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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 12, 1938
Stars: Betty Boop, Pudgy
Rating:
Review:

Pudgy the Watchman © Max Fleischer‘Pudgy the Watchman’ opens with an alley cat driving a mouse-like car in a beautiful 3D landscape, conceived with Max Fleischer’s unique tabletop technique.

This cat, called Al E. Katz, stops at Betty Boop’s house, and tricks Betty to hire him as a ‘mouse eradicator’ by using a toy mouse. Meanwhile we watch Pudgy playing with the little critters in the cellar. The cat disturbs this peaceful scene by catching the mice in no time and playing darts using them. But one escapes and sets them all free, while the cat gets drunk from Betty’s wine cellar. With help from Pudgy the mice chase the cat out of the house.

‘Pudgy the Watchman’ has a straightforward story, but that’s the best one can say about this cartoon. The makers forgot to provide it with anything resembling a gag. The result is an utterly forgettable cartoon, and certainly one of the most boring entries even in Pudgy’s already mediocre catalog.

Watch ‘Pudgy the Watchman’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 75
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: The Swing School
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Sally Swing

‘Pudgy the Watchman’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘Betty Boop: The Essential Collection, Vol. 4’ and the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date:
 May 14, 1932
Rating: ★★★
Review:

It's Got Me Again © Warner Bros.‘It’s Got Me Again!’ finds Harman and Ising at their most Disney-like. This Merrie Melodie is very similar to contemporary Silly Symphonies.

The short features a mouse entering a musical instrument shop at night. The music starts when the mouse accidentally starts the title song on a gramophone. This invites several other mice to join in. After four minutes of musical frolicking a mean cat appears who gets one mouse cornered, prompting the rodent to sing the title track. The other mice, however, come to the rescue and together they get rid of the cat.

The story of ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is very similar to that of contemporary Disney shorts ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ or ‘The Bird Store‘, but the short’s premise is most akin to the Van Beuren short ‘Toy Time‘ from four months earlier. ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is much more sophisticated than the Van Beuren short, though. The animation, by Friz Freleng and Tom McKimson, is excellent throughout, and second only to the Disney studio itself.

The mice are Mickey Mouse but in size, only, and the musical routine involves a French Apache dance, as can also be found in ‘Mickey’s Follies‘ (1929) and the later ‘Woodland Cafe‘ (1937). Harman & Ising’s mimicking paid off, as ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ was among the three very first animated shorts to get an Academy Award nomination. Yet, it’s no surprise it lost to Walt Disney’s landmark cartoon ‘Flowers and Trees‘.

Watch ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’ and the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’

Directors: Harry Bailey, John Foster, Frank Moser & Jerry Shields
Release Date:
 June 2, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Polo Match © Van Beuren.jpgLong before ‘Mickey’s Polo Team’ (1936) or Walt Disney took on playing polo himself, the Van Beuren studio visited the game in the silent short ‘Polo Match’.

The cartoon stars a couple of mice, with the hero being indistinguishable from the others. The mouse plays a polo game with the others on mechanical horses, and most of the gags (even the final one) stem from the horses falling apart. Meanwhile the hero’s sweetheart is harassed and later kidnapped by a mean old cat. Our hero pursuits the cat and saves his sweetheart.

The cartoon is pretty fast and full of action, but none of the gags are interesting enough to keep the viewer’s attention. Nevertheless, the short was re-released in 1932 as ‘Happy Polo’, with an added soundtrack.

It’s pretty likely that the inspiration for the mechanical horses stems from the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Ozzie of the Mounted‘ (1928) in which Oswald rides a mechanical horse himself. In any case, mechanical horses were clearly much easier to animate than real ones, and one was reused in ‘Hot Tamale’ (1930).

Watch ‘Polo Match’ (or ‘Happy Polo’) yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Polo Match/Happy Polo’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Directors: John Foster & Harry Bailey
Release Date:
 January 27, 1932
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Toy Time © Van Beuren‘Toy Time’ is another typical Silly Symphony-like short by Van Beuren, trying to beat Disney at his own game.

The cartoon features two mice, Oscar and his girlfriend, who resemble Mickey and Minnie less than Van Beuren’s ill-fated stars Milton and Rita had done (see e.g. ‘Circus Capers‘ and ‘The Office Boy‘).

In fact, the two are portrayed as real mice, having fun in the toy shop at night. This premise comes directly from the Silly Symphony ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop‘, but the Van Beuren studio adds some drama, when a cat appears, and the two mice battle him with help of several toys. Strangely enough the cartoon doesn’t end at that point, but also features a scene in which Oscar serenades his girlfriend on the piano. Only then he earns his sweetheart’s kiss.

Like ‘The Family Shoe‘ (1931), ‘Toy Time’ is highly ambitious. For example, it features a splendid score by Gene Rodemich, and elaborate and quite beautifully painted backgrounds. Unfortunately, the animation is still pretty awkward, and the designs of the two mice primitive and bland. Nevertheless, it shows that the Van Beuren Studio was trying very hard.

