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Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

Watch the original trailer for ‘Dumbo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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Directors: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: February 7, 1940
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Pinocchio © Walt Disney‘Pinocchio’ was Walt Disney’s long awaited successor to his hugely successfully first animated feature ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Its release was beaten by Max Fleischer’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, making ‘Pinocchio’ the third animated feature made in the United States.

In many ways ‘Pinocchio’ is a much darker affair than both earlier films. In fact, in many ways the feature is Disney’s darkest film, not only due to its deep oil canvases, but also because none of its villains are punished.

The film starts merrily enough, though, and the first 26 minutes take place in the cozy home of gentle woodcarver Geppetto, where his countless original cuckoo clocks, based on drawings by Albert Hurter, provide a lovely background. But as soon as Pinocchio leaves his house troubles start, and his predicaments go from bad to worse. And perhaps Geppetto might have known. I’ve always thought it strange to let the boy go to school on his own on his very first day of existence…

The dark atmosphere the film of course shares with the original book by Carlo Collodi from 1882, with which it also shares its episodic character. But Disney made the character entirely his own. Pinocchio’s design is cute and childlike, not the gaunt wooden puppet of many earlier illustrations of the book. This child-like design was developed by Milt Kahl, and surpassed an earlier, less appealing design by Fred Moore. This incidentally marked the start of the latter animator’s demise. Where Collodi’s Pinocchio was an obnoxious rascal, made out of some stubborn wood, Disney’s Pinocchio is a tabula rasa, an innocent child not yet corrupted by society. Indeed, the fairy’s task, to let his conscience be his guide, is seriously tested once Pinocchio enters the real world.

Pinocchio’s conscience is personified by Jiminy Cricket, a Disney invention based on a minor character from the book, which in the original all too soon is smacked against the wall. Jiminy Cricket is spared that fate, however, and in many ways is even made the main protagonist of the film. This little insect, developed and predominantly animated by Ward Kimball, is far less recognizable as an insect than the grasshopper had been in ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ (1934). Jiminy looks more like a tiny man, with his antenna looking more like two hairs. This design would resurface in that of Bootle Beetle, introduced in 1947.

It’s Jiminy Cricket who sings the famous opening tune, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, which leads us to the little cricket himself, who introduces us to the story, as he opens the book for us, and we literally hop with him to Geppetto’s toy shop. He’s voiced by Cliff Edwards, who in the 1920s enjoyed a famous career as ‘Ukelele Ike’, but whose career since then had been in a steady decline. ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ alone ensured him eternal fame, and the lovely tune would become Walt Disney’s signature tune from then on. Edwards gave the little insect cheerful lines, and rather modern remarks that makes us connect to the otherwise otherworldly story. Jiminy Cricket also shows a rather mundane interest in dames. He’s not only clearly impressed by the blue fairy, who indeed looks like a glamorous Hollywood girl, but also in the French can can dancing puppets who share the stage with Pinocchio in Stromboli’s theater. Jiminy Cricket surely is a lovable character, and it’s hardly surprising that he was reused again in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ to bridge that film’s two stories, even though he seems quite out of place there.

Apart from Jiminy, the film is stuffed with great characters, most notably the cute kitten Figaro and his female goldfish companion, Cleo, also two Disney originals. Cleo is the direct ancestor of the sexy fish in the Arabian Dance of the Nutcracker Suite-sequence in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). They, too, would return to the screen in a short called ‘Figaro and Cleo’ (1943), after which Figaro was coupled to Pluto to star three more cartoons. ‘Pinocchio’ remained unique in this spawning of shorts, with ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) being the first Disney feature to do the same.

The villains, too, are delightful. The first rogues Pinocchio encounters are the petty criminals Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat. Norm Ferguson and John Lounsberry animate the duo with gusto, and the interplay between fox and cat is full of delightful classic vaudeville routines. More evil than those is the explosive puppeteer Stromboli, whose temper matches his name, taken after the Italian volcano. Stromboli is animated by Bill Tytla, and in a way he’s a variation on Grumpy in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Like Art Babbit’s Geppetto, he’s halfway cartoon and realism, showing the animator’s grown confidence with the human form, and like Ferguson’s Fox and Cat, his moves are broad and theatrical, and they have a charming quality despite the menace.

