Saturday, August 29, 2015

188. Mother Goose Melodies

SERIES: Silly Symphony

A procession brings Old King Cole to his throne, where he calls for his pipe, his book, and his fiddlers three. The book arrives, being a collection of Mother Goose rhymes, and we are treated to humorous musical vignettes with some famous characters.

These are still the early days for the Silly Symphony series, but already we can see a bit of growth. Mother Goose Melodies continues the tradition of animated characters cavorting to recognizable musical motifs, but using nursery rhymes was a clever choice because so many are associated with singable tunes. For each section, the music score accompanying is usually identifiable, even when the rhyme isn't being recited. When the blackbirds fly out of Jack's pie, for example, we can hear "Sing a Song of Sixpence" underneath. You can literally sing every rhyme throughout the short. I like the use of "Baa Baa Black Sheep", in which the sheep actually bleets on the "baa baa" parts.

The short features a lot of the standard tropes of the early Silly Symphony era, such as three figures dancing in unison, a goofy sun, and toothy grins. But there's actually a lot of new ground being broken in this short that will carry into future projects for the company. The most important first in this cartoon is the appearance of Old King Cole. His design, along with his booming jovial voice, would feature throughout the 1930s, both recurring as Old King Cole and serving as a prototype for both King Neptune and Santa Claus. They are all essentially the same figure, and they make their first appearance here.

This is also the first appearance of Mother Goose, both as a character and as a concept. This is the first time the studio has gone to the nursery rhyme well for inspiration but it certainly wouldn't be the last. There would be multiple future Silly Symphony projects, including at least two very similar shorts involving Mother Goose characters. There would even be a short in the 1960s exploring the truth behind certain popular rhymes. The idea of the storybook, and the characters that live in it and pop out of it, would become a standard feature of these cartoons. But more than that, the storybook trope would ultimately become a defining cliche of Disney animated features, beginning with the book that opens Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The interactions inside the pages would also be put to great use in the Winnie the Pooh features. It all begins with Mother Goose Melodies.

The opening parade animation processional that brings Old King Cole in would be re-used in several other projects over the years. For the Academy Awards ceremony several years later, the studio redid the sequence in color, presenting the acting nominees for that year. Instead of Old King Cole, the procession brings in caricatures of the Hollywood stars. During the 1940s, they used the animation again for a Standard Oil commercial.

The design work is interesting in this cartoon because there's a pretty clear distinction made between the "real" people of the kingdom and the ones who live in the book. Characters like Jack and Jill or Little Bo Peep are drawn with a much more juvenile art style. It is very simplistic, almost like stick figures, evoking something more childlike. Meanwhile, character animation and design for Old King Cole, the Three Blind Mice and others is showing a definite progression up from some of the earlier cartoons. There are still holdovers, like the look of the spider, which remains of the sort that we've seen in earlier shorts, but there's definitely progress being made.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak about some of the amusing moments in the cartoon itself. It's all well and good to discuss it's place in Disney history, but it's also on this list for its own merit. While not as major a figure as Old King Cole, this is also the first appearance of the Simple Simon design that remains fairly unchanged throughout the Mother Goose shorts. They'd never get away with something like that today, with this ridiculous fool who's "simple" (read: retarded), and therefore easily mocked. He's always depicted as fishing for some reason, even though that has nothing to do with his rhyme. I have no idea why he has an N on his hat either (if anyone knows, please let me know in the comments!). But I love the bit where he pulls an octopus out of the bucket. It seems so incredibly random and it makes me laugh. The moment when Little Jack Horner pulls out the plum and says, "What a big boy am I" is great because he now has this deeper, booming voice. It makes sense for the character, but it's also part of the humor of the unexpected. And that's where this short works well, in taking these very well known stories and finding ways to surprise us.

Something else it does well is when it connects several rhymes together. It's a surprise to have Jack and Jill turn up at the top of the hill only to find Simple Simon there. But they also smartly blend "Little Bo Peep" and "Little Boy Blue", both of whom are tasked with looking after sheep and doing a lousy job of it. This pairing will usually feature in other Disney cartoons. That whole sequence with them and "Black Sheep" is well thought out. For a cartoon that's fairly simple, the story department did a good job. It's also rather unique in that this one doesn't have a big chase sequence and isn't too reliant on dancing. While it's fairly light on actual story, they found ways to find little stories and make it all work nicely.

