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Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: September 19, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Dover Boys © Warner Brothers‘The Dover Boys’ or, as it is actually called, ‘The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall’, is director Chuck Jones’s first masterpiece.

The short introduces his trademark of extreme poses, which in this cartoon are combined with ‘smear animation’ to unique results.

The extreme posing leads to highly stylized animation, which in itself is hilarious in its unnatural depiction of movement. In ‘The Dover Boys’ we watch both movement through poses, especially in the animation on Dan Backslide, as well as non-movement, with Dora descending the stairs as a prime example. Both techniques are important steps away from the classic squash-and-stretch animation, and from ‘believability through full animation’. Indeed, the animation style of ‘The Dover Boys’ looks forward all the way to the fifties, the era in which stylization of design and animation would flourish and dominate the animation industry. Indeed, the short’s prime animator, Bobe Cannon, would play an important role at UPA, the most influential animation film studio of the fifties.

The subject of ‘The Dover Boys’ is a sophisticated parody on melodrama, consisting of an archetypical story of a villain (called Dan Backslide) kidnapping a damsel in distress (dear Dora), taking her to his cottage in the mountains, where she is rescued by the heroes, in this case, the three Dover Boys, Tom, Dick and Larry.

Or is she? In the final scene they knock each other out, and Dora runs off into a distance with an odd bearded character in a bathing suit, who, as a running gag, hops along rather randomly throughout the picture to the music of ‘The Good Old Summertime’. This character is a relative of the equally mysterious Minah Bird from Chuck Jones’ earlier cartoon ‘Inki and the Lion’ (1941).

‘The Dover Boys’ is both innovative and funny. Its humor is as sophisticated as it is silly. In any case, the gags come fast and plenty, with hilarious nonsense as a result. An all time classic.

Watch ‘The Dover Boys’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: David Hand
Release Date: August 13, 1942
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Bambi © Walt DisneyAlthough it was released after ‘Dumbo‘, ‘Bambi’ is essentially Disney’s fourth feature, and it was also the last in which the studio really pushed the envelope.

‘Bambi’ had been long in the making, with initial work already starting in 1937. In fact, it was initially planned as Disney’s second feature, but soon pushed back in favor of ‘Pinocchio’.

After having made such great and diverse efforts as ‘Snow White’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, Disney set the stakes even higher in Bambi, reaching a zenith in naturalism. But the film is way more than that: it’s a symphony of nature, utterly romantic in its depiction of forest life. It’s also a coming of age story and a depiction of the circle of life.

‘Bambi’ is full of great scenes, starting with the stunning opening scene, a long and complicated shot, which shows the vastness and depth of the forest using a multiplane camera, and which leads us straight into the story, when we come to follow friend owl in his flight.

The storytelling is very lean, it uses little dialogue and it consists of only a few distinct parts, which all concentrate on Bambi’s experiences. Most of the story is told by images and music only, and there are three pure mood pieces very reminiscent of a Silly Symphony like ‘The Old Mill‘ (1937) and parts of ‘Fantasia’: the April Shower sequence, the autumn sequence and Bambi’s love scene. In these sequences especially, it’s clear that atmosphere prevails above character development, and the studio indulges in beautiful imagery that is still impressive and enchanting today.

The film can be divided into eight sections (the titles are all mine):

1) Birth: which also introduces the lovable little rabbit Thumper;
2) Discovery of the world: including the introduction of the little skunk Flower and a rain scene, set to the beautiful song ‘April shower’;
3) The meadow: where both danger and other deer are introduced, including Bambi’s father and his later love interest, Feline;
4) Autumn: a short transitional mood piece;
5) Winter: which includes the famous skating scene, inspired by Pluto’s difficulties on ice in ‘On ice‘ (1935) and which ends with that harrowing, yet off screen death of Bambi’s mother;
6) Spring: where all our characters have become adolescents and discover the power of love;
7) Man: where man, who never is seen on screen, but whose threatening presence is so much more felt, once again brings danger into the forest, shooting animals (including Bambi) and causing a forest fire, which leads to great dramatic and apocalyptic shots of the burning forest;
and finally
8) Birth again: in which the cycle is completed.

