnies. It features, oddly enough, three orphan kittens, who are stuck in the snow, but find a way into a house, where they find warmth and a table being set for dinner.

Of course, the kittens proceed to wreck everything. The dinner table sequence is not particularly memorable, because it doesn’t feature great gags. There is good stuff there, but nothing that particularly stands out. It’s just cute, with kittens fighting with pies, getting stuck in a bottle and the like.

After the dinner table, the kittens head to a little girl’s room, where they get into a battle with the toys. Again, nothing really stands out, but it’s just cute little gags. The kittens duel with a baby doll and other toys, and one of them gets knocked into a nearby pillow, causing a feather to fly into the air.

That is what starts the most interesting part of the short. The lead kitten chases the feather, and the movement of the camera follows him. I know that sounds like nothing special, but it is almost as though the rooms themselves are moving, because as the cat goes from room to room, there is no cut. It is what we’d call a tracking shot in cinema, but here it’s something new and different.

Then, the feather lands on a player piano, leading to the next great sequence. The cats try to get the feather as it bounces along the keys. The lead kitten, entranced, plays a tune on the piano that fits the mood of the scene. It’s a clever bit, as he plays a creeping song as he creeps up on the feather, then a crescendo as he crashes forward and the feather flies away. It’s very well done.

Ultimately, the damage the cats do catches the eye of the housekeeper, who is preparing to throw them out when the little girl sees them. Then, the cats get their comeuppance. The girl dresses them up like dolls and treats them like babies, forcing a bottle in the lead kitten’s mouth as the short closes.

The feather sequence is the real standout of this short. The way the camera tracks the lead kitten through that scene is remarkable, and to follow it up with the piano gag is great work. A little more work like that in the beginning of the short would make this one a classic, but as it is, it’s just another “cute” short in the Silly Symphonies series.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Music Land

When I think of Silly Symphonies, Music Land is the short that I think of. It was one of the first Silly Symphonies I saw, and to me, it defines what the series is all about. It tells a great story, done entirely through animation and music, with no dialogue, and manages to entertain for nine and a half minutes without fail.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to. The basics are that it’s a take on the Romeo and Juliet story, but this time told from the view of musical instruments. The opening shot reveals our two kingdoms – The Isle of Symphony and the Isle of Jazz. Between them lies the Sea of Discord, a fun play on words, but also an easy set up to let the viewer know that there is dislike between these two kingdoms.

As seemingly always happens in these tales, the princess and prince of these two lands fall in love. The violin princess from the Isle of Symphony waves heartily at the saxophone prince of the Isle of Jazz, and soon he is on his way over to her in a raft. They meet, and begin a quick chase around the island, young lovers to the max.

Things go horribly wrong (a Disney staple) when the queen of the Isle of Symphony finds out what is going on and throws the prince in the metronome prison. It’s a great trick how everything in these two islands relates to their theme. The metronome prison is a good example, but even better are the weaponry.

When the king of the Isle of Jazz discovers his son is imprisoned, he brings out the brass. And no, I don’t mean important generals. I mean the brass band, including trumpets, tubas and more. The king launches attacks on the Isle of Symphony by e artillery.e band, with the notes servicng as the artillery.

That’s a neat touch, but the queen tops it. The tops of the organ pipes turn from upright to facing the Isle of Jazz, and begin blasting them with notes.

The amazing part of this is that it should sound terrible from a musical standpoint. You have loose, free flowing jazz interrupting symphonic music, but it works. The composition of the two plays off each other and intermingles to make a great sounding piece.

Finally, the two children row out to meet each other in the Sea of Discord, and their danger causes the two grown ups to call a halt to the proceedings. And, when the king and queen meet, they spark up a romance as well. All ends well with the queen marrying the king and the prince marrying the princess, and instead of the Sea of Discord, we have the Bridge of Harmony.

This short manages to use music to tell the story, which is what works best in the Silly Symphonies. It’s not just an accompaniment for dances or actions that are not relevant, it’s an integral part of the storytelling. I think this, too, is important for Disney moving forward. Using music to tell stories is a big part of the features, and it is done very well in Music Land.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 28, 2009

On Ice

This is a perfect short to watch right before/after Christmas time, because it features Mickey and the gang ice skating. It has some iconic images of all the Fab Five, and features a little more exploration of the group dynamic than we have seen before. This short shows us how the five most popular Disney characters play together.

