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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:

 

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Director: Dick Rickard
Release Date: November 25, 1938
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Ferdinand the Bull © Walt DisneyThis gentle film is based on the children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ (1936) by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, and tells about Ferdinand, a gentle Spanish bull, who loves to sit quietly and smell the flowers.

One day “five men with funny hats” come along, in search of suitable bull for a bullfight, and because the unfortunate Ferdinand has sat on a bee, his ferocious antics make him the one. However, once inside the arena, Ferdinand refuses to fight, much to the dismay of the matador.

Ferdinand is a really peaceful, pacifistic character, and a remarkable persona in 1938, when war already was around the corner. This character must have been an inspirational one at the time, and the film won an Academy Award. The short has a friendly atmosphere, and the only really funny part is the matador trying to persuade Ferdinand to fight by making faces, a scene animated with gusto by Ward Kimball.

Yet, there’s room for some more fun, as the banderilleros and picadors are caricatures of Disney personnel, drawn by Ward Kimball. We watch Ham Luske, Jack Campbell, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt as banderilleros,  Bill Tytla as the second of the picadores (the other two are probably caricatures, too, but I don’t know of whom), and Ward Kimball himself as the moza de espada, carrying the matador’s sword.  All humans are animated very well, proof that after ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, the animators were more confident with the human body than ever.

Nevertheless, the human designs range from from very cartoony, like the Matador, to quite realistic, like the Spanish ladies, who all look like copies of Snow White. No wonder, as they were animated by Jack Campbell, who had been a key assistant to both the two units that animated the title heroine.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ was the first Disney cartoon not to be part of any series. It could have been a Silly Symphony, as in 1938 that series had not ended, yet, but apparently, the studio chose the film to be no part of that. Perhaps, because in ‘Ferdinand the Bull’, music doesn’t play an important part, belying the series’ origin. Instead, the film uses a voice over to tell the tale, being the first Disney short to do so. The voice over technique is a rather lazy narrative device, but the Disney studio adopted it whole-heartedly. And so, unfortunately, voice overs would be deployed in many non-star Disney shorts and parts of package features of the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is the first of only two Disney shorts directed by Dick Rickard, the other one being ‘The Practical Pig‘ (1939). Rickard had been a story artist, working on a few Silly Symphonies and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ between 1936 and 1939. Otherwise he remains an enigmatic figure, as I cannot find any other information about him…

In December 2017 Blue Sky released their feature length adaptation of ‘Ferdinand the Bull’. I haven’t seen this film, yet, and therefore cannot compare the two films. Can you?

Watch ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is available on the DVD set ‘Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts 1920s-1960s’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 May 27, 1933
Rating:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Three Little Pigs © Walt Disney‘Three Little Pigs’ is one of the most successful, most famous and most perfect cartoons ever made. It was hugely popular when it was released, with people associating its catchy theme song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ with an optimism with which one could fight the haunting effects of the Great Depression.

Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore were the principle animators on the film. Norm Ferguson animated the wolf in his typical broad vaudeville acting style, which comes to full bloom in this film. The wolf is a great character, with his glances at the public. He’s a real villain, but somehow too sympathetic as an actor to be really threatening. Unfortunately, his design is not very consistent. Especially his eyes are unsteady and a bit wobbly. One can clearly watch the wolf’s design improving during the film, as if it was animated chronologically. And this may very well possible.

However, it’s Fred Moore’s animation that made the deepest impression on the animation field. Because of his animation on the three pigs, ‘Three Little Pigs’ is regarded as the first animated cartoon to feature so-called character animation. The three pigs form the key to character animation: although the three are drawn the same, the sensible pig behaves differently from the other two: he’s clearly a different character, not by design, but by animation. This was a great step forward in the evolution in animation, and admired by the whole animation industry.

Apart from that the pigs’ designs, by the highly influential concept artist Albert Hurter, are highly appealing. Hurter had joined Disney in June 1931, first as an animator, but soon he switched to concept art, and he had a tremendous influence on the looks of Disney’s films in the 1930s. It must have been around this time that Disney started to think of an animated feature – a daring project which would dominate the studio during 1934-1937. For this ambitious project Moore would design no less than seven similar, yet different characters, while Hurter would indulge in elaborate sets, full of little details.

The film was a success not only within the animation industry, but with the American public, as well. The audiences took the film and its catchy song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (sung by Mary Moder, Dorothy Compton and Pinto Colvig) as a sign of comfort and hope in the dark days of the Great Depression era. And even after more than eighty years, Frank Churchill’s song is still extremely catchy, even though it’s never heard in its entirety during the short. After a while the cartoon became no less than a sensation, lasting weeks in some theaters, and spawning a great deal of merchandise, like alarm clocks and jigsaw puzzles. In 1934 it won the Academy Award for best animated short film. In 1941 it was still famous enough to be changed into Disney’s first war propaganda film: ‘The Thrifty Pig‘.

