Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Development of Bambi

Did you know that Bambi was intended to be the second animated feature from Walt Disney Studios? Work on the film began as early as 1937, before Pinocchio and Fantasia. The story of how Bambi made it from a Felix Salten book about the harsh nature of the forest to a touching film by Walt Disney is an amazing one.

The rights to the book were originally purchased by live action producer Sidney Franklin in 1933. After struggling for years to figure out how to adapt the lush forest and talking animals to a live action film, Franklin sold the rights to Walt, but ended up staying on the production as a consultant, because of his passion for the project.

Walt’s team began story work in 1937 but it was tough going. While the book was a grim portrait of nature, Walt and his crew were more used to gags and humor as means to tell a story. Keep in mind, this work was going on before the advancements made in Fantasia and Dumbo. There was honestly a question as to whether the animators could balance honest and realistic portrayals of the animals with the realism of the book and the humor and heart that Walt wanted.

These issues forced Bambi to keep getting pushed back on the schedule. Production was shut down a couple of times, pushing Bambi behind Pinocchio and Fantasia on the release schedule. In their book about the film, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston wrote about how the crew ended up in an entirely separate building, isolated from the rest of the studio, wondering if their work would ever see the light of day.

Walt was really going for realistic portrayals of the animals. He had teachers come into the studio to educate the artists and even brought live deer in to stay in a pen next to the animator’s area. The artists named the deer Bambi and Faline. The problem was, when Bambi got moved back on the schedule, the animators working on it were moved away from the pen, and they could barely see the deer!

Some key breakthroughs had to happen to make Bambi a viable film. The first was the backgrounds. Artists struggled with the detail and complexity of the backgrounds, tyring to render each and every branch, while still giving off the “magical” feeling of the forest. The solution came with Ty Wong, an artist who was new to the studio, but when asked to submit some paintings for Bambi, came up with a fusion of Oriental style and realism that was key to breaking through the background problem.

The second key breakthrough was in the realization that the children, Bambi, Thumper and Flower were the key to the story. By using the children as the focal point, the emphasis on realism among the animals was lessened. In the final film, those three characters move realistically, but their emotions and actions are more caricature. Meanwhile, the adult animals are portrayed realistically. This solved the realism problem, and ultimately made Bambi a more successful film.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston book that was the source of much of this great info, as well as containing plenty of gorgeous art.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Tweetwatch - Saludos Amigos - Wednesday, September 8 at 9 p.m.

First, I want to say thanks so much to everyone who joined me for our Bambi Tweetwatch. The results of that will be upcoming this week, and some of the tweets will be featured in the review!

The success of that Tweetwatch prompted me to do another, so here we go with Saludos Amigos. Normally these wouldn't be so close to each other, but Bambi was released August 7, 1942, and Saludos Amigos premiered August 24, 1942.

So, in case you missed it the first time, here's how you can participate:

1. Get a copy of Saludos Amigos on DVD. If you want to keep participating, get the Caballeros Collection that includes Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros.
2. Follow me on Twitter, so you know when to start the movie.
3. On Wednesday night, September 8 at 9 p.m., have the DVD in your DVD player ready to push play.
4. You can join us in the FriendFeed room, where everyone can chat, and you have the option of posting your ideas to Twitter.
5. If you don't want to go to FriendFeed or do and want people to find you, use the hashtag #SaludosDFP, and your tweets could be featured in the review of the film that appears on the blog!

Simple enough, right? If you are interested, have questions or comments, please let me know, and we'll have a lot of fun watching Saludos Amigos!

Donald's Goldmine

Donald is just the type of person you would imagine is always looking for ways to get rich. Therefore, it was not surprising to me to see Donald’s Goldmine, in which Donald tries to find gold. Donald does his best to be a great miner, but as in everything else he does, it does not turn out as planned.

This is a little bit of an understated Donald. We don’t get to see him jumping up and down and going on a rant like you normally would. This seems to be a more restrained Donald, which is somewhat odd, but intriguing, too. Throughout his travails in this short, he seems to be more focused on survival than trying to get revenge or getting his way.

The first thing that Donald faces in this short is simply trying to get around with all his tools. After shoveling coal, he ends up swallowing some, he gets stuck in his pick axe and is an all around mess. For some reason it stuck out to me in this short that Donald is merely annoyed or irritated by what’s going on, and not his normal hopping mad self.

The pick segment is kind of disappointing, because of that. The pick gets stuck in his clothes, and turns Donald into all sorts of contortions trying to get out. While the various twists and turns he takes are pretty funny, I kept waiting for Donald to start screaming and yelling, but it didn’t happen.