One thing I've always wondered though is why so often these characters are depicted in clogs, as if they are little Dutch children. This kind of motif carries over into later cartoons too, and I don't know why. The rhymes aren't Dutch in origin. I wonder if there was some popular illustrated collection at the time and they were referencing those pictures.

Mother Goose Melodies on the surface is a fairly trite, mildly amusing five minute cartoon. And yet it has a legacy in the characters, ideas, and actual animation, that continued in the decades to follow. The Silly Symphonies of the 1930s would not have been the same without it, and that's worth celebrating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

189. Tomorrow We Diet!

DIRECTOR: Jack Kinney
STORY: Milt Schaffer, Dick Kinney

George Geef (Goofy) finds he has gotten fat when his reflection calls him out on it. He spends the rest of the day trying to put himself on a diet and avoid temptation to eat.

In the 1950s, Disney's short output was diminished as the studio focused on television and reviving its feature division. Mickey Mouse and Pluto saw their last shorts for awhile in the early years of the decade, leaving only Donald Duck and Goofy with regular output. The Goofy series in the 1950s moved almost entirely away from the "how to" or sports series and evolved into a satirical look at the problems of contemporary American domestic life. These cartoons almost exclusively featured Goofy in the role of George Geef, family man ("Geef" being like "Goof" with different vowels).

There are many differences in the Geef years compared to the earlier shorts, and some of the elements from these cartoons eventually made their way into the Goof Troop television series. George sometimes doesn't have the traditional Goofy voice of Pinto Colvig. His design also often makes him look more like a white american, with his body sometimes not being painted black the way it used to be. Sometimes he loses his dog ears for a more humanoid "haircut" look. These design changes are not consistent from short to short, but sometimes I like to think that Geef looks more "human" in the cartoons that focus on very everyday human problems. Then again, it's probably just due to different directors and animators.

"Tomorrow We Diet!" is one such short where Geef looks very human, though cartoonishly fat. There's something a little weird about seeing Goofy fat, since he's always been tall and gangly. This is also one in which George Geef has a different voice than the typical Goofy sound.

The story here seems just as relevant today as it did in 1951. All over the news we hear people bemoaning how obese Americans have become and what we can do about it. This short takes a fun look at the perils of being fat and not wanting to be. I've been fat since I was a kid, so I've always liked this one.

The story opens when Geef's reflection talks back at him. This is a pretty standard cartoon device, but I think it is used nicely here. I always laugh at his opening line, "Hello, Fat!" As the short goes on, they play more with the rules of the reflection and I love that he's just another guy who lives on the other side of the mirror. He stays there even when George isn't home, almost like a roommate. We see him cleaning the mirror as if it were his own window before George walks in.

There is an assortment of broad gags revolving around how fat George is. Making a suit from the awning outside the tailor shop is amusing, and the chairs buckle under him. All these things are typical "make fun of fat people" jokes. But the key to the sequence is the button: George denies he's fat during all of this and only believes it when one of those fortune-teller scales calls him fat. He won't believe people, the world around him, or his own reflection, but as soon as this machine for superstitious amusement says so, he thinks "I must be getting fat!" I think the cartoon gets away with the easier cheap jokes because of that. Besides, there are also other clever visual ideas in the rest of the cartoon, like how he's not "fit as a fiddle", but rather resembles a double bass.

Then we get to the meat of the cartoon (so to speak) with the focus on his fat being due to his overeating. There's a moment when faced with a carrot, he turns into a rabbit. Indeed, I have similar feelings about "rabbit food". The "get the behind me, salami!" is great too. Then we get a look at all the food elements of his home decor. Why do people decorate their homes like this? There are normal elements (a grape motif on a wall sconce, the fish on the wall), then the slightly weird like how his chair has a fruit pattern. Even that is a bit believable, but then we start to get to a point where I'm not sure his house really looks like this or he's just cracking up. That point comes when I see his drapes are a pattern of cold cuts! I like the build-up of these sequence. Also note the magazine he looks through is photo-real. It's not something they do a lot in Disney cartoons (but they do toy with it in the '50s here and there). In this case, it helps to heighten the appeal of food.

