Thursday, February 25, 2010

Donald's Ostrich

Goofy is my favorite of Disney’s cartoon stars, but Donald is a close second. I’ve always said that I see a lot of myself in Donald. The frustration he expresses in nearly every cartoon he is in is something I tend to see in myself, but I don’t express it the way he does.

Donald’s Ostrich is a good example of that frustration. Were I to find myself in a situation where I was confronted with a rogue ostrich that was eating everything in sight, and knocking me all over the place, I doubt I would be able to contain my anger anymore. Donald gives us all the voice that we want to have, but don’t use publicly.

The set up here is just as described above, but it doesn’t get much beyond that, and that’s the problem with this. I come into this short to watch Donald Duck, but I end up getting a lot of focus on the ostrich, and not the ostrich’s interactions with Donald. I don’t care about the ostrich unless he annoys Donald.

Hortense the ostrich is not a compelling character. Hortense parades around the train station where Donald is working, and eats everything in sight. But that’s all there is to him. There is a sequence in the middle of the short where we see Hortense eating an accordion, a clock, balloons and radio. During that entire sequence, Donald is absent.

Hortense’s voracious appetite is established from the get-go, with the tag that Donald reads after the ostrich breaks loose. So why do we need to spend a couple minutes out of an 8 minute short trying to re-establish that with the diet I listed above? Is it funny? Somewhat, but it’s the same gag over and over – Hortense eats something, it gets stuck in his throat, causing the throat to distend, then he swallows it.

The best part of this short is the inventive use of the radio as a device throughout the short. The beginning of the short shows Donald switching stations and looking for something fun. Then, in the middle, Hortense is startled by the radio, looking for the voice that is coming out of the radio. Finally, the voices coming out of the ostrich because he swallowed the radio startle Donald at the end.

There was also a gag about Hortense developing hiccoughs towards the end, which causes him to change the stations on the radio and stumble around. It just doesn’t come off as funny to me, although I admit that’s probably individual taste. This short does not come close to something like Modern Inventions, which shows Donald in a variety of situations that raise his ire. In this short, it’s a loose confederation of gags by Hortense that cause Donald inconvenience. It seems like the focus is taken off of Donald and put onto the ostrich, which really turned me off to this short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pluto's Quin-puplets

Of all the Fab Five, I have often said here that Pluto offers the animators the most opportunity to express themselves. As a “real” animal, Pluto gives the Disney team the chance to express human emotions within the limits of animal behavior. All that said, it may seem counter intuitive that I do not care for the Pluto cartoons as much as the other series.

It probably has most to do with the fact that I don’t relate to Pluto as a character the way that I do Donald or Goofy. Pluto’s roles change often, such as the father role he plays in Pluto’s Quin-puplets opposed to the roles he played in the Mickey shorts. Plus, he tends to repeat gags a great deal.

Take for instance the first part of this short. Fifi, who is now Mrs. Pluto, heads off to get some food for the family, while Pluto is left to mind the children. So he ends up trying to herd the five pups in very much the same way he did the chicks in Mother Pluto. In fact, this short is similar to Mother Pluto in that it puts Pluto in the parent role, only to see him fail spectacularly.

There are good gags in this short, though. When the children disappear into the basement of the nearby house, they slip and slide on some potatoes. Then, one of the pups pulls free an air hose from a nearby compressor, and the hose begins whipping around the room. This is what drives the rest of the short.

The air hose ends up knocking Pluto out, assisting nearby paint cans in spray painting the children, and generally wrecking the basement. Having the pups get sprayed different colors with different patterns because of junk in the basement is a very clever gag.

What I didn’t like was the way Pluto got knocked around and ended up with a jug of moonshine pouring down his throat. This is a similar gag that was used in Alpine Climbers, when the St. Bernard poured the alcohol into Pluto to revive him. It just seemed unnecessary. Pluto was already in hot water because of the way the kids were getting in trouble. It seems like it would have been better to have him chasing the kids around but unable to prevent them from getting sprayed.

The ending is a little off, too. Fifi returns, but she sees the kids coming up from the basement and growls at them. It’s unclear if she’s just mad or if she doesn’t recognize them. Then, she really takes it out on Pluto. The short closes with Fifi in the doghouse growling, while Pluto and the children sleep in a nearby barrel. It seems just off to me. Is Fifi still mad while they’re fine with it? What is going on?