Not so with the fourth criminal, the sinister coachman. His menace is downplayed, except from one frightening outburst, making him all the scarier. The coachman takes Pinocchio to pleasure island, where things turn very dark indeed. In many ways the pleasure island episode forms the abyss of an already pretty dark film. On the ride to the isle Pinocchio immediately befriends Lampwick, delightfully animated by Fred Moore, who may be naughty, but who remains sympathetic throughout. His metamorphosis into a donkey is therefore a moment of genuine horror, and like the one metamorphosis scene in Snow White absolutely the scariest moment in the entire movie.

Pinocchio manages to escape Pleasure Island, and even manages to return home, only to find it empty, and even covered by cobwebs, as if he had been gone for months. This is very incongruous, as he had only been away for two days… Anyway, in a rather deus ex machina-like scene a dove delivers our heroes a letter stating that while looking for Pinocchio Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale. This weak story device is luckily easily forgotten, for this leads to the first moment in which Pinocchio takes matters in his own hand, bravely jumping into the sea without any reluctance. The subsequent sea scenes form the second incongruity in the film: we watch Pinocchio wander with ease on the sea floor, but his sea adventures end with his drowning…

At sea, Pinocchio meets his final adversary, that tour-the-force of villainy, Monstro. In the original book the puppet got swallowed by a shark, but the Disney studio made it into a very large whale. Like the whale in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Whalers’ (1938), which by all means looks like a study for this film, Monstro is a strange combination of a sperm whale and a finback, blown up to really gargantuan proportions. This leviathan is able to devour complete ships and shoals of tuna. It’s admirable that the film manages to feature both such a tiny character as Jiminy and this giant whale. Monstro absolutely dominates every scene in which he’s in, and his moves, by Woollie Reitherman, are a stunning effort of animation of force and weight, greatly helped by a multitude of effects animation. In any case Monstro’s chase of our heroes accounts for a stunning finale, crowning the already breathtaking film.

The abundance of effect animation give ‘Pinocchio’ a stunning look anyhow. For example, all characters are airbrushed with lovely shadings, the blue fairy is strangely translucent, and there are great water effects during Pinocchio’s walk on the sea floor. All these extras give the film an extra luxuriant look, only matched by the Silly Symphony ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ (1939) and by ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

The staging, too, is often no less than stunning. Especially Pinocchio’s village are given two extraordinary bird eye’s view pan shots, based on designs by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren: the first starts with doves flying from a bell tower, which leads us to an elaborate shot through the village, showing it to be full of life. The second follows Honest John and Gideon leading Pinocchio to a career in the theater, on the delightful tune of Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee. Jiminy Cricket’s small size also accounts for some very original settings, like the detailed billiard table. All these settings were painted in rich oil canvases, which replaced the lighter water color backgrounds of ‘Snow White’.

Apart from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’, the film features two other delightful songs, all composed by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington: ‘Give A Little Whistle’, and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’. However, when events turn dark, the songs disappear from the screen.

When compared to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Pinocchio’ is easily the better film. Unfortunately, like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ ‘Pinocchio’ suffered from an unfavorable comparison to ‘Snow White’ and from the cut of the European market due to World War II. Thus the film was far less successful at the box office than hoped. ‘Pinocchio’ had cost the studio 2,6 million dollars, and by the spring of 1940 the studio was no less than $4,5 million in debt. This prompted the Disney brothers to go to the stock market. This was a successful move, and allowed the Disney studio to complete and distribute ‘Fantasia’. However, it also marked the end of an era, and when ‘Fantasia’ too, proved to be a financial disappointment, it was clear that Disney’s golden days were over. In that respect, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ form the crowning achievements of a stunning career that had begun so humbly with ‘Plane Crazy’ twelve years before.

