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Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 April 5, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Barnyard Concert © Walt DisneyWhile other studios, like Walter Lantz and the Max Fleischer drew inspiration from jazz, and while Warner Bros. could draw from an extensive music catalog, in the early sound days Walt Disney turned to (copyright-free) folk songs and classical music.

After ‘The Opry House‘ (1929) and ‘Just Mickey‘, Mickey’s concert career reaches new heights in ‘The Barnyard concert’. In this highly enjoyable cartoon Mickey conducts a barnyard orchestra in Franz von Suppé’s overture to ‘Dichter und Bauer’. There’s one throwaway gag looking all the way back to his breakthrough cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928),in which Mickey torments some pigs, but most of the cartoon is forward looking.

Indeed ‘The Barnyard Concert’ looks like a blueprint for ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), in which many of the gags introduced here are improved to perfection. The cartoon features no dialogue, whatsoever, but is full of clever sight gags.

Unfortunately, at this stage the animators still had problems with Mickey’s eyes: in one close-up in particular they are placed awkwardly in Mickey’s face.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 17
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Just Mickey
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Cactus Kid

‘The Barnyard Concert’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume Two’

Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date: May 25, 1930
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Noah Knew His Ark © Van BeurenThis short starts with a scene in which we watch Noah, who is dressed like a sailor, dancing to music a chimp plays on an elephant’s toes.

When Noah’s corns warn him rain is coming, all animals flee into his ark, including a dinosaur. Only the skunks are placed in a separate little boat (a gag more or less repeated in Disney’s ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ from 1933). On the ship itself it’s suddenly dry and the animals start a very, very Silly Symphony-like dance routine, with dancing storks, monkeys, elephants, hippos, etc. Then they all sing ‘It ain’t gonna rain no mo”. But when the skunks enter the ark, all animals abandon ship. Iris out.

Like ‘The Haunted Ship‘, ‘Noah Knew His Ark’ shows a huge Disney influence. The cartoon is a Silly Symphony but in a name. In this stage Disney’s own cartoons were not really sophisticated themselves, and the Van Beuren Studio at times reaches the same level of animation. However, they bring little of their own, and ‘Noah Knew His Ark’ can hardly be called a classic.

Watch ‘Noah Knew His Ark’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Noah Knew His Ark’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 November 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating:
Review:

Jungle Rhythm © Walt Disney‘Jungle Rhythm’ opens with Mickey playing the harmonica while riding an elephant, the design of which is still rooted in the silent era.

Mickey shoots a vulture, but misses and is soon threatened by a bear and a lion. Luckily at that moment a monkey and a parrot start playing a tune on his harmonica, and a long dance routine can begin…

First we watch Mickey dancing with the lion and the bear, then two monkeys. Then Mickey plays the saxophone with two ostriches dancing. Mickey plays the whiskers of a little leopard like a harp, while a lion dances the hula, and he even returns to ‘Turkey in the Straw’, the tune that made him famous in his first sound cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928). After playing’Yankee Doodle’ on five tigers, a number of apes and a lion, the crowd applauds, and the cartoon ends.

‘Jungle Rhythms’ is easily one of the most boring entries among the early Mickey Mouse shorts: there’s no plot, no dialogue, no song, and the dance routines resemble the worst in contemporary Silly Symphonies. In fact, to me, ‘Jungle Rhythm’, together with ‘When The Cat’s Away‘ and ‘The Castaway‘ (1931), forms the worst trio of all Mickey Mouse cartoons. Luckily, weak cartoons like these remained a rarity within the series.

Watch ‘Jungle Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 13
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Jazz Fool
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Haunted House

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 October 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Horse Horsecollar
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Jazz Fool © Walt Disney‘The Jazz Fool’ opens with Mickey playing the organ on a tilt car, which says ‘Mickey’s Big Road Show’, followed by a crowd of animals.

When settled down, Mickey produces a piano out of nowhere, and performs a mildly jazzy stride tune on it. We also watch Horace Horsecollar without his usual yoke performing some drumming to Mickey’s organ tune.

This is Mickey’s second piano concerto cartoon (after ‘The Opry House‘ from seven months earlier), and thus contains some new gags involving piano playing. Mickey severely mistreats the instrument, even spanking it, so, unsurprisingly, the piano takes revenge in the end. The music can hardly be called jazz, however, even though it contains some nice stride piano. It would take two years before Mickey would turn to real jazz, in ‘Blue Rhythm‘ (1931).

