Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Farmyard Symphony

It’s been a while since the Silly Symphonies featured a short that had everyday objects or settings combining to make music. The trend has instead been towards higher artistic value in the shorts, with great detail and feature quality animation, involved in the telling of a well crafted story. However, the old shorts still have a certain charm, and Farmyard Symphony brings both of those elements together.

Farmyard Symphony returns us to the barnyard setting that was so familiar in the early years of the Disney studio, both in the Mickey shorts and the Silly Symphonies. It’s been quite a while since Disney has highlighted a rural setting, so it’s a treat to see what the changes have been.

The animation is simply stunning in this short. The opening shots, where the camera zooms into the farm, are very reminiscent of the work in The Old Mill. The various animals are no longer caricatures or oddly shaped avatars of an animal. Instead, they are now fully drawn characters that move, act and breathe like real animals.

The driving force of this short is the rooster who gets up and crows the morning for the farm. He is able to strut throughout the farm, waking up the animals, causing the various gags to be set in motion. There’s not so much a story to the short as there is this through line of the rooster stirring things up, which is quite the throwback to the earlier shorts.

The rooster’s noise wakes up a group of pigs, for example, who try then to start nursing from their mother. One of the pigs can’t get in, and keeps trying to find a way to squeeze himself into the mix, to no avail. He ends up trying to squeeze his way in with a nearby cow – again, to no avail. It’s a familiar gag, but the work on the pigs is so good that it feels more real in this short than in others.

The rooster gets a big part to play later in the short when he starts wooing a chicken from the hen house. After waking up the hens, this chicken catches his eye, and thus begins the Farmyard Symphony.

As the rooster and chicken sing together, the rest of the animals join in. What’s interesting in this short, though, is that the sounds of the animals are not morphed together to form a real musical track, but are left as animal sounds. In the earlier shorts, you would have had real notes coming from the animals, but here, it’s much more natural.

This is a great example of how the Disney shorts evolved after the release of Snow White. Take this short and compare it to some of the previous Silly Symphonies, and it blows them away in terms of storytelling, animation and detail. The whole short gives a very peaceful, pastoral feeling, and ends up making the viewer smile. That, I’m sure, was all the Disney team wanted.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Brave Little Tailor

I wrote yesterday how nice it was to see Mickey back in a real starring role in Mickey’s Parrot. Well, in that short he had to share time with Pluto, but we see a real Mickey Mouse renaissance in The Brave Little Tailor, one of the all time classic Mickey shorts.

There’s so much to say about this short, that it is hard to really organize my thoughts. First of all, this is the first time I have seen one of the Mickeys and thought, “This could have been a feature.” The quality of the work in this, from storytelling to backgrounds to animation, is exemplary. It’s also a vindication of sorts for Mickey, who seemingly had been relegated to a background role, but now shows that he can be a leading man.

In case you haven’t seen it, this short revolves around the story of a town menaced by a giant. Mickey is a tailor in the town, who unwittingly gets sucked into ridding the town of the giant. How? Well, by a simple misunderstanding. After he kills seven flies in one shot, Mickey brags to the townspeople. Mistaking his bravado and thinking he meant giants instead of flies, the townfolk pull Mickey in front of the king, who sends Mickey out to kill the giant, in exchange for the hand of the Princess Minnie. Hilarity ensues.

The reason I thought this could be a feature was the storytelling. It is fantastic. Everything is set up perfectly, giving motivation for the king, Mickey and Minnie in a short amount of time. Not to mention the pathos – you feel so bad for Mickey when he is standing in front of the king bragging about his accomplishment, knowing that he doesn’t realize that the king thinks he is talking about giants, not flies.

Then, when you see Mickey out looking for the giant, there is a feeling of genuine terror that he will be eaten or crushed. That’s not easy to do. Mickey at this point was a star beyond all others, so to think that Disney would harm him is unthinkable. Yet, watching this short, you get that feeling, and that’s a credit to the power of this short.

Even though you know that Mickey will come out on top, the short does a great job of building suspense. I will have to say that seeing the resolution, where Mickey the tailor wraps the giant up in “thread” to make him fall over had the Star Wars geek deep inside me giggling. It’s something that I’m sure George Lucas saw when getting ready for the Empire to strike back.

