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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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Directors: Harry Bailey
Release Date:
 July 14, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Rough on Rats © Van Beuren‘Rough on Rats’ is one of the more extraordinary films to come out of the Van Beuren studio.

No other contemporary studio tried as hard as Van Beuren to emulate Disney’s Silly Symphonies. ‘Rough on Rats’ is rather unique in that it even anticipates a Silly Symphony: its subject of three mischievous kittens makes it the direct ancestor of Disney’s Academy Award winning ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ (1935), and Fleischer’s ‘We Did It‘ (1936).

In this film we watch three kittens wandering through an abandoned grocery store. Then the black kitten gets kidnapped by an outrageously large mean rat. This leads to a battle sequence, reminiscent of the Silly Symphonies ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ (1931), ‘The Bird Store‘ (1932) and ‘Bugs in Love‘ (1932). During this battle the kittens throw almost everything in sight at the vicious creature.

‘Rough on Rats’ is ripe with ambition, and pretty entertaining. Especially Gene Rodemich’s score is enjoyable throughout. Unfortunately, the animation varies between excellent to downright poor, and the designs are erratic, varying greatly between scenes. These shortcomings haunted the Van Beuren studios since its beginning, and it’s depressing to note that by 1933 the animators were still not able to tackle them. Doubtless this was influential to the studio’s lack of success. For example, the ideas in ‘Rough on Rats’ are more interesting than those in most of Warner Bros.’ or Ub Iwerks’s contemporary output, but as the execution is not on par with the ambition, the result is close to failure. And yet one cannot blame the studio trying. Anyhow, it was to Disney-alumnus Burt Gillett to teach the Van Beuren animators the Disney solutions to their problems…

‘Rough on Rats’was the last of the Aesop’s Fables (not including the Cubby the Bear cartoons, which appeared under the same flag). Apparently their outdated 1920’s title card and uninspired series name had the better of them. Nevertheless, one year later they would get a follow-up in the ‘Color Classics’, Van Beuren’s venture into color.

Watch ‘Rough on Rats’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rough on Rats’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: David Hand
Release Date: December 19, 1936
Rating: ★★★
Review:

More Kittens © Walt DisneyThe success of Oscar-winning ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ (1935) undoubtedly prompted this sequel, which is both less beautiful, less entertaining and less remarkable than the original short.

The film is aptly titled ‘More Kittens’, which shows its crowd-pleasing character. This time the kittens create havoc in the garden, while dealing with a fly, a tortoise and a teasing blue bird.

The cartoon is remarkable for introducing the good-natured St. Bernard Bolivar, who would become Donald Duck’s dog in the comic strip two years later. He’s not named here, but the likeness is so stunning, not only in design but also in character, that there’s no doubt it’s him. True, there was also a St. Bernard in ‘Alpine Climbers’ (1936), but this dog lacks Bolivar’s character, being more of a cliche St. Bernard instead.

Watch ‘More Kittens’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 65
To the previous Silly Symphony: Mother Pluto
To the next Silly Symphony: Woodland Café

Director: David Hand
Release Date: October 26, 1935
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Three Orphan Kittens © Walt DisneyOn a winter night three kittens are thrown in a sack into a garden.

Luckily they can escape the cold by entering the house, which they explore. This sweet cartoon contains elaborate gags with a.o. pepper, a bottle of milk, and a pianola.

‘Three Orphan Kittens’ was penned by Joe Grant and Bill Cottrell, and benefited from Fred Moore’s appealing animation. Indeed, it won an Academy Award. Its success made it one of those rare Silly Symphonies to evoke a sequel (‘More Kittens‘ from 1936). Moreover, it clearly inspired other animation film makers: the milk bottle gag was more or less copied by Fleischer in ‘We did it‘ (1936) which also stars three kittens. And, some of the pianola gags may have inspired Hanna and Barbera in their ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947).

At least Hanna and Barbera copied the black maid (of whom we only see her arms and legs) for their own Mammy Two-Shoes in the Tom & Jerry series. The black maid would also return in a few Disney shorts: ‘More Kittens‘ (1936), ‘The Pantry Pirate‘ (1940, starring Pluto), and ‘Figaro and Cleo‘ (1943).

Watch ‘Three Orphan Kittens’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 56
To the previous Silly Symphony: Music Land
To the next Silly Symphony: Cock o’ the Walk

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 30, 1931
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Barnyard Broadcast' featuring Horace Horsecollar playing sawMickey’s got his own radio station at the barn. There, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow perform some music to broadcast.

All goes well, until a cat and her little kittens cause havoc in the studio. Mickey has a hard time chasing them away, and during his efforts all instruments are destroyed.

‘The Barnyard Broadcast’ reuses the cat from ‘Mickey Steps Out‘ from two months earlier, and it introduces the numerous kittens that would cause Mickey lots of trouble in the subsequent films ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue‘ (1932). After that their role would be taken over by the orphan mice, introduced in ‘Mickey’s Nightmare‘ (1932).

After ‘Mickey Steps Out’, ‘The Barnyard Broadcast’ is another attempt in building a finale in a string of gags. The film is not entirely successful in this and only gains momentum when Mickey chases the cat away with a broom. The technique would be perfected in the subsequent films, ‘The Beach Party‘ and ‘Mickey Cuts Up‘.

Watch ‘The Barnyard Broadcast’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 33
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Fishin’ Around
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Beach Party

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