One of the most memorable elements of the short, and the one I always remembered as a kid, was the "Eat!" chanting. It begins with this mysterious voice telling George to "eeeeeat!" The vocal is really nice, with just the right amount of reverb. But as it goes on, it becomes this fun almost robotic "beep boop" kind of voice repeating the word in various tones, almost like car horns. Somehow, I always find it hilarious. It's also the perfect audio to match the visual of all the late night signs advertising eateries.

The structure of the second half is reminiscent of Donald Duck cartoons built around the notion of trying to achieve a task and being thwarted. Here, the task is to avoid eating. The resolution is a nice button on the clever notion of the reflection living in his own world: he actually eats all the food himself! It's one of those beautiful illogical ideas that only works in cartoons. And the episode closes with the familiar Goofy laugh, even though up to this point neither Geef nor his reflection has sounded anything like Goofy.

Viewed through modern eyes, the cartoon could be said to have two problems. One could argue it promotes anorexia, by arguing you should just stop eating. But people should understand this is a cartoon and is being broad to make a point in a short amount of time. I think if this one were made today, it would also be accused of fat-shaming or downright bullying. The reflection constantly refers to George as "fat" or by some other mean nickname. He almost seems to get perverse pleasure out of making George touch his toes and acknowledge his problem. Again, it's a cartoon and I think it gets away with it. I think at its core, it's not picking on all fat people, but addressing this specific person who used to be fit but has problems now through gross overeating. This is not to say everyone is fat because they eat too much. But it was an attempt to shine a light on Americans overdoing it in their diet, because food is awesome. There really isn't even exactly a resolution to the issue; just that the reflection guy is going to prevent George from eating. This cartoon was part of a series of these that focused on the addictions of middle class Americans (other cartoons were made about smoking and gambling). So in this case, focusing on an addiction to food, the intent wasn't to shame fat people into eating disorders, but to shine a light on habit-breaking. It's still relevant today, even if its tactics.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Disney to release animated shorts collection on blu-ray and DVD

I just read that Disney is releasing a new collection of shorts to DVD in a few weeks. Apart from the recent successes like Paperman and Feast, which have been available on other discs, we'll also get the new Frozen Fever, Tangled Ever After and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater which to date had only been available on a Have a Laugh! collection.

But the most interesting news to me is two others that this collection will include: Tick Tock Tale and Lorenzo. I know literally nothing about Tick Tock Tale other than that it exists. No footage exists on YouTube, and I don't think it ever got a wide release. Lorenzo was theatrically released years ago with the movie Stepmom, but it has never been released to home media and so I've only seen brief trailer footage online. These two were among the 4 or 5 shorts that I've been unable to view for this project, and now that's going to change!

I'm so happy to finally see an official release for some of these, and to see others collected in one place for easier reference. I now have to think about whether to amend my ranking to include them, or whether to just do specialty essays on them later. But if there are any readers out there, I'm glad to share this news with you!

Monday, August 10, 2015

190. Figaro and Cleo

SERIES: Figaro (sort of)

After the release of Pinocchio in 1940, Disney had several breakout stars in the supporting cast. The most prominent is Jiminy Cricket, who would not only go on to serve as narrator and guide in the feature Fun and Fancy Free, but also became a regular feature of The Mickey Mouse Club. He got two regular educational segments of his own, "I'm No Fool" and "The Human Animal". But the other Pinocchio character whose success with audiences prompted his own series was Figaro the cat.

There's no denying Figaro represented a culmination of cat animation for the studio. Figaro is a fully-realized character with his own behaviors and spunky personality, yet he also has distinctly recognizable feline characteristics. It's easy to see Figaro as a further development of the cats from Three Little Kittens and its sequel. So I suppose it was inevitable that Figaro would get his own series.

