Monday, November 30, 2009

Mickey's Steamroller

I skipped one! Yes, a big thanks to Nic Kramer, who pointed out in the comments that I had skipped Mickey’s Steamroller, an earlier short in 1934. I started watching and then promptly forgot about it when I was summoned away. With all due apologies, let’s take a look at Mickey’s Steamroller before we finish up the 1934 shorts.

This one is mainly notable for the full introduction of Mickey’s nephews, Morty and Ferdy. Although they are not referred to as such here, they would go on to be famous in comic books and some shorts. It’s interesting that Mickey’s nephews were never as big as Donald’s famous trio of Huey, Dewey and Louie. But they were fun characters.

The mischievous duo is out for a stroll with Minnie pushing the carriage, when they run across Uncle Mickey in his steamroller. The two kids are being kids – beating each other up, stealing things from each other, etc. – but seeing the steamroller brings them together in awe.

Mickey gets distracted by Minnie, of course. It’s a very cute distraction, as he offers her some candy, which turns out to be conversation hearts. When Minnie reads the one that says “Kiss Me” out loud, it results in a chase around the parked steamroller that leaves it unattended.

Morty and Ferdy take advantage and start a rampage with the steamroller. This is where the short shines. Morty and Ferdy’s interactions with the steamroller are the best part of the short. We have the twins being shot up in the air by the whistle, then sucked down through the smoke stack. The firelings make a return to menace them, and there’s even a moment when they burn the rope that Mickey has lassoed them with. This is a fun sequence, even if a little destructive.

Mickey is a fervent pursuer, though. He lassoes the steamroller and gets sucked along, taking lampposts with him in a great gag. He ties the rope to one lamppost, but it does not hold, and sucks each successive lamppost down and out onto the street with it.

The ending features the steamroller turning the tables on Mickey, before everyone crashes into a building. Rather than being upset with his nephews, though, Mickey just smiles at them. What? These kids destroyed half of the city, and leveled a building, dragging him through the streets. It’s an odd way to end the short.

The whole thing seems a little disjointed. There are good gags in the middle section when the boys have the steamroller, but the rest is pretty mediocre. I was hoping when I saw Morty and Ferdy that there would be a bit more to do with them, but alas, they disappear for a while after this.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Two Gun Mickey

As I’ve watched all of these Disney shorts, I’ve been trying to find trends or instances that show growth and change in the animation and the style that it is done. While the actual drawings themselves have evolved over the years, more change has come from the storytelling and how things are done. This is readily apparent in Two Gun Mickey.

This is a standard story of Mickey rescuing Minnie from outlaws in the Wild West. But it does not come off as standard, because the storytelling is done so well. Particular attention is paid to the characters, and their lines early in the short are paid off later.

For example, Minnie begins the short on her own, driving a wagon with horses through the desert. When she meats a puddle, Mickey comes by and offers to help, but Minnie intones that “I can take care of myself,” in an unconvincing fashion. Mickey ends up having to help anyway, but it’s a refrain that Minnie will repeat throughout the short.

At the end of the short, though, after Mickey has saved her from Pete’s clutches and she is alone with him, she repeats the mantra again. This time, though, it takes on new meaning, as she is referring to her ability to take charge and kiss Mickey on her own. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition and a character moment for Minnie that we don’t see often in these films.

Another interesting moment comes when Minnie is being chased through the desert by Pete. Mickey is perched on a hill above, and of course catches sight of Minnie and goes after her. Before that, though, we get a shot of him daydreaming about Minnie, and seeing her in the smoke of his fire. Mickey embraces the smoky vision only to get a lungful of smoke in return.

But that single moment, the brief pause in the action, connects the viewer with Mickey more, and provides us his motivation, rather than relying on familiarity with the character to do so. It may not seem like much, but for storytelling, it is a big leap forward.

Why do I focus on this aspect? Because as the Disney studio was preparing to work on a full length feature, storytelling was critical. You could not sustain a full length film like Snow White on the basis of gags or familiar characters in familiar settings. A strong story had to be the goal. You can see them trying to work towards this in the Silly Symphonies and the Mickeys of this era.

Artistically, this short shines as well. There is some great work here, and inventive use of the camera. We get some wide panoramics of the desert vistas, and tight close up shots of Mickey and Pete grappling over Minnie. All are very well done.