The counterpoint to Donald in this short is actually a donkey. The donkey isn’t named in the short and serves as the voice of the audience, to laugh at Donald when he gets in these predicaments. It’s not something I recall seeing before with Donald. We had the horse laughing at Goofy in How To Ride A Horse, but using the concept in a Donald short is a little different.

After all of those mishaps, you’d think Donald would not be able to find gold, but he does. In good Donald fashion, though, that only causes more problems, as he gets dumped in to the ore wagon and put through the conveyor belt, facing dangers along the way.

This part of the short was almost like an adventure movie, with Donald dodging impending doom over and over again. He nearly gets ground into gears, pounded flat on the conveyor belt and shaken to pieces. While it’s great animation and fun to watch, it just doesn’t seem like Donald.

Goofy would have been a better fit to this short, in my opinion. At this point in time he was really only doing the “How To” shorts, but this would have been a great fit for the Goof. Not to say that Donald isn’t good, but the whole short doesn’t fit his character too well. Still, it’s a good short with some interesting bits.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Sleepwalker

Today, we stray entirely from any sort of war related short, with another Pluto subject that is not among the best of the Disney canon. The Sleepwalker is a good premise, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

The basic idea is that Pluto, in his posh doghouse full of bones, is reluctant to share with Dinah, a dachshund that lives nearby. He chases her off when she tries to take his bone, and intimidates the poor thing over and over again. The twist comes when he falls asleep.

In his sleep, Pluto gets up and delivers the bone to Dinah. She is of course overjoyed, but Pluto wakes up on his way back to his own doghouse, and takes the bone back again. Wash, rinse, repeat, as this happens two more times.

That’s my problem with this short, is that although the concept is quite funny, it loses steam after the first time it happens. From there, you get the gag, but there has to be more added to it to make this a memorable short. There’s not, and that’s why I think this short suffers.

The problem I see with Pluto as a character is that if one element of the animation process falls down, he is not effective. If the animation is bad, he does not convey the emotion without talking. If the story is bad, then you don’t really care what he’s doing, because the character is hard to root for, on account of all the bad things he tends to do. Everything has to be in sync for Pluto to work, and that doesn’t happen here.

Sure, you could say the same about other characters, but I’d rather see a Donald Duck short where the story is bad, but Donald still has his frustration outbursts than a boring Pluto short. This one isn’t boring, it just doesn’t give you a good hook to latch onto and carry you through the short.

In the end, Pluto makes a sacrifice to help Dinah and her puppies, after he realizes what’s going on. Dinah had actually been taking the bone to feed her children, and after Pluto demolished their doghouse, they were stuck out in the rain. Pluto drags his house over to shelter them, and gets a great kiss from Dinah.

The Sleepwalker is interesting, but it’s a good example of a premise that may or may not make a good short. The story is okay, but doesn’t provide us a good look at the characters or a great gag to latch onto.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Donald's Garden

Donald as a farmer was comedy gold in Old Macdonald Duck, so it’s no surprise that Disney chose to come back to that premise again. In the light of World War II, when families were being forced to grow their own produce in “Victory Gardens,” Donald’s Garden was a perfect subject for the time.

Donald always works best when he’s being frustrated by something that’s not even trying to annoy him. Thus, the first part of this short is a fantastic bit of business, because it is entirely based on that premise. In this case, it’s a water pump and watering bucket that cause the problem.

I’m sure many of you reading this have never used a water pump. I have, on my grandmother’s garden. It’s not necessarily a difficult thing, just not as easy as it might look. Donald finds this out when he tries to pump water into the bucket. Through a myriad of attempts, he pumps too hard and the water overshoots the bucket, or no hard enough and the water falls short.

The animation, of course, takes it to extremes, having the water build up inside the pump then drip out, or when it shoots out like a hydrant. As you can guess, Donald’s frustration level rises dramatically each time the water disappears. This is classic Donald stuff and it works very well.

The water bit is used as a transition to the second half of the short, as the water falls into a hole, flooding a gopher. When the gopher pops up from his hole, he blames Donald, and proceeds to set his sights on destroying the garden. This is where the short loses me.

Much like a short that features Pluto but is not necessarily a Pluto short, the gopher takes over, leading the action from that point forward. It would be okay if the gopher were a great character, but he’s honestly a second rate Chip or Dale.

The gopher goes forth and eats up the garden, without Donald in sight most of the way. There’s little conflict or drama in this part of the sort, because no one’s stopping the gopher. When Donald finally realizes what’s going on, it’s too late. He gets knocked over by watermelons cascading into the ground, and then catches on.

