Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chef Donald

Donald making waffles. That alone makes Chef Donald a freakin’ awesome short. I love waffles, I love Donald, so this makes for a great short in my eyes.

Chef Donald is a classic example of one type of Donald short – Donald on his own, trying desperately to complete some sort of task, against the advice of either his better nature or some outside influence, in this case a radio. While Donald is scrapbooking, the radio entreats him to make waffles, leading to visions of a piping hot waffle and ultimately to cooking.

Remember how I mentioned Donald was scrapbooking? The only issue he has is that he leaves the rubber cement on the table, and well…

You can see where this is going. The dough turns into a sticky, viscous substance, and thwarts Donald’s every effort to make it into waffles. It’s another way to have Donald’s frustration build and build, going from a simple situation to an absurd one. That escalation is what makes Donald so unique.

This is very much like one of Goofy’s “How To” shorts, with the radio providing the narrator voice, but instead we have Donald going farther and farther to make his point. I personally lost it when Donald ended up with an axe, trying to chop the dough up. It backfires, of course, leading to a massive crack in Donald’s house that spreads quickly.

This is just a flat out funny short, because Donald is so hyperactive throughout. Even when he gets his tail caught in the waffle iron, it’s more funny than painful, at least for the viewer. It’s where the animators do some of their best work – pitting Donald against something that isn’t really fighting back, but thwarts his efforts all the same.

As I said…I love Donald, and I love waffles, so I loved Chef Donald. This is one of my new favorites.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thrifty Pig

1941 is such an interesting time in the history of the Disney studio, as it truly marks a change in the way business was conducted. The “failures” of Pinocchio and Fantasia left Walt and Roy strapped for cash, so you saw things like The Reluctant Dragon, designed to make use of shorts and dip a toe into live action. Dumbo was created for less money than the other features, and with the exception of Bambi, future feature productions were slowed or retooled.

This doesn’t even touch on things like the animator’s strike or Walt’s trip to South America, both of which would change things in the studio during the years to come. Then, there was World War II, which was just then beginning to involve the United States. After Pearl Harbor, Disney would take a lot of work from the government to help with the war effort, but even before that, Disney took a contract from the Canadian government to join in the war.

The first of these efforts was The Thrifty Pig, a virtual remake of The Three Little Pigs, only with the aim of getting people to invest in war savings bonds. As such, the plot is retooled, so that Practical Pig’s house is reinforced with war bond “bricks,” and the wolf is portrayed as a Nazi.

Most of the rest of the short is unchanged from The Three Little Pigs, until you get to the end. Then, there is new footage that dramatizes the need for savings bonds, showing how they will win the war effort. The bonds transform into planes or tanks, and propaganda sayings appear on the wings of planes or through bullets shot at the screen.

It’s quite a departure from the fairy tale and fantasy tales we’ve seen from Disney before. There is more like this to come as Disney gets more and more into the war effort, especially when Victory Through Air Power is made. But for now, Thrifty Pig is an interesting look into Disney on the verge of entering World War II, released only weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Art of Skiing

I’ve made no bones about it, the Goofy “How To…” shorts are my favorites. We’ve seen a few of these so far, like Goofy’s Glider or How To Ride A Horse, which was buried inside The Reluctant Dragon. But where the series really kicks off for me is with today’s short – The Art of Skiing.

The hilarity begins from the very first shot of the film, when the book “The Art of Skiing” is shown on screen, and underneath it reads “Pronounced SHEE-ing.” I have never before and never since heard anyone pronounce it that way, but listening to John McLeish pronounce skiing that way is hilarious.

As always, the humor here is in seeing Goofy try to comply with the ways that the narrator is telling him to act, but completely lousing it up. I think this short does a better job of that than the previous ones. Goofy looks directly into the camera, as though listening, and attempts to make the correct move, only to fail miserably. It starts right from the beginning, when he tries to put on the skis.

One of my absolute favorite things from Goofy is the yodel/yell he unveils in this short. The “Waaa-hooooo” yell is one thing that makes me laugh every single time. It is frequently quoted around my house and something I never tire of, no matter how many times it is used in the Goofy shorts.

There's not much to talk about in this short, except that it's just fun. Sure, there's the pain of seeing Goofy crashing through things and falling down mountains, but that's part and parcel of the experience. It's also interesting how many different gags the animators came up with for this one idea.