As one may have noticed ‘The Jazz Fool’ is one of those early plotless Mickey Mouse shorts. However, there’s plenty of action, and Mickey’s piano performance is still entertaining today. Nevertheless, Mickey would turn to the violin in his next concert cartoon ‘Just Mickey‘ (1930).

Watch ‘The Jazz Fool’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 12
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Choo-Choo
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Jungle Rhythm

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 October 1, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Mickey's Choo-Choo © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ Mickey drives an outrageously flexible anthropomorphized locomotive, which is an early ancestor of Casey Junior from ‘Dumbo’ (1941).

He sings ‘I’m working on the railroad‘ and even plays the spaghetti he’s eating, treating it like a harp. Minnie comes along, playing the violin. At this point the cartoon harks back to Mickey’s success cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928), with Mickey playing music on some ducks and a dog.

After this sequence, Minnie rides Mickey’s train to the tune of Yankee Doodle, but on a very steep hill the wagon gets loose and falls backwards with Minnie on it. This sequence contains some wonderful rollercoaster-like perspective gags, reminiscent of the early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Trolley Troubles’ (1927).

‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ is remarkably fast and full of action. Moreover, it’s the first Disney cartoon to feature real dialogue. However, there’s hardly any plot and Mickey’s and Minnie’s designs are extraordinarily inconsistent, ranging from very sophisticated (with an extra facial line) to downright poor. The result is unfortunately only an average entry in the Mickey Mouse canon.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 11
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Follies
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Jazz Fool

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 December 1, 1929
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Merry Dwarfs © Walt DisneyAmong the earliest 24 Silly Symphonies there’s a remarkable lot of dancing, as the novelty of movement to synchronized sound formed the basis of the series’ initial existence.

‘The Merry Dwarfs’ is characteristic of these earliest Silly Symphonies. It opens with dwarfs working to the music of Giuseppe Verdi’s anvil chorus from ‘Il trovatore’. Soon we watch them drinking beer (quite remarkable for a cartoon made in the age of abolition) before the long dance sequence kicks in.

This tiresome dance sequence first involves four dwarfs, then two. True, the gags follow each other remarkably naturally, but the dance remains rather dull anyhow until the very end. The cartoon’s sole highlight is in the end, when the two dwarfs fall into a barrel of beer, and their drunkenness makes everything, including the background, wobbly.

There is very little to enjoy in ‘The Merry Dwarfs’, but as it involves dwarfs, it is nice to watch it together with ‘Babes in the Woods‘ (1932) and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and gasp at the enormous strides the Disney studio had taken in a mere eight years.

Watch ‘The Merry Dwarfs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 5
To the previous Silly Symphony: Hell’s Bells
To the next Silly Symphony: Summer

‘The Merry Dwarfs’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: July 31, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Karnival Kid © Walt Disney‘The Karnival Kid’ forms an important step in the use of sound in an animated cartoon.

We had already watched and heard Minnie singing “lalala” in ‘The Plow Boy’, and in ‘The Barnyard Battle’ a sergeant spoke a few words. But in ‘The Karnival Kid’ there’s suddenly a lot of singing: Pete sings, Mickey sings, and the complete second half of the cartoon is devoted to song.

‘The Karnival Kid’ shows that lip synchronization was far more difficult to master than synchronized sound itself. The animation of the mouth to form syllables was a totally new feat, and initially it was done all too literally. This leads to awkward facial expressions at times, with especially Mickey’s face distorting into a multitude of mouth gestures. This would be even worse in Mickey’s next cartoon, ‘Mickey’s Follies’.

At the same time, a lot of the characters’ action remains typical silent pantomime. For example, when Mickey offers Minnie a hot dog for free, this is acted out in complete silence.

‘The Karnival Kid’ is a wonderfully witty film. Mickey works as a hot dog seller at the fair, where Minnie is a shimmy dancer. The film is split in two parts: in the first Mickey sells living(!) hot dogs and gives one to Minnie. When the unlucky weenie is not very cooperative, Mickey spanks him! These hot dog gags are reused from the Oswald short ‘All Wet‘ (1927), but they still feel fresh, due to the added sound. Now we can hear the hot dogs barking and yelping. And so, after ‘The Karnival Kid’ these hot dog gags were reused a second time by Ub Iwerks in the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘Circus’ (1932).

The second part is introduced by a title card ‘later that night’, which melts before the scene starts. Here Mickey offers Minnie a serenade with the help of two cats who sing ‘Sweet Adeline’. The cartoon ends when Mickey is hit by a bed(!) which Pete has thrown at him.

