Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mickey's Elephant

The relationship between Mickey and Pluto must be a fragile one. I mean, we saw Donald taking in Pluto in Donald and Pluto, there was the rivalry between Pluto and the kangaroo in Mickey’s Kangaroo, and now we have Mickey’s Elephant. Seems like any time someone new shows up, then Pluto gets jealous.

I say that jokingly, but it seems to be true that Pluto can’t appear in a short without becoming the star and completely taking over. In the comments section on Donald and Pluto, David Gerstein mentioned the “Nichols Rule,” which he postulated was that Pluto will “invariably get the most attention, no matter how interesting the other characters/situations might be.” He named it for director Charles Nichols, but it applies to other directors as well.

I’ve stated here that I think Pluto is one of the most interesting characters in the Disney shorts, because he does not speak, and animators cannot use typical human gestures to communicate his feelings. The animation work has to be a hybrid of animal/human expressions and gestures to convey emotion. Therefore, I feel that Pluto is one of the best characters for animators to show their skills.

In this short, though, it seems very much a retread of Mickey’s Kangaroo. Mickey gets a gift of an elephant named Bobo from a fictitious Rajah. As you’d expect, the elephant and Pluto do not hit it off. Bobo begins playing with a ball, and it slips under a nearby fence, where Pluto encounters it. Watching Pluto see the ball mysteriously disappear or float in the air as Bobo sucks it back to him with his trunk is hilarious. Again, Pluto’s expressions are priceless.

When the little green devil pops out and starts telling Pluto to get rid of Bobo, though, it seems very much like Mickey’s Kangaroo. The devil gag is a frequent one with Pluto, and it’s a way for him to talk without actually speaking. Unlike Mickey’s Kangaroo, the devil is physically present, rather than Pluto talking into the camera, but it’s the same effect.

The final gag is Pluto blowing red pepper into the elephant’s face, causing Bobo to go on a sneezing fit. Mickey tries to stop it, but Bobo’s sneezes end up causing the destruction of not just his new house, but Pluto’s as well. The short fades out with Pluto squashing the devil and looking dissatisfied with the outcome.

That’s the biggest problem with the short – there’s no resolution. Pluto and Bobo don’t become friends, Mickey doesn’t tell Pluto that he’ll never be replaced, and there’s no idea what became of Bobo. The story was all laid out there, then never finished. Sure, shorts don’t have to be a complete narrative, but this one was there, and left undone. Seems like a repetitive, less than stellar effort, although the actual animation is quite good.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Three Blind Mouseketeers

In 1936, the Disney Studio was well on its way to producing the first major animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Therefore, output on the Silly Symphonies series slowed down, and there was a bigger focus on the Mickey cartoons, including more prominent roles from Donald, Goofy and Pluto. It can be reasoned that better artists were moving over to Snow White or the Mickey series. Perhaps that explains Three Blind Mouseketeers.

It’s not that this is a bad short, but it’s a one note joke, which is unusual for Disney. Yes, the lead characters are three blind mice who dress up like the Three Musketeers. As you would imagine, their blindness makes it difficult for them to do typical Musketeer things like swordfight, fight villains and the like.

So, the joke of the short becomes the way that the mice escape from constant danger, despite their blindness. The captain, played by a cat version of Pete, sets up traps for the mice, to no avail. We get an early example of how the short will go when the mice step out of their hole, looking for cheese, and the cat has set up an ax to swing back and forth in front of the hole. Oblivious to the ax, the mice stumble out of the hole and luckily avoid the ax.

The same joke happens again when the mice find the cheese. Although the cat has set out elaborate traps for them, the mice somehow manage to blunder through and not get killed by the knives or bear traps. The ax gag was funny, but to repeat it was not as funny. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

When the mice sneak away with the food, the cat sleeps. The mice carve up the cheese and sausages and more, ultimately waking up their adversary. But instead of a straight up fight or elaborate trickery, the mice have to engage in some blind gags to get away. The best gag in the short, though, is when the mice are delivering their “All for one, and one for all” line, but when the cat comes near, they scream, “Every man for himself!” I laughed a lot at that one.

But after that, it’s just…uninspired. It’s interesting to see the cat play a shell game with one of the mice underneath a series of bowls, but it’s not particularly funny or clever. Same thing with the end of the short, when the cat runs away from the mice because he sees one of them cheering into a collection of bottles, and thinks the reflection in the bottles is an army of mice coming after him.