It is disconcerting, however, to see the horses Mickey and Minnie are riding. They look just like Horace! Kind of a weird thing to see one of their best friends turned into a piece of livestock. If you can get past that, though, Two Gun Mickey is a good step forward in storytelling for the Disney crew, and well worth a watch.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Dognapper

Now, this is what I’m talking about! The Dognapper is a short full of action, adventure, gags and classic characters. Watching it, I got that “Disney” feeling inside, of wanting to go to the parks, or cuddle up by a fire and watch a marathon of shorts. This is what Disney animation is all about.

What makes it so great? It’s all the things I listed above. First of all, it’s full of great action. The short opens with a shot of a newspaper outlining the plot: Pete has dognapped Fifi from Minnie, and the police are hot on his trail. That’s all the set up you need, as Pete goes zooming by policemen Mickey and Donald, and the chase is on.

This short jumps right into things, and it’s the better for it. And pairing Mickey with Donald is a bit of inspired genius. The contrast between them – Mickey the dashing hero and Donald the coward – is classic, and continues to this day. As they chase Pete all around the countryside, there are great gags, like Pete knocking out the bridge and Mickey and Donald stretching their motorcycle and sidecar to ride the rails.

They finally corner Pete in a sawmill, by driving up a log and crashing through the side. We get the classic silhouette of the characters in the hole they leave behind, which is another fun gag. The sawmill sets up all kinds of opportunities for fun as well.

Throughout the sawmill, Mickey and Donald chase Pete, but they constantly get in each other’s way. One will have a gun trained on Pete only to have the other crash into him and ruin it. They get trapped in a ladder while Pete chases them, which makes for more great visuals.

The final scenes feature some great work, as Pete turns a saw on too high, and it breaks loose and chases the three of them around the building. This is high energy, frenetic animation at its best, as good as anything produced at Warner Bros. The action never stops, as the saw blade goes from Pete to Mickey to Donald without pause.

Finally, Mickey and Donald are able to corral Pete, when his peg leg gets trapped on the saw blade, and they throw a corset over him. It’s a funny way to end this short, which is funny throughout, but deals with a “serious” subject.

The Dognapper may be my favorite short so far. Yes, it’s that good. I am a huge Donald Duck fan, so it doesn’t hurt that he is in this one. But the tone, the action and the style of this short remind me of later buddy shorts like Lonesome Ghosts, which is also one of my favorites. You’ve got to see this one, as I think it’s one of the lost treasures of the Disney shorts.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Goddess of Spring

I’ve read about the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for years now. I’ve eagerly put down money for two versions of the film (VHS and DVD) and will probably end up with another (Bluray) at some point soon. And in everything I have seen, The Goddess of Spring is referenced as Disney’s first attempt to create a realistic human figure, in preparation for Snow White.

In watching this short, though, I have to say that it seems as though that may not be correct. Or perhaps it’s a matter of perception. The subject of this film is Persephone, the titular goddess. But the form she takes seems no improvement on the porcelain dolls of The China Shop. It seems like Persephone’s hair is porcelain or plastic, just like the dolls.

Persephone is a distinct figure, though, because it marks when the animators started trying to find their way in the human form. And there are some distinct differences between Persephone and her predecessors. Her facial expressions and design are much cleaner and more expressive. Her movements, while still a bit unnatural, are more fluid than other human like figures in the shorts to this point.

What I found interesting was that Pluto, the adversary of Persephone in this short, was a much more realistic figure except for his face. His manner of walking and gesturing seemed more real to me than Persephone’s broad gestures. There is the slight problem of his devilish face, though.

I guess I should discuss the melodrama of the story as well. Everything in this short is overwrought and dramatic, but it fits, because the story is about the work of the gods and how it affects us mere mortals on Earth.

Persephone opens the short by dancing amongst the spring like flora and fauna, but she is soon grabbed by Pluto, who erupts from the ground and steals her away. The consequence is that the Earth turns from Spring to Winter, as Persephone is taken away. Pluto can not make her happy, no matter how many jewels or gifts he gives her, so he agrees to let her go back to the surface temporarily, so long as she comes back.

Persephone’s return to the Earth melts the snow and returns the Spring, but only temporarily, as the chorus reminds us. This is supposed to be the explanation for the change of the seasons, which is a neat concept.