The first five sections take almost two-thirds of the film and are responsible for Bambi’s reputation of being a childish film full of cute animals. This may be partly true, but is does no justice to the complete film, for the last three sections, starting with the death of Bambi’s mother (which essentially ends his childhood) are more artistic, more expressionistic and more dramatic. These scenes belong to the most powerful animated images ever brought to the screen.

But throughout the complete picture the artwork is stunning: the backgrounds, based on designs by Tyrus Wong, are lush and suggestive,  the use of color is very clever and often amazing, and the music, which is very important to the narrative and which uses off-screen songs to evoke moods, is rich and effective. Indeed, Bambi’s soundtrack, by composers Frank Churchill and Edward Plumb, ranks among the best scores of any animation film. Backgrounds, design, color, music – all these make  the film a mood piece of an astonishing quality.

The animation itself, too, is a highlight. It was supervised by four of the later so-called ‘nine old men’: Eric Larson, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and it’s the first testimony of their legendary status. The animation is amazingly well-done both in its naturalism as in its sense of character. It ranks from pure naturalism in Bambi’s mother exploring the meadow and Bambi preparing to fight to pure character animation. A highlight of the latter is Bambi having to say hello to Feline. Bambi’s behavior in this scene is perfect that of a young bashful boy.

The only deviation from believability is during the Twitterpated sequence: Eric Larson’s animation on friend Owl is zany and cartoony, as is the animation of the lovestruck Flower. The whole sequence is a little bit ridiculous, and out of place with the rest of the film. Luckily as soon as Bambi falls in love with Feline, the last part starts, which in its drama, powerful imagery and stunning effects is the undisputed highlight of the whole movie.

Bambi never ceases to amaze: it is simply beautiful.

Watch the skating scene from ‘Bambi’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: May 23, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Frolicking Fish' featuring three fish dancingFrolicking fish indeed. Even oysters, starfish and a lobster join in the dance routines, oh so typical of early Silly Symphonies. Nevertheless, this cartoon ends with some kind of story, when an evil octopus follows a small fish, who gets rid of the villain by dropping an anchor on him.

There’s not much to enjoy in ‘Frolicking Fish’ despite its merry premise. However, like ‘Autumn‘ this cartoon contains early and to many rivaling studios undoubtedly ‘unnecessary’ effect animation, this time loads and loads of bubbles.

It has entered animation history, however, by featuring the first example of  ‘overlapping action’ in animation. Overlapping action acknowledges that different (body) parts move with different speeds. So one part can already start moving, before another comes to an end, and animation cycles can overlap each other in imperfect ways. This opposed to the then normal type of animation, which was based on poses, which led to straightforward animation cycles. This new type of animation was developed by animator Norm Ferguson, who had been hired by Disney in August 1929. It was a milestone at that time, a piece of animation marveled at by Ferguson’s colleagues, including Walt Disney himself. It led to the development of full animation, which would slowly replace the ‘rubber hose animation’ of the early thirties.

Overlapping Action can be seen in the three fish dancing at 2:07. Compare it to the stiff stop-and-go movements of the fish musicians following this scene, and the difference may become clear.

From ‘Frolicking Fish’ on Norm Ferguson would become one of Disney’s greatest and most influential animators of the 1930s, and he was responsible for another breakthrough piece of animation: ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934), the first convincing piece of animation of a character thinking. He was a great influence on future Nine Old Man John Lounsberry, whom he trained as an assistant animator. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s star diminished in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his style had become old-fashioned…

Watch ‘Frolicking Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 10
To the previous Silly Symphony: Night
To the next Silly Symphony: Arctic Antics

‘Frolicking Fish’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Still from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' featuring people abandoning the capsizing steamerMcCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer ‘The Lusitania’ by a German submarine in May 1915.