The gopher is too smart for Donald, however, and ties him to the ground with the vines of the watermelon. It’s a really poor ending, because there has been no epic conflict between the gopher and Donald. If Donald got his comeuppance for mistreating the gopher, it would work. However, because the gopher merely took over the short, it doesn’t play very well. All said, I’d give the first half of this short an enthusiastic thumbs up, and the second half a big thumbs down.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Army Mascot

We’re back in the Army again, with another wartime short, this time featuring Pluto. Once again, Disney is using its lead characters to promote the wartime efforts, but so far, doing it in a subtle way. Simply inserting Pluto into an Army situation is not the same as later shorts, where we’ll see Donald and others taking a more direct role in the war.

This short all stems from Pluto’s stomach, or more accurately, his desire to fill it. As he is standing outside the fence at an Army base, Pluto sees how the mascots on the base are fed, and gets very jealous. A bulldog gets a ham hock, for example, while a tiny little Chihuahua gets a full steak. Pluto decides that he’d like a piece of that action, and who could blame him?

The theme in this short is a lot like Donald Gets Drafted, that the Army’s not so bad anymore. It’s a subtler message here, without the accompanying song, but the idea is the same. That idea is immediately lampooned of course, in the finest Disney fashion.

Pluto tries to replace one of the mascots, but the only one he finds is a goat named Gunther. Pluto slides Gunther’s door closed, and steals the drape that goes over him, then twists his ears up into horns to try and look like a goat. This is just the first of the imaginative things Pluto does with his face in this short. It’s the best of the Pluto shorts in that regard.

Needless to say, things don’t work out the way that Pluto expected. Rather than ham or steak, the goat gets old tin cans to eat. Not only that, but when Gunther gets loose, he takes it personally that Pluto tried to edge him out. Gunther takes out his frustrations on Pluto, naturally.

Having messed up his first attempt, the ever valiant Pluto tries again, this time in a tobacco chewing contest with Gunther. The soldiers are so impressed with Gunther’s ability to chew tobacco that Pluto tries to outdo him. That leads to the funniest sequence of the short, after Gunther causes Pluto to swallow the tobacco.

Pluto’s face does all kinds of contortions, his eyes fill with tears, his ears go up and down in unnatural ways, and he starts turning green. Even more, he starts hiccupping and changing colors, from green to polka dot and even plaid. This part of the short is just laugh out loud hilarious.

There’s a nice twist to the end of this one, though. Normally, Pluto gets frustrated in his pursuits, ending up in the wreckage with nothing to show for his efforts. This time, though, Gunther ends up worse for the wear, missing Pluto in a charge and ending up blowing up the explosives warehouse. Gunther ends up smacked into an oncoming airplane, and Pluto gets his food!

I wonder a little bit if Pluto’s better fate in this short is because of the fact that it’s “supporting” the war effort. After all, you don’t want to show an eager Army volunteer ending up unsatisfied, do you? Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see Pluto get what he wants, even if it’s just this one time.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Donald Gets Drafted

World War II was becoming more and more a part of American life in 1942, after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The Disney studio became part of that effort, turning out shorts that dealt with war stories and themes. The first of those in their regular release pattern (outside the Canadian shorts) is Donald Gets Drafted.

The fantastic thing about this short is that Disney is not using it as propaganda, although it’s clear that is what it’s “supposed” to be. You would imagine a propaganda short would glamorize the Army lifestyle and show people the great things about joining the Army.

That’s not the case here, although Donald thinks so at the beginning. All sorts of posters line the streets, encouraging him to join the Armed Forces. Donald even inserts himself into one poster, thinking that he would be the one between two fine looking maidens. Donald quickly gets the idea that he wants to be a pilot.

His experiences in the enlistment office, though, are quite different. Despite his stated preference, the doctors and draft board officials poke and prod him, in some of the funniest scenes ever featuring Donald. I loved watching him get thrown around the office and eventually being thrown into the worst fitting uniform ever.

I have to mention the music, too. Throughout the short, there is a constant song “The Army’s Not The Army Anymore” that extols the virtues of the “modern” Army. The song mentions over and over again how things are different and that people aren’t yelling and screaming at you. As you can imagine, this serves very much as the counterpoint to what is happening in the short, just like the narration in the Goofy “How To” series.

Donald’s drill instructor turns out to be none other than Pete, Mickey’s old nemesis. You can imagine how that will turn out. Donald’s desire to go and fly interferes with his compliance with orders, with predictable results.