The Brave Little Tailor is simply Mickey at his finest. He takes the lead role easily, proving to be a brave, if a little foolhardy, leading man. His character in this short is the character he would have moving forward. Mickey is the guy who will charge ahead, despite knowing that he might not have a chance, but by luck, guile or skill, somehow manages to come out on top. He’s the guy we all would love to be, and we love to watch him do his thing.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Mickey's Parrot

We’ve talked quite a bit here about the role Mickey has been subjected to in recent shorts – almost a guest star in his own shorts, with Donald and Goofy becoming more and more prominent. The animators at this point were just not able to do the same things with Mickey that they had been able to do in the late 20’s and early 30’s. That’s why it’s nice for me to see a short like Mickey’s Parrot, where Mickey takes center stage again.

This one is another favorite of mine, because I have seen it so many times. It’s one that holds up really well, and features some great gags and acting by Mickey. This is the Mickey I think of when I picture him as a cartoon in my mind. He is brave, not all that adept, but still pushes forward - something that will continue to be part of his character for years to come.

The basic plot is that a radio bulletin comes on that informs Mickey and Pluto that there’s a criminal on the loose. At the same time, a talking parrot escapes from a nearby truck, and wanders into Mickey’s house. Confusion ensues, naturally, to the point where Mickey is wandering around the house with a shotgun, searching for the crook in his basement.

What I love about this short is not the simple case of mistaken identity, but the way Mickey reacts to it. His facial expressions convey so much emotion, especially the sheepish fear when he thinks the crook is standing right behind him. We saw this some in The Whalers, but it really feels like there’s more going on with Mickey’s expressions in the recent shorts.

Pluto is also good in this short, doing his usual best to take the spotlight away from anyone else in the short. Pluto has a habit of stealing the spotlight, but he’s usually done so well that it doesn’t matter. This short is rather subpar Pluto in my mind, although still funny. The mistaken identity extends to a goldfish, as Pluto hears the parrot wrestling with a can of fish food and thinks the goldfish is challenging him.

Pluto really gets emasculated in this short, as after the goldfish bites his nose, the parrot takes him to task, cornering him and driving him up the wall. Of course, the parrot is hidden inside a turkey that fell out of the fridge, which would be a little scary, so I can cut him some slack.

In the end, we get some classic Mickey short finale magic. The parrot is in the kitchen and tips corn kernels over onto the stove, causing a rapid fire popping. Mickey fires his shotgun repeatedly into the kitchen before finding out the truth. So, there amidst the ruins of his house, Mickey catches the parrot. But does he strangle the parrot for the hardship? Of course not, Mickey laughs about the whole thing, because that’s who he is, and it’s good to see him featured again.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Whalers

Ah…the comedic glory of Mickey, Donald and Goofy together! Is there anything better? After some outings for Donald and Goofy alone, Mickey returns to the group in The Whalers. Once again, the boys have a job to do, and they go about it in their own way.

The truth of the matter is that the majority of this short is a Donald and Goofy adventure. The short opens with Donald in the crow’s nest of the ship, looking around for whales. As is his trademark, Donald makes a mistake that leads to more frustration. This time, it’s taking time off from whale spotting to eat a sandwich, which gets stolen by nearby birds.

Mickey does get some time in this short, and it took me a minute to realize that he probably gets the most screen time in this short that he has seen in quite some time. Not only that, but it’s good stuff. Mickey is trying to throw some water overboard in the darkness of the sea, but it keeps boomeranging back at him. It’s a great bit, and allows Mickey to do some fine comedic acting, through the animator’s pencil, of course.

It also seems like a little different looking Mickey to me. His face is a bit more expressive, and I saw the careful consideration face that I remember from later shorts here for the first time. It was nice to see the old mouse back in action.

Soon enough though, we get back to Goofy, as Donald spots a whale and Goofy is in charge of firing the harpoon to get the whale. Yeah. You can imagine how that goes. My favorite gag is when Goofy sticks his arm down the cannon and ends up lighting his finger on fire, when it pokes through where the fuse should be. But there’s much more, including the obligatory harpoon launch where Goofy gets caught in the rope trailing behind.

This, of course, leads to Goofy being swallowed by the whale. Seeing Goofy and Donald try to deal with the situation is part of what makes them such a good team. Goofy doesn’t know what to do, which tends to make him do the wrong thing. And when Goofy does the wrong thing, Donald gets more frustrated, and thus funnier. It’s a classic comedy spiral!