I thought Pluto’s Quin-puplets was good, but falls short of the standard set in the other shorts from 1937. Watching it the day after The Old Mill was probably part of the problem. You could not see two different shorts if you tried.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Old Mill

We have seen a lot of landmarks in our review of the Disney films, but The Old Mill is especially significant. I would almost be willing to say that it is the most important short since Steamboat Willie, for the contribution it makes to the future of Disney animated films, both shorts and features.

Of course, the big news of this short is the development of the multiplane camera. For those of you who do not know (and I doubt that’s many of you), the multiplane carmera was developed to help the animated films have more depth. The idea was to put each piece of the background on a separate piece, so the camera could move between them easily and show more dimension on screen.

It’s readily apparent from the beginning of the short that this is the case. The opening shot of the mill as seen through a spider weaving a web is stunning, and it continues. Later on in the short, as night creeps around the setting, we see fireflies lighting up the night. Again, the lush backgrounds feel alive in this shot.

The story of the short is also important. There are no words in this short, just music and fantastic animation to tell the complete story. It’s what the Silly Symphonies were created as – a medium to tell stories through animation and music. One can imagine Walt and his crew seeing this and thinking about making Fantasia.

The idea is that night is falling around the mill, and a storm is brewing. The animals around the mill react in different ways. What’s important to me is that the film progresses naturally. It is realistic in a way we have not seen before in these films. You can watch this short and believe that it would happen this way in nature.

There are so many little moments in this short that make it fantastic. The big drama is the blue bird that sits in the spot of a gear, and only gets a reprieve from having her babies crushed because there is a spoke missing on one of the gears.

But there are many more. Seeing the bats in the top of the mill stretch like humans when they wake up and then fly away is fantastic. The mice whose eyes stick out in the middle of the night then are illuminated by the flash of lightning are also great. My favorite is the pair of lovebirds who sit on one piece of wood towards the window, and never stop nuzzling each other throughout the whole storm, and they are there again at the end, still in love. There is a sweet, consistent message there.

The main difference between this and other Silly Symphonies is that things are so realistic. In the past, we have seen little slice of life shorts, but they have shown us that the animals are dancing and singing when we are not around. In The Old Mill, we see an innocent, pastoral take on life that builds to a dramatic event of the storm. It’s a fantastic, Academy Award winning piece of filmmaking, and it’s unforgettable to anyone who sees it.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Clock Cleaners

This era of Disney shorts is truly my favorite, and Clock Cleaners is no exception to that. I have written here before about how much I love the trio features, where Mickey, Donald and Goofy work together at some menial job. The combination of the three with gags and other fun stuff is irresistible.

Clock Cleaners is a flat out fun short, mostly because it relies on that formula of mixing the three leads with unique situations suited to their temperament. It really seems like this era is when the animators began developing distinct personalities for all the characters. That’s the biggest development I have not discussed much so far – that Mickey and Goofy and Donald are all different characters, versus the past, when they all existed to conduct the latest dance or mile a minute gag.

For example, Goofy’s whole modus operandi is to be, well, the Goof. He’s easily surprised, somewhat unobservant, and generally good natured but not bright. That carries through here, where he’s cleaning the bell of the clock, but keeps getting knocked around by the bell ringing statues.

From there he stumbles around the top of the clock tower, eventually falling down, walking in a daze across a rope, falling only to jump back up off a flagpole and knock Mickey back inside. It’s the most hilarious sequence Goofy has been involved in so far, and again, foreshadows how he will be used in the future.

Donald is the other big star of this short, as you would expect. Mickey is not a full-fledged solo star anymore, sadly. Donald, though, is on the upswing, and this short features one of my favorite Donald gags. Donald tries to clean a spring, but ends up unraveling the coils. When he tries to hammer them back into place, the springs keep popping up, leading Donald to play a game of “Whac-A-Mole” with the spring.

But that’s not the best part (although I do love Whac-A-Mole). No, when Donald gets too irritated with the spring, the spring “talks” back. The vibrations of the spring seem to form words, which makes for a fantastic gag. Then, when Donald throws his hammer at the spring, it catches the hammer and throws it back, landing Donald in the gears of the clock.

It’s a fantastic gag, that is repeated at the end of the short, this time with all three members of the gang. Donald’s frustration plays perfect against the spring, which can be interpreted as either an imagined slight or possibly a real inanimate object coming to life. The great thing is that it can be read either way. And the shot of the gang in the gears of the clock, then unable to stop shaking after they drop off is priceless.

