Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Springtime for Pluto

Pluto has always been a different character for the Disney animators. He was not like Mickey or Donald or Goofy, because he did not speak, and there had to be a good reason for Pluto to do what he did, because otherwise he would just sleep all day. In Springtime for Pluto, that motivation seems very lacking, and the short suffers because of it.

Springtime for Pluto is sort of a disconnected short, as it attempts to merge Pluto with the “How To” narration model and the old Silly Symphonies and come up with something new. That’s not exactly a formula for success. While the concept of Pluto frolicking through the freshness of a Spring day makes sense, it lacks the true comedy of seeing Donald’s frustration or Goofy’s smiling silliness.

Pluto wakes up from his slumber and sees that Spring has sprung all around him, and proceeds to get involved with the various creatures that are taking in the new day. He chases birds and fights with caterpillars, smiling all the way. This part of the short is very much a call back to the old “seasons” shorts of the Silly Symphonies. It’s quiet, pastoral scenes that show some of the inherent beauty of nature.

The real question is if Disney wanted to make that sort of short again, why not just do another Silly Symphony? Instead, we are treated to Pluto crashing through the scene, and not in a comedic and fun way. Pluto is a disruptive part of the scenery instead of adding to the beauty or comedy.

Things get a little weird when a deep voiced caterpillar climbs up Pluto’s tail to spin a cocoon, only to transform into a buxom female butterfly. As the butterfly was dancing around and Pluto was reacting like a Tex Avery cartoon, I just wondered what the point was. Although the animation of the butterfly was fantastic, it didn’t seem to fit in the spot.

After that we get more of the narrator going on and on about how wonderful spring is, all while Pluto gets rained on and half the countryside is destroyed by rain and hail. Sure, this formula works fine in the Goofy shorts, but outside of that, it’s not as effective. We saw this device used in Contrary Condor, and it was no better there. It seems Disney fell in love with the narrator at this time, but it wasn’t necessarily a good thing. I think Springtime for Pluto is an attempt to merge all these things into something better, but it’s an attempt that fell flat.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Commando Duck

It sometimes seems in the war years that all Disney produced is Donald Duck shorts. There’s probably a good reason for that, as Donald was the company’s most popular character at the time, and was deeply ingrained into the populace as Disney’s face for the war effort. But other than the occasional Goofy or Pluto short, it’s a lot of Donald.

Commando Duck is, at least, a continuation of the war shorts that saw our favorite duck join the military and be belittled by Pete. Pete is absent in this short, but now that Donald has enlisted, been through basic training and served on the base, he’s ready to go out into the field. The short opens with Donald ready to parachute out of a plane, to sabotage a Japanese base.

The mission is frankly impossible. Donald has to parachute in and singlehandedly destroy the base, but the officer in the plane doesn’t give him much guidance. When Donald lands and starts rowing down the river, the Japanese are targeting him the entire time. It’s this part of the short that has caused it to be taken out of rotation at Disney. The Japanese in the short are caricatures, and not flattering ones. It’s not surprising of course, considering that the filmmakers were “at war” with the Japanese, but it’s insensitive by today’s standards.

The solution to the issue of how Donald will destroy the base is inventive. Similar to How To Be A Sailor, where Goofy just lucked into things but destroyed the entire fleet, here Donald has an accident that ends up accomplishing his main goal. It’s very fitting to his character, too, because you would never imagine Donald being able to accomplish this on his own.

What happens is that Donald’s inflatable boat goes over a waterfall, but does so in a way that it ends up filling up with water. As the boat expands, the water keeps filling it and it “chases” Donald through a canyon full of rocks. The fun is in seeing Donald try to keep the boat from popping and washing him away, all while trying to run away.

When it ultimately does pop, it ends up washing away the Japanese base that lay right beneath the cliff facing Donald was running away from. It’s a supremely effective weapon that ends the Japanese threat and the short as well. While this one gag is effectively the entire short, that’s not necessarily bad. Again, though, this feels like a short where Donald didn’t have to be the main character. It makes sense why he is, because of his previous war shorts, but it could have worked with Mickey or Goofy as well.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tweetwatch - Muppet Christmas Carol - Monday, 12/13 at 8:30p

It’s getting closer every day…Christmas is almost upon us. Our Tweetwatches for other Christmas movies have been fun, but the one I’m looking forward to the most is coming up tonight, Monday, December 13 at 8:30p ET – A Muppet Christmas Carol!