Like McCay’s earlier films, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ starts with some live action footage of the artist at work, helped by one Mr. Beach who provides McCay with the details on the sinking. Yet, this live action introduction is brief, and soon we cut to the real event.

The action depicted is explained by the title cards, who tell us when and how the ship was hit by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat. The film also tells us about the number of passengers who perished, and singles out four of them. The tone of the title cards is agitated, and angry, pointing to Germany as a cruel and merciless enemy, and ending ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“. This message no doubt was rather welcome in a time in which the United States joined the war effort.

McCay’s animation is of a startling realism: the rolling waves, the steamer and U-boat moving in perspective, the explosions and smoke are totally convincing, and at the same time retain their graphic quality. The impact of the images is greatly enhanced by the use of cels (‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania” is the first McCay film to do so), and lovely background art of ocean skies. Despite the fine animation, the action is on the slow side, with people sometimes falling in slow motion into the sea. Yet, the slowness adds to the terrifying experience of the cruelty depicted.

The staging is superb: McCay uses only a few ‘camera angles’, most of them possible in real life, enhancing the idea of an objective record of events. Only two shots escape the documentary style: one shot of two fish fleeing from an approaching torpedo, and a final shot of a mother with child sinking into the sea. Clearly, McCay wanted the viewer to have the feeling he was witnessing the event in real time, as if he was there. Of course, the documentary style only enhances the clear propagandistic message against Germany. The bold propaganda may not have aged very well, McCay’s images certainly have: such command of perspective, such elegance of drawing and such dramatic yet convincingly ‘realistic’ staging is still impressive, one hundred years later. ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ thus is a great example of how animation can be used in documentaries to show events that could not or have not been put on film. Strangely, this use of animation was not seen again, until the 21st century, when ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008) entered the cinemas.

In all, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite the propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.

Watch ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s fourth film
To Winsor McCay’s third film: Gertie The Dinosaur
To Winsor McCay’s fifth, unfinished film: The Centaurs

‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is available on the DVD ‘Winsor McCay the Master Edition’

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: September 14, 1914
Stars: Gertie the Dinosaur
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

original drawing from 'Gertie the Dinosaur' featuring Gertie and a small mammoth‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ was Winsor McCay’s third animation film, and it certainly is his most famous one, still capable of entertaining new audiences.

The film follows a same story idea similar to that of ‘Little Nemo‘: during a visit to a natural history museum Winsor McCay bets the famous comic strip artist George McManus that he can make a dinosaur move. After these long nine minutes of slow live action introduction, we finally see McCay’s creation: Gertie the dinosaur.

McCay’s dinosaur appears to be a girl dinosaur. She behaves like a trained animal: she listens to what McCay is telling her, she eats a rock and a whole tree, she bows to the camera, she lifts her feet, she’s being startled by a small mammoth, which she throws into the lake, she dances, and she lifts McCay himself on to her back.

The captions in between replace dialogue, which was part of a vaudeville act with Winsor McCay talking to Gertie and she listening to him. This vaudeville show, with which McCay toured, has been recreated in the Disneyland special ‘The Story of Animated Drawing‘, which aired on November 30, 1955, and which is available on the DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’. At the 2014 Annie Awards Ceremony Bill Farmer also reenacted McCay’s vaudeville performance (included below). The reenactment makes the experience of the original film much more vivid, and watching this version is highly recommended.

The short is impressive because of its fine animation, command of perspective and detailed background art (which had to be drawn over and over again), but what really makes the film a milestone of animation is that Gertie the Dinosaur is the first animated cartoon character with personality. She’s not just any dinosaur, she’s a female dinosaur, behaving half like a trained animal, half like a small spoiled child. She cries when being scolded by McCay, and is clearly happy when performing her little dance.