The film undoubtedly was Walt Disney’s most famous and most successful short, and the first Silly Symphony to spawn sequels – due to the pressure by distributor United Artists. These sequels (‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ from 1934, ‘Three Little Wolves‘ from 1936, and ‘The Practical Pig‘ from 1939) were, of course, much less successful than the original, and are all but forgotten today. As Disney himself said “You can’t top pigs with pigs’.

The film also raised director Burt Gillett’s fame, and soon he was lured away by the ailing Van Beuren studios to repeat this immense success. However, at Van Beuren it soon became clear that ‘Three Little Pigs’ was not a success because of Burt Gillett’s genius, but because of the ambitious group effort of the Disney studio, and Gillett never managed to come near his most successful films at Disney again.

For ‘Three Little Pigs’ was a true collective effort, with Hurter, Churchill, Ferguson and Moore showing their best work thus far, but also through contributions by e.g. Art Babbitt, Dick Lundy and Jack King, who also animated some sequences, voice artist Pinto Colvig, the voice of the practical pig, and story man Ted Sears, who both contributed to the cartoon’s theme song, and Carl Stalling, who provided the practical pig’s piano-playing.

The film has easily stood the test of time: not only are the characters still appealing, its backgrounds are gorgeous, its music catchy, and its storytelling extraordinarily economical and effective, probably because may have been the first animated cartoon with a complete storyboard. The short’s joy is still infectious today. And although one will always remember the short’s cheerfulness, it contains some black humor, too: look for the portraits of dad and Uncle Tom in the wise pig’s house.

By the way, present-day viewers see an altered version of the film. The original featured a sequence in which the wolf dressed as a stereotyped Jewish door-to-door salesman. For its video release in the early 1980s this sequence was completely redrawn, to remove all Jewish references.

Watch ‘Three Little Pigs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 36
To the previous Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark
To the next Silly Symphony: Old King Cole

Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: May 18, 1951
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Milton
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Plutopia © Walt DisneyIn ‘Plutopia’ Mickey and Pluto reach a cabin in the mountains called Utopia.

The place turns out to be dog-unfriendly however: Pluto has to stay outside and even worse, has to be muzzled. Frustrated, Pluto falls asleep. He dreams he’s in Plutopia where Milton (one of the cats from ‘Puss-Cafe‘, and here the cabin’s cat) is his willing servant, serving him food every time Pluto bites him in his tail.

The dream sequence is a delight to watch: its backgrounds consists of no more than changing monochromes featuring ‘scribbled’ outlines of doors, stairs e.g. With this sequence Pluto enters the ‘cartoon modern’ era. Unfortunately, it would be his only cartoon featuring such modern designs.

‘Plutopia’ is the last of only three Pluto cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse (the other two being ‘Pluto’s Purchase’ from 1948 and ‘Pueblo Pluto‘ from 1949). Normally cartoons featuring Mickey would appear under his own name. Indeed, after ‘Plutopia’ the Pluto series had only one entry left, but Pluto would return in Mickey’s last four cartoons.

Remarkably, ‘Plutopia’ features animation by two of the greatest animators of Mickey and Pluto in the 1930s: Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson. Both animators had been eclipsed by Disney’s Nine Old Men, and ‘Plutopia’ is one of the last films they worked on before their premature deaths in 1952 and 1957, respectively.

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

This is Pluto cartoon No. 42
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Cold Storage
To the next Pluto cartoon: Cold Turkey

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: May 1, 1948
Stars: Woody Woodpecker (cameo)
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Pixie Picnic © Walter Lantz‘Pixie Picnic’ was the last of only three Musical Miniatures, cartoons based on classical music. 

In this cartoon we watch an orchestra of pixies playing the overture to ‘La gazza ladra’ by Gioachino Rossini.

The pixies are extraordinarily dwarf-like, and resemble the seven dwarfs from Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) a lot. This is no wonder, as one of those dwarfs’ key-animators and designers, Fred Moore, is also one of the animators of ‘Pixie Picnic’. Thanks to Moore the animation of this cartoon is very Disney-like and belongs to the best ever produced by the Lantz studio.

Unfortunately for Lantz, this was the last of only a handful cartoons Moore animated for his studio (others are ‘The Mad Hatter’ and ‘Banquet Busters’ from earlier that year). After that Moore returned to Disney, where he stayed until his premature death in 1952.

‘Pixie Picnic’ is beautifully animated, but it’s rather disappointing otherwise: the story makes no sense, and the gags come along almost randomly. Moreover, the cartoon suffers from a sloppy timing. The result is a well-animated, yet only moderately funny cartoon.

Watch ‘Pixie Picnic’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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