There's the typical stuff (Goofy gets twisted around or goes down the wrong slope), but then there's also some more inventive ideas, such as Goofy flying through the air as he does a ski jump. He manages to get a hold of hte skis and turn them into wings, eventually crashing him through the window of his hotel and back to bed. It's a fun ending to a very funny and exciting Goofy short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 26, 2010


The best Disney features are those that induce an emotional reaction in the viewer. Whether it’s fear from the Evil Queen in Snow White, joy when Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited or awe at the artistry of Fantasia, it is that visceral reaction that makes Disney films so unique. Dumbo is no exception to this, and in fact could be the most emotional film that Disney made.

We spoke before about the limitations placed on director Ben Sharpsteen – he had to keep things simple and keep the budget down. Perhaps it was the limitations that forced him to make certain choices, we don’t really know. But the resulting film is a masterpiece of storytelling, that evokes real, raw emotions in a multitude of scenes.

The story of Dumbo is a simple one – an elephant born with unusually large ears is ridiculed until he learns to use his ears to fly. The telling of the story, though, is an emotional roller coaster, from the depths of despair when Dumbo’s mother is taken away from him, to the highs of seeing Dumbo fly through the air.

Some of the choices made in the telling truly make this film unique. The first is the fact that neither Dumbo nor his mother speak in the film. While the other elephants gossip and carry on, Dumbo and Ms. Jumbo do not. Therefore, their emotions and thoughts have to be communicated through their actions and their eyes. It works beautifully, such as when Ms. Jumbo lashes out at the kids teasing her baby, or especially during the elegant and beautiful “Baby Mine” sequence.

The second choice that I thought was very unique was that few of the humans in the piece are very developed. The circus hands are faceless drones as they set up in the rain, and with the exception of the boys teasing Dumbo or the ringmaster, none of the other humans are real characters. It helps to put the highlight on the animal characters, and especially Dumbo. Sure, this was probably a time saving device, but it works.

There are just so many outstanding sequences in this film, that it’s a true credit to the Disney staff they were able to get it done. With restrictions in place, to turn out a sequence like “Pink Elephants on Parade” is amazing. It’s very much like a piece from Fantasia inserted in the midst of the story, but it works! Not only does it work, it works well, serving as a bridge between Dumbo drinking the contaminated water and ending up in a tree.

Dumbo also has some interesting sociological and controversial elements, if you look for them. The faceless drones who put up the circus tent are obviously African-American, and sing a song about how they throw their money away and are “roustabouts.” The crows, who end up helping Dumbo fly, are caricatures of African-American attitudes of the time, if seen through one prism. And the clowns, who end up dumping booze in the water Dumbo drinks, are making fun of the striking animators. It’s a credit to the film, though, that these things do not distract from the main story’s impact.

At its heart, Dumbo is a story about overcoming obstacles and succeeding in spite of them. It’s also a story of love, and how belief and love can help overcome those obstacles. In the end, though, it’s just a fantastic story, and a beautiful film. One of my absolute favorites, and a film that does not get enough credit for how wonderful it is.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Development of Dumbo

We’ve talked before in this space about the struggles of the Disney studio in 1941. Pinocchio was a mild success, but not hugely profitable like Snow White, and then the expense of Fantasia had put the studio on some shaky financial footing. Then, the outbreak of war in Europe took that market away, the animator strike damaged the atmosphere at the studio and Walt began to suffer.

So it’s hard to figure out how, in the midst of all this turmoil, Disney came up with one of its most hopeful and inspirational animated features – Dumbo. Part of it was necessity, or course. Disney needed the revenue that a feature would provide, and director Ben Sharpsteen was told to make the film as cheaply and quickly as possible. It was conceived and animated in less than a year, which is remarkable in itself.

Perhaps, though, necessity was the mother of invention. I’ll fully review the film myself next week, but Dumbo is a simpler, cleaner and easier film to follow than Pinocchio or Fantasia. It’s really a character study on Dumbo, and that made it fun.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. As mentioned, Dumbo was conceived as a film that would make a profit for the studio. To accomplish this, the film had to be scaled back from the expensive productions of the 1940 films, and even somewhat from Snow White. Backgrounds were ordered to be simpler, so they could be reused, and characters were easier to draw.

That said, it is on Dumbo that many feel that the Disney animators did some of their finest work. Bill Tytla on Dumbo and Ward Kimball on the crows are just two examples. The Pink Elephants on Parade sequence is phenomenal as well.

Dumbo, on its release, was successful for the company, almost doubling the money spent on it. It put the studio back into a decent position, and combined with Walt’s South American trip, was a shot in the arm going into the World War II era. The future would bring occupation of the studio by the military, and the war even bumped Dumbo off the front of Time Magazine, when the Pearl Harbor attack took the front page.