Watch ‘Pinocchio’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: July 29, 1938
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, cameos by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Fox Hunt (1938) © Walt Disney‘The Fox Hunt’ is the second entry in the Donald & Goofy mini-series. In fact, Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cluck are also present, but only shortly, and first only as shadows.

Donald gets most of the screen time, devoted to his antics with five unruly bloodhounds and a sly fox. Goofy gets only one scene, in which his horse refuses to jump. This part shows a novelty: when we watch Goofy and his horse being under water, we’re watching a new technique involving distortion glasses to make the water more convincing. This technique would become very important in the elaborate ocean scenes in Disney’s second feature film ‘Pinocchio‘ (1940), for which these few seconds are only the try-out.

‘The Fox Hunt’ clearly borrows from the early Silly Symhony of the same name. The Donald and Goofy version copies the shot with the hunters being shadows in the distance, and the end gag with the skunk. The Donald and Goofy cartoons were not among Disney’s best, and ‘The Fox Hunt’, too, is only average.

‘The Fox Hunt’ was the last short directed by Ben Sharpsteen, and like Jack King, he favors an all too relaxed timing in this short, hampering the comedy. Sharpsteen had already been a sequence director for ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and for ‘Pinocchio’ he was promoted to supervising director. From now on he would work on feature films, solely, until the early 1950s, when he moved on to True-Life adventures.

Carl Barks, who was a story man at the time this short was made, revisited the fox hunting theme in his 1948 comic ‘Foxy Relations’, which is much funnier than this film.

Watch ‘The Fox Hunt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fox Hunt’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: June 17, 1938
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Polar Trappers © Walt Disney‘Polar Trappers’ is the first of six cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Goofy.

This mini-series, which lasted until 1947, is much less well-known than the trio-cartoons of the 1930s, and rightly so, for these cartoons are okay at best, and never reach the classic heights of a ‘Clock Cleaners’ (1937) or ‘Mickey’s Trailer’ (1938).

One of the problems of these shorts is that the studio never really succeeded in making comedy out of interaction between these two characters. Without the bridging Mickey, it was in fact, rather unclear why the two very different characters were actually together.

In ‘Polar Trappers’ Donald Duck and Goofy don’t share any screen time until the very end. This cartoon incongruously places them on some unknown expedition in the Antarctic. Apparently they want to catch walruses, but even Goofy has no clue why, as he sings in his opening scene.

Meanwhile Donald Duck is tired of cooking beans. He’d rather eat penguin meat, so he dresses like a penguin and tries to lure a population of penguins, much like the pied piper. This march of the penguins accounts for some beautiful shots, most notably one in which the penguins cast large shadows across the screen. The penguins’ design come straight from the Silly Symphony ‘Peculiar Penguins‘ (1934).

Donald’s evil plan is stopped by one tear of a little penguin he had sent away. This tear grows into a huge snowball, destroying the duo’s camp.

Shortly after this film’s release (August 15-27, 1938) Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip drew inspiration from the same material, but now without Goofy.

Watch ‘Polar Trappers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Polar Trappers’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

 

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: January 9, 1937
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Don Donald © Walt DisneyAfter co-starring with Pluto in ‘Donald and Pluto‘ (1936), Donald really comes to his own in ‘Don Donald’. In this cartoon he only shares screen time with a new character, Donna Duck, a predecessor of Daisy with a temper that matches Donald’s own. 

In this film, we watch Donald in a Mexican setting featuring a surprisingly Krazy Kat-like palm in the background. He wears a large sombrero and tries to woo Donna, but his donkey spoils his efforts. Donald trades his donkey for a car (the small red car we would become so familiar with). The car makes a deep impression on Donna, and both go for a ride.