As you may have noticed, ‘The Karnival Kid’ has very little story. It’s enjoyable because of the carnival atmosphere, the large number of gags, and the intoxicating singing.

Watch ‘The Karnival Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 9
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Battle

To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Follies

Director: Unknown
Release Date: July 9, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tall Timber © Walt DisneyBefore the rediscovery of ‘Sleigh Bells’ in 2015 ‘Tall Timber’ was the last surviving Oswald cartoon made by Walt Disney.

It features Oswald canoeing in the wild, shooting ducks and encountering wild animals, like a moose and a family of bears.

The cartoon’s story is sloppy (although it doesn’t help that some sequences are missing), but the short shows that Disney had advanced animation already before the advent of Mickey. For example, the cartoon features some spectacular waterfall animation, and a convincing falling rock sequence.

The falling rock eventually renders Oswald flat, and in a sequence animated by Hugh Harman we watch him wandering about a little as a flat character. In an attempt to get normal again, he becomes bulbous, which accounts for some surreal, almost trippy close ups of his inflated face, animated by Ham Hamilton.

‘Tall Timber’ was released in June 1928. By that time Disney had already started anew, trying to sell the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘, to distributors.

‘Tall Timber’ was followed by two more Oswald cartoons by Disney (the recently rediscovered ‘Sleigh Bells’ and the lost ‘Hot Dog’), then by nine by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, before the series was given to Walter Lantz’s studio. Lantz by far produced the most Oswald cartoons, releasing 142 in total. The character lasted until 1938. But by then Oswald looked quite different from the version in ‘Tall Timber’…

Watch ‘Tall Timber’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 23
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: The Fox Chase
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sleigh Bells

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: June 29, 1951
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tomorrow We Diet © Walt DisneySeveral of the Goofy cartoons of the 1950s cover everyday problems like driving and smoking, and, in ‘Tomorrow We Diet!’, dieting. These subjects remain remarkably topical, which makes them enjoyable to watch today.

‘Tomorrow We Diet’ features a particular fat type of Goofy with a weird faint voice. This fat Goofy is encouraged to diet by his rather independent mirror image. This unfortunately leads to hallucinations of food and to sleep-walking. When he finally gives in to his hunger he discovers that ‘the man in the mirror’ has eaten everything.

The highlights of the cartoon are a number of fatness gags, and the nightmarish hallucination sequence with its continuous voices saying “eat!”

Watch ‘Tomorrow We Diet!’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 30
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Cold War
To the next Goofy cartoon: Get Rich Quick

Directors: William Beaudine & Wilfred Jackson
Airing date: November 30, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Gertie the Dinosaur, Colonel Heeza Liar, Silas Bumpkin, Bobby Bumps, Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Story of Animated Drawing © Walt DisneyWalt Disney himself hosts a Disneyland television episode on the history of animation, from the humble attempts to capture movement in drawing in the caves of Lascaux to his own masterpiece ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

Disney demonstrates some early devices of animation like the thaumatrope, the phenakistoscope, the zoetrope and the praxinoscope, showing that animation in fact predates cinema. One of the highlights of the program is the complete showing of one of Charles-Émile Reynaud’s animated “films” for his own praxinoscope device. The other one is the reenactment of Winsor McCay’s vaudeville show with Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). This part alone makes the episode worthwhile watching, as McCay’s classic work becomes even stronger in its vaudeville context.

More animation from other early studios is shown, like Bray’s Colonel Heeza Liar, Raoul Barré’s Silas Bumpkin, Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat.

Disney also plays tribute to his old rival, Max Fleischer, by showing a Koko the Clown cartoon, accompanied by organ playing by his own cartoon composer, Oliver Wallace. The show ends with one of Walt Disney’s major achievements, the Nutcracker Suite from’Fantasia'(1940), which, unfortunately, is shown in black and white.

Watch ‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

Director: Ward Kimball
Airing Date: March 9, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Ward Kimball, Wernher von Braun
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Man in Space © Walt Disney‘Man in Space’ is a Disneyland special about man’s conquest of space, which, two years before the launching of Sputnik, was still a dream at that time.

The documentary includes information about rockets, weightlessness and concludes with an exciting account of man’s first space travel, based on the designs by rocket engineer Wernher von Braun. Von Braun is one of three German scientists featured in the program, the others being Willy Ley and Heinz Haber, demonstrating the enormous influence of German scientists on American science. Ley had fled Nazi Germany in 1935, but Haber stayed there till the end of the war, and Von Braun was even responsible for the deadly V2 rocket, a technical tour-de-force, but also the Nazi regime’s most fearful weapon.