Watching the interaction between her and (the off-screen) McCay is impressive, but it’s also delightful and fun. ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ had a huge impact at the time, and inspired a whole generation of animation film pioneers (e.g. Paul Terry, Frank Moser, Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer and the Fleischer Brothers). The film truly is an all time classic, and enjoyable to this very day.

‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ was followed by the unfinished and much less successful film ‘Gertie on Tour‘, of which McCay completed only two scenes.

Watch ‘Gertie tThe Dinosaur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Here’s the original vaudeville show reenacted by Bill Farmer at the 41st Annie Awards Ceremony (2014):

This is Winsor McCay’s third film
To Winsor McCay’s second film: How a Mosquito Operates
To Winsor McCay’s fourth film: The Sinking of the Lusitania

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: November 5, 1937
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Old Mill © Walt Disney‘The Old Mill’ is a milestone in effect animation.

From the first scene on special effects seem to be the sole raison d’être of the film. The cartoon is literally stuffed with them: dew on a cobweb, ripples in the water, light beams, fireflies, wind, rain and a thunderstorm.

Disney’s famous multiplane camera, with which the feeling of depth could be realized, makes its debut here. Together these effects create an astonishing level of realism, necessary for the upcoming first animated feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. In ‘The Old Mill’ even the animal characters are more or less realistic, a rare feat in Disney cartoons until then.

All this realism leads to awe-inspiring images, based on concept art by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, who had joined the studio in 1936. Unfortunately, the images do not lead to much of a story. The film is more of a series of moods from dusk to dawn. Despite its clever pacing, reaching a climax in the thunderstorm sequence, ‘The Old Mill’ is an overly romantic depiction of nature, and less enjoyable as a cartoon than as a showcase of Disney animation.

Watch ‘The Old Mill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 68
To the previous Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
To the next Silly Symphony: Moth and the Flame

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 30, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Flowers and Trees © Walt Disney‘Flower and Trees’ was the first film (animated or not) in full technicolor and it’s therefore a milestone of cinema.

Nevertheless, it feels like a transitional film. The colors make it stunningly modern compared to the earlier Silly Symphony entries, but some of the designs still firmly belong to the black-and-white era. The designs of the flowers and the caterpillars, for instance, go all the way back to the third Silly Symphony, ‘Springtime‘ from 1929.

The birds, on the other hand, have lost their cartoony designs they still had in ‘The Bird Store‘ from six months earlier, and the villain tree is probably the most elaborate character to have hit the animated screen thus far.

For contemporary audiences, the film may seem rather silly and a bit old fashioned, but its storytelling is very economical. It contains some original visual gags (flowers brushing their teeth, a pine portrayed as a hen) and fine drama, when the rejected mean old trees sets the wood on fire. The colors are not only used as a novelty, but add to the drama, as do musical quotes from Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” and Gioachino Rossini’s overture to William Tell.

Technicolor was a great advancement for the Silly Symphony series. The colors created way more atmosphere and allowed for more complex designs. Because of color, the Silly Symphonies would propel animated art forward like they never did before, making Walt Disney the undisputed leader in the field.

This leadership was greatly aided by the exclusive contract Disney concluded with the Technicolor company, giving him the exclusive rights to use the new technique for animated films for three years. So, when other studios had to stick to black and white, or were obliged to use far less convincing two-color techniques, Walt Disney made the most beautiful and literally most colorful cartoons of the 1930s.

‘Flowers and Trees’ enthralled  the critics so much at the time, they installed a special Academy Award for best animated short films, with ‘Flowers and Trees’ naturally being its first winner. During the 1930s Disney would win every Oscar in this category.

Watch ‘Flowers and Trees’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 29
To the previous Silly Symphony: Just Dogs
To the next Silly Symphony: King Neptune

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
November 18, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Steamboat Willie © Walt Disney

In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.

Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.

