Thursday, June 11, 2015
SERIES: Donald Duck
Donald's working deep in a mine shaft with his cantankerous burro, when he strikes gold ore. He then gets caught up in the refining machinery.
When I was a kid, this was one of my favorite Donald cartoons. I think that had to do with the fact that so much of it is taken up with the machinery and all the crazy gags along the conveyer belt. Since I was young, I've always been a sucker for contraptions and gags that involve Rube Goldberg-style mechanics. So I think that's why this one resonates so much with me. I was always anxious to get to the part where he falls into the machine.
As usual, this cartoon opens with Donald singing a song and appropriately the choice is "My Darling Clementine" this time around. I would also like to point out this was before the song became associated with Huckleberry Hound.
Donald's co-star this time is a burro. This is not the burro's first appearance. In fact, he appeared with Donald in the second short of Donald's solo series, Don Donald. That cartoon was also the first appearance of Daisy Duck. It just missed the cut-off for this list. In that cartoon, Donald sells his trusty burro for a fancy car to impress Daisy. The burro then made another appearance with Donald in The Village Smithy, which is similar to Donald's Gold Mine, only he's a blacksmith in that one. I find the interactions with the burro to be very good in Gold Mine because Donald gets back what he dishes out. Sometimes he's helpful, sometimes he's not, and sometimes he just laughs. He's a lot like Donald, and Donald doesn't realize that. When Donald accidentally swallows all that coal, it's a win-win solution for Donald to ask him to kick him in the butt. Also, if the design of the burro looks familiar, it's probably due to this being the early 1940s and the studio had just made Pinocchio. The design doesn't differ much from all the boys-turned-donkey in that film. A young burro would also appear in a sequence for The Three Caballeros the following year. He also shows genuine sorrow when he thinks Donald is gone. He may laugh at Donald's expense, and resent his treatment, but I think he still likes him.
This cartoon is mainly in two sections. The first half is Donald's trials with excavation, full of delightful sight gags. The best bit of business is when he gets stuck in the pickaxe. All the permutations of this struggle make for wonderful sight gags. It's the sort of business usually found in Pluto cartoons, but I think it works very well with Donald here. There are moments that I still laugh out loud sometimes.
The second half comes after Donald strikes it rich. He can't be that lucky, so he gets dumped in the ore processing, and then it's all conveyor belt gags as he runs for his life. Disney's gotten good at doing machinery by this point, having done The Old Mill, and Clock Cleaners and a few others with all those cogs and gears. They also had a bit of a run of shorts in the early 1940s with contraption sequences like this (The Practical Pig is a good example). The shots are nicely designed, and the animation cycles are good. All the close calls for Donald are fun. They were especially fun for me as a little kid. It's also a variation on a theme in Donald cartoons where he's done in by machinery. This trend began really with Modern Inventions, which is higher up the list, and continues in things like Early to Bed, where he wrestles with his mattress.
This isn't the deepest of cartoons, and if you asked most people to recall favorite Donald Duck shorts, this probably wouldn't come up. Maybe I'm a little biased because of my youthful rememberances. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it does have some bright, amusing moments. That whole business with the pickaxe elevates it for me, as I think that's one of the sequences of wordless Disney comedy. It's a shame that for the Disney Treasures collection in which this one appears (The Chronological Donald Volume 2) they didn't remaster these early 1940s cartoons like with the first volume. The image quality is not as good as it good be.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Reitherman
STORY: Bill Peet
Goliath is a massive elephant and leader of his herd, but his son, Goliath II, is an elephant the size of a mouse. Goliath II gets in a lot of trouble being so small, until he saves the herd by wrestling a mouse. After all, why should Goliath be afraid of something the same size as him?
After the expensive, artistic endeavor that was Sleeping Beauty, the Walt Disney studio was heading into the 1960s with a more modern direction. Their next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was in production and a new animation process, Xerography, was being used to ink their cells. This would eliminate the need to hand-paint all the spots on the dogs. As he often did in the early days, Walt had a short subject made to test the new process. Goliath II (read: Goliath the Second) was the first cartoon made with the new Xerox process.
As an animation test, it's successful. However, I must admit I have never been a fan of this particular cartoon. That doesn't make it bad. It's not bad. But it also never reaches for me the quality of the other Bill Peet shorts, and I'm a big fan of Bill Peet. Something about the story feels like there's not quite enough to it. It begins with a charming idea, an elephant the size of a mouse, but I don't ever care enough about the proceedings. I appreciate what Peet is going for, but somehow I come away thinking "so what?" Part of the problem may be that some of it feels like a retread of Dumbo, with an opposite focus. This time around, the elephant and mouse are enemies. But it's still ultimately about the outcast mutant elephant who is shunned until his deformity brings him notoriety.
Let's talk about Bill Peet. He was a story man in this era, and one of the best they had. He worked on some of the very best short subjects the studio ever made (they're higher up on the list). He had a wonderful sensibility for clear but whimsical stories. He also wrote the screenplay for The Sword in the Stone, the first Disney feature to have a one, something often attributed to Beauty and the Beast. After his time at the Disney studio, Peet would go on to write and illustrate a number of picture books for children. Goliath II has a children's book sort of feel. I just don't think it's on par with some of his other work. In keeping with some of the other Peet stories, it is narrated by Sterling Holloway, which is nice.