I think the problem is that the whole thing feels like a simple joke taken too far. It’s not entertaining for 8+ minutes to see these blind mice stumbling about. It could actually be offensive if you have thin skin. Not one of the better efforts in the Silly Symphonies.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Donald and Pluto

Ever wonder what would happen if they had a Mickey Mouse cartoon and Mickey never showed up? Well, then you should watch the latest “Mickey” – Donald and Pluto. The only appearance that Mickey makes is in the title card. Otherwise, this is a Donald and Pluto starring turn.

I’d have to qualify this as an early Pluto solo short, much like Pluto’s Judgment Day was. Pluto takes up the majority of the short with a simple premise: he swallows a magnet and ends up having all sorts of things being attracted to his rear end where the magnet is lodged. Pots, pans, knives, Donald’s hammer – they are all chasing Pluto throughout the short.

I feel that Pluto is the best work of the animators, because they can’t necessarily rely on human body language or voice to create mood or emotion. Instead, they have to convey Pluto’s mood through his actions. That’s a difficult thing to do, but it is done well here, as you get the sense of bewilderment that Pluto is going through as things keep attacking him.

That’s the other thing that amazes me about Pluto, is that the animators always seem to keep in mind that he is a dog. The human reaction to the magnet antics would be much different than a dog. As a dog, Pluto spends half of his time trying to figure out what is going on, then trying to move on when he’s satisfied that it’s “over.” This is exactly what a dog would do, so it makes perfect sense.

As for Donald, his role here is more of a bit player. He is there at the beginning, trying to fix some pipes in the basement, but for the most part, he’s absent. It’s his magnet that ends up getting swallowed by Pluto, though. Donald’s real role comes towards the end of the short, as Pluto, magnet still inside him, is on the roof, and Donald, holding a hammer gets stuck on the ceiling.

What’s not clear to me from this short is why Disney thought that Donald and Pluto would be a good pairing. They have limited interaction in the short, and their styles are not very complimentary. Donald’s aggressive, angry tone doesn’t match with Pluto’s simple bewilderment and innocence. Goofy and Donald play off each other well, but I don’t quite see the same thing with Pluto.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Toby Tortoise Returns

The Silly Symphonies have only seen a few breakout characters that return for more than one short. The Big Bad Wolf and Three Little Pigs were the first, but the next two are Toby Tortoise and Max Hare, from The Tortoise and the Hare. In this latest short, Toby Tortoise Returns, Toby gets a chance to torment Max Hare again.

Instead of a race, this is a boxing match, again something that favors Max Hare. His speed and quickness allow Max to duck and dodge, strike then move and generally outfight Toby Tortoise. At least you would think so.

As the crowd files into the arena and the fighters are introduced, we’re treated to more cameos from earlier Silly Symphonies. Some bunnies from Funny Little Bunnies, one of the Three Little Pigs, and eventually Jenny Wren, from Who Killed Cock Robin? all show up in the crowd. In fact, it’s very similar to Mickey’s Polo Team. It extends that notion that this is a shared universe being created by Disney, that all the characters know each other and live in the same place.

Jenny Wren even becomes an important part of the short. Toby Tortoise fights valiantly for the first part of the fight, but Max Hare is too quick and too sneaky for him. Toby ends up knocked out of the ring into the first row of seats, where Jenny comforts him. That sparks Toby back into action, only to get clobbered into his corner again.

While he’s recovering in his corner, Toby enters a fever dream, sitting in a harem full of Jenny Wren lookalikes, while smoking something from a hookah pipe. It’s a fun little sidebar to the short, and shows you what Toby would rather be doing, instead of boxing.

When he comes back from the dream, Toby’s new strategy emerges, and that’s the rope-a-dope strategy. If you’re not a boxing fan, it’s basically to get pummeled for a while, allowing your opponent to keep swinging and tire himself out before landing a solid blow. Rather than take the full beating himself, though, Toby retreats into his shell and allows Max to pound that for a while.

It’s a solid strategy, as Max embarrasses himself trying to attack Toby. After all, he had lined up an ambulance staffed by some hare friends to cart Toby off. He has to embarrass Toby, not the other way around! The viewer gets all of this information without Max having to articulate it. That’s good animation.

Ultimately, Max ends up stuffing fireworks into Toby’s shell, and then lighting them on fire. The result is a Toby Tortoise that’s more jet fighter than tortoise, as he streaks around the arena slamming fireworks into Max and winning the fight. It’s Max who ends up in the ambulance, not Toby.

There seems to be a good formula here – Max and Toby engage in a sporting contest, with Max the obvious favorite, but Toby winning through a combination of perseverance and luck. However, from looking ahead, it doesn’t appear as though that is how Disney planned to use these characters going forward. It’s a shame, as this rivalry has the makings of a Tom and Jerry type series. Regardless, Toby Tortoise Returns is a welcome return to these characters.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Mickey's Circus

One of these days, Mickey is going to learn not to invite orphans and Donald Duck to his benefit show. Perhaps doing a show where proceeds go to the orphans would be better than a show that orphans come and see. Regardless, the results were again disastrous or funny, depending on your point of view, in Mickey’s Circus.