This short is a favorite among my family, simply for the last scene of the three shaking around. Mickey does have a little bit of fun with a stork perched in the clock, but for the most part, it is a fun time with Donald and Goofy. It’s an enjoyable short that makes me smile every time I see it.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hawaiian Holiday

When I first got the tins of Mickey Mouse in Living Color in the Walt Disney Treasures set, I sat down with my son and watched almost all of Disc 1. Our favorite of those early shorts was this one, Hawaiian Holiday. Why? Because it combines all five of Disney’s classic characters in one place, with everyone getting their own little moments.

I have another reason – if you follow me on Twitter, you see my icon is Mickey in a hammock. I’m a huge Polynesian Resort fan/Tiki aficionado as well as a Disney nut. A “cel” from this short is hanging next to the elevators on the bottom floor of the Polynesian, and I go on those elevators all the time, going up with a stroller to Kona or ‘Ohana. So, Hawaiian Holiday holds a special place in my heart.

In all likelihood, it probably should not do so. This short doesn’t really have a story or a through line, but is mainly a collection of little gags featuring the Fab Five. As per usual, Mickey gets the short end of the stick, but Minnie isn’t far behind. Mickey’s big moment is as a guitar player, where his hands do a dance across the strings, reminiscent of the gloves in Thru the Mirror.

Minnie doesn’t get much time to herself, but ends up doing some quick dances at the beginning of the short, and then again in the middle and end. She doesn’t have a gag to herself, per se, but she sets the musical tone of the short by singing the main lyrics of the song that runs throughout.

Donald is notably less prevalent in this short than you would expect. He also has one quick gag, where he is dancing in a grass skirt that catches on fire. Despite the brevity, it’s a fun gag that plays well with Donald’s tendency to overreact.

The majority of the short, though is taken up by Pluto and Goofy. This follows the typical rule that Pluto can’t be present without taking over a short, but he gets roughly equal screen time with Goofy in Hawaiian Holiday. Here, it’s Pluto taking on a sea shell and then a crab. It’s a repeat gag when he faces off with the crab, mimicking the crab’s movements, but it’s still funny.

Goofy’s main gag is a preview of what he will come to be known for – his futile attempts at sports. Throughout the short, Goofy is trying to surf, only to be thwarted by the tides, sand and finally the ocean itself. As his solo series evolved, this was what Goofy did best. Marry the contrary narration we saw in Little Hiawatha with this comical attempt by Goofy and you have the shape of Goofy’s solo series.

There’s no reason I should like Hawaiian Holiday as much as I do, but I think that’s what is so appealing. It’s not something you would break down for its component parts (story, animation, backgrounds), although all are good. This is a short to simply watch and enjoy, and I do.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Modern Inventions

One of my favorites among Donald Duck’s early cartoons is this one: Modern Inventions. Why? It’s a favorite among my kids, and we constantly quote the robot butler from this short: “Your hat, sir.”

You’d have to live in my house to understand, but if you’ve seen this short, you know the robot butler is the best running gag we’ve seen in Disney shorts. That’s right, I said the best. Take Donald’s magic pockets or sleeves that he used in The Band Concert to produce flutes seemingly out of nowhere and combine them with a robot who keeps taking his hat, and you have comedy gold. Donald produces a series of sillier and sillier hats throughout the short, from a top hat to a Napoleon looking general’s hat.

Aside from that running gag, the rest of the short features Donald’s interactions with various mechanical contraptions designed to “make life easier.” As anyone who has dealt with technology over the years knows, sometimes the new device designed to make things easier actually makes it harder. That’s the case for Donald.

He has the first attack come from the automatic bundling machine. Watching Donald get tied up in knots is funny, but it is of course his reaction to that that makes it so good. This is a short that could not have worked with Mickey, because Donald’s frustration and silly laugh make the humor work.

My personal favorite is the baby carriage. When Donald runs away from the robot butler (again), he dives into a baby carriage. This little sequence demonstrates my favorite parts of Donald’s character. He is fun loving, because he gets into the spirit of things, putting on a baby bonnet and playing along with the carriage that plays him music and rocks him. But as always, Donald has to try and push it too far, asking for a bottle, with disastrous consequences.

