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Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 19, 1932
Rating:★★★
Review:

Babes in the Woods © Walt Disney‘Babes in the woods’ is a free adaptation of the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

In Disney’s version the two lost children encounter some merry dwarfs before they meet the witch. The witch takes them for a ride on her flying broom to her gingerbread house.

Once inside the witch’s abode the cartoon takes a nightmarish turn. in the dark and gloomy inside the witch reveals she turns little children in newts, rats, spiders and bats. We watch the with turn a cat into stone, which immediately falls down and brakes. Then she turns the boy into a spider. When she wants to turn the girl into a rat, she’s interrupted by the dwarfs, who have come to the rescue. While she’s fleeing for the squadrons of gnomes firing arrows at her, the girl discovers a potion to turn the spider and all other animals present in the witches house into children again. In the end the witch is turned into stone by falling into her own potion.

This re-telling of Grimm’s classic tale introduces some story ideas that made it into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ five years later: there’s a scary forest with trees looking like monsters and there are of course the witch and the dwarfs. Indeed, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for most of the looks of both this Silly Symphony as one of the chief designers for Disney’s first feature.

The storytelling is economical, with a lot happening in the mere seven minutes. As soon as the witch enters the scene, the action is relentless. The pretty scary scene inside the Witch’s house is particularly gripping. The short also contains a small dance routine, reminiscent of, but a great improvement on ‘The Merry Dwarfs‘ from 1929. The children’s designs of this particular film became stock designs in most studios in the rest of the 1930’s, in which more and more films would take a childish character, anyway.

With ‘Babes in the Woods’ embarked on a series of Silly Symphonies that were adaptations of familiar fairy tales and fables. Other examples are ‘Three Little Pigs‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ from 1933, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ from 1934 and ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ from 1935.

‘Babes in the Woods’ is a stunning tour-de-force for 1932, but four days before its release Disney had started its first in-house art class, hosted by Don Graham. With these twice-weekly art classes Disney’s animators got better and better, and all subsequent Disney films clearly show that, with the Silly Symphonies in particular showing an enormous growth during the rest of the 1930’s.

One trivial remark: Hansel and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes typical for some Dutch fishing-villages. However, the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European). Talking about being lost!

Watch ‘Babes in the Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 32
To the previous Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love
To the next Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop

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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 12, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Dizzy Red Riding Hood © Max FleischerFollowing Van Beuren’s ‘Red Riding Hood‘ earlier that year, the Fleischer’s did there own take on Perrault’s famous fairy tale.

In this short Betty Boop is a particularly sexy Little Red Riding Hood. Bimbo wants to accompany her on her journey, but she rejects him twice. Nevertheless he follows her secretly. He disposes of the wolf first, reaping its skin off to disguise himself as the wolf to win Betty over.

This short simply bubbles over with surrealism and strange animation cycles. The cartoon is brought as a children’s story, but rarely did a cartoon have such strong sexual content. The best part in that respect is a close-up of Betty Boop’s legs, while her garment falls off several times.

The original mix of sex and surrealism makes ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ a highlight of the pre-code era, and it certainly deserves to be seen.

Watch ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 5, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Jack and the Beanstalk © Max FleischerOnly three months after Van Beuren’s ‘The Family Shoe’, the Fleischer studio released their retelling of the fairy tale in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.

Despite being released after six cartoons featuring Bimbo in his final design, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ features Bimbo with his old, less memorable look. Bimbo plays the part of Jack. He is prompted to plant some magic beans, after a giant in the sky has dropped a cigar on him. The beans soon sprout into a giant beanstalk, which takes Bimbo to the clouds. There he discovers Betty Boop, who’s the giant’s prisoner, making pea soup for him. Bimbo ties the giant and flees with Betty on the magic hen, which changes into a car when hitting the road. But an obnoxious mouse releases the giant who follows them using cars as roller-skates.

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is a very enjoyable, but weird and highly surreal version of the classic tale. It was the last Talkartoon to feature Betty Boop with dog ears. In all her subsequent films she would be fully human.

The short features ‘Sweepin’ The Clouds Away’ as its theme song, which had been a huge hit for Maurice Chevalier in 1930. Two years later Disney would visit similar grounds in ‘Giantland‘, which is, as you may expect, way less surreal, but much better animated.