This may be my all time favorite Christmas film, just because I love the Muppets, I love the story of A Christmas Carol, and this movie is the perfect synergy of the two. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an absolute must during the holiday season.

In case you’ve never done a Tweetwatch before, here’s the breakdown:

1. Count in on Plancast for the event
2. A few minutes before 8:30p head over to the Friendfeed room, or get your Twitter app set to follow me and get the fun factoids
3. When I tweet the go signal…hit play and we’ll watch the movie together.

No excuses, people! Go get the movie from the store, from Netflix or wherever, but get it and let’s have the biggest Tweetwatch evah!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tweetwatch Schedule - Christmas Edition

We only have a couple more Christmas Tweetwatches coming. Here's the upcoming schedule:

Monday, December 13 at 8:30 pm - Muppet Christmas Carol

Monday, December 20 at 8:00 pm - Mickey's Christmas Carol

For Mickey's Christmas Carol, you may have it on DVD or on the Mickey Mouse in Living Color Walt Disney Treasures tin. If not, it's here on YouTube.

There you go! The new Tweetwatch Christmas Calendar. You know the drill by now, but here's the way to join in the fun:

1. Count yourself in on Plancast
2. Get the movie, either buy it or on Netflix (Mickey's Christmas Carol I will make available on my YouTube channel)
3. On the day of the event, head on over to the Friendfeed room.
4. Spend the evening enjoying the movie nad chatting with your Disney friends!

Looking forward to enjoying the holidays with you guys!

Contrary Condor

Donald sure is having a lot of animal trouble in 1944. Yesterday we looked at his issues with a gorilla, and today, it’s Donald having some trouble with a condor. Contrary Condor features Donald looking to collect a condor egg from somewhere high in the Andes.

Originally created as part of the South America shorts born out of the Good Neighbor project, Contrary Condor is sort of a hybrid. Partially, it’s a “How To” short like the Goofy shorts, but it’s also an opportunity for Donald to do the comedy that he is best at, in trying to pull off something somewhat evil and being foiled.

This time, he is attempting to collect a condor egg from a nest high up on top of a mountain in the Andes. Doesn’t seem like a wise move, does it? Regardless, Donald climbs up to the peak to take a stab at getting the egg. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when one of the eggs hatches, and through a series of events he ends up inside a shell.

Watching Donald sweat inside the egg shell and eventually “hatch” is quite funny, and an inventive gag. That’s only the beginning, however, as the mother condor comes back and is shocked to see two babies in her nest – the real condor child and Donald. Hurriedly, Donald sticks his hat over his tail to simulate condor feathers.

As you may imagine, hilarity ensues, as the narrator describes the life cycle of a condor, but with Donald subbing in as the baby instead. The best part of this is when the mother condor is trying to get her children to fly. The actual condor takes to it easily, but you can imagine that Donald does not want to jump off a mountain top and then plummet to his death.

He comes up with an elaborate ruse of throwing a “dummy” condor over the side of the nest and into the water below, leaving the mother inconsolable, but it backfires. Doesn’t it always? The point of the short is pretty good, showing the conservationist point of view that collecting condor eggs isn’t the best thing. The humor, though, seems more fit for a Goofy short. It’s another case of the studio using Donald as their default rather than looking to fit the story to the character.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Donald Duck and the Gorilla

Next to Goofy, Donald is my favorite of the big Disney characters. I think his shorts have been consistently funny and imaginative, mainly because of the work of Carl Barks and the story team creating an expansion of Donald’s world. It’s great to see that universe expand with characters and settings.

However, when I come across a short like Donald Duck and the Gorilla, I see something disappointing. After all the hard work in the previous shorts, this one just seems odd, because it’s a rehash of a plot point from an old Mickey short, and falls back onto gags that aren’t particularly new.

The setup for the short is that a gorilla has escaped from the zoo, which Donald and his nephews hear over the radio. Donald just so happens to have a gorilla suit laying around, so he picks up the gloves and uses them to scare the boys. They, in turn, put on the whole suit to scare him. This all takes place in the first couple of minutes of the short.

As you might imagine, from there the real gorilla shows up, and hilarity ensues. Sadly, it does not ensue properly, at least to my mind. There’s the obligatory gag where Donald mistakes the real gorilla for the boys in the suit, and from there it’s a bit of a mess.