The final sequence, with Donald stuck upside down in a barber’s chair, is classic Donald. Watching his tail feathers get turned into a finely coiffed hairdo is funny, but I like the way he gets his face polished with shoe polish.

Donald’s frustration is classic, and it’s what makes us love him. I said it before, but Donald is what we all end up being, even though we want to be Mickey. Donald is like me, so I love to watch him go through things that are just larger, more cartoonish versions of what I’ve gone through.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Little Hiawatha

Somewhere, somehow, the Silly Symphonies evolved from a “daring” set of shorts to something designed to get out new characters and tell cute little vignettes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a different twist to the series. Little Hiawatha is a cute vignette, but a particularly good one.

I had seen bits and pieces of this before, and heard much about it, but never actually sat down and watched the entire thing. I’m so glad that I did, because I feel as though I had been missing something, and now I understand what it was. Little Hiawatha is delightful, and it foretells later developments in the Disney films.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Hiawatha, it’s fairly straightforward. The little Indian brave stalks through the forest, with his bow and arrow ready to strike an animal. However, when confronted with a rabbit, he decides he can’t do it, and allows the rabbit to get away.

Instead, Hiawatha turns his attention to some nearby tracks, and ends up face to face with a bear. As he is chased back through the woods, the other animals decide to help him, because of the kindness he showed to the rabbit. The animals lead the bear away and get Hiawatha away safe and sound.

If it sounds simple, it is, but it’s also heartwarming. The “cute” designs for characters we have seen in Silly Symphonies like Funny Little Bunnies are taken to full effect here, as all the characters have a rounded, homey feel. Even Hiawatha is a bulbous character, and that’s shown to full effect, as his pants fall down often, exposing his round bottom.

Where in some of those earlier shorts the cuteness of the designs was a little over the top, here it works very well. If Hiawatha was menacing angular, harsh looking animals, you wouldn’t want him to let them go. And if he was a normal looking person, you would not feel sympathy for him. Here, it is a two way street, and that makes it work.

Where I think this short really shows us something is how it is a glimpse to the future. The narrated opening and ending are things we will see again in future shorts, and the middle part of the short, with the simple music, lack of dialogue and pastoral nature reminded me of Bambi. It makes Little Hiawatha seem a little like the canary in the coal mine, showing us a glimpse of the next phase of Disney shorts.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mickey's Amateurs

We’ve seen a lot of recycling in the Mickey shorts. That’s to be expected, because Disney was under contract to release a certain number of shorts every year, and many of those had to be Mickey shorts. So, it’s not surprising that allowing the animators to return to familiar settings or gags would speed up that process.

Mickey’s Amateurs, however, is seemingly a high point of retreads, although it turns out pretty well. Again, we have Mickey hosting a show on stage in a theatre, a setting we have seen multiple times before. Mickey’s show consists of Donald trying to recite a poem and failing, which has been seen a couple times before. And we have Clara Cluck singing, which we have also seen previously.

That said, it all works out pretty well. This isn’t the most innovative or original short, but it’s a fun time with some familiar characters. Mickey in this short is the most like Walt I can imagine. As he keeps saying, “Okay, okay,” to calm down the crowd or the performers, he seems so much like Walt on the old Disneyland TV show.

Donald tries to steal the show here, but he’s not featured as much as in other shorts like this. It’s amusing to see him first try to butter Mickey up with a gift of an apple, only to take it back when his recitation of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” fails. His second attempt, when he comes to the stage dressed in a disguise and ends with an out of control machine gun firing all over the stage, is no less memorable.

The midsection, with Clara Cluck singing while Clarabelle Cow plays piano, is less entertaining. Clara is not a terrible character, but she’s not as well drawn as the Fab Five. It’s funny to see her frustrated and chasing the microphone, but in the end, not as endearing as Goofy or Donald.

Goofy being my favorite character, his sequence in this short is my favorite. Dressed as a bandleader, he comes out with a one man band contraption that obviously goes wrong. Watching him try to keep up with the craziness is what I love about Goofy. It’s a good peek forward into his own solo series.

I’ve seen some poor reviews of Mickey’s Amateurs and I can understand that. It’s not original, as I said, and it doesn’t feature a sequence that is particularly memorable. The most “original” part of the short is at the end, when Donald tries to push his way through the iris as it closes to black. He fails, of course, but it’s the first time we’ve seen Disney push the fourth wall like that.