The animation of the car ride is a great showcase of animation of speed, while the hilarious sequence in which Donald tries to restart the motor again is a wonderful example of rubbery animation. The film ends marvelously, when Donna produces a unicycle out of her handbag and rides off into the distance. But the whole film is one of sheer delight and one of the classics of the 1930s.

Despite Mickey’s absence, ‘Don Donald’ is still part of the Mickey Mouse series. Only with ‘Donald’s Ostrich‘ from December 1937 Donald would get his own series.

Watch ‘Don Donald’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 91
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Worm Turns
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Magician Mickey

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: September 12, 1936
Stars: Donald Duck, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Donald and Pluto © Walt DisneyWhile Donald is plumbing, Pluto accidentally swallows a magnet, attracting all kinds of metallic objects, like his dish, a pendulum, a watch and eventually Donald’s monkey-wrench.

This short features elaborate gags based on character animation, surely building to a grand finale. One can admire the inevitable ‘logic’ of the film, yet the result is only mildly funny, and neither one of Donald’s or Pluto’s best films.

Although advertised as a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in ‘Donald and Pluto’ Mickey Mouse is not present at all. On the contrary, for both Donald and Pluto this is their first cartoon without Mickey (if we disregard the Silly Symphonies ‘Just Dogs‘ from 1932 and ‘The Wise Little Hen‘  from 1934). After getting more and longer sequences of their own within the Mickey Mouse series, this step was inevitable.

Pluto had come a long way, sharing five years and 33 films with Mickey before standing on his own, but Donald received his independence already within two years, after only twelve films with Mickey.

Both Pluto and Donald would get their own series in 1937. They would appear together in five more films, all within Donald’s series: ‘Beach Picnic‘ (1939), ‘Donald’s Dog Laundry‘, ‘Put-Put Troubles‘, ‘Window Cleaners‘ (all 1940) and finally ‘The Eyes Have It’ (1945).

Watch ‘Donald and Pluto’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 88
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Circus
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Elephant

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: August 1, 1936
Stars: Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Orphan Mice, the Little Seal
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mickey's Circus © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Circus’ we watch Mickey and Donald perform in a circus for a pack of orphan mice.

Most of the time goes to Donald and his trained seals. Only after six minutes Mickey joins in again, struggling with Donald on the slack-rope, while being troubled by the orphan mice.

‘Mickey’s Circus’ was the last cartoon to feature the Orphan Mice (apart from the remake of ‘Orphan’s Benefit from 1941), until their unexpected return in ‘Pluto’s party‘ from 1952. It’s also the first Disney short featuring a cute little seal. Similar seals would reappear in ‘Pluto’s Playmate‘ (1941), ‘Rescue Dog‘ (1947) and ‘Mickey and the Seal‘ (1948).

Watch ‘Mickey’s Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 87
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Alpine Climbers
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Donald and Pluto

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date:
 June 20, 1936
Stars:
 Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pete
Rating:
  ★★★½
Review:

Moving Day © Walt DisneyBecause Mickey, Donald and Goofy can’t pay the rent, evil sheriff Pete will sell their furniture. The boys decide to move before that’s going to happen…

‘Moving Day’ is the this third of the classic trio cartoons featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy. In this entry Mickey is hardly visible. Most of the cartoon is taken by his co-stars in two all too elaborate sequences: one featuring Goofy in a surreal struggle with a piano with a will of its own, and another featuring Donald’s trouble with a plunger and a fishbowl.

Despite the great animation, one gets the feeling that in this cartoon the artists were too much obsessed with character and less with gags, making this cartoon a bit slow and tiresome, when compared to the previous trio outings ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ and ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ from 1935. Luckily, in later trio shorts like ‘Moose Hunters’ or ‘Hawaiian Holiday’, the fast pace was found again.

