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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Home Defense

So far in the wartime shorts, we have seen quite a bit of military and foreign action. Donald has gone off and joined the Army, and we have seen how he has gotten into trouble with Pete. We’ve seen the propaganda shorts bashing Hitler and Germany. But there has been only one that dealt with the homefront – Victory Vehicles. Now, you can add Home Defense to that list.

Home Defense adds a dimension to the war at home that we have not seen so far – that of the watch commander or listening post. During World War II, there were citizens who would listen for attacks that might be coming. In this short, Donald Duck is one of those citizens, with the able assistance of his nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie.

This short follows in the best traditions of Donald and his nephews cartoons, with the boys causing mischief for Donald, followed by Donald overreacting. Any good Donald short features Donald losing his mind, so this one is no different. In this case, however, it’s poking gentle fun at the listening post idea, and at the war itself.

Donald is spending his time at this listening post with the boys, when he accidentally awakens them. To get him back, the boys launch a toy plane and stuff it with cutout soldiers with parachutes. Donald reacts as though it’s real, and pulls out the guns to shoot the plane down and release the parachuters.

Then, when the ruse is discovered, Donald strips the boys of their rank and casts them off. This bit is very nicely done, as it foreshadows the end of the short. That is one thing that was missing from previous 1943 efforts, is the story consistency we saw in some of the earlier Disney efforts, especially Donald Duck cartoons.

The inevitable resolution here is that Donald needs the boys to deal with a real crisis, right? Instead, the comedic choice is to get Donald all worked up about another false threat, in this case a bee. The bee manages to get into Donald’s listening apparatus, which causes the duck to imagine all sorts of doomsday scenarios.

Frantic animation of the highest quality follows, as the boys are recalled, Donald sews their badges back on and in the end, a cannon is fired into Donald’s listening equipment. This climactic part of the short is very well done, with quick bursts of movement and racheting up the tension until we get to the end, when everything blows up.

Home Defense is a funny short not only for that, but because of the subtle satire of making fun of the listening posts. There were definitely those in America who thought the listening posts were a waste of time, since the war was in Europe. This short took some of their criticisms and put them on display. Whether that was intentional or not, it makes for a good, funny Disney cartoon.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Old Army Game

Now this is more like it! The Old Army Game pits Donald against Pete yet again, in the role of beleaguered Army private versus the angry Sergeant. It comes back to the humor and fun you would expect from a Disney short, with a coherent, tightly packed story that features some fantastic acting from the main characters.

Donald is attempting to sneak back onto the base after breaking curfew for the night to go out on the town. Pete discovers this after going through the barracks and finding a bunch of “dummy” privates in the bed, complete with a pre-recorded snore soundtrack. Pete catches Donald coming back in, and hilarity ensues.

The title of the short comes from the version of the old shell game that Donald forces Pete to play once he escapes the barracks. Hiding under one of three boxes, Donald reaches out from the boxes to shuffle them around, hiding himself in the process. This sequence is truly hilarious. The viewer gets to play along with Pete, trying to locate Donald as the boxes shuffle around.

Where the short takes a turn to the darker side is when Pete throws aside the boxes and one of them gets cut up. When Donald is inside that box, it leads to a sequence of events that probably is the darkest in all of the Donald shorts, if not all of Disney animation. What do I mean? How about amputation and suicide?

Donald attempts to leave the box, and looks down only to see the bottom half of his body missing. He is scared and then shocked to discover this, and thinks that he no longer has legs. Pete wanders up and discovers the same thing, and they both break down into tears. If you watch the short and think that this is obviously a temporary thing, it’s quite funny.

Where it gets less funny is when Donald decides that enough is enough, and steals Pete’s gun, choosing to shoot himself in the head. You read that right – Donald is about to commit suicide! Rather than stop him, Pete points him over to a bush to do it away from prying eyes. It’s so surreal to see Donald struggling with the gun, until he finally crawls away.

Of course, when Donald starts over towards the bush, it turns out that his legs were just embedded in the dirt. Pete sees this and the chase scene continues, but with a little twist. A sign outside the base tells them both that the speed limit is 35 miles an hour. It’s a commentary on the times, when motorists were being encouraged to conserve gas and drive slower.

The Old Army Game has everything I’m looking for in a Disney short. Donald and Pete’s animation is fantastic, and the comedy in the short is pitch perfect. The whole missing legs and suicide sequence is actually quite funny, even as its also somewhat disturbing. This is definitely a short you will enjoy.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Figaro and Cleo

Figaro and Cleo were minor characters in Pinocchio, Disney’s second feature film. They served as comic relief to the serious and dark moments and a counter to Geppetto and Pinocchio’s struggles. Neither character was particularly developed, nor were they very memorable overall.