My favorite shot in the entire short is right at the beginning, as we see Mickey and Minnie skating in tandem. This is one of my favorite stills from any Mickey short. It’s on a shirt my wife has, and I have seen it many times during the holidays on clothing, pictures, toys and the like. It’s a perfect expression of the two mice together.

But, as has been the case recently, Mickey is merely a sideshow in this short. He does get a brief headlining run, taking a turn through the ice rink to be a daredevil. This is honestly the most we’ve seen of Mickey in his recent shorts, and it’s nice to see him interacting with Minnie and performing for the camera.

Goofy gets the next bit, with an interesting scheme to catch fish. He shaves off bits of tobacco and drops them down a hole in the ice. The fish start chewing, but then they have to spit! This was a great gag, as the fish come up to spit in a bucket that Goofy left out, but of course, he tries to clobber them with disastrous results.

The bulk of the short, though, is Donald and Pluto. Donald catches Pluto napping and slips skates on him, and we see Pluto go through several minutes of trying to learn to ice skate. Again, as in Pluto’s Judgement Day, we see why Pluto was a star. The silent, slapstick humor is fantastic.

It’s interesting to see the difference in the humor between the Fab Five. Goofy manages to do a vaudevillian slapstick, as does Pluto, only silently. Mickey’s gags usually involve a little more self deprecation and sheepishness, while Donald’s all come out of frustration or anger.

I say that, but Donald’s main gag here is getting swept away by the kite he is wearing on his back. Mickey has to unravel his sweater and fly him like a kite to save him, at which point he crashes into Goofy’s ice fishing hole and gets licked by Pluto. It brings the whole thing to a satisfying close.

On a side note, I went ice skating a few days ago, and it was nothing like this. I fell. A lot.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pluto's Judgement Day

Pluto has been hanging around the background of Mickey’s shorts for some time, occasionally stepping forward to take the spotlight for a portion of the short. With Pluto’s Judgement Day, though, Pluto becomes a full fledged cartoon star all his own. This short is classified as a Mickey Mouse short, but in truth, it’s the first starring role for Pluto.

It’s strange, then, that one of Disney’s brightest characters, who generally is involved in fun and happiness, takes center stage in one of the company’s darkest shorts. Pluto’s Judgement Day is a grim short, but it has a great story and some fantastic animation.

The short opens with Pluto chasing a cat through the mud, into the house and ending up right on top of Mickey. This is really Mickey’s only role in the short, as he chastises Pluto for chasing cats and tells him to lie down. When Pluto snorts and lies down, that’s when the fun really begins.

A ghostly cat peeks through the door, and entices Pluto to chase him. But it’s not Pluto who follows, but a spirit of Pluto that rises up out of the sleeping dog. It’s a clever way to show that we’re entering a dream sequence, because it leaves a little doubt. Is it really a dream, or something a little deeper?

The cat is a trap, and leads Pluto into a courtroom, where he is branded as Public Enemy No. 1 and put on trial for his crimes against cathood. This is a scary, dark trial. The lead prosecutor is dressed all in red, bringing to mind thoughts of the devil, and the witnesses are creepy yet funny.

It’s a fine line to walk in this short. There is great humor in a large cat saying how fat he was and then was run over by a steamroller, turning to the side to show the audience how he has been flattened. It’s funny, but also a little scary to see this sort of thing. I can imagine that this short was one that inspired young Tim Burton to become part of Disney.

The parade of witnesses against Pluto continues with ghosts of all shapes and sizes, until finally, judgment is passed on Pluto. The verdict is guilty of course, and he is dragged towards a fire. As you can imagine, the ultimate vengeance is throwing Pluto into the fire, which wakes him up, as a coal from the fire in the living room hits him. Pluto ends up making up with the cat he chased at the beginning, and all is well.

This short had to be the impetus for later Pluto solo shorts. While Pluto himself does not have a lot to do, it shows some potential. Pluto is a great foil for other original characters, like the cats in this short, or Mickey in earlier ones. Using him would allow Disney the flexibility to have a consistent lead character but try out new characters in the same series. Pluto’s Judgement Day is a fantastic start to that series.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mickey's Fire Brigade

This is more like what I expect from a Mickey cartoon. Mickey’s Fire Brigade is another of the “Fab Three” shorts, with Donald and Goofy joining Mickey in a career. This time, it’s as firefighters, which leads to some great gags and fun situations.