You see what I mean about not glamorizing Army life? It’s a clever approach, because the viewer can blame Donald for making mistakes, rather than assuming the Army is to blame. That makes Donald Gets Drafted a very effective way to promote the war effort without straying too far from what made Disney so special.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Donald's Snowfight

There’s nothing I love more in doing this blog than running across a cartoon that I have seen a hundred times, and realizing where it falls into the Disney timeline. Knowing that I have seen a short before, and then placing it into context is an amazing feeling. I’m sure that makes me a Disney nerd, but didn’t we know that already?

Donald’s Snowfight is one of those shorts. For years, growing up with Disney Channel (when they showed the shorts and characters), this short was shown around Christmas time. There’s a good reason for that, too – it’s really, really good. This is the short that formed my opinions of Donald and his nephews before I began this project.

It’s a classic Donald vs. the nephews set up – Donald goes out to enjoy the day of snow, and ends up getting into it with Huey, Dewey and Louie. Donald wears a ridiculous overcoat for the first part of the short which adds greatly to the humor. At one points he even grabs hold of a branch and swings back and forth, like a bell.

The real fun begins though when Donald speeds downhill to destroy the boys’ snowman. After they painstakingly created the snowman, Donald ruins it, sparking the war between the two. The first shot belongs to the boys, as they create a snowman that has a rock hidden inside. When Donald tries to destroy that one, he and his overcoat end up much worse for the wear.

The all out war begins from there, as each side builds an elaborate foothold out of ice. The boys construct a large fort style construct, while Donald builds a boat, laying siege to their fort. The imaginative constructs and use of ice in this short are fantastic.

Donald wins the early rounds of the war, firing snowballs at the boys and knocking them over. At one point, he even “bowls” them over, literally, as the boys turn into bowling pins and Donald gets a strike in knocking them down. But the creativity of Donald’s nephews cannot be underestimated.

The boys start using two methods to take down Donald – fire and ice. The ice gets built in the form of bombs, which the boys put mouse traps inside. Then they start launching arrows that are on fire. The end result is a melting of Donald’s boat that is absolutely hilarious.

Donald’s Snowfight is a short that I absolutely loved. I loved it before when I saw it at Christmas time and I still loved it today when I watched it again. It is everything you want from a Disney short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Symphony Hour

Mickey has been tied with music constantly throughout his career. From the very beginning, when he appeared and danced in sync with “Turkey in the Straw” in Steamboat Willie, there’s always been music. Even more than that, Mickey has been the conductor of a band of cohorts on multiple occasions. That continues in Symphony Hour, as Mickey and the gang put on another show.

We’ve seen this many, many times before. There’s a long tradition of Mickey shorts featuring the gang in some kind of review or concert. The most memorable, is of course, The Band Concert, but we’ve seen Mickey’s Amateurs, Mickey’s Grand Opera, Orphans Benefit and so many more. The Band Concert is the one that provides the most interesting comparison to Symphony Hour.

In Symphony Hour, we see Mickey and his crew conducting a flawless performance as an orchestra, much to the delight of Pete, who is the sponsor of the performance. It’s only when the performance ends, though, that we see that this was practice, not the live performance.

Still, it’s interesting to see the change that has come over Mickey in the years since The Band Concert. Remember, that short showed Mickey out in the boonies, conducting a concert in a rural setting for locals. This moves Mickey into the big city, again mirroring the journey that Walt himself made. Mickey and Walt are always connected, and one follows the other, as we see here.

The fun part of this short is seeing what happens after the perfect rehearsal. Goofy is trying to carry the instruments into the concert hall, but as Goofy is prone to doing, he screws up. Dropping the instruments, he watches them get squashed by the elevator, rendering them useless.

What follows is a hilarious look at the concert, with the instruments giving off the barnyard sounds rather than a polished symphony. Seeing the reactions of the various characters is priceless. Donald, especially, is a fantastic part of this short. He basically gives up early on, and Mickey has to coax him back to the percussion.

Mickey goes pretty far, too, even pointing a gun at Donald to get him back. This short is a fantastic cartoon, and it previews things that would go on between these two in the future. Think of Mickey’s Philharmagic in Walt Disney World, and it stems greatly from this particular short.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Pluto Junior

It’s very interesting to see a lot of the classic style cartoons in early 1942, knowing all that was going on behind the scenes at the time. Disney was moving more and more into World War II shorts, was working on completing the Good Neighbor shorts and finishing up Bambi. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the studio was churning out some familiar subjects like Pluto shorts.

Pluto, Junior is the first Pluto short in a while, and it follows the similar formula, with a twist. The formula is a dog getting into all sorts of fun and interesting situations around the house, without dialogue. The twist is that the dog is Pluto’s son, not Pluto himself. That casts Pluto in a secondary role for one of the first times.