Therefore it was very odd to me to see them return in their own short, during the wartime era. 1943 had seen all sorts of strange productions, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. In the midst of Victory Through Air Power, Reason and Emotion or some of the war shorts, to see what basically amounts to a cute animal short is somewhat odd.

To shake that feeling is not easy, so watching this short after seeing the others I mentioned just felt very dissonant. That’s not the only thing that was odd about this short, though. As I mentioned, these characters were first seen in Pinocchio, but here, rather than appearing in a less developed part of Germany several hundred years ago, they appear in a modern household with a “Mammy” character.

You can see where this might be a bit off. The story of the short does not help. A song helps to set up the plot, which is that Figaro wants to eat Cleo, but refuses to do so because it would be wrong. Simple enough, but then Figaro proceeds to try and eat Cleo throughout the rest of the short.

Figaro’s actions are completely counter to the song, even if he does seem somewhat reluctant about the role he’s adopted. Even then, after originally declining to eat Cleo, Figaro spends the next few minutes attacking the maid’s broom and then batting around a ball of yarn. While it’s definitely cute animal stuff, and the animation portrays a cat’s movements very well, it doesn’t add anything to the short.

After Figaro’s yarn debacle, he gets into repeated attacks on Cleo, none of which are successful or well planned. The climax of the short comes when Figaro dives head first into the fishbowl, nearly drowns and subsequently decides to change his ways. It just doesn’t really track with his behavior throughout the short.

It seems Disney wanted to create new cartoon stars with this short, but didn’t really have a plan for how to do so. There is no consistent story in Figaro and Cleo, and not even a consistent character for Figaro. Cleo is barely in the short, not offering a worthy foil to Figaro. Since I don’t see a lot of these two around today, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Figaro and Cleo were not very successful characters for Disney.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Victory Through Air Power

Leonard Maltin says it best when he talks about Victory Through Air Power in the introduction to the film on the Walt Disney On the Front Lines DVD – this is “the most unusual feature film Walt Disney ever made.” There is no better description of a an animated feature that is designed as entertainment and propaganda, but was truly designed for one specific purpose.

During World War II, the United States was not the super power that it is today. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had to ramp up war production very quickly, building war ships, landing craft and airplanes at a manic pace. Hence, the scrap metal drives and other rationing that we saw referenced in previous shorts.

There was some debate, however, over what the priorities should be. In Victory Through Air Power, Walt joined this debate, siding with Major Alexander P. De Seversky, a Russian born aviator who had come to America. Seversky had written a book that Walt read and thoroughly agreed with, and decided to make a movie with the same name. This is that film.

The central thesis of the film is that America cannot win the war in the Pacific without long range bomber planes. Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, is it? And it’s certainly not the kind of material you would expect from Disney. The story of how Nazi Germany gained air superiority is a brutal and tactical sort of story.

Despite starting from that point, Victory Through Air Power is surprisingly entertaining. It helps that I am a World War II buff, and really love reading and learning about this transformative period in American life. This film digs deep under the surface of what we have been taught in history books, and shows how and why World War II was such a struggle.

The first section of the film uses the familiar device of opening a book to reveal history. It’s been used several times in the Goofy shorts, but here it is to reveal the history of aviation. From the Wright Brothers all the way through the present day of 1943, the 40 year history of manned flight is animated on screen. It’s a remarkable achievement just for that alone, because there are so many things to describe.

This part of the film is more typically Disney. There are gags, characters, repeated themes and similar uses to what we saw in Reason and Emotion or some of the other wartime films. It is when Seversky’s book is introduced that Victory Through Air Power takes a surprising turn.

The rest of the film is an outline of what Serevsky talks about in the book, showing how Hitler gained sway over Europe through the use of air power as a shield for his blitzkrieg tanks and ground forces. The bleakest and most brutal illustration of this is when the conquering of France is shown, as the Germans overwhelm the famed Maginot Line, the huge defense fortifications that France erected after World War I. After a quick destruction, the shot shows a little bird nesting in the remains of a cannon. It’s a stark image, but very true to what happened.

Interspersed with the animation is Seversky himself, shot in an office setting, much like Walt would be in later years during the set up for the Disneyland TV show. Seversky talks through the theories and facts that make up his thesis – that America can only win by developing long range bombers that will bomb not only Germany, but especially Japan.

It’s a very effective piece of work in that regard. When watching the film, it’s very easy to buy Seversky’s argument, as you see positions explained in very simplified terms, like Hitler’s position as the hub of a war machine “wheel,” for example. In this way, Walt and his team simplified Seversky’s highly technical writing and made it palatable.