Watch ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 29
To the previous Talkartoon: Mask-a-Raid
To the next Talkartoon: Dizzy Red Riding Hood

‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Directors: John Foster & Mannie Davis
Release Date:
 September 14, 1931
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Family Shoe © Van BeurenBy 1931, Van Beuren’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ had become the studio’s answer to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, being the first studio clearly trying to copy Disney’s format (Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were only variations on the Silly Symphonies in name, being very different otherwise).

Given the studio’s animation output up to 1931, ‘The Family Shoe’ is a remarkably consistent and forward-looking product. With its consistent storytelling ‘The Family Shoe’ actually predates Walt Disney’s breakthrough short ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ by three months.

Merging the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe with the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk, the film anticipates Mickey’s ‘Giantland’ (1933) by two years, and the cute and childish cartoons of the Hays code era by three years. Also, the opening scenes, with hundreds of brats running around and causing mischief predate similar scenes in Walt Disney’s ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (December 1931) and ‘Mickey Nightmare’ (1932).

The cartoon retells the story of Jack and the beanstalk quite faithfully, and the cartoon may be a little low on gags. Yet, there are some typical Van Beuren throwaways present, like the bean planting itself, and the ending, in which the golden eggs transform the old lady into a classy aristocrat overnight.

Van Beuren is often described as merely an also-run studio, but this short shows that at least in 1931 it was more ambitious and more capable than one would expect.

Watch ‘The Family Shoe’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Family Shoe’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release date: October 13, 1956
Stars: Sylvester, Elmer Fudd
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Yankee Dood It © Warner Brothers‘Yankee Dood It’ was the last of three propaganda cartoons Friz Freleng directed for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, following the earlier ‘By Word of Mouse‘ (1954) and ‘Heir-Conditioned‘ (1955).

This cartoon is an original take on the famous fable of the shoemaker and the elves. Elve company W is missing, and elven king (Elmer Fudd but smaller and wih pointed ears) is wondering where they are. They turn out to be still helping the old shoemaker.

In order to get the elves back, a little elf and the king tell the old shoemaker how companies work, thus telling the short’s propagandistic message. Unfortunately, the shoemaker’s exclamations of ‘Dear Jehosapath’ turn the elves into mice, much to delight of the cat Sylvester (who appears in all three of these shorts).

‘Yankee Dood It’ is a nice, if rather slow propaganda short that only sees advantages of the capitalistic system: lower prices and higher wages. Possible drawbacks like poverty, monopolization, unemployment and pollution are, of course, wisely left out.

Watch ‘Yankee Dood It’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Paul Grimault
Release Date: 1947
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Le petit soldat © Paul GrimaultOne of the most poetic animation films ever made, ‘le petit soldat’ is a very inspired re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale of the steadfast tin soldier.

In this version, written by poet Jacques Prévert and undoubtedly inspired by the recent experiences of World War II, the soldier is actually an acrobat doll who gets drafted by a humming-top into an unexplained war.

In his absence, Jack-in-the-box tries to seduce his love, a ballerina doll. And when our little soldier finally returns from the battlefield, injured, Jack tries to kill him by taking his heart-shaped winding key away and by trying to drown him into an icy river. Fortunately, in a dramatic climax, the ballerina saves her love from drowning, while the villain gets stuck in a gin-trap.

‘Le petit soldat’ is entirely told in pantomime and a great improvement upon ‘La flûte magique‘, Grimault’s film from the previous year: its storytelling is better, its settings more dramatic, its characterization more convincing, and its animation more sophisticated. Indeed, this beautiful short about triumphant love arguably is Grimault’s masterpiece, even topping his beautiful, but uneven feature film ‘Le roi et l’oiseau’ (1952/1980), which is also based on a Jacques Prévert story.

Watch ‘Le petit soldat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Le petit soldat’ is available on the DVD ‘Le roi et l’oiseau’

Director: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: October 1, 1934
Rating: 
Review:

Jolly Little Elves © Walter Lantz‘Jolly Little Elves’ is the first of six Cartune Classics, Walter Lantz’s answer to Disney’s Silly Symphonies. These six cartoons were made in two color technicolor, using red and blue, and all are possible even more cloying than contemporary Silly Symphonies themselves.

‘Jolly Little Elves’, for example, is a practically humorless fairy-tale in song about a poor shoemaker and his wife who help a little elf and get all their shoes repaired by hundreds of elves in return.