‘Moving Day’ is the first cartoon to feature Pete in color. It was also the last of only three cartoons in which Art Babbitt animated Goofy. After he had done so much for the character in ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ and ‘On Ice‘, one can say that in ‘Moving Day’ he went a little too far in milking the goof’s scenes. Anyhow, Babbitt went over to feature films, but after these three shorts Goofy’s character was established well enough for others to take over with equally inspired results.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 85
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Rival
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Alpine Climbers

Director: Wilfred Jackson & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: January 23, 1942
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The New Spirit © Walt DisneyWhen the United States were forced into the war themselves, the government asked Disney to make a short to make the American citizens fill in their income tax forms in time. Disney gave them his biggest star of that time, Donald Duck, to play the everyman. The government was not impressed until the taxes came rolling in after the film was screened in cinemas.

In contrast to Disney’s earlier propaganda films for the Canadian government, this film uses entirely new animation, directed by Wilfred Jackson, and produced in the ridiculously short time period of a single month.

The short opens with Donald dancing to the energetic title song, which is sung by Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio‘ (1940). The song is played on a slightly anthropomorphised radio. The radio then asks Donald if he wants to do his part for the country and Donald is growing more and more enthusiastic, until the radio reveals he has to pay his income tax. The radio has to persuade Donald once again, who grows enthusiastic again to the strong slogan ‘Taxes to beat the axis’ (with the axis referring to the Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Japan).

The film further explains the public how to fill in a new, simplified form, using an anthropomorphized pen, bottle of ink and blotter. Like the shorts Disney made earlier for the Canadian government (e.g. ‘The Thrifty Pig‘ and ‘7 Wise Dwarfs‘), the second half (directed by Ben Sharpsteen) consists of very limited and highly propagandistic animation with grim images of factories, guns, planes, war ships and tanks, while an intense narrator repeats the intoxicating mantra of ‘taxes to beat the axis’.

When he comes to the propagandist climax, the sentence “to beat to earth the evil destroyer of freedom and piece”, we watch a horrifying towering monster-like machine depicting the Nazi aggressor. This mechanical monster is defeated and makes place for a patriotic end shot with clouds resembling the American flag, tanks and guns rolling and planes flying accompanied by a heroic hymn, while the narrator tells us that “this is our fight”.

It’s important to note that the film goes at lengths to dehumanize the enemy. The average tax payer was not to help to kill people, but to destroy “the enemy”, in this case a vague mechanical monster. Succeeding propaganda films often eschewed the idea that making war is killing people, with the propaganda feature ‘Victory through Air Power’ (1943) being the prime example.

In case of “The New Spirit”, propaganda rarely was so obvious, but it works: after watching the picture I had its slogan in my head for days. Indeed, the film was so successful, that it got a follow-up the next year: ‘The Spirit of ’43‘.

Watch ‘The New Spirit’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: July 21, 1942
Stars: The Three Little Pigs (in a cameo)
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Food Will Win the War © Walt DisneyArguably the most ridiculous of all war time propaganda cartoons, ‘Food Will Win the War’ tells us about the successes of American agriculture.

A bombastic narrator makes all kinds of outrageous comparisons to illustrate the farmer’s huge production. Examples are baking all fruits of America into one big pie or frying all America’s meat on four Vesuvius volcanoes. The result is so absurd and its message so out to lunch that the short is actually great fun to watch.

Throughout the cartoon the animation is very limited, almost absent. The limited animation gives the short a poster-like quality. Full animation is limited to four short sequences:

1) a bowling ball bowling down skittles which resemble Hitler, Mussolini and a Japanese general
2) a giant pie thrown at the earth
3) Chickens laying eggs
4) The three little pigs leading an army of pigs.

‘Food Will Win the War’ was the last animated short directed by Ben Sharpsteen. In the 1940s he had moved more and more towards production. He would supervise the production of a.o. ‘Fun and Fancy Free‘ (1947), ‘Cinderella‘ (1950) and ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ (1951) before moving to live action, working on Disney’s True-Life Adventures (1948-1960). He retired in 1962.

Watch ‘Food Will Win the War’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: May 25, 1935
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Cookie Carnival © Walt DisneyOf all Silly Symphonies this one is particularly silly. The very idea of a cookie land is as original as it is looney.