This is also the era of Wolfgang Reitherman. "Wooly" Reitherman would go on to direct much of the animated content throughout the 1960s and '70s. I think he directed every feature from The Sword in the Stone through The Rescuers. Goliath II is a perfect opportunity to talk about Reitherman because it features something that's a hallmark of his work: recycled animation. Reitherman felt that it paid homage to the talents that came before and had no qualms about it. I understand the sentiment, and agree to a point, but unfortunately he could go overboard at times. Robin Hood is criticized for relying too heavily on animation reuse at times, and this short does fall into the same trap. Watching this short, it's easy to spot just how much content appeared in prior works.
Maybe that's another reason this one doesn't grab me so much; what content there is has recycled elements. Then again, if you're a Disney fan, you might enjoy watching it to try and catch all these little moments. There are bits from Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, and Peter Pan. It makes sense to re-use the croc design from Pan, and I think the use of animation here is successful and works in context of the story. However, there are other moments that don't work and the worst culprit for me is the "Baby Mine" shot lifted from Dumbo. Here, Goliath and his mother bond with their trunks but it makes no sense in context given Goliath's size. For the sake of re-used animation, our main character is suddenly very much out of scale. The notion of an elephant who is so small is a difficult mental image to maintain and when the film breaks that scale it's unsettling.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that among all these recycled elements are moments that originate in this short. You probably thought the marching elephant stuff with the traffic jams and all comes from The Jungle Book, but those moments originate in this short. You can also see shades of the Col. Hathi family relationship in this story. Because this short is lesser-known to some, many won't recognize the parts of The Jungle Book that actually have a genesis here. Some of the jungle musical motifs in this short seem to recur or get further developed in The Jungle Book as well.
If I mention a Disney tiger named Rajah, your mind immediately goes to Princess Jasmine's pet in Aladdin, doesn't it? Well, there was a Rajah over 30 years before that, and he appears here. The Rajah design is very similar to the design on the lion that cropped up throughout the mid-1950s in Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons. It's also a very Bill Peet kind of design. Echoes of the design can also be seen in the wolf in Sword in the Stone.
It's funny what a different world we live in today. You'd never see a child spanked onscreen like that now!
The rough xeroxed black outline for the characters doesn't mix well against the backgrounds for me. It works very well in the rough, modern world of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but the studio didn't always know how to blend that look against the different backgrounds. The gorgeous backgrounds of The Jungle Book always seem to clash with them to me. In this case, the jungle backgrounds are a very stylized, angular look with a kind of airbrushed stencil design. It's interesting, but as everything is in blocks of color with nary an outline in sight, the character outlines don't quite seem a part of the world they way they do in other cartoons. Then again, maybe that was the intent. The backgrounds are more painterly. They actually remind me of children's book illustrations of that period. The color palette and design feels a lot like a storybook to me. But while I think some of it looks interesting, I personally never quite embrace the aesthetic. It's also very very green throughout, and that sameness of environment makes it harder for me to get into the story.
I know I've said very little about the story, but honestly there isn't much to tell. Goliath is small, so he falls in holes or is chased by predators. Then a mouse attacks, but he stands up to the mouse, the wrestle and ultimately Goliath runs him off. The way the mouse taunts Goliath reminded me of the clowns and children taunting Dumbo. It also seems like they love having elephants call each other "clumsy ox," as it happens again in this cartoon.
The story is cute with a sweet cartoon idea, even if it falls a little flat for me. There is a lot of recycled animation, but also original moments that would soon find themselves recycled in other projects. For being the first film to prove the success of the Xerox process it deserves a place in Disney history. It was also good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Cartoon Short Subject. And for better or worse, there is no mistaking that this is the work of Bill Peet and Wolfgang Reitherman. Obviously other artists worked on it, but the stylistic stamp of their authorship is pretty clear. These two Disney legends would go on to make other wonderful films; an earlier film like this, though I'm not the biggest fan, still stands out as an amusing Disney curiosity.
Monday, June 1, 2015
SERIES: Silly Symphony
The Three Little Pigs return to find they share a common enemy with Little Red Riding Hood: the Big Bad Wolf.
The Three Little Pigs was a surprise success for Walt Disney. More than any Silly Symphony that came before, it was extraordinarily popular with a theme song that spread like wildfire. And much like today, the public began clamoring for a follow-up. Theater owners who saw the draw of the first short began to demand "more pigs". Walt had no interest in sequels. He didn't want to repeat his past successes, he wanted to move forward and try new things. He didn't see the Three Little Pigs as repeat characters like Mickey Mouse; it was a telling of the fairy tale, the story was told, the end. However, Walt did bow to the whim of the people, and the company ultimately made three more shorts featuring the Three Little Pigs (the Pigs also made cameo appearances in a few others). The final one, "The Practical Pig", was released as the first and only short in the Three Little Pigs own series (today it's generally lumped in with the Silly Symphonies like the others). The first of the Pig sequels, "The Big Bad Wolf", ultimately proves that Walt was correct and that sequels are rarely as good as the original.