Again, it’s relevant to note that Mickey is the gatekeeper for the most part, leaving the gags up to Donald. That’s okay here, because Mickey gets back into the action later on in the short. Not only that, but Donald’s gags with the seals is a fantastic piece of work, with some great interaction and very funny stuff.

Donald’s seals are the main attraction in the circus and the short. He attempts to get them to do tricks, but it doesn’t work. This is exactly the best situation to put Donald in, where he needs to get something done but is frustrated by a likeable character. This pattern carries through to many of Donald’s shorts, and it works beautifully.

The smallest seal is the most devilish of all. He falls in line with the orphans, Mickey’s nephews, the three little wolves and others as an example of a younger character wreaking havoc on one of the Disney stars. Again, it’s a pattern that will be repeated over and over.

The gags with the seals are good, but the short really kicks into high gear when Donald chases a seal into a cannon, then gets launched into the sky, along with Mickey, ending up on a trapeze wire. That’s where the gags start coming more rapidly, and we get some great animation, including Mickey swinging towards and away from the camera as he tries to get his balance.

There’s so much more there, like Donald riding a bicycle along the trapeze wire, the orphans oiling the wire, and Donald’s acrobatics of riding across Mickey’s balancing staff. When the inevitable fall comes, it cracked me up that Mickey is the one who collects himself and dives into a pool of water below, while Donald, the one who should be used to aquatics, holds his “nose” and goes in like a cannonball. It’s a subtle gag, but very funny.

The orphans in this short really only show up while Mickey and Donald are on the wire, with one notable exception. When Donald gets really frustrated with the seals, he turns to see the orphans mocking him from the stands. Seeing all the orphans clapping their hands together in front of their mouths like a beak is amazing. Not just because it’s funny, but because you have to remember that all of this was drawn by hand. Every last one of those orphans was drawn over hours and days. It really puts things in perspective to think of it that way. Great short!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Alpine Climbers

Once again, we have a short where the antics are born by the secondary characters instead of Mickey. But when those antics are so entertaining, you don’t mind so much. That’s the case in Alpine Climbers.

Donald and Pluto are Mickey’s companions this time, giving Goofy a break. They join Mickey in climbing the Alps, searching for edelweiss and eggs, apparently. This sets up some pretty amusing dynamics between the natural inhabitants of the mountain and our cartoon friends.

First, it’s interesting to see this Alpine short, as this is a subject that Walt would come back to several times. The film Third Man on the Mountain is one example of that, and that in turn inspired the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Clearly, something about the idea of Alpine mountains intrigued Disney.

This short also follows the recent pattern of having each character with their own set of gags, separate from each other. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to animate, or because each character has their own approach to things, as I theorized before. Regardless of the reason, it makes this a short with two main threads – Donald and the mountain goat and Pluto’s adventures.

Donald’s troubles begin as he starts picking the edelweiss. A baby mountain goat pops up to start eating his treasures, which causes Donald no end of consternation. One of the great gags in the short is when Donald chases the goat around and around in circles, circling a rock. We leave Donald in the chase and hop to Pluto, but when we come back, Donald has worn a deep trench into the ground from chasing, while the mountain goat sits atop the rock laughing.

Pluto’s gags take a different form. At least in some respect, Mickey is involved, as he tries to gather the eggs, but ends up making a mountain eagle very mad. In the process, Mickey throws the eggs at the eagle, splitting them open to reveal baby eagles. It’s a fun gag, and one that leads to a baby eagle menacing Pluto.

Pluto’s stuff is probably the best in the short. He falls off of the cliff that Mickey and he just came up, all while chasing the baby eagle. Then we get the obligatory St. Bernard rescue dog coming to his aid. I’ve seen this gag in a multitude of cartoons, Disney and otherwise, but it still makes me laugh when the St. Bernard drags Pluto out of the snow and fills him with a “warming” beverage.

At least in this short, Mickey gets involved in the climax, as his fight with the mother eagle drags on. He calls for Donald and Pluto to get involved, leading to a madcap sequence where Donald charges the eagle, then both he and Mickey get tossed into the air and eventually dropped to the ground in front of Pluto. This sequence is particularly fast paced and fun, featuring Donald trying to fly by twisting his tail.