Like all the Fab Three shorts that I know of, the set up is fairly easy: Mickey’s team has a job to do and they split up to do it, before coming back together at the end. Here, it’s fighting a fire. This brings into play some of my favorite secondary characters – the firelings we’ve seen in previous shorts, especially Silly Symphonies.

Of course, the entirety of the short is a gag fest, from the very start with Mickey trying to attach Goofy’s leg to the hydrant rather than the hose, all the way to the end where Clarabelle gets carried out of the house in a bathtub. But that is what these characters were made to do, so it works beautifully.

My favorite of the three is Goofy, who gets pummeled by a fist made of smoke, and tries to save the furniture and items from the house by throwing them out the window, only to have a table circle back and land right in front of him, including tablecloth, dishes and coffee!

Donald, meanwhile, has his hands full with the firelings. It’s easy to see what the animators loved about Donald, as his expressiveness and frustration are inherently funny. When he’s chasing the fire around the room with an ax, you just know something bad is going to happen, and the anticipation builds for that. When the fire finally gets back to him, it’s a laugh out loud moment.

Mickey does not get a lot of standout moments in this short. He gets into a jam with the fire hose, shooting himself up in the air and getting caught at the top of a ladder. Again, Mickey is not the focus here, with most of the gags coming from Goofy and Donald. That trend continues as we move further along.

This is not close to the best of the “Fab Three” shorts. Later shorts like Clock Cleaners or Lonesome Ghosts are much improved. To my mind, Mickey’s Fire Brigade falls short of the standard of Mickey’s Service Station. But, it still has laugh out loud moments and good gags with Donald and Goofy. That makes it worth watching.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mickey's Garden

For Mickey’s second color short, Mickey’s Garden, the animators took another crack at marginalizing the main mouse. Mickey is the “star” of this short only in the sense that it’s his name in the title. The real stars of this one are the bugs in his garden.

The idea is that Mickey has bugs in his garden, and is going to all extremes to get rid of them. He has concocted a brew that he sprays at the bugs, driving them away. As is always the case with any good Disney cartoon, something goes horribly wrong. Pluto chases a bug and falls back into Mickey, who gets sprayed with his own poison.

At that point, we enter Mickey’s fever dream, and Mickey becomes a secondary character in his own short. Instead, we are treated to the rampage of the bugs, as in Mickey’s dream, everything grows to titanic proportions, including the garden and the bugs.

This is where Mickey is really a marginal part of the short. The bugs are the focus, drinking from the bug poison as though it were alcohol, tying themselves into knots, and chasing Mickey and Pluto around the garden. The problem this time is that the bugs are just not that compelling. As a viewer, you don’t root for them or enjoy watching them.

Instead, it’s somewhat confusing, because of the natural affection that viewers have for Mickey, you want to root for him. But here, he’s the one threatening the bugs, who have loveable, cuddly designs for the most part. It’s very incongruous, because the “hero” is the one threatening the characters who appear the most.

I think that disjointed premise makes this one come off flat to me. Pluto is in the short, but he’s not featured much, merely there as the way to get Mickey sprayed with the insecticide. Mickey doesn’t speak much in this one, but wrestles with the bugs and does end up with his typical Pluto embrace at the end.

Honestly, it’s sort of disappointing to see the degree to which Mickey has been moved to the side in his own shorts. At least in The Band Concert he was the central figure, as the action swirled around him, sometimes literally. Here, he could easily be replaced with another character, and nothing would change about the short. It’s easy to see why so many future shorts would focus on Pluto or Goofy and Donald. This is not the same Mickey we saw in earlier shorts.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Who Killed Cock Robin?

Who Killed Cock Robin? is a delightful short, a fun play on detective stories and possibly even film noir, that manages to take the Disney style and use it in a new way. This is a nice change up for the Silly Symphonies.

If you’re familiar with the story of Cock Robin, this is not a lot like that. Here, Robin is serenading his lady love, Jenny Wren, when he is suddenly struck with an arrow. He falls from the branch he is in to the ground, and the entire town turns out to see his body.

What I love about this sequence is how it plays off of the tropes of detective films of the period. I’m a sucker for old movies, and have been watching on Turner Classic Movies for old film noir or detective films. Just like in those movies, here, the police show up and “round up the usual suspects” from a nearby bar, even though they were nowhere near Cock Robin.

Not only that, you have some stereotypical characters being rounded up, like the hard edged crook with the deep voice, the drunken lout and then a third bird that is a take off on Harpo Marx. The whole thing is very well done, and leads to the courtroom drama.