The imagery is fantastic, though. Even though the animation is not “feature quality” by any means, it was done by some of the top animators at the studio. Ward Kimball, Bill Tytla and others were featured in this film. There is some limited animation, but the depth of the images and the choices like the climax of the film, where an American eagle attacks an octopus meant to symbolize Japan, are sometimes stunning.

Ultimately, the film achieved its purpose. Winston Churchill saw it, recommended it to FDR, and the United States did build long range bombers. It’s just something you would never expect from Disney. However, it shows the way that Walt would throw his passion into certain projects. This film didn’t take years of development, because doing so would have made the film irrelevant. This is a film that Disney film buffs need to see, not only for the history of it, but it’s not that bad, anyway.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Reason and Emotion

Of all the wartime shorts that we have looked at so far, Reason and Emotion is the one that is the best, because if you really look at it, it has everything that a short like this should have. There is great comedy, fantastic animation and layers of meaning that has all sorts of meaning, even today.

It’s a simple idea, as the best shorts are. The animators take us inside the head of the average American, demonstrating the balance between the hot-headed emotion and the calm and measured reason. It begins with showing emotion in charge as the person is a baby, but as the baby allows emotion to carry it down a flight of stairs and get hurt, reason shows up.

Then, things track through the first half of the short with great comedic effect, as we see an average American man and woman and how reason or emotion drive them. The man is driven by emotion to hit on the woman, and the woman is driven by emotion to eat some fattening foods.

The thing that struck me about this is that popular culture depictions of men and women and what is driving them has not changed all that much in the intervening 60 years. Think of your favorite sitcoms, and are the men still easily distracted by women? Yes, they are. Are the women worried about what they eat, and always indulging in ice cream after breakups? Sure are, aren’t they? Things have not changed too much.

It’s a clever twist, then, to take that cultural stereotype and the light humor of what reason and emotion are doing to that point in the short and then apply it to Nazi Germany. Leaving the mind of the average American, and heading into the mind of a German, the animators try to show how things are different when emotion leads the way.

Adolf Hitler is shown manipulating emotions, playing on fear, sympathy, pride and hatred in order to drive the response he wants. Emotion completely overwhelms reason in the German mind, and propels the German to devotion to Hitler’s cause. Again, the parallels with current times are frightening. Think of how politicians of all stripes will use fear or sympathy to influence your vote.

Reason and Emotion is an amazing piece of work to me, because if you replaced Hitler with a different politician or updated the clothing, it would still hold up. It’s remarkable in one sense that things have not changed, and even more that America continues this struggle between reason and emotion. It’s a fantastic piece of work that deserves to be studied.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Victory Vehicles

For someone who was not around during World War II, Victory Vehicles is a great example of how the war affected the United States at home. Because of the need to ramp up war production rapidly, Americans were asked to give all sorts of items back to the government. Gasoline, rubber and metal were all rationed, making automobile travel much more difficult.

The Disney team recognized that there were some great comic possibilities with rationing, and responded appropriately. Using their best character for “explaining” things, Goofy was called upon to star in Victory Vehicles, a short that lauded the creative ways that Americans were getting around the gas shortage and finding new ways to commute.

This short is filled with gags, one right after the other, and even though they are all variations on a theme, they’re still hilarious. We get to see an astounding assortment of vehicles created by the Disney team, each with Goofy serving as the passenger. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen multiple Goofs, but it probably is the most effective.

Some great examples of the various vehicles are the running foot car, where Goofy starts a unicycle of sorts with shoes around the wheel, then sits on the bicycle seat and reads a book while the shoes keep moving. That’s a favorite of mine, because I’d love to be able to read while traveling.

There’s also the great golfing vehicle, where a “wheel” of golf balls is attached to a tuft of grass, and Goofy swings to drive the ball, turning the wheel. Then, as he gets closer to a parking spot, Goofy has to “putt” in order to get the vehicle into a parking spot. It’s a pretty classic piece of animation.

The ultimate decision of the short, however, is that we should all switch from cars to pogo sticks. The beginning of the short features a song “Hop On Your Pogo Stick” that comes back at the end to highlight the pogo stick as an alternative. The creative lyrics and visuals showing pogo hopping Goofys are fantastic. It’s a perfect marriage of subject and song.

Victory Vehicles is a fantastic short because it takes several viewings to really get the full impact. This is a short that has political commentary, fantastic gags, music and more. It’s an example of how Disney did some fantastic work during the war, even if other efforts were more uneven.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.