‘Man in Space’ is shortly introduced by Walt Disney himself, quickly giving the presentation to director Ward Kimball, who remains the main host of the program. Kimball is clearly in his element here. His own wacky cartoon animation style is featured in a short history of man’s attempts to enter space, and in Haber’s accounts of ‘space medicine’. Indeed, he later called the space series, of which ‘Man in Space’ is the first entry, the creative high point of his career.

Throughout the movie, the use of animation is sparse, however, and the animation itself very limited. Nevertheless, its use is very effective, especially in the visionary concluding part, with its typical fifties science fiction designs.

‘Man in Space’ would be followed by ‘Man and the Moon‘ (1955) and ‘Mars and Beyond’ (1957), taking ideas on space travel even further.

Watch ‘Man in Space’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Release Date:
 November 8, 1973
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Robin Hood © Walt Disney‘Robin Hood’ was Walt Disney studio’s 21st feature. The film’s story and designs lean heavily on the 1938 feature ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, starring Errol Flynn.

But by now the characters are portrayed as animals, a relic of an abandoned feature film project about Reynard the fox called ‘Chanticleer’. This great idea doesn’t lead to a great film, however. Despite the fine character designs, the strong voice cast and the often superb animation, Robin Hood must be placed among the weaker Disney features.

Many of the character designs are so reminiscent of those in ‘Jungle Book’, the film almost feels like a rip-off. There’s a bear, voiced by Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo, there’s a snake with the power of hypnosis and there are some funny vultures. The story evolves at a remarkably slow pace, with some sort of plot only setting in after 29 minutes. More than any earlier Disney feature ‘Robin Hood’ seems particularly aimed at children: both great drama and great comedy are absent and danger is never really felt. The great finale is anything but that, and King Richard serves as an off-stage Deus ex machina, putting an equally welcomed as unsatisfying end to the film.

In a 1973 letter to animator Larry Ruppel, cited in John Canemaker’s book ‘Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men & The Art of Animation’, animator Frank Thomas expressed the film’s shortcomings:

“We obviously decided to keep it on the ‘fun’ side, but I have worried that the audiences would feel it was too flimsy – that we were not being quite serious enough with our characters. For instance, does anyone really fear Prince John? Is Robin ever worried about his ability to achieve something or even how it should be done? Did winning Maid Marian make any difference in Robin’s behavior. In real life it would have.”

The rather tinned music doesn’t help, either. Even worse, the film’s three forgettable songs are all presented within a twelve minutes period of the film (0’46-0’58), and the dance scene blatantly reuses complete dance animation sequences from ‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs’ (1937), ‘Jungle Book’ (1967) and ‘Aristocats’ (1970). All these aspects give the film a cheap feel. It frustrated younger animators like Don Bluth, who thought the film lacked both quality and soul, and it indirectly led to Bluth’s departure in 1979, during the production of ‘The Fox and the Hound‘ (1981).

The film’s only real treat is King John. This is by all means a marvelous character, perfectly voiced by Peter Ustinov. Because of the film’s strong visuals (after all, it’s the only Robin Hood film starring foxes), the film fares better in memory than by actually watching it.

In all, Robin Hood is a sad feature, which makes painfully clear that in the seventies Disney’s glory days lay years behind. Indeed, it would take the studio another fifteen years to crawl out of the uncertain times the studio went through after Walt Disney’s death.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Robin Hood’ and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: September 16, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Pied Piper' featuring the pied piper and some rats

‘The Pied Piper’ is a vivid re-telling of the original fairy tale in operetta fashion.

Thus ‘The Pied Pier’, together with ‘King Neptune‘ (1932) and ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), belongs to the operetta- like Silly Symphonies. In its score, composed by Leigh Harline, practically all dialogue is sung, making ‘The Pied Piper’ an animated mini-opera.

Its human designs are way more detailed and anatomically correct than in ‘King Neptune’ or ‘Father Noah’s Ark’, making these two films looking old-fashioned, already. Disney was advancing towards the later realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) with a lightning speed…

Unfortunately, at the same time, a sugary approach is unleashed, as well. For example, the rats are not drown, but caught in an imaginary cheese. Likewise, the children, who are depicted as virtual slaves in Hamelin, do not just disappear, but they’re lured into ‘Joyland’, where even the crippled get cured. So, in the end, practically no harm is done to anyone.

