Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mother Goose Melodies

The Silly Symphonies started as a way to let the animators create new characters and have some free form fun while setting the animation to music. The evolution of the shorts after Carl Stalling and Ub Iwerks left the studio was very stilted, with a few jumps into emphasizing story and a few shorts pushing music. With Mother Goose Melodies, it seems the Silly Symphonies have reached “maturity.”

Based on the Silly Symphonies shorts I have seen after this, Mother Goose Melodies seems like a turning point in the series. Much has been made here of the emphasis on story vs. music, but this short emphasizes both in equal measure, and creates an extremely compelling and funny cartoon.

This short sets up a framework that literally opens the book to many different vignettes. The idea is that Old King Cole is settling in on his throne, then calls for Mother Goose to bring forth his book to show him some new stories. Mother Goose serves as the introduction then to many of our favorite nursery rhymes.

Once the book is opened, the short becomes a series of snapshots of famous nursery rhymes, sometimes long and sometimes only a few seconds’ worth. Everything from Little Miss Muffett, Lil Jack Horner and Jack and Jill are done, along with many, many others. Each one features great gags, such as the spider in Little Miss Muffett. It does the same action as the spider in Hells Bells, swinging towards the camera and “swallowing” it, but it is still a great gag.

The best gag, though, involves the book itself. The tales never leave the page of the book, much like would be done much later in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Mother Goose turns the pages, and the camera will zoom in on a page until it fills the screen, but the action of the nursery rhymes never escapes the book, until the climax of the short. Even when Jack and Jill fall down the hill, they slam headlong into the page and don’t fall out.

There are some interesting cameos here, as well. In the beginning we see Clarabelle laying flowers before Nat King Cole’s arrival. The parade sequence at the beginning of this short involves small mice much like were used to presage Mickey in the Oswald shorts. It’s also a theme we’ll see again in other shorts, of the side scrolling parade of gags coming into view.

The fun climax of the short upends the book, spilling the characters out into the “real” world with mass chaos ensuing. It ends up being a musical finale, which is very fitting. This short moves so quickly, switching from story to story, that it really holds up today with our shorter attention spans. It’s extremely funny, and bears multiple watchings to catch all the gags packed into each frame. Each story has small touches that you will not catch the first time around. This one is highly recommended.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Castaway

I’ve never seen Cast Away, the Tom Hanks movie where he spends 2-3 hours talking to a volleyball, but I have to say, I think Mickey Mouse’s version, The Castaway, has to be more entertaining. I think Mickey has a much better plan on how to survive being marooned on a deserted island.

The premise of this short is pretty simple – Mickey gets cast off onto an island, and proceeds to interact with the animals he finds there. There is, of course, the conveniently placed crate that contains, what else, a piano! He plays the piano and fights off some seals, a tiger, a monkey and a lion before finally escaping on a turtle.

This is a very fun short, although there are not a ton of gags, and none nearly as good as Traffic Troubles or some of the other funny Mickey shorts. There’s a tone of happiness that is set almost from the beginning, as Mickey is tossed by the waves on his little raft. Even though things are bleak, Mickey is smiling. It is this cheerful optimism that makes Mickey so appealing.

I’ll admit to a groan when I saw Mickey had rescued a piano and set it up on the beach, but rather than just go into silly dancing, the piano is a piece that furthers the story. The piano serves as a point of interaction for Mickey and the animals, not as a way to start a lavish musical number.

For example, when a small tiger cub wanders out of the jungle, he is constantly struggling with Mickey over who will play the piano. The cub first tries to play on the extreme ends of the keyboard, then pushes the foot pedals and finally hops on a tree that bends down to hit the keys. It’s a fun little sequence that allows the animators to have some fun with Mickey’s expressions of happiness quickly turning to frustration.

There’s also some seals that show up to do a little dance when Mickey first gets the piano working. I’m not entirely sure, but they look very similar to the seals from Arctic Antics, the Silly Symphony. Could be reused animation again, but I’m not 100% on that.

Of course, the idea of a main character on a desert island is not new for Disney. Alice Cans the Cannibals featured much the same idea, as well as some other Alice shorts. Neither is the jungle interaction new. Mickey did a similar turn in Jungle Rhythm. The Castaway, however, is the best of this idea so far.

The final sequence featuring Mickey running from the monkey then the lion is the best part of the short. He manages to distract the monkey by spinning a rock on his finger, then tosses the rock aside only to hit the lion. The lion gives chase and Mickey gets him to swallow a log, before evading him by jumping on a rock in the river.