The cartoon is corny, overlong and features an irritating song about dunking donuts in coffee. Also featured are two severely caricatured Jewish elves. It’s a wonder that was one of the three Academy Award nominations for 1934. Luckily it lost to Disney’s by all means superior cartoon ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’.

Sixteen years later, Tex Avery, who was an animator at Lantz at the time, would remake and make fun of ‘Jolly Little Elves’ in ‘The Peachy Cobbler’ (1950).

Watch ‘Jolly Little Elves’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Ruth Lingford
Release Date: 1997
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Death and the Mother © Ruth LingfordWhen death takes away her child, a mother gives up everything to get her back.

‘Death and the Mother’ is Ruth Lingford’s re-telling of a classic fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s an animation masterpiece: its strong and gritty animation, the beautiful string quartet music by Nigel Broadbent, the subtle sound effects –  all add up to a very strong, dark and emotional film. Lingford makes clever use of the computer to create a very graphic film that looks like an animated woodcut. In an age in which computer animation almost equals 3D animation, this is a refreshing technique, with a stark impact and an imagery unparalleled in the animation field.

Moreover, Lingford captures Andersen’s tale of grief, love and sacrifice very well, without trying to update it. Just by staying true to the essence of the original story she has made a timeless classic. Her wordless film is as universal as it can get, and capable of communicating to audiences worldwide. It’s a welcome antidote to the Disney fairy tale retellings, which get more and more watered down, and which lose a lot of the originals’ charm with it.

Watch ‘Death and the mother’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Death and the Mother’ is available on the DVD inside the book ‘Animation Now!’

Director: Olga Khodatayeva
Release Date: 1950
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Magic Windmill © Soyuzmultfilm‘The Magic Windmill’ is one of the classic fairy-tale films produced by the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

In this short an old man, a cat and a cock are having trouble to feed all the animals who seek shelter at their place. Therefore they ask the mountain god for help, who gives them a magical little windmill, which produces endless amounts of breads out of of a few grains of corn. Unfortunately, rumor spreads, and soon the little windmill is stolen by a greedy king. But the cock flies to his palace and brings back the magical object, despite several attempts on his life.

‘The Magic Windmill’ is a gentle, if what overlong little film based on a Russian fairy-tale. It uses a naturalistic style, clearly influenced by Disney, with watercolor backgrounds, and a multiplane camera effect in its opening scene . The animal designs are an interesting mix of the Disney style and Russian illustration art. The animation, however, leaves a lot to desire. The animation of movement is awkward, with most characters moving in a slow, all too constant speed. The film uses dialogue in rhyme, but the lip synchronization with the characters is poor.

Despite these flaws, ‘The Magic Windmill’ is a film of great poetry, and one of the best of the Russian fairy tale films of the fifties. Indeed, director Khodatayeva was a veteran of soviet animation, having made films since the 1920s.

Watch ‘The Magic Windmill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

http://multmir.net/multfilm-1174-chudo-melnitsa

Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: April 15, 1949
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Emperor's Nightingale © Jiri Trnka‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ is Jiří Trnka’s second feature film (he made no less than six in total).

It tells the familiar story by Hans Christian Andersen from an original perspective: he frames the fairy tale by a live-action story about a lonely rich boy, who lives in a restricted environment. When the boy goes to bed, he dreams the fairy-tale, which stars some of his toys. Thus, after more than seven minutes, the animation kicks in.

In the boy’s dream, the Chinese emperor is a lonely little rich boy, restricted by rules, too, and the whole film seems a plea for freedom and against rules and restrictions, quite some message in communist Czechoslovakia. This theme is enhanced by the English narration, wonderfully voiced by Boris Karloff, which is a welcome addition to Trnka’s silent comedy. The whole film breathes a kind of surrealistic atmosphere and Trnka’s use of camera angles is astonishing, as is his sometimes very avant-garde montage.

Nevertheless, the pacing of the film is slow, its humor sparse and only mildly amusing, and the puppet animation still too stiff to allow elaborate character animation. Therefore, the film hasn’t aged very well, and although a tour-de- force, ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ falls short as a timeless masterpiece.

Watch ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 3, 1934
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Poor Cinderella © Paramount‘Poor Cinderella’ is the first of Fleischer’s Color Classics series, a series meant to compete with Walt Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’.

It features Fleischer’s proven star Betty Boop in her only appearance in color, and it’s undoubtedly her most elaborate cartoon.