And so, like the contemporary ‘Lullaby Land‘, ‘The Pied Piper’ is a strange mixture of ever advancing animation and rather infantile material. A great deal of the remaining Silly Symphonies would share this mixture, and even Disney’s first features, like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Bambi‘ (1942) are not immune to it.

The children designs used here would pop up in numerous sugary cartoons from the 1930s, including those from other studios. And, unfortunately, there would be a lot of them…

Watch ‘The Pied Piper’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 39
To the previous Silly Symphony: Lullaby Land
To the next Silly Symphony: The Night before Christmas

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 10, 1930
Stars: Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Cactus Kid' featuring Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Mickey looking over a cliff‘The Cactus Kid’ can be summarized as ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho in Mexico’. Mickey visits a Mexican canteen where Minnie’s a waitress. They make music together until Pete enters and kidnaps Minnie.

When Mickey pulls her nose, we hear Minnie speaking Spanish. The Mexican atmosphere is further enhanced by the use of music from Emmanuel Chabrier’s España, although the chase scene is accompanied by Jacques Offenbach’s (French) can-can.

Pete’s seen with a peg leg for the first time in this cartoon, although he already had a peg leg in several Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. We also hear him really speak for the first time. Actually, there’s an unprecedented amount of dialogue in this cartoon. Nevertheless, Mickey’s lips still look awkward when he speaks. Fortunately, this problem would soon be solved in the following cartoons.

Horace Horsecollar is recognizable, too, with his characteristic yoke and bowler hat. But he’s still only a partly humanized horse, here, and Mickey rides him. Only in ‘The Shindig‘ from two months later Horace Horsecollar would be fully anthropomorphized.

‘The Cactus Kid’ happened to be the last cartoon Walt Disney directed himself until his unfortunate come-back with ‘The Golden Touch’ five years later. The film was parodied as ‘Galloping Romance’, the cartoon showed in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ from 1932.

Watch ‘The Cactus Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 18
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Concert
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Fire Fighters

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: April 18, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Night' featuring a moth near a candle‘Night’ is a typical ‘mood piece’ Silly Symphony, comparable with the season mini-series (Springtime, Summer, Autumn, and Winter). This time it’s night and we watch owls, moths, fireflies, mosquitoes and frogs moving to music.

As usual in the early Silly Symphonies, there’s practically no plot, but only a dance routine, and a rather dull one, too. Nevertheless, the short manages to evoke more ‘mood’ than the other early entries.

Especially the opening scene looks beautiful with its rippling reflection of the moon in the water, predating similar scenes in ‘Water Babies‘ (1935) and ‘The Old Mill‘ (1937). Indeed, ‘Night’ can be seen as an early forerunner of the latter cartoon, and it is interesting to compare them, and awe at the tremendous strides the Disney studio had made in the mere seven years between the two shorts.

According to David Gerstein in ‘Animation Art’ the dancing frog is the embryonic form of Flip the Frog, Ub Iwerks’s own star after he had left Disney January 1930. Apparently, Iwerks wanted to make a new star out of this frog, but this idea was turned down by Walt Disney. Indeed, this frog gets quite some screen time (the last three minutes of the cartoon), and has a girlfriend, who is a clear forerunner of Flip’s sweetheart in Flip’s second cartoon, ‘Puddle Pranks‘.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 9
To the previous Silly Symphony: Cannibal Capers
To the next Silly Symphony: Frolicking Fish

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: March 6, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'Just Mickey' featuring Mickey playing the violinThis is a very aptly titled short: we only see Mickey, there are no other stars or characters.

Mickey is the sole performer in his fourth concert cartoon (after ‘The Opry House‘, ‘Mickey’s Follies‘ and ‘The Jazz Fool‘, all from 1929). This time he’s playing the violin, presenting his reading of the fifth Hungarian dance by Johannes Brahms, Träumerei by Robert Schumann (which makes him cry) and, as an encore, the finale from ‘Overture William Tell‘ by Gioachino Rossini.

The whole setting is such that we’ve got the feeling we’re part of the audience ourselves, and that the man with the mocking laugh is among us. Later, the Warner Bros. studio would expand upon this idea of cartoon figures and audience interplay.

‘Just Mickey’ contains some good facial expression animation of Mickey, besides some great shadow effects during his rendering of ‘Träumerei‘. Moreover, the hand movements in this short are remarkably convincing. It is an early showcase of Walt Disney’s ambition to improve the art of animation. Being the first Mickey Mouse cartoon after Ub Iwerks’s departure in January 1930, it shows the studio could do very well without him…

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 16
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Wild Waves
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Concert

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: December 2, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'The Haunted House' featuring Mickey startled by skeletons‘The Haunted House’ is Mickey’s first horror cartoon.