This first official Figaro cartoon pairs him with another Pinocchio costar, Cleo the fish. Cleo serves as a nice foil for Figaro because while they are sort of friendly, Figaro also can't always deny the temptation to eat her. We call this short "Figaro and Cleo" even though technically that's not the onscreen title. Only the characters' names appear onscreen. I do not know the reason why this is. I think this one was also perhaps meant to be a one-off, even though we count it as the first in the Figaro series. Later Figaro cartoons would have him in the "starburst" opening as the star.

As I mentioned, it's natural to look at this cartoon as a further development from Three Little Kittens. There are more moments of feline mischief, such as Figaro getting tangled up chasing a ball of yarn. There is also a black "mammy" antagonist, as in those shorts. Sadly, this is the thing which most dates this cartoon and the racial undertones can be uncomfortable. Not just the dialect, but the fact that she seems to be bad at her job by sweeping dirt under the rug, something Snow White reminded us not to do in 1937. It would not surprise me in the least if Figaro and Cleo was made in response to Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry series. Tom and Jerry also used to feature a mammy archetype named Mammy Two-Shoes. Later Figaro shorts do away with the mammy character altogether, usually putting Figaro in the care of Minnie Mouse which seems to work better.

There are wonderful moments of feline behavior here, in which Figaro oscillates between panic and playfulness. There's some great animation when Figaro jumps on the broom and finds himself enjoying the ride as it sweeps back and forth, only to fall off. Or when the mammy points her finger at him to scold him, Figaro takes it as a game and swats at it playfully. These moments of observational animation are what defined the work of the Disney studio at its height. Figaro also has characteristics of a child, which makes him relatable. He goes quickly from playing to pouting.

I like the music a lot in this short as well. Figaro gets a bouncy little theme song that's a lot of fun to sing. Though the lyric would lose relevance in other shorts, the melody would remain as his theme music. I also like the little gospel tune the maid sings. Maybe its a racist caricature, but I still like the song, and I like to sing it when I sweep.

Tying a cat's tail to a chair is not cool. Don't do that at home, kids! Real cats are not like cartoons!

My favorite line is when she says, "You is a cat, not a catfish!" I don't know why, but it's funny to me every time.

Some of the business with the cat and mouse (cat and fish?) games also seems to ultimately lead to Lucifer in Cinderella. Figaro is a kitten and more fun than Lucifer, but some of the gags here where happenstance brings Figaro to his quarry reminded me of Lucifer chasing Gus in the tea cups and some of the other moments from that film. The studio came to be very good at doing cats.

In the end, Figaro and Cleo make up and he decides not to eat her. He gets himself almost drowned in the attempt, and when he chooses to leave her alone he is rewarded with milk. Mammy then tells him, "that's the trouble with the world today, folk won't live and let live. In this house, we'll have peace." I wonder, is this the moral of the whole cartoon? Given the time this was made, it makes me wonder if Figaro and Cleo was meant to be a wartime propaganda cartoon in the same way Chicken Little was. Is it a plea for the nations of the world to put down their arms and respect each other? In 1943, the studio was making many war-related cartoons with its stars, and the specialty ones usually had some kind of war-related theme or moral. This leaves me to wonder if Figaro and Cleo was actually designed as a parable pleading for world peace; a kind of spiritual successor to Ferdinand the Bull. If so, are we meant to take it as allegorical? Does Figaro represent Germany? He gets a good scolding and told he only gets fed when he stops misbehaving and leaves others alone. Sounds a lot like what happened at the end of World War I to me. Then again, perhaps it's not so black and white as that. Maybe it's not all-out propaganda. But there does seem to be an underlying message to the contemporary world: don't hurt others out of your selfish desires; we should all get along peacefully.

Both Figaro and Cleo would appear again in later cartoons. Figaro would go on to two more starring roles, as well as several supporting appearances with Pluto. As Figaro is generally paired with Minnie Mouse in later appearances, this first short is a bit of an outlier. But it demonstrated the character had a life outside of Pinocchio, and it reminded us all to try to live peaceably with each other.