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Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: June 22, 1940
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

The Milky Way © MGM1940 is arguably a turning year in the history of animation. This year marked the end of Disney’s domination, as the studio’s innovative Silly Symphonies series had stopped, while Disney’s ambitious, but expensive feature productions ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost the studio dear money. These features plunged Disney brothers into huge debts, and forced them to go to the stock markets.

As to emphasize Disney’s loss, 1940 was also the first year in which a non-Disney cartoon won an Academy Award. In fact, in this year not a single Disney cartoon was even nominated. Moreover, among the nominations were two shorts that marked the strong debuts of characters that heralded a new era: Tom & Jerry in ‘Puss and Boots’ and Bugs Bunny in ‘A Wild Hare‘. These characters would dominate the 1940s, over Disney’s Mickey, Donald, Pluto and Goofy.

Yet, it was MGM’s ‘The Milky Way’, which won the Academy Award. To be frank, ‘The Milky Way’ is still firmly rooted in Disney-like 1930’s animation: it’s a Silly Symphony but in name, it features a saccharine song, and it borrows heavily from Disney’s ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod‘ (1939). Both cartoons feature three babies exploring the night sky. Such copycat behavior was all too typical for the Harman & Ising studio.

In ‘The Milky Way’ the main protagonists are the three kittens from the nursery rhyme. As they’ve lost their mittens, they aren’t denied pie, but a meal of milk, and sent off to bed without supper. With the help of balloons, the trio sails to the Milky Way, which turns out to be a Cockaigne of milk, with e.g. milk geysers and milk gas stations. However, the geyser milk gives one of the kittens a tremor belly, and soon the trio fall down back to earth.

‘The Milky Way’ is cute, lush and excels in high production values, even though it can’t compete with the stunning ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’. The short is also sugary and rather boring. The best part is the depiction of the fantasy world of the Milky Way. But the attention easily goes to the beautiful background art and to Scott Bradley’s excellent score. The designs of the kittens look forward to those of kittens in the Tom & Jerry series.

Watch ‘The Milky Way’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Milky Way’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners’

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Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Release Date: July 20, 2001
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Spirited Away © Studio GhibliAfter several very fine films, like ‘My Neighbor Totoro‘ (1988) and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), Miyazaki tops himself with his masterpiece ‘Spirited Away’. This film single-handedly places him among the greatest masters of animation of all time.

The film depicts a strange and inexplicable, yet surprisingly complete fantasy world, with a conviction and originality that has rarely been seen since Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. At the same time, unlike several of Miyazaki’s earlier films, one feels that ‘Spirited away’ could only have been made in Japan. Its setting of a public bath, with its numerous gods and demi-gods, is totally Japanese.

Yet, its story about coming of age is universal as is its appeal. The little girl Chihiro (or Sen, as she’s called during most of the film) is the greatest of Miyazaki’s heroines. Like Kiki in ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ (1989), she matures during the film, but the fears and terrors she has to conquer are far more alarming than Kiki’s, and her growth is way more convincing. Not only has she to prove herself, she has to regain her name, and most importantly, she has to rescue her parents, who have been transformed into pigs in a particularly horrifying scene. At one scene we see her stricken with traumatic stress. In another we watch her breaking down. Despite some exaggerations (a flood of tears, for example), these scenes are so surprisingly real, they startle the viewer who’s used to the formalized emotions of many commercial animation films, whether Japanese or Western.

However, the character animation of Chihiro is outstanding throughout the film: she is a true girl and not an adult in disguise, and her emotions feel genuine and seem deeply rooted in observation of real human behavior. We identify immediately with her, and she’s strong enough a character to make her extraordinary journey in that strange, mysterious and dreamlike world believable.

Typical for Miyazaki, even in this hostile world our young heroine is not without friends, and even the most unpleasant characters (Yubaba and Without Face) are not without their weaknesses or positive character traits. On the other hand, even the good can look fearsome and unpleasant, as Yaku does in his dragon form. Also typical for Miyazaki is his depiction of children at work (see ‘Laputa – Castle in the Sky‘ (1986) and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’). On the other hand, his recurring theme of man versus nature is less apparent in this film, although it does appear in the form of a polluted river god.

In all, ‘Spirited Away’ is a rich film of pure delight and will enchant everyone everywhere in the world.

Watch the trailer for ‘Spirited Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 5, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Music Land © Walt DisneyIn ‘Music Land’ a young violin falls in love with a young saxophone, much to the disapproval of their parents, the queen of ‘The Land of Symphony’ and the king of ‘The Isle of Jazz, respectively, whose realms are separated by the ‘Sea of Discord’.

When the young saxophone is imprisoned, the feud between the two very different nations leads to a war, in which the two young lovers are almost killed… The whole story is told through music, even the characters ‘speak’ with the sounds of the instruments they are. The complete score, by Leigh Harline, is a delight to listen to.

This reading of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ is one of the most inspired of all Silly Symphonies. The very idea of musical instruments ‘speaking’ in their own sound is brilliant. But there is much more. For example, when the saxophone prince is locked up, he’s imprisoned in a metronome and when he writes a letter to his father (a caricature of bandleader Paul Whiteman, ‘the king of jazz’) he does this in staff-notation!

The complete design of the cartoon is delightful. The backgrounds are particularly beautiful, rendering a totally convincing fantasy world, in which the cartoon develops as if it were an age-old story. The concept of a battle between classical music and jazz was a topical one in the 1930s, when jazz was still regarded by many as devilish music and a threat to ‘high culture’. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 1930s jazz gradually became a respected genre, as exemplified by Benny Goodman’s concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938.

Watch ‘Music Land’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 55
To the previous Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Orphan Kittens

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?

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