Although I should be tired of the trio formula by now, I’m really not. I’ve seen many of them so far and there are more to come, but these three characters just work well together. There is a lot to the idea of having them interact in a working environment, something that started back in Mickey’s Service Station and continues to entertain.

It’s also of interest that their jobs have gotten more and more complex or outlandish. It began with the mechanics, but since they have branched out to “ghostbusters,” whalers, boat builders, clock cleaners and more. The more they get together, the crazier their jobs get, and that makes the shorts so much fun.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Fox Hunt (1938)

Back in 1931, we got to see one take on a fox hunt with a black and white Silly Symphony named The Fox Hunt. Now, the Disney studio has many more characters to play with, so in 1938, they teamed up Donald and Goofy for a short by the same name, that shares many of the same tricks, but with the Donald and Goofy spin.

Like in the previous short, we get to see bloodhounds smelling the ground, a horse throwing its rider off before jumping a bush or fence, and a fox that gets caught only to turn out to be a skunk. The difference is, where the Silly Symphony took half the short showing us the preparations for the hunt, this one jumps right in with Donald leading the bloodhounds.

Donald and the hounds is my favorite part of this short. Anyone who has had dogs knows the tendency for them to yank on the leash or try to pull you around. So seeing Donald, with his anger issues, getting worked over by the dogs, and ultimately ending up in a knot with the leashes, the dogs and himself.

In fact, Donald carries most of the action in this short. Goofy’s part is limited to mostly riding his horse, and the travails that ensue. In fact, his part in this short is very reminiscent of the later Goofy shorts that were “instructional.” All that’s missing is the stuffy narration, and you would have a Goofy short on “How To Ride A Horse.”

Donald, meanwhile, gets to interact with the dogs as well as the fox. He has some fun interactions with the fox, trying to blow his trumpet to get the fox out of the ground, which ultimately backfires. In fact, most everything that Donald does in this short backfires, like it does most of the time.

What’s interesting is that this short is billed as a “Donald and Goofy” short, but yet other Disney characters are in it as well, although mostly in shadow/glimpses. At the beginning we see Mickey riding by in shadow along with what looks like Clarabelle Cow. Later, when Donald has found the fox, we see Mickey somewhat obscured on a bridge leading to Donald.

Other than that, the other notable thing about this short is that it looks a bit more complex than previous Donald shorts. Things like Polar Trappers and Donald’s Better Self used more simple backgrounds, but this has many more moving pieces in the backgrounds and detail all around. Could just be me, but that’s what it seemed like.

This was a fun cartoon, nothing that will end up going down in history, but a fun one to watch and a great use of both Donald and Goofy.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Good Scouts

It’s very fun for me to watch these shorts and films in order, not only because they are entertaining, but because it follows the track of a man’s life. We saw Mickey evolve from the barnyard mouse worried about getting the girl and playing music all night into a domestic, suburban man. Now, we see Donald evolving from the rambunctious duck to the faithful uncle and leader of young men in Good Scouts.

It’s so familiar for me, because my son just joined Cub Scouts this year, so I have been accompanying him on multiple camping trips and meetings. Donald does the same thing here, leading his nephews into the woods for a scouting campout. As you’d imagine, things don’t go as planned.

This is a new role for Donald, serving as the leader rather than someone just trying to go about his business and getting interrupted and irritated by others. It is a role that suits him well. After all, he can play the egomaniac who knows how to do everything, and then play off the frustration that ensues when he doesn’t get it right.

There are several examples of this throughout the short, beginning with the setting up of the camp. Donald makes two huge mistakes. The first is trying to show up one of the boys and chop down a giant tree for firewood. It turns out to be a petrified tree, causing Donald to go through several vibrations similar to Clock Cleaners.

Then, the madness continues as the boys cannot set up the tent to Donald’s liking, so he ropes a giant pine and bends it down to serve as the spine of the tent. You can imagine how that turns out, as Donald jumps on top to celebrate and ends up with the tree breaking free and catapulting him into the woods.

At the end of the short comes something that has been sort of a trend in the most recent Disney shorts. Perhaps longer than that, now that I think about, actually. It’s the building gag that has the final climax. For example, in this short, it’s Donald ending up on Old Reliable the geyser.