An alligator then menaces Mickey from behind, and just as the lion pounces towards our hero, he moves aside and allows the lion to fall into the alligator’s mouth, then ties the mouth shut with the lion’s tail. A great, funny sequence to end the short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Traffic Troubles

Mickey’s evolution continues in today’s short, Traffic Troubles. The storyline is king, but it’s packed with gags and features a working man Mickey for the first time I can recall. Our little mouse is growing up!

In this short, Mickey serves as a taxi driver, driving a car with eyes and a mouth that made me think of Bennie the Cab from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I don’t think those animators drew from this film, but as someone who saw that first, that’s what it brought to mind. The expressions of the car were very similar to Bennie.

Mickey has two passengers in this story, Percy Pig and Minnie Mouse. The first one was Percy, who is dressed here as a prominent businessman. The interesting thing about this is the setting. Mickey’s opening sequence and the ride with Percy is set entirely in the city. It’s a very poorly run city, though, as we will see.

One of the best gags in the film is the pothole sequence. After passing some rather large puddles, Mickey’s cab gets caught in a bunch of potholes. There’s some animation similar to other shorts where we see the cab driving head on towards the viewer, stretching its wheels or contracting itself to avoid the potholes. That’s pretty funny as is, but then there’s the fare meter.

As the taxi hits each pothole, the bounce causes the fare meter to increase, prompting a big smile from Mickey. This happens a couple of times, until the car hits a very large hole, and bounces the meter back down to the beginning. The frustration on Mickey’s face is a great piece of animation, and very funny.

The Minnie sequence shifts to the countryside. Mickey is able to pick up Minnie in the city, then takes her on a detour out over the fields and plains. Of course, there are still rocks and potholes here as well. Once Mickey’s car hits one more rock, it bounces up and the license plate falls upside down, and the numbers spell out “Oh Heck” in a very clever gag.

Ultimately, they get the car started again when Pete, in the second of his two roles in the short, pours some sort of snake oil in the tank. The car takes off and ends up getting ripped off its axles, falling onto the back of a cow for the end of the short. Again, all very well done and extremely funny.

This may have been the funniest of the Mickey shorts so far, although I’m sure there’s one I can’t remember at the moment. There were gags throughout that were funny even if not entirely original. The gags with the car have mostly been done before, either in Alice, Oswald or earlier Mickeys. But mixing in stuff with the potholes, the cow and Pete as a police officer make this a really fun short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather is just not that memorable, to be honest with you. I watched it through, like I do all of these shorts, and started looking for items to write about, but there just wasn’t much there. It’s another cute little Silly Symphony, but it’s not anything new or inventive to be sure.

That’s not to say there’s nothing good in Birds of a Feather. It has some fun sequences, especially towards the end. There is just no standout piece of animation or music that makes this a short that viewers will remember.

The short is kind of a strange hybrid, with the first 2/3 of the short being a throwback Silly Symphony, featuring a bunch of birds engaged in some dancing and chirping/singing to the musical soundtrack. This part of the short is okay, with some slow moving sections. There is a good piece where the camera slowly pans up a tree, with a different kind of bird on each limb. That is a neat piece, just because it changes things up every so often.

The last third of the short, though, is not a bunch of silly dancing, but features a short story about a chicken whose child is stolen by a hawk, and then rescued by a band of birds nearby. The sequences of the birds flying in formation, then dive bombing the hawk before forcing it to the ground are very interesting on a couple of levels.

First, remember that Walt was in World War I, serving in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. At the time, bombing of the countryside was considered horrific. Even at the beginning of World War II, nearly eight years away when this short came out, bombing was not considered part of “civilized” warfare. So you wonder if Walt saw a lot of bombing during his service, and if that influenced this short.

Secondly, when World War II did break out, Walt’s fascination with aerial assault led to the feature film Victory Through Air Power. I have not seen that film yet, but you have to wonder if the birds here are foreshadowing that later film.

Other than those curiosities, there is not much to comment on in this short. It lacks compelling characters that the viewer can latch onto and follow, and there’s not a story to bring the elements together. Unlike some of the earlier Silly Symphonies which featured some interesting character designs and fun characters, there really aren’t many memorable birds here.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Birthday Party

The first Disney short released in 1931 was the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Birthday Party, featuring a surprise party thrown for our favorite mouse. It is a convenient setup for a familiar script – Mickey, Minnie and a bunch of animal friends playing music and dancing.