It’s worth noting, I guess, that Dumbo was only 64 minutes long. This was an issue with Disney’s distributor, RKO. Most films were at least 90 minutes, if not longer. RKO wanted Disney to trim the film to 30 minutes or expand it so that it would be a better feature. Disney refused, though, and RKO released Dumbo as intended.

Dumbo would be the last “original” feature for a while. After that, the war impeded Disney’s efforts to do full length films. Package features would become the new normal for a while, including efforts spawned from the South American trip. But all that in good time. First, we’ll talk about the artistry of Dumbo. Next week, the review!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Donald's Camera

I’ve said it before and will say it again, Donald works best when he’s put in a perfectly innocent situation, but things conspire against him to keep making it a frustrating situation. Donald’s Camera is a perfect example of that, and it’s a fantastic short that I had never seen before.

The opening for this was particularly fun, as it featured Donald doing something he normally does not do – being conscientious. After seeing a sign advising him to shoot nature with a camera, not a gun, Donald proceeds out to do just that. Again, a simple thing, that should be fun and enjoyable, but not when Donald’s involved.

A sighting of note happens almost immediately. The first animal Donald attempts to take a picture of is a little chipmunk with a black nose. It looks like a female, but in most other ways, is likely a forerunner of Chip, who will soon come to menace Donald in other ways, with his partner, Dale.

The chipmunk, though, is only a minor annoyance to Donald in this short. He can’t quite get a shot of the chipmunk, and turns around to see the forest creatures laughing at him. Donald chases them through the forest, ending up dropped in a pond. But he does a funny bit then, throwing the camera into the air, and catching it before it lands in the water. It’s a small thing, but sets up some emotional resonance later in the short.

After that, the rest of the short is a confrontation between Donald and a woodpecker. He tries to climb up a tree to get the woodpecker’s picture, but in a classic gag moment, the woodpecker lures him off the end of a branch, causing Donald to fall. It’s an easy gag, but still funny.

Donald tries a couple different approaches to getting the woodpecker’s picture, such as pretending that some toothpaste is a worm so he can trap the little guy. But the best interactions come after that, when Donald and the bird get into a pecking match. The woodpecker pecks Donald on top of the head, and Donald returns the favor.

It’s so great to see Donald matched up with an equal adversary. Usually, his antagonist is someone who’s well intentioned or just having a good time that interferes with him. Not this time. The woodpecker is out to get him, as evidenced by the last sequence of the film.

Stealing Donald’s camera, the woodpecker pecks a carve out in a tree and slides the camera in it. The carve out is done at an angle, so the tree would fall on the camera. Donald rushes to save it, even calling out “Don’t do that!” as the woodpecker jumps on a branch to try and cause the tree to fall. It’s where the water moment came back for me, as I didn’t want Donald’s camera to get smashed. But it did.

Donald’s anger turns to determination as he quite literally turns into a lightning bolt and zips back to town to grab an arsenal to hunt down the woodpecker. It makes this short delightful to see his turn from nature lover to hunter and see the root cause of it all. I loved it, and you will, too.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Orphan's Benefit and the Disney Remake Program

If you'll recall, when reviewing Orphan's Benefit last week, I stated that it was a remake of the earlier black and white version. My speculation was that this was due to a loss of artists during the 1941 Disney strike. Excellent commenter and Disney animation guru David Gerstein corrects me here, with the explanation of what was really going on:

On June 27, 1939, Walt, Thomson and Dave Hand screened nineteen early Mickey cartoons. The plan was to compile the best scenes from the shorts into a two-reel clip show for Mickey’s upcoming twelfth anniversary. MICKEY'S REVIVAL PARTY (as it was to have been called) would have opened with Mickey’s gang arriving at a studio cinema. As the vintage scenes unreeled on a “screen within a screen,” Mickey and friends in the audience would react in various comic ways.

There were only two problems with this. The elaborate manner in which the vintage scenes were to be reused precluded simply lifting them from old negatives and splicing them together. They would have to be reinked onto cels from the original animation drawings; repainted, retimed, and refilmed.

Another hindrance was that the old cartoons excerpted had to be from summer 1935 or earlier. Anything more recent might still be in release. This meant that there were very few color cartoons to include in the retrospective.