Pluto’s role in this short is more of a foil for his son. When the little pup wakes up, he keeps Pluto from sleeping by doing all sorts of crazy things, interacting with his environment and getting into trouble, just like his father was famous for doing.

It’s an interesting idea, but I have to say that Pluto’s son is not the most compelling character. He is just a little version of Pluto, which makes him less than unique. That’s not to say that there isn’t some funny stuff in this short, it’s just not that original.

Pluto, Jr gets into things right away, as his father is blowing a ball back and forth with his snores. Junior gets the ball and ends up getting it stuck in his dad’s mouth. Then, he finds a balloon that ends up in Pluto’s mouth, before Junior pops it.

The most interesting part of the short, though, comes when Junior ends up chasing a worm up a tree. He starts chasing a bird, which ends badly as he gets stuck in a sock on a clothesline up in the air. This leads to Pluto trying to come and rescue his boy, providing some of the funniest stuff in the short.

Pluto tries to balance on the two clotheslines, wraps his tail around one to stay up, and tries to make his way to his little boy. It’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from Pluto, and it’s quite good. The end sees them both fall of course, ending up in a bath tub.

It’s the end to a funny bit, but the short as a whole falls a bit flat. It really just seems like an attempt to create a foil for Pluto, but as usual, he ends up stealing the show.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 13, 2010

NEW - Tweet Watch - Bambi on August 26

Hope everyone is having a fantastic Friday. Wanted to announce a new idea we're going to test drive in a couple weeks. We have two weeks until it's time to watch and review Bambi here on the blog. So, to make it a more interactive experience, I've decided to do something fun - have you guys watch the movie with me, and share your thoughts over Twitter!

So, on Thursday night, August 26, pop some popcorn, grab your copy of the Bambi DVD, and we'll all sit down together to watch Bambi. Here's the essential information:

1. If you don't have a Twitter account, go get one.
2. Follow me on Twitter - @RyanKilpatrick
3. Sign up for the event on Plancast to get updateds.
3. If you don't have a DVD copy of Bambi, rent one or buy one
4. On Thursday, August 26, be ready at 9 p.m. ET to sit in front of the TV and watch.
5. Join in the fun in our FriendFeed room, where you can chat w/each other and share your updates on Twitter. We'll share thoughts about the movie with the hashtag #BambiDFP. Include that on the end of all of your posts.
6. The following Monday, August 30, I'll take the tweets and use them in the review of Bambi!

Everyone got it? Good, so start getting ready, because in two weeks, we'll be having loads of fun. Make sure to join in!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mickey's Birthday Party

1941 was such a difficult year for Walt Disney and his team, that it’s amazing as much work was produced that year as it was. However, what amazes me even more is the celebration that occurs in the second 1942 short, Mickey’s Birthday Party.

You can tell from the title what the short is about, but just saying that does not do it justice. This is a tour de force of animation, with the great Ward Kimball leading the charge. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the early Mickey shorts, but with the dynamic and expressive animation of Kimball infusing new life into an old formula.

After watching this short, I was amazed to read some reviews of it that called it “unremarkable” or “not funny.” In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. In this short, we get to see the entire gang at once, including old favorites like Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar and Clara Cluck – none of which we’ve seen for quite some time.

The premise is a surprise party at Minnie’s house, where Mickey wanders in to greet the gang. Their gift to him is a piano or organ (couldn’t really tell which), and the rest of the short proceeds into a silly dance routine. It’s just like the old Mickey shorts, when the gang would all get together and dance around. But here, because of the color, the animation and the imagination, it’s so much better.

Mickey’s dance leads things off, and it’s a wonderful piece. Seeing him move across the screen, play with depth and fill the camera with his mouth – it’s fantastic. The next bit of dancing, though, is Donald Duck doing a South American tinged dance. This has to be a result of Walt’s South American trip, because it’s so reminiscent of what we will see later from Donald in The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos.

The counter to the dancing is the scenes of Goofy in the kitchen, trying to make Mickey’s cake. Being Goofy, of course, he can’t quite get it right. He burns or deflates the cakes, one after the other, with the comedy building because of the frantic pace of the dancing. By intercutting the wild dance scenes with Goofy’s panic, it builds the comedic tension very nicely.

I also loved the ending, when Goofy, having exploded the kitchen, has an idea, represented by a light bulb. He reaches up to touch the bulb, in a nod to how the cartoon rules used to work. In recent shorts, we’ve seen realism take hold, but remember in the past, Mickey would use his word balloons or any other “imaginary” object just like it was real. That was a nice nod in this short that really feels like a classic Mickey.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.