However, I have to say, that as a first step towards Snow White, I did not find Persephone very convincing. It could also be that she is featured so little in this short that it’s hard to make a good judgment. There is more focus on Pluto than on her. It’s a good short, but shows you how far Disney and his team would have to evolve between 1934 and 1937 to get Snow White out and make it the film it would become.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mickey Plays Papa

Mickey Plays Papa is a short that features a couple of left turns, but is all the better for it. It also features some great gags, very good animation, and some of the best work on Pluto I have seen in the Disney shorts. It all adds up to make a good gag short, if not all that memorable in the long run.

I say that this short takes some left turns, because the opening sets the viewer up for a vastly different experience than what actually happens. The opening scene features a stormy night outside Mickey’s house, with a mysterious figure creeping into view. Immediately, expectations have you ready for a haunted house or mystery story. In fact, Mickey and Pluto are in bed reading such a story, a murder mystery. It’s the arrival of the mysterious stranger that changes things.

The stranger leaves a baby on the front porch, and the child starts crying, which sends Mickey and Pluto into fits. The cries sound more like screams, which play right into the mystery/ghost vibe established early in the short. It is amazing the work that the animators do in this early part of the short. All the shots feature incredible darkness and establish the mood of dark and creepy.

Then, the baby appears, and the mood changes. Mickey and Pluto set about to entertain the baby, with disastrous results. As a parent, watching Mickey’s struggles to get the child to stop crying were quite funny. I particularly enjoyed Mickey trying to be Charlie Chaplin, to no avail.

Pluto takes over the next sequence as Mickey figures out that the baby is hungry. Pluto, hearing this, brings the baby his bone. Again, a great gag. That’s followed by a few minutes of Pluto doing all sorts of things, from swallowing a duck toy to ending up in a trunk.

The finale of the short comes when Mickey is trying to figure out how to get the baby his bottle. In an accident, Mickey gets the nipple of the bottle stuck on his nose and can’t get it off. He finally is able to pull it off, but the resulting force sends him crashing into a bookshelf. When he emerges, his nose is stretched out, and that causes the baby to laugh, finally. Mickey takes advantage and does his best Jimmy Durante impression to close the short.

Besides the great gags, the other thing that impressed me with this short was the depth of the animation. The characters have more dimensionality and look more rounded than they have in some of the previous Mickeys of this era. The opening shots of the stranger creeping around Mickey’s house are so well done that they look realistic. It’s a great compliment to the gags that make this one worth watching.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Peculiar Penguins

Peculiar Penguins is a fairly straightforward story, and it’s a Silly Symphony that manages to push some borders and use great characters to tell an entertaining story. It’s a love story at heart, and there’s a lot of heart warming stuff to enjoy in this short.

That’s probably odd to say when talking about a short that is set at the North Pole. But, Peculiar Penguins quickly goes from a general look at penguins to a focus on two penguins in particular, as a male penguin tries to impress his female friend. His first gesture is to take an icicle and top it with snow, making an ersatz ice cream cone. I found that pretty funny, considering that they are in the coldest place on Earth.

That trick works, but then our male penguin gets a little ambitious, and decides to go diving for fish to present to his lady friend. Here’s where I think the animation is particularly good. When you see the penguin under the water, chasing the fish, it’s clear that it is underwater, but you see the fluidity of motion and the natural effects of swimming so clearly. It’s probably the best underwater scenes Disney has done yet.

He runs into a problem, though, as the fish he gets for the female penguin is a blowfish, and after she swallows it, the fish continues to blow up, inflating her with him. After getting the fish out, the female is angry. She slaps the male around and dives away.

One thing I’ll say is that the animation is especially good here as well. Putting expressive faces on these penguins could not have been an easy thing to do. But the female is able to express disappointment, anger and indifference over just a few seconds. That’s quite a feat for a series of drawings.

Anyway, as the female swims away, a shark comes to menace her. Seeing the opportunity, the male jumps in to save her. His battle with the shark is the best sequence of the short. There is some great animation work here as well. We get to see the penguin and shark swimming towards and away from the camera in quick, bold strokes, and we also get great gags like the penguin propping the shark’s mouth open with a stick.

Finally, of course, the shark is defeated, and the penguins reconcile. That sets up the final scene, which is a great shot of the penguins meshed together, forming a heart, as the Northern Lights cascade around them. The shot is held for quite some time, and it provides a beautiful ending to this short.