Yet, the cartoon is literally sugary, not funny. The story, about a Charlie Chaplin-like tramp (voiced by Pinto Colvig) making a poor lonesome girl queen of the parade, is pure sentimental melodrama. Moreover, the characters speak in operetta-like recitatives and when the girl, having become queen, has to choose a king the cartoon shifts to a tiresome medley of song-and-dance-routines.

Nevertheless, the art direction of this Silly Symphony is stunning and its backgrounds lush and beautiful, making this one of the most impressive cartoons of the era. The girl is quite beautifully animated by Gram Natwick, the man who had created Betty Boop five years earlier, and who had joined Disney in 1934. After her transformation into a carnival queen, the girl doesn’t resemble a cookie at all, but she is pictured and animated as a real girl. Natwick would later be an animator on Snow White in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and it’s as if the cookie girl was Natwick’s exercise for the real thing.

Notice the contrast between the sissy Angelic Cakes and the fun-loving Devil Cakes, whose theme music is jazz (the most ‘evil’ music of the era).

Watch ‘The Cookie Carnival’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 53
To the previous Silly Symphony: Water Babies
To the next Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: September 28, 1935
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

On Ice © Walt DisneyOn Ice is the first of Disney’s ‘ensemble cartoons’.

Everyone is in it: Mickey, Minnie (in her color debut), Donald, Goofy, Pluto and even, albeit very briefly, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. ‘On Ice’ introduces two story ideas that would be used again much later: Pluto’s problems on ice in ‘Bambi’ (1942) and the idea of skating near a waterfall in the ‘Once upon a Wintertime’ sequence of ‘Melody Time’ (1948), although this latter idea first appears in the Popeye cartoon ‘Season’s Greetinks!‘ from 1933.

Apart from this, ‘On Ice’ has been very important in the development of Goofy. He’s been completely restyled, has more body to his looks and a much more distinct personality. All these important improvements on the character are attributed to Art Babbitt, one of the greatest animators of all time. Goofy sings ‘The world owes me a living’ from ‘The grasshopper and the ants’ (1934). The song naturally becomes his theme song. No wonder, for the grasshopper and Goofy share the same voice: that of Pinto Colvig. Also of note is Goofy’s original fishing style, using chew to catch fish.

Watch ‘On Ice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 79
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Pluto’s Judgement Day
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Polo Team

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: August 3, 1935
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Fire Brigade © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ is the second of the classic trio cartoons featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and the first of its kind in color.

When one compares this cartoon to the similar ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, one can see what stunning progress the Disney studio had made in a mere five years: the backgrounds, the camera angles, the character animation, the effect animation: everything has improved considerably.

What’s more, its gags are faster, more clever and better constructed, and they build up to a wonderful finale. Among the numerous brilliant ideas are a burning title card, water splashing against ‘the camera’ and a bathing Clarabelle Cow who is not amused when saved by our heroes.

This cartoon is both Goofy’s first color appearance as the last time he’s seen in the design he got in ‘The Whoopee Party’ about three years before. In this film he’s got a particularly goofy cuckoo theme song, while some of the anthropomorphized flames play ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ from ‘Three Little Pigs‘ on the piano.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 77
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Garden
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Pluto’s Judgement Day

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: January 2, 1937
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pete, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Worm Turns © Walt DisneyIn the opening shot of ‘The Worm Turns’ we watch Mickey looking like an evil scientist, working on a potion that can give courage and power.

He tries it on a fly caught in a spiderweb, on a mouse (the two different designs of mice in this film, with one being twenty times larger, is quite confusing!) who is the victim of a cat, on the cat, who’s chased by Pluto, and on Pluto, who’s threatened by evil dog catcher Pete.

The animation of the opening sequence is quite stunning, but the whole short fails to get funny. Hanna and Barbera would revisit the same idea in the similar ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse‘ (1947) with much better results.

Watch ‘The Worm Turns’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 90
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Elephant
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Don Donald

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