Although filmed in the two-color technique of Cinecolor, which only uses reds and blues, its designs are lush and colorful. Nevertheless, ‘Poor Cinderella’ remained the only Color Classic in Cinecolor. The seven subsequent entries were filmed in 2-color Technicolor, using reds and greens, until Disney’s monopoly of 3-color Technicolor expired in 1936. The first full color Color Classic was ‘Somewhere in Dreamland‘ from January that year.

Apart from color, ‘Poor Cinderella’ boasts some stunning backgrounds, using Fleischer’s unique 3D-technique for the first time. In this technique 3D sets are used as a background to the animated cells to mesmerizing effects. Until the invention of the multiplane camera, which made his debut in ‘The Old Mill‘ in 1937, Fleischer’s 3D technique remained unchallenged in its wonderful creation of depth.

The story is quite faithful to the original fairy tale, albeit with some typical Fleischer touches. For instance, when the Fairy Godmother gets Betty into a wonderful outfit, the latter is seen in her underwear, something that would never happen to Disney’s Cinderella.

Oddly, Betty is red-haired and blue-eyed in this cartoon; probably to make her fit in better with the designs of those same colors. The changes between the scenes are creative and original. The Fairy Godmother is closer to human design than anything in previous Fleischer cartoons. The horses are drawn very realistically, as well, surpassing comparable designs at the Disney studio, although they do not move correctly.

‘Poor Cinderella’ was clearly made with the intention to compete with Disney, and remarkably, it does challenge that studio. Nevertheless, the Fleischer studio had difficulties to be on par with the ever advancing Disney studio, which pushed the limits of animation in almost every Silly Symphony it released, leaving the promise of ‘Poor Cinderella’ unfulfilled.

Watch ‘Poor Cinderella’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Poor Cinderella’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
April 14, 1934
Stars:
the three little pigs, the big bad wolf
Rating:
★★★½
Review:

The Big Bad Wolf © Walt Disney‘The Big Bad Wolf’ was Disney’s very first sequel.

It was undoubtedly made to satisfy the masses who, after the huge success of ‘Three Little Pigs‘ (1933), demanded for ‘more pigs’. As one can expect, it’s not as great as ‘Three Little Pigs’, but it’s fun to watch.

The title card shows the main characters as if they were playing their parts. The cartoon, however, is named after the wolf, and deservedly so, because not only is he drawn better than in the original cartoon, he’s also the star of this sequel. Clearly being the greatest actor,  he not only impersonates grandma, but also “Goldilocks the fairy queen” in a ridiculous and aimless costume, and even Jimmy Durante! Furthermore, he alone shows to be aware of the audience: he often looks into the camera, and even addresses the audience with a Mae West-like “how’m I doing?”.

After this cartoon, the demand for pigs apparently still wasn’t satisfied, for it was followed by even two more sequels: ‘Three Little Wolves‘ in 1936 and ‘The Practical Pig‘ in 1939.

‘The Big Bad Wolf’ might be the first “fairy-tales mixed up” cartoon. It may very well have inspired Tex Avery to make similar, yet more hilarious cartoons like ‘The Bear’s Tale’ (1940) and ‘Swing Shift Cinderella’ (1945), both starring Little Red Riding Hood.

Watch ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 44
To the previous Silly Symphony: Funny Little Bunnies
To the next Silly Symphony: The Wise Little Hen

Director: Jack Cutting
Release Date: April 7, 1939
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Ugly Duckling 1939 © Walt DisneyThe remake of ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ (1931) is the last of the Silly Symphonies and, like the very first (The Skeleton Dance, 1929) one of the best.

Following Hans Christian Andersen’s tale much closer than the original ‘Ugly Duckling’, the 1939 version reaches the apex in animated storytelling. One can even watch it silent and understand the cartoon perfectly, and even more significant, remain emotionally involved, as well.

The Duckling is an instantly likeable character whose emotions are totally convincing and moving. Even the colors of the backgrounds add to the drama, changing from bright greens to blues when the Duckling is expelled. The 1931 version was a milestone in its time, yet it looks crude and primitive today. This 1939 version of The Ugly Duckling, however, is an all time animation masterpiece, and it will doubtless never date.

Watch ‘The Ugly Duckling’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 75 (the last in the series)
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Practical Pig

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: December 12, 1931
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Ugly Duckling 1931 © Walt DisneyThis is the first of two versions of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ made by Disney.