This short is quite an improvement over the last penguin short, Arctic Antics. The animation quality is amazing in this one, and the use of color really brings out the differences between the penguins, and helps with the emotional storytelling. I liked this one quite a bit, and recommend it highly.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Orphan's Benefit

I was watching Orphan’s Benefit, the latest Mickey Mouse short today, and I kept thinking that there was something familiar about it. So, I looked it up, and there’s a good reason for that. This short was remade seven years later, with the same title, and pretty much the same plot. I had seen the 1941 version before, but the 1934 version is very notable.

The main thing to see in this short is the transition from Mickey, the solo star, to the leader of the gang. Mickey rarely even appears in this short, and he does not drive any of the action. Mickey shows up to introduce the event, prompt Donald on his lines, and play piano for Clara Cluck. Other than that, he’s not involved.

Instead, the action is borne by the side characters. Donald Duck makes his crossover from the Silly Symphonies to a member of Mickey’s supporting cast here. And it’s likely this short that won him the recurring role in the Disney pantheon. The animators had the brilliant idea of having Donald attempt to recite “Little Boy Blue” and be interrupted by the orphans. Combine that with Clarence Nash’s vocals, and you have comedy gold.

Here is where we see Donald’s famous temperament for the first time. His signature angry stance of one arm out in front and the other swinging back and forth is on display here. This is where we see Donald become the character he is today. He really is the most fully formed character from the beginning that Disney produced.

That’s not the only cast member getting an upgrade here, though. Goofy appears alongside Clarabelle and Horace as part of a dance troupe. But this is no longer Dippy Dawg. Goofy’s trademark hat, his nose and face have all taken the shape that they would retain for his solo shorts. It’s a much more expressive and well done Goofy here, and he has now joined the gang.

There are also appearances by Clara Cluck, who would return in the remake of this short, but is not part of the Mickey gang as a whole. She makes other appearances throughout the Mickeys, but is not the featured character like Donald and Goofy will become.

Other than the promotion of Donald and Goofy, this short is as a whole unremarkable. There are some fun gags, but it’s really a take off on the old performance shorts we have seen going all the way back to Alice’s Wild West Show. It’s a make shift stage with some silly vaudeville acts, just like many other shorts we have seen. That doesn’t mean that it’s not funny, but it’s nothing spectacular. Still enjoyable and well worth viewing.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Flying Mouse

The Flying Mouse is, on the surface, an unremarkable Silly Symphony. It doesn’t feature any real recurring characters or new innovations in animation. But there are things in this short that make it one of the most interesting Silly Symphonies I have seen yet.

Let’s start with the story. The basics are this: a young mouse, who yearns to do something different, tries to fashion some wings for himself. In the process, he ruins his family’s day, and becomes dejected. As soon as he does, though, he sees a butterfly being menaced by a spider, and comes to its rescue. The butterfly turns out to be a fairy, who grants the mouse’s wish to fly.

The granting of the leathery wings, though, does not solve the mouse’s problems. His new flying self is not accepted by the birds, and scares away his family. He gets mocked by a group of bats for not being a bat or a mouse, and ends up going away crying. His tears bring the fairy back, and she removes the wings, sending the mouse running back for joy to his mother.

Does anything about that story strike you as odd? Walt Disney, a man who came up in the world wishing to do something different, to take flights of fancy, if you will, puts out a cartoon saying that such wishes might not be good? The basic message of the short is that you should stick with what you know, and not wish to be different. That just seems very different from the normal message of Disney films to this point.

As I watched the short, this was the thing I could not get over. How would Disney agree with such a thing? After all, this was still 1934, and Walt was heavily involved in the production of the shorts. Sure, I imagine he was not as hands on as he might have been earlier, but this seems directly in conflict with Walt’s values of wishing upon a star and reaching for new ideas.

That conflict is hard to resolve, but should not obscure other interesting things about the short. For example, the fairy in this short is the predecessor of later fairies we will see, such as Persephone in The Goddess of Spring or the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. It’s a nicely drawn human figure, and shows Walt’s boys thinking ahead.

There is also the mouse character. The main character is a familiar design, and will be used again later in Disney shorts. It’s a different design than Mickey, and the first real 3-dimensional mouse seen in the Disney films. It will be used later in The Country Mouse short, if I’m not mistaken.