Again, this is a take off of courtroom dramas and detective films of the time. Here, an owl serves as a judge, while the jury is a chorus that enumerates the sins of the witnesses, who are interrogated by a parrot. The use of the parrot’s natural strut as an intimidation tactic for the witnesses is a fantastic touch.

Eventually, Jenny Wren shows up and demands justice. Jenny’s character is an obvious homage to Mae West, and she woos the entire courtroom instantly. The characterization of Jenny and the courtroom is hilarious, and really draws you into the short.

The big twist, because there always is one in courtroom dramas or detective stories, is that Cock Robin is not dead, but was shot by Cupid’s arrow, and fell on his head. He wakes up, kisses Jenny, and all is well.

I can’t say enough about how great a job the animators did in capturing the mood of a detective story here. From the opening titles in black and white, to the music that could have been silly but is instead played super serious, everything works together. You could call it a parody, but I would say it’s an homage. There is some serious work done here to make this feel real, not silly. Kudos to all those involved for pulling it off.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Cookie Carnival

After the disappointment of Water Babies, the Silly Symphonies return to form with The Cookie Carnival. Where Water Babies was missing a story and relatable characters, The Cookie Carnival features both, and manages to give viewers a fun hook.

The basic idea is that we are back in a land of cookies, similar to the cookie men from Hot Chocolate Soldiers. Back then we debated whether they were pastries or not, so I’ll just say that it’s a land full of cookie people. A parade is ongoing, featuring the candidates for Queen. There are various entrants, including Miss Candy Cane, Miss Licorice and Miss Banana Cake.

Off behind the parade, though, one young woman is crying, because she cannot enter the contest. She has nothing to wear and no float to pull her. A hobo cookie man shows up and plays Fairy Godmother, though, in a small twist on the Cinderella story. This is a really fun part of the short, as the hobo uses icing, sprinkles, and ├ęclairs to make the young cookie girl into a real princess.

Of course, she wins the contest, completing the fairy tale. But what is interesting about this short is that this moment comes only halfway through the short. The rest of the short focuses on the selection of a king for the queen. It’s this part that is most interesting to me.

The elders of the cookie town wheel up a carousel, and as the carousel rotates, a curtain opens, revealing the king candidates inside. We get old fashioned cookies, angel food cakes, devil’s food cakes and even rum cakes. What’s interesting to me is the whole carousel idea. It brings to mind two later Disney innovations.

As Walt was getting ready to build Disneylandia, a traveling show of miniatures, he used a stage similar to the framing of this carousel to reveal his dancing figure. Later, this rotating carousel idea would be used in the Carousel of Progress. It’s so interesting to see the same thing here, decades earlier.

Finally, of course, the hobo gets chosen as the king, and there’s some cute bits around the two trying to sneak a kiss. That’s what makes this short, though, is the interaction between the hobo (voiced by Pinto Colvig) and his queen. They are loveable characters who you want to see succeed. That’s the heart of any good story, but especially a Disney story.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Princess and The Frog

Alright, I’ve waited long enough. I’m assuming most of you went out to see The Princess and the Frog over the weekend, but I gave you a few extra days to see it before doing my review. Ready?


This is a Disney film. No doubt about it. Disney’s return to hand drawn animation captures the spirit and liveliness of New Orleans better than any film I have ever seen, and manages to be laugh out loud funny, heartwarming and deliver a fantastic moral all at the same time. And it does so with ease.

By now, you’re familiar with the story from the trailer – the frog Prince Naveen entices young Tiana to kiss him, but rather than turn him human again, Tiana becomes a frog, setting the two of them off onto a journey together to return things back to normal. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, but suffice to say that it is predictable but also manages to surprise you.

I cannot say enough good things about the character of Tiana. This is a role model I want my daughter to grow up like. My wife has constantly harped on Snow White as such a milquetoast heroine, and does not like that my daughter loves her. Now, after seeing the movie, my littlest wants to be like Tiana, which makes my wife beam. Tiana is a determined, self-motivated young woman, who is pursuing her dreams rather than rely on the wishing star to grant them. The turns her character takes are so realistic it’s almost scary.

The other characters are quite good as well. I actually thought Prince Naveen was the least effective character, but that’s saying a lot, because he’s not too bad. Louis the trumpet playing gator and Ray the firefly are fantastic companions for Naveen and Tiana, and the villainous Dr. Facilier is the most menacing villain since Scar.