I must admit it is a little disappointing to see the formulaic nature of the old Mickeys return here, but there are some subtle differences. For instance, there is much more dialogue in this short than in most of the earlier Mickeys. When Mickey goes to Minnie’s door, there is a brief, awkward conversation between the two. Mickey asks Minnie how she’s doing, then vice versa, over and over, showing the playfulness between the two and the blooming courtship.

Another difference noticed is the new look for Mickey when he’s walking up to the door. We’ve been used to seeing Mickey in a variety of barnyard settings, but here, he’s dressed in a straw hat and a cane, showing a bit more of his gentleman side. Again, this mirrors Walt’s own development, and one would imagine many of his animators. Most of these guys were Midwestern dwellers in childhood, and had become more well off as they did better and better in animation.

Once the surprise party reveal takes place, the rest of the short is merely the playing out of the party. Minnie gives Mickey a piano for his birthday present, and the two join in a jam on the song “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” The only problem with that is that it takes up almost 2 minutes of a seven minute short with the two of them not facing each other but playing piano. It keeps the short stagnant for a while, even though the interplay between the two isn’t bad.

After that we get some dancing action, as would be expected. Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar do most of the work, showcasing these side characters in a memorable sequence. Their dance isn’t anything special, but seeing the two characters highlighted on screen is a treat.

The finale is the best gag of the film, as Mickey starts playing along on a xylophone, which suddenly comes to life. The xylophone attempts to evade Mickey’s mallets, then turns into a bucking bronco that Mickey ends up riding around the room. That’s the best gag in the short, and it ends the short on a high note.

The Birthday Party is not a major leap forward or anything like that, but it’s an entertaining short nonetheless. It really does put you into a celebratory mood, and speaks to the point that Leonard Maltin made in the commentary on Winter, that celebrations in these days were about music. You see that embodied in this short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Minnie's Yoo Hoo

A small bonus short will wrap up the year 1930, a year that saw great changes in the Disney animation effort. The short Minnie’s Yoo Hoo is simply a sing along reel, that was distributed to theatres to use during their Mickey Mouse Club meetings. As such, it’s not really a full short, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

To those who are only familiar with the Mickey Mouse Club as Britney Spears’ nascent career, back in the 1930s, clubs existed in theatres, where owners would get kids into the theatres by joining the Mickey Mouse Club, and then playing a series of Mickey cartoons for them.

So, this short was designed to give the kids something to sing along with, which was a popular part of the movie going experience in those days. The reel opens with a short title card introducing the short, including the introduction of Mickey as the master of ceremonies and his jazz band.

In truth, it’s really just the same animation that was used in Mickey’s Follies, with a new background of a theatre. If you’ll recall, in that short, Mickey stood on the piano and sang the song “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo” out loud, and that’s repeated here. Mickey goes through the song once, joined by his animal friends.

Then, Mickey peers through the curtain and asks the audience to sing along. The voice over switches to a baritone, who sings along with the words of the song on the screen. Again, I love this song, mainly because of the performance of the Main Street Saxophone Quartet on the old Disneyland/Walt Disney World album. But it is interesting to notice the lyrics.

All of the lyrics refer to Mickey and Minnie in the barnyard, working on the chicken coop for example, which becomes more and more irrelevant later. It’s often been commented that Mickey’s career path followed Walt’s in that he moved from barnyard settings to city life and domestic suburban bliss. Never is that more apparent than in this early theme song.

Even in the short itself, we see Disney reusing animation that was once set in a barnyard, moving it into a nice looking theatre. In just 2 years, from 1928-1930, Walt Disney went from a bankrupt producer with only one key animator in Ub Iwerks, to the dominant cartoon studio in Hollywood, able to survive the defection of Iwerks and Stalling and prosper. Very impressive work.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Playful Pan

Playful Pan embodies the spirit of the Silly Symphonies and the evolution that we have seen, where story serves as the driver for the musical numbers. It’s a very well done short with an overarching storyline and some great animation.

The main thing about this short that is notable to me is that the title character of Pan plays only a minor role in the chaos that ensues throughout. Pan opens the short by leading a pair of fish on a silly trail through a small lake, but disappears about midway through. While that makes sense in the story, it is still kind of odd.

The storyline has Pan making his presence known in the forest, doing the aforementioned dance with the fish, and then going off screen as a lightning bolt strikes a tree, literally sawing it in half. A fire ensues, and the fire takes on personality, jumping on trees, spanking animals, and pursuing others throughout the forest.