I have not said yet if I like or dislike this short, and that’s because I can’t make up my mind. The animation is good, the song “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Nothin’” is also good. But the message of the short leaves me stunned, and I find that hard to get over. Give it a watch and see what you think.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Wise Little Hen

Once again we’ve reached one of the landmark shorts in Disney history. This time, it’s the first appearance of the final member of the Fab Five – Donald Duck. With this appearance in The Wise Little Hen, Donald joins the pantheon of Disney stars, and our Fab Five of Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Donald is complete.

It would be a while longer before Goofy and Donald really moved into Mickey’s world as his supporting cast, but Donald’s appearance here is striking for a few reasons. Compared to the other characters who appeared after Steamboat Willie (Goofy and Pluto), Donald appears in a fully finished form. He would evolve his look a bit, but his character, voice and clothing are all the same as we would see them today.

In the story of this short, it’s a familiar parable. The titular hen has a basket full of corn to planet, and approaches her friends Peter Pig and Donald Duck to get their help. Predictably, both beg off, faking a bellyache, so the hen goes out and plants the corn on her own, with her chicks helping out.

When the time comes to harvest the corn, Peter and Donald are together, and again fake a bellyache when the hen comes up to ask if they will help. Their tunes change of course, when the hen has finally harvested everything and cooked up a feast. Corn muffins, corn on the cob, corn chowder and cornbread are all set out on the hen’s table.

She gets the last laugh, though, inviting the boys over for dinner, but giving them a vial of Castor Oil for their tummies instead of food. It’s an old story, but a good one, and one that should be repeated often these days.

The striking thing is how much of a finished product Donald really is. Clarence Nash’s voice is instantly recognizable, and his trademark sailor outfit is there as well. He is the character that we would all know and love. But why did he survive this short and not Peter Pig or the hen?

I think the majority of it has to be Clarence Nash’s voice work. From the second Donald opens his mouth, he is a funny and memorable character. There’s nothing that particularly stands out about his design, although it’s good. But the distinct voice makes Donald an interesting character.

The Wise Little Hen is important for Donald’s appearance, but it’s also a good short. The hen comes across as likeable and funny, and Peter and Donald are also well done. I highly recommend any Disney fan to check this one out and see where one of Disney’s biggest stars got his start.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Gulliver Mickey

Once again today we have a short that could be considered a sequel. This time, Mickey gets in on the act, with Gulliver Mickey, a direct descendent of Giantland. Just like before, the short features Mickey telling his nephews a story, involving himself as the main character of a popular story. Before it was Jack and the Beanstalk, and here, it’s Gulliver’s Travels.

I have not read Gulliver’s Travels in quite some time, so forgive me for not being overly familiar with it, but this seems like a faithful adaptation up to a point. Mickey is shipwrecked (seems to happen to him a lot) and is washed ashore and falls asleep on the beach. When he awakes, he is tied down by the little people of Lilliput (although they are not identified as such in the short).

From there, we get some nice scenes of Mickey interacting with the Lilliputians. I have to say, though, that these scenes are lacking in something. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s possible that it’s just the harmlessness of the interactions that is bothering me. Mickey goes through the whole thing with a smile, chuckling at the little people’s attempts to destroy him.

It’s rather disconcerting, seeing giant Mickey smiling away as the little people shoot him with cannons, poke him with swords and drive their ships into his backside. It is supposed to be humorous, seeing the futility of these small people, but it really comes off as cruel to me. I think there is a failure of the animators to make this section worthwhile. It goes on for a while, and there’s really no muscle to it.

Things change at the end, as a giant spider, with Pete’s face, shows up, to battle Mickey and terrorize the town. This battle is the main conflict of the short, which makes the ending so much worse. Instead of Mickey defeating the spider and earning the trust of the townspeople, we simply fade back to the living room, where Mickey’s acting out the battle with a pillow.

Sure, this leads to a great gag with one of Mickey’s nephews scaring him with a plastic spider, but it leaves the Gulliver story unresolved. Simply having the townspeople celebrate him and thank him for beating the spider would have made the middle section better, and enhanced the ending of the short.

I have to say that this is the first Mickey short where I thought that the later criticism that Mickey is not a starring character was valid. This is a short that could have been much funnier with Donald or Goofy in the lead role. Mickey was a vehicle for a story that could have been told with anyone. Roles like this are likely what lead to him being phased out of the lead roles and the supporting cast taking on more of the burden in his shorts.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.