Unlike the latter, more familiar version, this ugly duckling is a real duck, accidentally born to a chicken. He’s rejected until he saves his chick brothers and sisters from drowning in a long, fast and exciting action scene, involving both a tornado and a waterfall.

Although looking crude and primitive when compared to the 1939 short, this first version of The Ugly Duckling is a milestone in Disney’s storytelling: while the earlier Silly Symphonies contain a lot of repetitive animation and dance routines, The Ugly Duckling is the first Silly Symphony to tell a coherent story from the beginning to the end. Even the Mickey Mouse films of that time are not that consistent. There still is some rhythmic movement, especially at the beginning, but most of the animation is there to tell the story.

The duckling (who repeatedly looks to the audience for sympathy – not unlike Oliver Hardy) is a real character who transforms from an outcast to a hero, and gains its well-earned sympathy at last. Its best scenes are when it feels rejected, not only by his ‘family’, but also by a cow, a dog and a frog. There’s some genuine feeling of loneliness and unhappiness in these scenes, unparalleled in any other animated film of the time.

This short, which is neither about gags nor about moving to music, would be the first testimony of Disney’s ambitions in storytelling.

Watch ‘The Ugly Duckling’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 25
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Fox Hunt
To the next Silly Symphony: The Bird Store

Directors:Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Release Date: February 15, 1950
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Cinderella © Walt Disney‘Cinderella’ was Disney’s first fairy tale movie since ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and Disney’s first real feature animation film in eight years.

With its classic fairy tale story featuring a heroine, whose unhappy fate is turned, Cinderella seems to be like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, Disney’s only million seller feature up to that point, and, indeed, ideas for this film go back as far as 1938. However, it is very clear many things had changed for the studio since then:

First: Gone are the lush water color backgrounds. They’re replaced by way more stylized oil backgrounds, based on the colors and styling of designers Mary Blair and John Hench, who both favored bright and unrealistically vivid colors. Mary Blair’s influence is particularly strong in the dreamlike ‘So This Is Love’ sequence and the chase of Cinderella’s pumpkin couch: here the stunningly beautiful backgrounds lose all sense of realism, in favor of emotional storytelling.

Second: The animation of humans, hardly mastered in 1937, now looks fluent, convincing and even easy. It’s also striking how very realistic humans (Cinderella, the prince, the evil stepmother) blend easily and convincingly with more caricatured humans (the king, the grand duke and the two stepsisters) and anthropomorphic animals. The Disney studio clearly had matured.

Indeed, the animation studio had been greatly streamlined in the forties. Gone were the experimental, time consuming and costly work methods of ‘Snow White’, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’. For his new feature Disney would take no chances: all human scenes would be filmed first with live action actors, in order to perfect the staging before it went into animation. Only one short scene with outrageously colored soap bubbles evokes some of the earlier experimentalism.

Disney’s animation unit was now led by a group of younger, highly talented animators, who had matured their skills in the forties, and whom Walt Disney affectionately called his ‘Nine Old Men’. In Cinderella these Nine Old Men are all credited as supervising animators (alongside, like a ghost from the past, pioneer animator Norm Ferguson [see ‘Frolicking Fish‘ and ‘Playful Pluto‘], although his contribution remains unclear). The Nine Old Men would be responsible for Disney Feature animation way up to ‘The Rescuers‘ (1978). The fluent and confident animation in ‘Cinderella’ clearly shows why.

Especially the stepmother (animated by Frank Thomas) is a wonderful character: she’s very nasty, but her evilness is acted out in the subtlest way. She’s only indirectly responsible for the most dramatic scene of the film, in which the two stepsisters tear Cinderella’s dress from her body. The horror of this scene is heartfelt, especially because we had seen that this dress was made for her by some friendly birds and mice in an earlier scene .

These animals star a huge subplot with leading roles for a keen mouse called Jaq, a fat, dumb mouse called Gus, and a mean old cat called Lucifer (all animated by Ward Kimball, who went berserk on the outrageous animation of Lucifer). This subplot provides a funny counterpoint to the familiar fairytale and even completely dominates the first twenty minutes of the film.

Cinderella was a huge success and paid the studio well. Once again Disney’s attention and reputation rested with animated features and the studio would dominate the scene up to the 1980s, being practically the monopolist on animated features in the United States.

In a time when TV would cause the decline and fall of the animated cartoon industry, this was no luxury, at all.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Cinderella’:

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