Perhaps Walt's reluctance to go forward with a sequel explains the story for this short, which is not really about the Pigs at all. Instead, it's mostly an attempt to tell "Little Red Riding Hood" in the Silly Symphony tradition. Since a Big Bad Wolf features in both stories, it is clever to use the character already introduced. The short ends up being a slightly uncomfortable marriage of stories between Red Riding Hood and the Pig that never quite pays off. Audiences who came wanting more pigs were probably a bit disappointed. One wonders whether a straight, swine-less Red Riding Hood short might have worked better. Yet, I appreciate Disney's attempt to please audiences while doing something different, and while it's not the best of the Pigs shorts, it has fun moments. It works better if taken more as a Red Riding Hood short than as a true sequel. The "Practical Pig" is once again the moral compass, making explicit the lesson to avoid shortcuts. But somehow I think involving the Pigs takes away from Little Red. Interestingly, by bringing a new character into the world of the Pigs, Disney ends up slowly building a kind of fairy tale world where all these characters live. The later Silly Symphonies would exploit this a little further, as characters would sometimes turn up in other shorts. Eventually, the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series cross-pollinated characters (Donald Duck began in a Silly Symphony before jumping over to Mickey cartoons, and Pluto starred in a Silly Symphony before getting his own series). Those who think Marvel's "cinematic universe" is unprecedented should pay more attention to what studios were doing in the 1930s.
I love the design on Little Red Riding Hood. She resembles a living Kewpie doll, which I'm sure was part of the intent. Take a look at her hands and how teeny tiny her fingers are! They've really played up her sort of infantile innocence with design choices like that. I also like the way she skips.
The Big Bad Wolf had several disguises in his first appearance, and this trend carries into the other shorts as well. This one introduces a new element: a tendency to now dress in feminine costumes. It's worth remembering this is years before Bugs Bunny. Having him try to seduce Red Riding Hood in the woods not as himself but in drag as "Goldilocks the Fairy Queen" is a fun it of added silliness. And even though it doesn't really go anywhere (as his disguise fails fairly quickly), the business of him flitting about from the trees and singing is delightfully goofy. I consider this short far inferior to the original, but this sequence always makes me laugh. Perhaps this disguise also helps sell the idea of him disguised as Grandma later: he has a penchant for drag disguises!
The middle of the short, which plays the Red Riding Hood exchange without porcine interference, is the highlight. The Big Bad Wolf is a fun character in the way he riffs on a well-known story. He even breaks the fourth wall at one point. I always laugh when she asks how he feels and he says, "Terrible!" in his wolf voice. Many Disney cartoons of this period feature a Jimmy Durante joke. He was a popular star of the time, known for his big nose. You may recognize him as the narrator of Frosty the Snowman. This short has perhaps the best Durante joke in the entire Disney canon, as the Wolf slips in an impression after the "what a big nose you've got!"
This cartoon follows a more sanitized version of the story. The Red Riding Hood tale is one that gets less and less grim with each generation. The earliest versions feature not only Grandma but also Little Red getting eaten by the wolf. No salvation or happy ending, just a cautionary tale about traveling through the woods. Later versions introduce a hunter who kills the wolf and frees Grandma from inside him. The Grimm version takes this one step further by not killing the wolf, but filling its belly with rocks after rescuing Grandma. More recent versions have done away with the eating altogether, and the Wolf just hides Granny in a closet or cupboard due to his haste. This is the version used by Disney. On one hand, it's sad that the story has gotten so far away from its roots, where the central incidents remain but the themes about safety do not. Still, Disney is making a cartoon for laughs not for education, and still managed to throw the lesson in there. It was smart to use the Practical Pig in the huntsman role, as he already has a history of defeating the Wolf. Just as in the first cartoon, a fireplace plays a crucial role. This time, the Pig fills the Wolf's pants with popcorn and hot coals. The popping of the corn perhaps recalls subliminally the shot of a hunter's gun. Also, I can't help wondering if the hot coals are a nod to the rocks in the belly from the Grimm version. Disney often has fun with popcorn in its cartoons. I think this may be the first time.
The final moment of the cartoon, in which the Pigs sing, "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? He's a great big sissy!" feels unearned to me in a way, and more a way to reference the prior short. He was a very real threat, and ending on "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" again is odd. Though I wonder how we are supposed to take the "great big sissy" line. Could this be the reason for the flouncy Fairy Queen garb? Is Disney insinuating a homosexual element to the word "sissy"?
I can't say I don't enjoy The Big Bad Wolf, as there are certainly moments that make me laugh. But it has nowhere near the energy or invention of The Three Little Pigs or even of later Pig shorts. As a cartoon seemingly trying to serve two masters, it's amusing but nothing more. However, it's an interesting experiment from the Disney company, testing the potential of sequels and how far they could bend their series. But it's more noteworthy for being the first Disney sequel than for being exceptionally innovative or funny.