There’s a whole sequence where the gorilla doesn’t show up, but the boys are sneaking around with Donald while carrying a candle. The candle ends up dripping wax on Donald’s tail, overheating a doorknob and generally is a nuisance. Is it funny? Mildly, but the whole time I was wondering where the gorilla was.

After that, the boys basically disappear, and the short is about the gorilla chasing Donald. It’s not that it’s a bad thing, but it is not necessarily good, either. Donald is funny, but we don’t get to see much of that here. We really get to see an old Mickey short revamped, and you could have dropped any character in this short and made it work. That’s why I can’t recommend this one.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

How To Play Golf

I don’t play golf, so I want to state that right away. I’ve tried to learn, but frankly between trips to Disney and children, there’s just never time. However, if I were to try and learn, I would not take tips from Goofy, because How To Play Golf does just like all the other “How To” shorts, and shows the exact opposite of what one should do.

This one is not like some of our other recent shorts, where we have been shown the history of the subject leading up to the present day. Here, the approach is much more like the early efforts in this series, where the Goof is thrown right in and we see the narrator outlining the proper way to do things while Goofy ignores him.

There’s an added twist this time, as after a brief intro, we transition into a blue background where we get a stick figure drawn to demonstrate the proper form for a golf swing. The stick figure is compared to Goofy, with obvious differences. The fun comes when the stick figure golfer climbs out of the “demonstration world” and enters the real world to assist Goofy.

It’s a fabulous little trick, because now, in addition to the narrator’s dissonance to Goofy’s actions, we get to see the “proper” golfer’s dismay at the Goof’s attempts. Goofy obviously can’t play golf, so watching him swing away at the ball and miss or tie himself into knots is funny enough. Add on top of that the obvious disappointment of the stick figure and you have some comedy gold.

The big joke in the latter half of the short, though, is the constant refrain of the narrator to “play the ball where it lies.” You can imagine where that leads. All sorts of different locations for the ball leads to some uncomfortable positions for Goofy. There’s the obvious sand trap, but there’s also a turnstile and the top of a bull where the ball lands.

The last one is the best, as the minute Goofy hits the ball, the bull gets riled up and starts chasing both the stick figure and Goofy. It’s a frantic sequence where the ball keeps landing out in front of Goofy, who keeps hitting it to stay in front of the bull, with the stick figure hot on his heels. Eventually, though, they all end up in the clubhouse bar together, like any good golfers. It’s that touch of fun and frantic energy that makes this short so light hearted and fun.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Trombone Trouble

At the heart of Trombone Trouble is a very interesting premise – what happens when Donald gets the ability to push back on someone making his life difficult? After all, we have all seen Donald get pushed around and had his frustration level rise. What would happen if he were able to get his way for once?

Sadly, though, in order to get to that premise, the filmmakers decided to take a round about route. Pete, the ever present villain who has moved on to torment Donald in the war years, is playing a trombone in his home very loudly. Up in the clouds, we see the Greek gods Jupiter and Vulcan unable to sleep because of the noise.

This raises some valid questions – why are Greek gods located over the United States? How loud can Pete play? If it’s so loud that it can be heard in the heavens, why does the sheer force of the sound waves not destroy everything in its path?

These are all just minor concerns, but they took me out of the story, which is not something you want in a short seven minute film. The Greek gods do serve a purpose, though, as they are looking for a way to silence Pete and his trombone. They find a willing accomplice in Donald Duck, who is next door trying to sleep.

Jupiter powers up Donald with a fraction of his power, to allow Donald to take care of Pete. If there had been perhaps another method of getting to that point, it could have been much more interesting. I did find the scenes of Donald getting his payback on Pete very amusing. He attacks with strength, electricity and just plain meanness that is amusing and impressive.

In the end he does chase Pete away, much to the delight of the Greek gods. Unfortunately for them, Donald decides to pick up the trombone and make some more noise, so it doesn’t end well. The bad part of this is that there is no real fun to be had in the animation or the story. There certainly could have been, but the set up is so difficult and complex that it doesn’t leave time for that. It’s fun, but could have been so much better.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How To Be A Sailor

I’ve made no secret of my intense love for the Goofy “How To” shorts. The creativity of the Disney artists to make Goofy over from a side character in the Mickey series into a star of this series is unmatched. Translating that into wartime could have been a difficult task, but it ended up working well in How To Be A Sailor.