Four months later, Warner Bros. would cover similar grounds in ‘It’s Got Me Again!‘, but with much more satisfying results.

Watch ‘Toy Time’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Toy Time’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Don Bluth
Release date: July 3, 1982
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Secret of NIMH © Don BluthDissatisfied with the studio’s policies, Don Bluth left the Walt Disney Studio in 1979, taking some fellow animators with him, thus severely delaying the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

Bluth set up his own animation studio, Don Bluth Productions, to make animated features in the spirit of the early Disney masterpieces he admired. In doing so, he became the first serious competitor of Disney in the animated feature field since Max Fleischer, who had made two animated features in 1939 and 1941.

‘The Secret of NIMH’ was the brand new studio’s first feature, and a testimony of Don Bluth’s high ambitions. Like ‘The Fox and the Hound’ it is set in more or less modern times, in a rural era, but here all similarities stop. ‘The Secret of NIMH’ is darker, and more mature than Disney’s film. It’s more akin to the earlier ‘The Rescuers‘ (it’s about mice and a rescue mission), to Disney’s next movie ‘The Black Cauldron‘ (grim atmosphere, swords and sorcery), and even to the non-Disney film ‘Watership Down’ (rodents grouped in all too familiar societies, a goofy bird helping the heroes). The rich and detailed backgrounds look all the way back to ‘Pinocchio’ (1940) and ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Despite all its ambitions, the film therefore lacks a forward-looking vision. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful film, and both the voice cast and the Disney-school animation are top notch throughout.

The story is based on the children’s novel ‘Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH’ by Robert C. O’Brien, and tells about the mouse Mrs. Brisby (a mother, a very rare type of hero in animation films), who tries to protect her sick son from the coming of the field-destroying tractor. In her quest she gets help from the goofy crow Jeremy and by a society of highly intelligent rats, living in a bush nearby.

The whole atmosphere is dark, and grim; the cat, the spider and the owl all look way scarier than anything in any Disney film since ‘Fantasia’ (1940), and there are no less than three deaths in the end. The rats also bring in some misplaced and hard-to-believe fantasy elements, including a magic mirror, an amulet with gravity-defying powers, and an epic sword-fight.

In spite of the great voice acting, the only characters really to come off are Mrs. Brisby (great acting by Elizabeth Hartman), Aunt Shrew (Hermione Baddely), and Jeremy the crow (voiced by comic actor Dom DeLuise). The rats come into the story rather late and one gets the feeling that Bluth wanted to tell too much in too little time, leaving the viewer puzzled after the film is over.

With all its flaws, ‘The Secret of NIMH’ remains Bluth’s most satisfying film, together with one of his last films, ‘Anastasia’ (1997). After ‘The Secret of NIMH’ Bluth teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the more successful ‘An American Tail’ (1986) and ‘Land before Time’ (1988), but after those more commercial and less original films his productions became more uneven and forgettable, never fulfilling the promise he appeared to have made with his firstborn.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Secret of NIMH’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Friz Freleng
Release date: October 2, 1954
Stars: Sylvester
Rating: ★★★
Review:

By Word of Mouse © Warner BrothersIn the mid-fifties Friz Freleng directed three propaganda shorts celebrating the American capitalistic system. They were funded by the right wing Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and curiously, they all feature Sylvester the cat.

‘By Word of Mouse’ is the first of the three. In this cartoon we’re taken to the rather backward German town of “Knöckwurst-on-der-Rye”. Here mouse Hans tells his siblings about his trip to America. Cut to his memories: we watch him meeting his cousin Willie at the harbor. Willie takes the astounded Hans to a trip, showing the riches of the Americans. Because Hans doesn’t understand how this can be, Willie takes him to a university mouse, who lectures the two about mass production and mass consumption.

Comic relief is provided by Sylvester, who chases the three mice, interrupting the lectures. But he cannot hide the fact that, although being an ordinary Looney Tune, ‘By Word of Mouse’ is pretty informative, if rather propagandistic by single-mindedly glorifying the wonders of capitalism.

‘By Word of Mouse’ was followed by ‘Heir-Conditioned‘ (1955) and ‘Yankee Dood It‘ (1956), covering similar grounds.

Watch ‘By Word of Mouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: John Lounsberry, Wolfgang Reitherman & Art Stevens
Release Date:
 June 22, 1977
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Rescuers © Walt Disney‘The Rescuers’ was a joint venture of an old and a new generation of animators at the Disney studio. It is without doubt the best of the three features the studio made in the seventies.

It was Disney’s first feature film since ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’ in which Wolfgang Reitherman shared the direction duties, and this fact alone arguably improves the end product.