The city of New Orleans in the 1920s Jazz Age is almost a character itself. The fantastic backgrounds and settings are breathtaking. You absolutely believe the silly accents of the characters and the outrageous magic because of the settings. If you have ever been to New Orleans, you will recognize those streets. When the street car came on screen, I leaned over to my son and said, “I rode that!”

That’s the other thing I loved about this movie. My son enjoyed it. He’s about to be eight years old, and he’s into super heroes and Star Wars, but he loved every minute of this film. It’s not a princess movie in the sense of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. This is a rollicking, fun family film, but with a fantastic story that teaches a valuable lesson.

If you have not seen this, run, don’t walk to the theatre and see what Time has called the best film of 2009. You will not be disappointed.

All images copyrights Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Water Babies

I have to admit, this was a tough one to get through. After years of advancement in storytelling and plotting in the Silly Symphonies, Water Babies seems like a step backwards. It has great character design, but that really is the only thing I liked about this short.

The short is a throwback to things like the “season” shorts of Spring or Summer. It features an opening scene where we see flowers unfolding to reveal small babies inside, who then proceed to frolic and play throughout the pond area. That’s the whole short. Nothing more to it than that.

Unlike previous Silly Symphonies that did not have a plot, Water Babies does not even feature good characters and great gags. The babies, while very cute and nice to look at, are practically indistinguishable from each other, and thus it is very difficult to connect to them. And the gags? There just aren’t that many of them.

This is an issue that has been popping up lately in the Disney shorts we’ve reviewed. Even in the Mickey shorts, the number of gags is slowly shrinking, as the focus has shifted more to story and what happens with the characters. If done properly, like in The Golden Touch, that’s not such a bad thing. However, that has not been the case in this short and others, like Mickey’s Kangaroo.

The main source of gags in Water Babies is the babes playing with some frogs. The frogs stand in for horses and bulls, as the babies act out little vignettes for each other. It’s strange, to say the least. There’s one sequence where a frog is caged up, and acts like a rabid bull. Once released, the frog chases one of the babies, and gets its head stuck in a flower. But at the end, after the frog has run off the babies, he pulls the flower off his head and reveals himself to be in on the act. Huh?

That’s the problem with Water Babies. Throughout the short, I did not understand all that was going on, and continually wondered why these characters were doing what they did. Sure, it was pretty to look at, and some of the scenes are very well animated. But I never got lost in the short, like I do with some of the Mickeys or even other Silly Symphonies. This one gets a hearty thumbs down from me. What do you think?

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Robber Kitten

When talking about The Golden Touch, we discussed here how the short was a step towards features, as it focused on character and using more mature themes. The Robber Kitten follows that tradition, although it is much more cute and sincere than The Golden Touch. Still, The Robber Kitten is all about character.

The titular kitten is a great design, reminding me somewhat of Figaro from Pinocchio. Butch, as he is called in the short, is a kitten very adept at playing cops and robbers at home. But, rather than take a bath, he wants to escape and become a real robber.

Snatching a bag of cookies, Butch takes off, but he soon runs into a real bandit, Dirty Bill, played by a bulldog. This is where the short turns into a fun look at the two characters. Butch and Dirty Bill hit it off, but we get to see a little more about who they are, as the majority of the short is the two of them sitting in the forest talking.

Dirty Bill extols the virtues of robbery as a career, and Butch joins in. Butch spins a yarn about the stagecoach he robbed that morning, which is a complete fabrication. It’s a cute touch, because the opening scene of the short is Butch holding up a toy stagecoach. Then, when he recreates the story for Dirty Bill, it’s acted out in the animation. The loot, really the cookies that Butch took, is made out to be jewels and gold.

Of course, Dirty Bill starts threatening Butch, who turns tail and runs back home, jumping into the bathtub he had run away from in the first place. It’s a great story, that has no standout animation or new and exciting components.

What makes this one somewhat interesting is the fact that the two main characters don’t perform any action, with the exception of Butch’s “flashback” to the stagecoach robbery. Instead, the story is all about the two of them talking. That’s difficult to pull off, but it is done well here.

Again, this is a step that had to be taken to get to features. If Disney were unable to hold audience interest in conversation, then they would not be able to carry a story through an entire feature. What’s interesting to watch through these Silly Symphonies is how they are taking steps to work on these things. First we saw the human figure of Persephone in The Goddess of Spring, then the mature themes of The Golden Touch, and now how to hold interest in a simple conversation. All of it is building my anticipation for Snow White, and we’re still a long way from there.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.