That gag, of Donald erupting into the air, is enough, but it builds and builds from there. The boys try to save him, plugging a tree into the geyser, and it shoots up to hit Donald. The bear that had menaced Donald earlier comes back to swat at him from a cliff. Rocks go into the geyser and end up hitting Donald. The final gag has a boulder being shot into the air, and the short ends with the bear chasing Donald over and over on the boulder.

There are so many more gags here, including Donald playing injured by smearing ketchup on himself, the bear attacking after Donald is bandaged up by the boys, and more. Good Scouts is a great example of how Donald is so adaptable, and how the animators can stretch him a little further than they could Mickey. It works beautifully in this instance, and will continue to do so.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Polar Trappers

Donald and Goofy together in one short? Comedy gold. In Polar Trappers, the Disney studio left Mickey behind and created a new formula – Donald and Goofy working together. It’s not something we will see in as big a way as we do the “trio” shorts, but it is definitely an interesting change.

As in the trio shorts, the idea is a simple one – Donald and Goofy are trappers in the Arctic, with Goofy trying to catch a walrus, and Donald manning the stove in the igloo. Now, how he is operating a stove inside an igloo without melting it, I don’t know. Regardless, as in most of the trio shorts, from that premise, the gags start flowing quickly.

Donald’s story is set up from the get go, as he is surrounded in the kitchen by nothing but beans. Donald’s frustration causes him to fixate on securing a penguin to be his dinner. My favorite gag in the entire short is watching Donald dress up in a tuxedo to impersonate a penguin. It’s a fantastic gag, with music backing his motions perfectly in time and he even fools a female penguin – for a little while.

Meanwhile, Goofy’s big gag involves a cave covered in ice. After chasing a walrus into the cave, he discovers that the slightest noise will cause icicles to come crashing down. It was a fantastic gag, because as anyone knows, the minute someone or something tells you can’t do something, that’s all you want to do. A giant sneeze leads Goofy to being buried in ice.

The last part of the short involves Donald fooling a school of penguins by playing Pied Piper. This is a really cute segment, because of the interaction with Donald and a smaller penguin. The little penguin continually gets in Donald’s way, and our favorite duck has to try and throw the little guy out of the way or divert him.

As you’d imagine, it doesn’t work out so well, as a random tear by the little penguin freezes and becomes a snowball, rolling downhill and trashing Donald and Goofy’s camp. It’s a great action packed gag to end the short, calling back to the crash landing endings of some of the early Mickey shorts.

Polar Trappers isn’t going to be confused with art like The Old Mill or some of the beautiful backdrops from Wynken, Blynken and Nod, but it’s not trying to be that. This is a gag first short, but it works beautifully.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wynken, Blynken and Nod

The Silly Symphonies in 1938 are kind of a double-edged sword for Walt Disney and his studio. Although they are great vehicles for trying new things, and for the most part are artistic achievements, they are also more and more expensive to produce. It was almost a given that these shorts would not make their money back, but were instead trial balloons for feature films.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod is a good example of this. The artistry in this short cannot be denied. The main characters are great designs, and the amazing shots of the three of them sailing through the skies in their shoe-boat are breathtaking. The effects of the stars, the clouds and pixie dust flying all around them are fantastic.

But, there’s no real story or emphasis in the short. It harkens back to older Silly Symphonies in that it’s a loose collection of gags with no dialogue, although the music here is not as prevalent as before. The gags are good, but not enough to make for a truly memorable short.

To start with, the three characters don’t have much going for them beyond their designs. Although the animators do a great job of having them emote when in various situations, that’s the extent of their appeal. Wynken, Blynken and Nod don’t have real personalities or anything that makes the viewer latch on to them.

The gags, as mentioned, are not bad. But they’re not great, either. Coming right after something like Mickey’s Trailer, with such inventive and relatable gags, seeing these three fish for stars is cute, but that’s about it. I understand that the point of this short is much like other Silly Symphonies (Funny Little Bunnies, for example), to be an exploration of a world, not a story. But, it just seems to fall flat for me.

My favorite parts of this short were the scenes of the boys sailing through the air in their dream boat. As I said before, the interactions of the boat and the clouds, the sparkle the boat gives off, and the feeling of pure fantasy it all gives off is fantastic work.