Just like in other shorts, such as The Art of Self Defense, the story of that art is traced from the beginning of time forward. Here, we get to see man’s first trip on the open water, in the form of Caveman Goofy stumbling onto a log in a river.

From there, things progress quickly through the ages. One of my personal favorite scenes in any Disney short is when Goofy lashes himself to the mast of the ship, as was customary during the old maritime days. Watching Goofy’s face as he gets constantly splashed and nearly drowned with water is just priceless. The comedy is amazing in this short, as it is in nearly all the Goofy “How To” shorts.

That’s one of the things I love about these shorts, is the seamless blend of animation acting and comedy that takes place. As each one progresses, we get a new and better acting performance from Goofy as the animators start carving out different personalities for the multiple Goofs. Caveman Goofy is not the exact same as the sailing ship Goofy, but you can still tell that each one is Goofy.

The natural end point for this is for Goofy to join the new US Navy that is part of the World War II fleet. We get to see the Goof in his bed below decks, not only as the sailors but decked out in the most ridiculous commanding officer outfit you have ever seen.

In a hilarious final sequence, Goofy drops the torpedo and ends up in the torpedo tube himself, and is shot across the ocean, downing Japanese ships by the dozens. It’s a great climax to the film because it incorporates the war propaganda message as well as staying true to the spirit of the “How To” shorts. How To Be A Sailor accomplishes both of those goals with ease, and that makes it worth a watch.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tweetwatch - TONIGHT - 8:30p ET - A Christmas Carol

After a nice Thanksgiving break, I'm ready to get on with the Christmas season! And so, tonight, we'll have a fantastic Tweetwatch of Disney's A Christmas Carol,
starring Jim Carrey in a motion capture spectacular.

I'll forewarn those of you who have kids - this one can get pretty scary. There are lots of ghosts and some of them can get pretty graphic. However, if you enjoy the story of A Christmas Carol, you'll love this one.

If you're not familiar with how to join the fun, just log on to Twitter or our Friendfeed room and queue up the movie to the "Play" button shortly before 8:30. Then, I'll post/tweet the signal to begin and we'll watch it!

So, we'll see you tonight at 8:30p in the Friendfeed room or on Twitter. If you haven't counted yourself in, go ahead and do so on Plancast. See you tonight!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Pelican and the Snipe

During the South American trip that we spoke about extensively on this site, Walt and his team developed dozens of ideas that did not make it into either Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros. Some of those made it into other shorts, like Pluto and the Armadillo, and some were developed all the way into longer pieces for a package feature. The Pelican and the Snipe is one of the latter.

Originally intended for use in a package feature film, this short was created as the Uruguay portion of the South American film series. To that end, the short is set outside of Montevideo, Uruguay on top of a lighthouse, and features a pelican named Monty and a snipe named Video, or Viddy, as he’s referred to in the short.

Monte has a serious problem, but he is unaware of it. Every night, Monte has a tendency to fly in his sleep, but his steadfast friend, Viddy, keeps track of him and makes sure that he doesn’t get into too much trouble. The gags explaining this are flat out hilarious. Several times in the short, the action is stopped to show just how close things are to disaster. One of these is right at the beginning, when Viddy pulls Monte’s beak up to avoid crashing into the rocks.

The issue that comes up is that Monte is completely unaware of what he is doing. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s fit as a fiddle, and can’t understand why Viddy is always sleeping. Now, why Viddy doesn’t just tell Monte what’s going on, I’m not sure, but it’s a fantastic set up for comedy.

Viddy tries several solutions, including tying Monte to an anchor. When Monte manages to slip free and ends up at the bottom of the ocean, he gets angry and kicks Viddy out of the lighthouse gang. The great part of this is how emotional this piece is, because every other part of the short has been emotional, and now there’s this division between the two friends. Viddy begins crying, and it’s simply moving.

I have to say, though, what makes this work more than anything else is the narration by Sterling Holloway. Best known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, Holloway tells the whole story, which could be a bit of cheating, as most animation is designed to show, not tell. It really works here, though, because Holloway is able to convey all the emotions of Monte and Viddy, without either of them having to speak.