And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.

Using sound creatively

Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.

‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.

However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.

The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’

Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.

Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).

Conclusion

Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.

When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.

Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 3
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 19, 1933
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Lullabye Land © Walt DisneyIn ‘Lullaby Land’ a baby is lulled to sleep by his mother, singing ‘rock-a-bye baby’. The song takes the baby and his stuffed dog to Lullaby Land, a wonderfully surreal land made of plaids, rattles etc.

There the baby encounters a parade of baby objects, and a forbidden garden, full of sharp things, like knives and scissors. Despite the warnings of the female choir in the soundtrack, the baby enters. He destroys all watches from a watch tree with a hammer, and plays with matches. The smoke evokes three bogey men, which scare the baby away. Finally, the baby meets the Sandman, who puts the baby asleep to the tune of Johannes Brahms’s lullaby.

With cartoons like ‘Lullaby Land’ Disney set new standards for animation that are still thrilling today. Don’t get me wrong, the cartoon is rather patronizing and sugary cute, especially through the soundtrack. But this is compensated by wonderful surrealistic images, beautiful artwork and superb animation. And, hey, this way of warning against sharp things and matches just may work with small children.

Lullaby Land itself is a highly original fantasy world, and especially its first images are stunningly beautiful. The dance of the bogey men contains some striking use of color that anticipates similar surreal images in ‘Dumbo‘ (1941). Moreover, it is the first example of totally unrealistic color use in animated cartoons, and therefore a milestone.

Unfortunately, the cartoon also marks a trend of childishness creeping into the animation world, not only at Disney’s, but at all other studios, as well. For example, ‘Lullaby Land’ is the first of a whole series of Silly Symphonies obsessed with little babies, and their bare behinds in particular, with ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod‘ from 1938 being the last example.

Anyway, ‘Lullaby Land’ left all competitors far behind. Later, both Walter Lantz (‘Candy Land’, 1934) and Max Fleischer (‘Somewhere in Dreamland‘, 1936) tried to copy the concept with far less convincing results.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 38
To the previous Silly Symphony: Old King Cole
To the next Silly Symphony: The Pied Piper

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 30, 1932
Stars: Pluto
Rating:
★★★★
Review:

Just Dogs © Walt Disney‘Just Dogs’ opens with a dog pound, with several dogs howling to the tune of Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 hit ‘The Prisoner’s Song’.

Then a little black dog escapes, and helps Pluto and several other dogs escaping, too. Once outside the little dog repeatedly tries to gain Pluto’s sympathy, to no avail. Not even when it shares a large bone with Pluto. When an annoying little Pekingese warns the other dogs of the bone, trouble starts, but the little dog saves the day with the help of legion of fleas, while Pluto remains busy with an alarm clock. Only then he gains Pluto’s much wanted sympathy.

‘Just Dogs’ is not a particularly funny or beautiful short and its star, Pluto, is most of the time quite unsympathetic, but it does show the advancements in animation Disney was making at the time: we’re not watching ‘just dogs’, we’re watching several recognizable types of dogs, among them a very lifelike St. Bernard.

By now, the Disney animators didn’t need to stick to stereotyped ducks, pigs, cows, horses, or in this case, dogs, but were able to draw and animate real dogs, who looked like dogs, moved like dogs and behaved like dogs. This kind of naturalism is quite unprecedented in earlier films. ‘Just Dogs’ is still a mixed bag: some of the designs are still very primitive, especially during the escape scene, but there are some striking new designs here, not in the least, the small, optimistic black dog, who ‘s the real hero of the short.

The two main protagonists, Pluto and his clever comrade, are two distinct characters, which behave and move differently, a great advancement in character animation. Disney would develop both naturalism and character animation into perfection in the coming seven years.

Two years later the little dog would reappear as Pluto’s rival Terry in Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics.

Watch ‘Just Dogs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 28
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Bears and the Bees
To the next Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees

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

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