Of course, the animals then go to Pan to help. Pan is able to coerce the fire to follow him, by playing his flute, then leading the little animated firelings to water. After dealing with a particularly reluctant flame, he manages to get all of the fire to douse itself, and saves the forest.

The animation of the fire was really the standout of the short in my opinion. The fire has so much personality that it becomes a character, with little flames with legs marching off of one tree and jumping to another as just one example. There are plenty more, such as the flames pursuing yet another Mickey bear up a tree and grabbing it.

To digress briefly, I remember the first time I saw a Mickey teddy bear at Once Upon a Toy at Downtown Disney. I flipped out. How could they do such a thing? Mickey is a mouse, not a bear, etc., etc. The more I see these Mickey-esque bears, the more I laugh at myself.

Other than the fire, there is not much of Playful Pan that really stands out. The music is mediocre, at least to me, and there’s not a great deal of stand out animation, again, other than the fire. What I did like to see was the squirrels, my favorite characters from Autumn, had returned here, evacuating their tree. For some reason, those characters appeal to me.

Playful Pan is the last of the Silly Symphonies from 1930, so it is interesting to notice the change that has occurred. Other than the throwback of Winter, the latter half of the year had Silly Symphonies that focused on story first, and music second, something that was not the case when the series started. In this short, the music is really an afterthought, which is quite the departure from the original concept.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pioneer Days

Pioneer Days is a truly charming short, featuring a lot of action, a great story and some really well done animation. It shows what the Disney animators were capable of doing, given the time to work on a short and make it their own.

The constant struggle between music and story finds a happy balance here, as the songs are used to forward the story. In some ways this foreshadows some of the musical films that Disney would release later. Early songs like “Oh Susannah” being sung by Mickey and Minnie are used to set the scene and put the viewer in the proper frame of mind, just as “Jingle Bells” was used in Winter.

Of course, the main focus of this short is the story of the conflict between the Indians and the pioneers, and it is set up right from the start. After we see the Indians start their war dance, the scene then jumps over to the pioneers, and we get a nice juxtaposition between the warlike camp of the Indians and the peaceful, rustic camp of the pioneers.

Through the use of the two camps, there is the ability to use music in both settings, and incorporate dances to make things more interesting. We get three distinct songs from the pioneer camp, including a square dance and a lonely love ballad delivered by an old goat – literally. That subtle play on words is one of my favorite gags of the short.

The real action begins, though, when the Indians invade the wagon camp. From that point forward, it’s inspired chaos. The scenes of frantic pioneers scrambling around and trying to evade the arrows are great and add to the sense of motion that moves through the final part of the short.

One of my favorite bits features the Indians riding around the outside of the camp, while the scenery seems to turn the opposite direction. I know it has to be a simple trick, but it looks so dynamic on screen, that I couldn’t help but watch it twice. Kudos to the animators on that one.

The finale of the short comes when Minnie is kidnapped by one of the Indians, and Mickey rides off to save her. A great piece of personality is seen in Mickey’s face when he shoots his gun at the Indian menacing Minnie and all it shoots is a cork. Mickey’s look of helplessness mixed with surprise is a treat.

There is a slight twist on the familiar formula here, as Minnie comes to Mickey’s rescue by dropping a hot coal down the Indian’s pants. It’s the first time we’ve really seen Minnie in an active role, which is nice to see.

I enjoyed Pioneer Days a great deal. It does show some advancement in the Mickey shorts, continuing on the heels of The Gorilla Mysery and The Picnic. In Mickey’s third year of action as a cartoon star, it seems that Mickey is finally coming into his own.

Monday, July 20, 2009


The Silly Symphonies quartet of seasons finishes with Winter, which is a deviation from the recent pattern of story-based shorts from Disney. Winter is about what you would expect as a follow up from the earlier “seasons” shorts, light on story and emphasizing the dance of the animals synchronized to the music.

What was really interesting to me on this short was the commentary on the disc by Leonard Maltin and Daniel Goldmark. They pointed out a few things about the short and the era that are very intriguing, and tie into our frequent discussion here about story and narrative versus fun and music.

The thesis that Maltin and Goldmark put out in the commentary is that the synchronized music and dancing makes sense given the era. At the time, there were not as many entertainment options in the home as today. That’s obvious, of course, but think carefully about it. There was no television, books were available but weren’t cheap, most families had a radio but there was not as much programming as today. No internet, of course, but also no video games, iPods or any of the other appliances we rely on so much.