With Viddy gone, Monte begins his sleep-flying again, and when he’s awakened by a nearby plane, he realizes what he has done to poor Viddy. He arrives to find Viddy just in time before bombers practicing their trade blow him to smithereens. There’s a final scene where we see that Viddy has solved the problem, and the two friends are back together again.

I could not find a single thing wrong with this short. It is touching, heart warming and very funny. I’m actually surprised this was the first time I have seen it, because it’s so good. Definitely seek this one out if you can.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Spirit of '43

You thought we were done with 1943 shorts, didn’t you? Not so fast, my friend, as Lee Corso would say. In addition to the public shorts that Disney produced during this wartime period, there were the propaganda shorts that served to enhance the spirit of Americans about the war. At least that was the idea, and The Spirit of ’43 was designed for that purpose.

The specific subject here is income taxes. During the war, taxes were “high,” so that the government could produce the things needed to wage the war. That’s a point that gets touched on later in the short, but the opening uses the old trick of pitting man’s best nature against his worst, this time with Donald Duck as the person in between.

In this case, the good side is urging Donald to pay his taxes, put money away and support the war effort by making all his payments on time. On the bad side, the spendthrift duck is urging Donald to go to the nightclub and blow the money on entertainment. The good duck is represented by a character remarkably like Uncle Scrooge, which becomes quite odd.

As the short progresses and Donald is trying to fight off the two sides, he ends up knocking them off. The good side slams into a wall, and reveals an American looking fa├žade. Again, just odd because he’s represented by a Scottish speaking duck in a kilt!

The bad side spendthrift duck staggers off the side of the club, revealing his Hitler mustache. The club doors form a swastika, and we see the clear message that blowing your money instead of paying taxes is supporting the Axis.

Take a second to think about that – would you see such a thing today? Encouraging people to pay their taxes, because it’s their patriotic duty? I don’t think so. It’s an amazing study of sociology to see how much attitudes have changed in the intervening 60 plus years to think of how unacceptable this short would be today.

At the time, however, with everyone united around the war effort, The Spirit of ’43 was an acceptable thing. The second half of the short is a rehash of other wartime shorts, showing all the guns, tanks and other machinery that can be produced if you pay your taxes. It’s well done, but nothing new. It’s the ducks that are so interesting here, and well worth watching just to see how things have changed.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chicken Little

The shorts of 1943 end with a story that could be read in multiple ways. Chicken Little is a classic tale, but read in the larger context of World War II, this short shows a little bit of satire and political commentary. It’s not something you’d expect from Disney, who most people think of staying away from politics, but it’s definitely a part of Chicken Little.

If you’re familiar with the story of Chicken Little, you will understand the premise of the short. In the original stories, an acorn falls on the chicken’s head, and the chicken decides that the sky is falling, and whips the other birds into a hysteria. There are a couple of endings in traditional tellings – in the first, the chicken narrowly escapes, and in the second, an unscrupulous fox eats all the birds.

For this short, Disney took a different, but much more relevant tilt to the story. Here, it’s the fox who stirs up the trouble, looking to capitalize on the fear to eat the chickens. He preys on the weakest of the bunch, Chicken Little, trying to make him believe the sky is falling. The resulting panic that Chicken Little drums up drives all the chickens into the fox’s cave.

The simple twists here are the ones that give this short its political punch. The fox, of course, represents Hitler and the Nazis, and the chickens are the German people. By inciting the hysteria, the fox gets his goal of driving the chickens out of the safety of their fenced in yard. I giggled at the ingenious way he starts the action, hovering over the fence with a psychology book, and identifying Chicken Little as the “stupid one.”

Seeing the fox play the birds against one another is a nice study in character animation, as he starts the whispering campaign that convinces them that Chicken Little is correct. Since most of the whispering is the fox, we get to see the reactions of the other birds bit by bit, and every single one is perfect. The animators manage to capture the irrational fear but also the slight pleasure in seeing another person upended, in this case the mayor of the coop.

The underpinnings of the short are easy to read, especially when the short ends and the chickens are driven into the fox’s cave. While the narrator assures us that everything will turn out alright, once the shot goes to the inside of the cave, we see that the fox has eaten all the chickens. It’s a definite commentary on what was happening in Germany, projecting that Hitler had led the Germans to doom, only to enhance his own reputation. While it’s odd today to see Disney wading into this sort of material, even subtlely, it’s a sign of how entrenched the entire country was in the war effort during those years.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.