Walt decided to kill two birds with one stone. As the excerpted shorts were all to be reinked and repainted anyway, he decided to repaint some in color that had originally been in black and white: ORPHANS' BENEFIT among them. Walt also saw an opportunity to retouch and improve the color in THE BAND CONCERT, the one short in the show that was originally in color. Story meeting transcripts reveal Walt repeatedly suggesting that remaking or upgrading older shorts could be an ongoing program, independent of REVIVAL PARTY.

That's what ended up happening. REVIVAL PARTY director Riley Thomson completed a cutting continuity for use in preparing the excerpts; but for some reason, the clip show format ended up on the shelf. Instead, Thomson moved forward with remaking earlier cartoons in full-length, standalone form. ORPHAN'S BENEFIT came first. Then came MICKEY'S MAN FRIDAY, four early color Silly Symphony shorts, and ON ICE.
But then the bottom dropped out. ORPHAN'S BENEFIT ended up the only exact Disney remake ever completed. MAN FRIDAY was shut down partway through animation; you can still see model sheets at various online animation galleries for what the updated models were going to look like.

The other remakes were shut down before animation. Dunno why.

Again, this goes somewhat to my point that Walt did not have anything against actually doing sequels. He just wanted to do them right. Thanks to David for letting me reprint his comment and for visiting the site.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Lend A Paw

Pluto is a character that presents animators with a set of challenges. Since he’s a dog, he does not act like a human. Well, Goofy’s a dog and he acts like a human, so it’s a little more nuanced than that, but you get the idea. Pluto must move like a dog, and since he doesn’t speak, he can’t get emotions or thoughts across through words. It’s because of that the animators use different tricks to show us Pluto’s thought processes.

The most common of these is the use of the angel and devil Pluto, playing out a scene from both angles, advising Pluto what to do. In Lend A Paw, we see probably the most memorable version of this trick. It’s a short that I remember fondly, even if I can’t recall where or when I saw it first.

The whole thing is meant to demonstrate kindness to animals, which is funny since it’s Pluto, not Mickey who ends up being kind to the stray kitten. When he hears a meow from a bag floating down the river, Pluto rescues the kitten, who then follows him home. Pluto’s rescue across the ice flow in the snow is a great scene, with some nice animation.

The real trouble starts when the kitten follows Pluto home, and suddenly is a fair haired child for Mickey’s affections. That’s when the angel and devil come out, to tell Pluto to either be nice to the kitten or to get him kicked out, respectively. The devil has a nice tough guy voice, while the angel is more of a high pitched, shrill voice.

Pluto sets up the kitten by placing it on the table next to the fishbowl. Cats being cats, the kitten reaches into the fishbowl to try and nab the fish, causing a big commotion and things to come crashing down. The aftermath of that, when Mickey comes out to survey the scene is a favorite image of mine.

Pluto gets kicked out of the house after the fish turns “stool pigeon” in the words of the Pluto devil, and is left out in the snow. What I love about this short is although it’s obvious, it goes for the satisfying story, not the cheap gag. There could be tons of great gags of Pluto trying to get back in the house or doing something funny outside, but instead, he saves the kitten from drowning in the well.

The kitten jumps into the well by accident, and Pluto has to fight off the devil to get the kitten out. It’s a fantastic scene, that really examines Pluto’s character, and shows us why he’s a good dog after all, despite the trouble he causes. Normally, I don’t enjoy the angel/devil device, but here, it works to illuminate Pluto, not diminish him.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Quick update

Furiously working on some things for the blog, so be patient. Will hopefully have reviews up later today or tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Old MacDonald Donald

We’ve seen Donald in many different roles – Romeo, “loving” uncle and performer to name a few. In Old MacDonald Donald, though, we see him as a farmer, another role for this versatile duck. It’s an interesting take on Donald, but one that lends itself to his ideal situation – to get increasingly frustrated throughout the short.

The opening scenes of this short are simply a “music video” with Donald singing “Old McDonald.” As he sings, he tends the farm, wiggles his tail feathers, and exhorts the pigs and other animals to join in the song. It’s a cute piece, and does the job of setting the scene very well. You get a great sense of Donald the farmer as a carefree guy just enjoying the fresh air and tending his livestock.

It’s when Donald gets entangled with his dairy cow, Clementine, that things get interesting. The animation does a fantastic job of setting up Clementine as a character. We first see her up in a tree, which seems so odd, but then seeing her float down to Earth, you instantly get an idea of who this character is. Clementine is a gentle cow, happy to help, but as you can see from her expressions, always ready to cross over the line to mischievous.

The milking goes fine for a moment, until a fly shows up to bother both Clementine and Donald throughout the rest of the film. The fly is a daring antagonist, buzzing around Clementine’s nose until she ultimately swats at him, hitting Donald instead. As usual, though, Donald escalates things to a dangerous level.