So, goes the theory, people in these homes turned to music for entertainment, either making their own or listening to the radio. I have to admit, when Maltin said this in the commentary, it struck me how right he was. I remember my Grandmother recalling how she would finish working in the field for the day and come into the house to play music while her mother finished supper. I heard the same from my Grandfather on the other side of the family, although he was in the city.

It would make sense, then, to see so much music without a narrative in the Silly Symphonies. Just as these in-home music sessions were an escape from the day, the Silly Symphonies were escapism in the cinema. Maltin refers to as “a more musical time,” and I would say he’s probably right about that.

Now, I’ve done a disservice to the short itself not speaking about specific scenes yet. There are some quite good pieces of animation here, but nothing that stands out. My personal favorite was the moose that is shown using his antlers to paddle through the frozen lake then climbs onto land and starts his dance. The moose character had a lot of personality and was a great addition to the short.

We do have another “Mickey” bear in this short as well. This one serves as a dancing partner for a larger bear, waking up his elder then doing a little dance on the ice. It does seem odd to have another Mickey bear show up so soon after Arctic Antics, but perhaps it speaks to the fact that production schedules were rushed and model sheets or familiar characters had to be reused.

The other thing of note in this short is the use of familiar popular music to immediately bring the audience into the proper frame of mind. “Jingle Bells” and “Skater’s Waltz” are used early on, and really get the “winter” scenes off to the right start. It continues the trend seen in Monkey Melodies, when popular music themed to monkeys was used.

All together, though, Winter seems to be a slight left turn away from the story driven shorts. In the commentary, Maltin and Goldman lament that the story driven shorts did not feel as spontaneous as these early shorts. I can see that, but I would also argue that the story shorts stand the test of time, whereas not all of the music shorts do. It’s a debate that won’t be solved anytime soon.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Picnic

Mickey Mouse’s cartoons have definitely returned to the standards set in the Oswalds, if The Picnic is any evidence. Much like the short I reviewed yesterday, The Gorilla Mystery, this short relies on story and gags to carry it along, with dancing and musical sequences merely complimenting the main plot.

This short also features the return of Pluto, although here he is Minnie’s dog, not Mickey’s. The design of Pluto varies quite wildly, as he appears one way in his dog house, another while chasing rabbits, yet another when being rained on and then in his original form from The Chain Gang. It appears as though the Norm Ferguson animation of Pluto from that short was reused here, although I can’t be certain.

The story of this short is simple – Mickey and Minnie take to the country for a picnic. But there are some great stops along the way that make the short memorable. For example, as the short opens, Mickey is driving his car to Minnie’s house to pick her up. Along the way, he is whistling “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo,” his theme song, and has various horns as well as the car itself join in.

Pluto, though, is the breakout star of the short. He gets picked up with Minnie, and tied to the car in a very Chevy Chase way. Along the road to the picnic site, though, Pluto sees some rabbits doing a dance, and starts chasing them, dragging the car along with him. It’s a nice starring turn for Mickey’s pet.

The other fun part of this short is the sequence where the animals steal all of the food. While Mickey plays a tune on a record player and dances with Minnie, the animals of the woods move in to steal his feast. It’s very well done, as we get wide shots of the massive amounts of animals moving in, tight grabs of bugs filling up on honey or cake, and individual shots of squirrels or other animals making off with nuts and meats.

It is interesting here to note Mickey starting to take a turn towards a background character with more of a role for his supporting cast. As we know, when we get into the color films, Donald and Goofy take a big role in carrying some of the Mickey shorts, and Pluto would eventually eclipse his owner in the cartoon realm. This may be the start of that trend.

Other than that, there’s not much to say about The Picnic. It’s definitely a solid cartoon, with good gags and a good story. There was some discussion in the comments from yesterday’s review of The Gorilla Mystery as to whether Ub’s departure “helped” the studio move towards this story-based mode. I think that has to be the case. Without the master of the “silly dancing” sequences, it seems Disney was playing to his artists’ strengths by going with less music and motion based shorts and more with solid gags and story. To me, that’s part of the Disney legend, is how he took people and worked with their strengths. This was very much the case with the building of Disneyland, but that’s a story for another day.

Oh…and speaking of Disneyland – Happy Birthday, Disneyland! 54 years old and you certainly don’t look it!