In the end, we see Pluto and his St. Bernard friend singing together after they have emptied the St. Bernard’s cask. It’s a funny and endearing image, which pretty much sums up my feelings on this short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Moving Day

One of my favorite types of Disney shorts is the combination of Mickey, Donald and Goofy in a jam. Their interplay is great, but usually, the best gags that Goofy and Donald have come in these shorts. Moving Day is one of them, and it’s a fun, silly little short that is quite entertaining.

The premise is that Mickey, Donald and Goofy’s house is being “dispossessed” as the notice from Pete tells them. That means the three of them need to vacate the house as quickly as possible, to avoid Pete taking all of their things. That leads to all four trying to pack their truck and leave ASAP. As you can imagine, Donald doing anything in a hurry is comedy gold.

Goofy is my favorite of these three characters, because I want to go through life the way he does. Nothing seems to get him upset, even as things continually go against him. In this short, it’s the piano that vexes him. Goofy tries to load the piano on his truck, but the piano keeps sneaking back into the house. The work done to make the piano have emotions and personality is some top quality animation.

However, I’m afraid I’m much more like Donald, who lets everything drive him nuts. Moving Day features a fantastic gag, as Donald keeps getting stuck on things as he tries to hurry through the house and get things packed. First, it’s a plunger that sticks on his tail, then a fishbowl on his tail and the plunger on his head. The shot of Donald looking into the camera with both items stuck on him is a classic.

Mickey again doesn’t play into the short very much. He is there in the beginning, pacing the floor, and is seen packing one suitcase, but after that, the focus shifts almost entirely to Goofy and Donald. They are clearly the more entertaining pair by this point, and the gags in this short prove that.

There is some lost opportunity, here, though, for Mickey to mix in with them. Since the short takes place in one confined area, it would make sense to have Mickey and Goofy deal with the same problem, for example. It makes logistical sense, but it might not make comedic sense. Goofy’s approach is to stoop to the piano’s level, but that may not be Mickey’s approach. Regardless, I think there could have been other ways to involve Mickey here.

This is a great short, though. Donald and Goofy’s gags are well done, with Goofy’s taking a longer, slower period of time and Donald’s coming more rapid fire. This fits their personalities, though, so it makes sense. When Pete lights a match (after the gas has been leaking due to Donald) and blows the place up, you smile as all of the trio’s possessions fall onto the truck, ending with Donald getting stuck on the plunger again. This is a short that makes you smile, and that’s a great Disney feeling.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mickey's Rival

There is a lot of potential in the short Mickey’s Rival. It introduces a romantic rival for Minnie’s affection in the form of Mortimer Mouse, adds a fun character to the mix in Mickey’s car, and features Mickey in action once again, rather than being the man on the sidelines. However, in the end, this potential is seemingly squandered, as most of the elements fail to work together.

As you’d imagine from the title, the character of Mortimer, the new mouse who is interested in Minnie and tries to edge Mickey out of the picture, is the main part of this short. Mortimer is obnoxious, and comes off as just about the most despicable character I have seen in the Disney shorts. This may be speaking as a man whose wife has people constantly flirting with her, but guys like Mortimer drive me nuts.

Mortimer is slick, conniving and cruel. He yanks Mickey’s buttons off his shorts, then electrifies his own buttons when Mickey tries to return the favor. Mortimer dines off Mickey and Minnie’s food and generally makes himself a nuisance. He’s the kind of guy whom everyone makes excuses for – “He’s only joking!” – and we all know a guy like that.

This is why I think that Disney dropped the ball on this short. Midway through the short, Mortimer takes to taunting a bull, waving the red picnic cloth in front of him. Unfortunately for him, there’s a hole in the fence that stands between Mortimer and the bull, and the bull takes advantage. But after the bull charges through, Mortimer disappears.

That’s sad, because Mortimer is a great foil to Mickey. He’s slick and smooth where Mickey is clumsy and awkward. It seems like a lost opportunity to establish Mortimer as much more of a villain for Mickey.

There’s another character introduced here that is very fun, and that’s Mickey’s car. There is no name given, but the car acts a lot like Bennie the Cab in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, moving his headlights, fenders, etc. to create the idea that the car is alive. The car is the hero of the second half of the short, taking the bull head on and rescuing Minnie and Mickey from a tree.

Mickey gets in on the action as well, dancing around with the bull, too. He waves the tablecloth in front of bull, tries to direct the bull away, and ends up getting run up a tree. It’s great to see Mickey doing something again, moreso than in previous shorts where he has been merely window dressing for the antics of Donald or Goofy.