The funniest bit is when Donald starts getting mixed up, and ends up with his straw hat under Clementine, the stool on his head and sitting on the milk bucket. You can see where this is going, right? Sure enough, the milk ends up dumped all over Donald’s head, after some hilarious quick switcheroos.

My favorite bit, though, was when Donald began aiming the cow’s udders at the fly, shooting milk like weaponry. It’s so ridiculous that it is perfect for Donald. Only he could get away with something like that. In real life, cows would knock you senseless if you tried that.

Donald ends up as usual, knocked silly because he overdoes it. The fly manages to get loose and bite Clementine, forcing her to kick Donald and send him flying into the barn. The closing scenes show both Clementine and the fly laughing. It’s a classic end to a short that is quite funny throughout, and well worth watching.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Orphan's Benefit 1941

Today’s review will be pretty short, because the next short Disney released in 1941 was a shot for shot remake. Remember Orphan’s Benefit, the black and white short where Mickey entertained a crew of orphans in a large theatre? Well, this is the same thing, only in color, and featuring updated character designs for Mickey and his friends.

No, I don’t mean that they took the same premise and redid the short. No, it’s the same backgrounds, and most of the same animation, with updated designs for the main characters of Mickey, Donald and Goofy. They look like their 1941 selves instead of their 1934 versions. You can see some of the differences in the pictures.

So, my original review still stands on the short. It’s funny and a nice bit with each of the characters. What’s more interesting is why Disney ended up doing this. It’s not like reusing animation was something new, but the question is why now?

While I’m not qualified to speak to the specifics, you have to figure it had something to do with the strike. This short was release in August of 1941, after the animators’ strike had crippled the studio for a while. The assumption would be that Disney had to get material ready quickly, while also finishing work on Dumbo.

I would assume that was the biggest part of the issue, however, it might not be all of it. Remember as well that during this time in 1941, Walt was leading a group of artists on the tour of South America. So if you combine that with the issues after the strike, you can see where a group of animators might try to find the quickest way possible to turn out some shorts.

It’s interesting to me, of course, because of the “Walt Didn’t Do Sequels” crowd. Not only did he do sequels (more Three Little Pigs shorts), he did remakes. Whether Walt himself oversaw this short, I doubt, but it came out with his name on it. I think Walt did what he needed to do and tried to do it very well, and saying more than that is drawing assumptions.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Truant Officer Donald

Yesterday, we saw Donald at his finest, in a solo setting. Alone in a room, the animators managed to turn Donald’s struggles with going to bed into a great bit of comedy. Today, we get to see how he plays off others, specifically his nephews, in Truant Officer Donald.

From a pacing and story standpoint, this is a very, very strong short. Donald starts off with a clear objective – getting the boys into school – and pursues that goal vigorously throughout the short. And as things go on, the obstacles get bigger and bigger, until he finally reaches his goal. It’s exactly what you would want any good writer to do.

I still can’t distinguish between the nephews, but I don’t think that’s important for their comedic value. In fact, it’s probably better that way. Donald doesn’t show favoritism to any of them, as he uses a net and a suction gun to capture them initially. Donald’s gadgets are a fun addition to the short, and seems to foreshadow some of the things to come in the Duckverse many years later (Darkwing Duck for one example.)

The boys breaking out of the truancy van is also a great bit. The timing is crucial, as we see the boys bust out their Swiss Army knives, then the van goes through a patch of trees, and we see nothing. When the van emerges on the other side, it has not back anymore, and the boys are gone. It’s a subtle thing, but the easy way out would have been to just show the boys sneaking out the back. Using it this way, with the obscured view, was much funnier.

The second half of the short shows Donald trying to coax the boys out of their clubhouse, using a variety of methods. Things escalate like crazy. It gets to the point where Donald tries to smoke them out, by setting a fire outside the door. That’s where I think things get very creative.

The boys decide to hide some conveniently placed nearby roasting turkeys in their beds, so Donald will think he has roasted them. Seeing Donald’s reaction when he comes into the room and sees the roasted birds is priceless. But as always, the boys go one step too far, dusting one of them with flour and posing as an angel, which Donald sees through eventually.

The shot of Donald coming forward and menacing the boys was a favorite of mine. Unfortunately for him, when he finally has them rounded up, he heads to the school, only to discover…well, you need to watch it to see, but it’s a perfect comic ending to the short. Don’t miss this one if you want to laugh.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.