But for the most part, the short is merely the boys being silly, not knowing what they are doing to each other, and fishing for stars. It all looks wonderful, but I can see where audiences might have tired of this type of short compared to the wonderful Mickey or Donald shorts they had seen so recently. My guess would be they didn’t, but I did.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mickey's Trailer

I’m just going to be honest – I cannot be objective about Mickey’s Trailer. It is an absolute favorite for me, and there are so many emotional ties to this short that I can’t sit here and judge it.

This was one of the very first Mickey cartoons I ever saw, and I have always loved it. It’s not my absolute favorite (either Lonesome Ghosts or Hawaiian Holiday would have that distinction), but it probably is the one that means the most to me. The first Disney book I read to my son and my daughter was an adaptation of this short. When I was a kid, we owned a VW Vanagon that seemed a whole lot like Mickey’s trailer. It’s a short that I could watch over and over again.

So, gushing aside, this short fits perfectly in with the other trio shorts, but to my mind, has some of the best gags in the Disney shorts. The sheer inventiveness on display here is on par with anything done in Mickey shorts before. Seeing the trailer fold and switch into different forms, and then the contortions that Mickey and Donald go through as the trailer goes down the hill…I just love it.

One of my real favorite gags is the very beginning, when Mickey wakes up and steps out onto his perfectly manicured lawn in this amazing landscape, and pulls the lever, having the lawn, backdrop and everything else fold up. It’s funny, but it’s also a commentary – we all want this idyllic life, but in the end, we are usually living in front of the city dump.

I also love the breakfast scenes. Mickey making the coffee by tossing things around the trailer, Goofy helping him get milk from a passing cow, dipping the pot under a waterfall for water – it all sounds wonderful. That’s the feeling I get from the first half of this short, is that idyllic, peaceful happy feeling that so many Disney shorts have.

The second half of the short is when Goofy realizes that no one is driving the trailer, which in itself is a great gag. As he tries to right the ship, Donald and Mickey go wild, the trailer flying down the mountain past trains, falling end over end, and causing the two of them to plead for help, especially Donald.

Like I said, I can’t really be objective about this one. I love Mickey’s Trailer unconditionally, and I’ve always loved it. This is one of those shorts I watch over and over again, and always will be.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Donald's Nephews

Ahhh….another milestone, with new characters appearing on the scene in the Disney canon. Makes you smile, doesn’t it?

Donald’s Nephews introduces, well, Donald’s nephews – Huey, Dewey and Louie, who would go on to be very good characters for the company. They debuted in this short on the screen, but around the same time in the Donald Duck comic strip and comic books. The creation of the nephews led to an expansion of the “duck universe” in comics, especially those by Carl Barks. That’s a whole other topic, but one I might get to if all of Barks’ comics are ever collected. (Note to Disney: c’mon! Can you get Boom! or Marvel to take care of this?)

Regardless, the question before us today is whether Donald’s Nephews succeeds as a short. My answer is a resounding yes. It takes these new characters and plays them against Donald, leading to an increase in his frustration, and we all know that’s where Donald is at his best.

The short opens with Donald reading a postcard from his sister “Dumbella,” which I found very interesting. Does anyone know if Dumbella ever appeared in the shorts or the comics? This was the first I had heard of her. Regardless, the nephews pictured on the postcard are quite different than the ones who come crashing through Donald’s door only moments later.

To try and get a handle on the hooligans, Donald turns to a parenting book. This is when I started laughing. If you’ve ever been a parent, you know the double edged sword of parenting books. The advice they offer is often great in theory, not so much in practice. Donald finds this out in a hurry.

The rest of the short follows a pattern of Donald reading the advice in the book, following it, calming the boys down for a moment, then having it all go horribly wrong again. But saying it’s a pattern isn’t to say it’s predictable or boring. No, it’s hilariously funny, as we see the boys playing music, soaking Donald with a water balloon and feeding him a “Volcano Mustard” pie. The poor book suffers the consequences of Donald’s frustration.

One thing I took away from this short was how domesticated everything was. We have seen how Mickey has moved away from the rural, barnyard setting to more of a home-based life, but now Donald has joined him. Of course, this mirrors the journey of Walt and his team themselves, especially in this post-Snow White era.

Huey, Dewey and Louie don’t have much character in this short, and as would frequently be the case, they are mostly the same character done three times. Their sole purpose in this short seems to be to irritate Donald. It’s not mean spirited, though, but delivered with a smile. It’s a formula that would be successful again and again in the intervening years.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.