The problem is, the three things don’t work together – Mortimer is off screen by the time Mickey and his car take over, and Mickey and the car don’t appear together that much. A combination of all three would have made this short a building block for a new direction in the Mickeys. As it stands, it’s a good, not great entry in the series.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thru the Mirror

Again, we’ve reached one of the classic Mickey Mouse shorts, Thru the Mirror. As a viewer or a fan of these cartoons, certain images stay in your mind. One of those is the image of Mickey in this very short. It features some iconic images and is just plain fun.

In many ways, this hearkens back to the early days of Mickey and the Silly Symphonies, in that there is a brief set up but the majority of the short is dedicated to Mickey entertaining the audience with a series of dancing and gags. It’s a throwback in that way, but very much a more modern cartoon in others.

As Mickey goes through the looking glass, he is immediately presented with a whole different world. Chairs have eyes, stools act like dogs and everything is alive. In that way, it diverges from the old cartoons. In the early 30’s, there would be no explanation for why inanimate objects were coming to life to join Mickey’s reverie. Now, more consistency and story logic are on display. It’s an important distinction.

That said, the short is really about the gags and how Mickey interacts with the crazed characters of the mirror world. After clearing the chair, he takes some gruff from a telephone, in a fun way, and then leads into the most fun part of the short.

There are two elaborate dance sequences that happen next – one with a pair of gloves and the second with a deck of cards. Each is magnificently animated, with fluid motion and spectacular shots. The shot of Mickey with the gloves is one that sticks in your mind, but the way the camera moves around, shooting Mickey from above or the side, is what makes the card sequence so memorable to me.

There’s also the new things that are done with the cards. First with the shuffling of Mickey in the cards, his “peacock” show, and then when the cards turn against him. Watching Mickey dance with the queen and then swordfight the king is a delight to behold.

My favorite gag comes after that, when the cards are chasing Mickey out of the looking glass world, and begin throwing their suits at him. No, not their pinstriped Armanis, but the hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds get pulled off the cards and thrown at Mickey. It works in reverse as well, when Mickey turns on a fan and starts blowing the suits off the cards.

It’s innovative gags like this that make Thru the Mirror so fun. True, there’s not a story here, but it’s explained – this is a dream sequence, and it’s Mickey’s dream self in this world. That adds a needed layer of subtext to make it more believable and easy to swallow. That itself is a new thing for Disney, and makes this short so much better.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Three Little Wolves

Once again, for everyone who has told me time and time again that Walt didn’t do sequels (even some complaining about Toy Story 3), I will point you to Three Little Wolves, the third entry in the Big Bad Wolf/Three Little Pigs drama. New elements get added to this one in the form of the title characters.

The Big Bad Wolf has picked up some sidekicks here, in the form of three smaller wolves who join him in his plot to catch and eat the Three Little Pigs. They’re neat little characters, well designed and interesting, but not developed individually.

In many ways, the Three Little Wolves emulate what was going on with Mickey’s nephews, Morty and Ferdie, and are precursors to Huey, Dewey and Louie. This seems like a type of character that Walt wanted to establish in some way – a trio of mischievous youngsters. It would not take root here, but eventually, with the ducks, it did.

The story of this short is more centered around a variation of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” with the boy in this case becoming the two pigs who previously have gotten into scrapes with the Big Bad Wolf. While their older, wiser, brick-building brother works on a top secret “Wolf Pacifier,” the other two blow the wolf alarm horn, just as a joke.

After his obvious anger, you know what had to come next. The wolf dresses up as Little Bo Peep, and says that she’s lost her sheep. We get the nice gag of the little wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing, and the thankful Bo Peep gets invited over to the pigs’ house.

My favorite gag in the whole short comes next. As the wolf comes inside, he turns around and eyes the pigs, then locks the door and swallows the key. Rather than jump in fear, the pigs blush. They’re expecting romance with Bo Peep, not the wolf that jumps out at them. It’s rather funny and a little more grown up than other Disney shorts.

The scenes of the wolves chasing the pigs through the underground while the Big Bad Wolf leans leisurely against a wall are both amusing and menacing. When the pigs are captured, they at least manage to play some tricks on the wolves, taunting one of the younger wolves to blow the alarm horn. Then, they get the windbag Big Bad Wolf to blow the horn, bringing their brother running, after he ignored their pleas and the other blows on the horn.

We finally get to see the Rube Goldberg-esque Wolf Pacifier in action, and it’s a doozy. The short is worth it just for that, no joke. What is interesting is that Disney did not go further in making the Three Little Pigs more of series. They might not have much story potential, but using the characters in different ways could have given us different Disney cartoon stars. Imagine a world where we have Three Little Pigs meet and greets in the parks rather than Donald Duck? It could have happened.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.