Unlike the earlier features ‘The Aristocats’ (1970) and ‘Robin Hood‘ (1973) it doesn’t contain any reused animation (with a possible exception of animation from ‘Bambi‘ in a minor mood scene). And while ‘The Aristocats’ and ‘Robin Hood’ relied on proven formulas, both being very reminiscent of ‘Jungle Book’ (1967), ‘The Rescuers’ has a fresh story (based on a children’s book by Margery Sharp), and a unique, surprisingly gloomy atmosphere. In Sharp’s book the mice rescue a prisoner, but for the film the Disney story men chose an orphan girl named Penny to be rescued. A masterstroke, for the lovable little girl easily becomes the center of the story, which contains a lot of heart.

However, all the film’s main characters are adorable: the lovely Hungarian mouse Bianca (voiced by Eva Gabor) and her companion, the superstitious yet valiant janitor Bernard are such great characters that they were able to spawn Disney’s first sequel, ‘The Rescuers Down Under’ in 1990. Medusa is a real and wonderful villain. She hasn’t got any special powers and at times she’s portrayed as preposterous, but mostly she’s sly, mean and genuinely scary: a worthy adversary for our heroes to deal with. She was animated by Milt Kahl, the last and arguably best piece of animation he ever did for the studio.

Medusa may steal the show, but even the minor characters like Orville the Albatross, Rufus the cat, Evenrude the damselfly, Snoops and the two Alligators are delightful. They all contribute to a story, which is concise and well-told. It evolves without delays or side-ways, and leads to a great finale in Devil’s Bayou.

‘The Rescuers’ is also the first Disney feature since ‘Bambi’ (1942) not to be a musical, but to use songs to evoke moods only. All these elements contribute to a story which is both thrilling and moving. The film’s opening credits use a song and beautiful oil paintings by Mel Shaw to start the story. Unfortunately, the background paintings in the rest of the movie are more prosaic, mixing moody oil paintings with more graphic backgrounds to an uneven effect. The animation on the other hand is superb throughout.

Unfortunately, ‘The Rescuers’ proved more of a swansong of the old generation of nine old men than the beginning of a new era. The following features were much weaker, and only with ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) Disney found a genuinely new and strong voice. Thus stands ‘The Rescuers’ as a beacon of light in the dark ages of animation that were the 1970s and 1980s.

Watch the trailer of’The Rescuers’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date:
 December 18, 1948
Stars:
 Porky Pig, Sylvester
Rating:
 ★★★
Review:

Scaredy Cat © Warner BrothersChuck Jones was the only director to pair Porky Pig with Sylvester.

His Sylvester is very different from the one in Freleng’s Tweety cartoons. In Jones’s shorts he’s a cowardly cat that cannot speak. In all Porky-Sylvester cartoons Porky tries to stay asleep unaware of the real dangers around him. Sylvester, on the other hand, sees them all, but fails completely in convincing his master of the dangers.

The aptly titled ‘Sacredy Cat’ was the first of a series of three. In this cartoon Porky and his cat Sylvester enter their new mansion, which has genuine horror allure, scaring Sylvester to death. And for a good reason, because this mansion is inhabited by homocidal Hubie and Bertie-like mice who make several attempts to murder Sylvester and Porky.

Only when Porky discovers the mice, too, who lead him to a certain death, Sylvester rediscovers his courage and chases all the mice out of the house, except for the headsman mouse, who knocks the cat down, and reveals to be a caricature of comedian Lew Lehr (1895-1950), exclaiming a twist on the comedian’s catchphrase: “pussycats is the craziest people!”. An odd ending to a sometimes rather unsettling cartoon.

Porky and Sylvester would reunite six years later in an all too similar cartoon called ‘Claws for Alarm’ (1954), and again in ‘Jumpin’ Jupiter‘ (1955).

Watch ‘Scaredy Cat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Scaredy Cat’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 120
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Riff Raffy Daffy
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Awful Orphan

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 3, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating:
Review:

When The Cat's Away © Walt DisneyAwkwardly, in this sixth Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey and Minnie are portraited as real mice.

They are joined by several look-a-likes in a house party, while the owner, a drunk cat, is gone hunting. There’s still some silent comedy (and no dialogue), but there’s no real story, only an extended musical number. Therefore this cartoon can be regarded as the first of many ‘song-and-dance-routine’-cartoons that would dominate the early 1930s. It even predates the Silly Symphony series, which initial sole raison d’être seems to be song-and-dance-routines.

These cartoons no doubt delighted the audiences at the time. However, I regret their coming, because both story and surreal humor had to give way to the rise of them. ‘When the Cat’s Away’ is a prime example: despite some clever gags, it is easily the dullest of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons.

After ‘When the Cat’s Away’ Mickey would never been portrayed as a real mouse again. Like in his first five cartoons, he would just be a boy in the shape of a mouse. The idea of Mickey being a mouse would become negligible compared to the cartoon star he was. Mickey was seen as an actor, not as an animal. This would eventually lead to the awkward situation of Mickey dealing with ‘real’ and very different looking mice in ‘The Worm Turns‘ (1937).

Watch ‘When The Cat’s Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 6
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Opry House
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Battle

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