However, I would have to say that Mickey’s Amateurs is a fun time, just not a fantastic short. When you compare it to others in 1936-37, it doesn’t measure up, but that’s a very high standard.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Woodland Cafe

We’re back to the Silly Symphonies with Woodland Café, and I can’t say that it’s a welcome return. When I looked at my list of shorts, this was not one I was familiar with, and frankly, was not looking forward to watching it. I watched it through, and didn’t get it. So, I started doing some research.

With a little more digging, Woodland Café made more sense to me. But, that means that as a whole, it doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the Mickey shorts of earlier in 1937, or even some of the other Silly Symphonies.

What did I have to go digging for? Well, to be honest, the whole thing didn’t make much sense. The short opens with a group of bugs heading into a bug nightclub, and they spend the entire short dancing and enjoying the music of the band. And that’s it. It would be fine if there were some great gags or standout sequences, but there’s nothing that big about it.

It seemed odd. So I started searching for more info on the short, and things fell into place. During the time this short was released, a popular form of film was a feature showing white stars traveling to Harlem to see the “new” music coming from stars like Cab Galloway and others. This short is a take off of that.

As I said, it doesn’t hold up for that reason. The effort that it took me to figure it out made it difficult for me to enjoy the short, even after a second viewing. However, there are some things that were interesting.

The whole club scene set up is reminiscent of something you would see in a Tex Avery or Warner Bros short. And that’s not the only thing that seems non-Disney. Towards the end of the short, the sequence where the band is playing reminded me a great deal of Chuck Jones’ Dr. Seuss work. We see various weird shaped instruments playing against rapidly changing color backgrounds. This reminded me right away of things like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, when the Whos are playing their instruments at the beginning of the film.

The whole short has a sort of Chuck Jones/Warner vibe to it. There’s no through line or story like we had in some of the earlier 1937 Disney shorts, and there’s no standout character. Instead, it’s a series of dancing, bands and some gags, wrapped up in a seven and a half minute package.

Woodland Café isn’t a bad short. The animation work is good, the backgrounds are nice and the music is very good. But it doesn’t have anything particularly memorable or fun that makes it measure up to the rest of the Disney films in this era.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Moose Hunters

The 1937 goodness continues today with another trio short, and another classic – Moose Hunters. What’s it about? Well, Mickey, Goofy and Donald go hunting moose. What did you think it was about?

But to say that’s all, is not treating this short properly. It has some great gags and fantastic usage of the side characters. Goofy, Donald and Mickey do not get to shine as much as they do in other trio shorts, but they are portrayed “realistically” here, even though they are doing absurd things.

Someone (Joss Whedon, maybe?) once said that it is okay to have characters doing absurd and unrealistic things if you have the rules of those things established and the characters stick to those rules. That’s what is emerging to me in Moose Hunters and the Disney oeuvre that was not present in earlier shorts.

In Moose Hunters, we have the three hunting moose, with Goofy and Donald dressed up in a moose costume, while Mickey pretends to be a tree/bush, with foliage around him as he walks forward on stilts. Again, it’s ridiculous, but the way things follow in the short, they are consistent.

Goofy and Donald strike off to woo a moose with their female moose costume, while Mickey gets tangled up with another moose. When his shotgun breaks, you expect that he will be exposed. He is, eventually, and there’s no means of escape. This is where you see the divergence in Mickey’s character from the 20s and early 30s. The old Mickey would have conjured up a way to walk across musical notes or swing from his word balloon.

That’s not the way things work anymore. Partially, that is sad, because the whimsy and spontaneous nature of the early shorts was a good thing. But as the Disney studio moves into storytelling with the features, you can see that reflected in the shorts as well.

Similarly, Goofy and Donald’s interaction with the moose is done well, with good gags that fall within the realm of believability. I particularly loved when the moose costume flies off and they are forced to do the old fashioned fan dance while wearing the moose head. It’s a fun nod to burlesque in a family friendly short.

The ending of the short features the two moose coming together to fight over the Goofy/Donald moose, then finding out that they have been had. Seeing them fight and shake the scenery is a great piece of animation. You don’t expect backgrounds to move, but they do here, and it’s very good.

Seeing Mickey, Donald and Goofy fleeing like crazy is amusing as well, especially watching them paddle like crazy away from the moose. It seems that these three never get what they’re after when they work together. Moose Hunters brings them together again and to hilarious results, and it’s another favorite of mine.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.