In this short he hides from a rain storm in a house, which appears to be haunted by skeletons. A cloaked skeleton orders Mickey to play on a harmonium, while all the skeletons dance.

This sequence reuses some footage of four skeletons dancing from ‘The Skeleton Dance‘. Unfortunately, the new animation on dancing and playing skeletons is hardly as good, and the dancing sequence feels more primitive than ‘The Skeleton Dance’. However, the opening shot is beautiful, with the house flexing in the wind. There’s also some good animation on the cloaked skeleton, and a beautifully lit scene when Mickey strikes a match.

Mickey’s role in this short is very limited, and his only function seems to be being the carrier of the audience’s fear. Indeed, he looks repeatedly into the camera for sympathy, dragging us into the haunted house with him.

The early scenes of this cartoon manage to evoke a genuine feel of horror, but in the end this short resembles the boring song-and-dance-routines of both the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series too much to be a stand out.

Mickey would return to the horror genre in ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘ (1930) and ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1933), with much better results.

Watch ‘The Haunted House’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 14
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Jungle Rhythm
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Wild Waves

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 7, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'El Terrible Toreador'featuring the bull and the toreador‘El Terrible Toreador’ is the second entry of the Silly Symphonies. It has been far lesser known than the first, ‘The Skeleton Dance‘, which is no surprise, because it contains none of the ingredients which made ‘The Skeleton Dance’ a classic: there’s no interesting mood, no spectacular animation, and there are hardly any funny gags.

Unlike the other early Silly Symphonies, ‘El Terrible Toreador’ is more silly than symphony-like. That is: it’s more of a ‘story’ consisting of silly gags than the song-and-dance-routine typical of the Silly Symphonies up to 1931.

The cartoon consists of two parts: in the first part we watch a Spanish canteen, where a large officer and a toreador are  fighting for the love of a waitress. In the second part, the toreador is fighting and dancing with a bull in the arena. Surprisingly, the story of the first part is hardly developed here: the cartoon ends when the toreador has pulled the bull inside out, thus ending the fight.

‘El Terrible Toreador’ is notable for being Disney’s first attempt at the human form since the early 1920s. However, the humans are a far cry from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ from (only) eight years later. In this early cartoon the human characters are extraordinarily flexible and they do not move lifelike at all (I noticed I thought of them as bugs some of the time).

The most interesting feature of this short is Carl Stalling’s score. His music already bears his signature and contains many citations from ‘Carmen’ by Georges Bizet.

Watch ‘El Terrible Toreador’  yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 2
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Skeleton Dance
To the next Silly Symphony: Springtime

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 1, 1924
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice)
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice's wild west show' featuring Virginia Davis blowing smoke ringsAlice organizes a wild west show for the kids in the neighborhood.

All goes well until the bully Tubby O’Brien and his gang show up. Her fellow actors chicken out, so Alice has to improvise some stories about her experiences in the ‘wild and woolly west’. Enter the cartoon sequence.

In her first story she defeats some Indians. In the second one she’s a sheriff in a saloon, smoking a cigar and attending a bad performance of ‘Sweet Adeline’. Meanwhile, the villain, “Wild Bill Hiccup” tries to steal the safe. He and Alice end up in a gunfight in which every other person in the saloon gets killed. She chases the villain by car, returning the safe in the end.

The gang of bullies is not impressed and they pelt her with vegetables. But Alice chases them all out of her humble theater, beating up Tubby O’Brien herself. The cartoon ends with her triumphant smile.

The live action footage, with the instantly lovable Virginia Davis as Alice and a bunch of local children, is highly entertaining. None of the animation, by Ham Hamilton and Walt Disney himself, is particularly interesting, however. Indeed, two months later, Disney would quit animating himself, leaving that to his more skilled employees, like Ub Iwerks.

Watch ‘Alice’s Wild West Show’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice’s Wild West Show’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Director: Walt Disney
Production Date: 1923
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice), Walt Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Ub Iwerks, Carman Maxwell
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Alice's Wonderland' featuring Alice being chased by three lions‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is the pilot film for the Alice cartoons, which Disney made in Kansas city, before trying his luck in Hollywood.

The title card of this pilot reads: “Scenario and direction by Walt Disney. Photography by Ubbe Iwerks and Rudolf Ising. Technical direction by Hugh Harman and Carman Maxwell.”

Alice (the four year old Virginia Davis) drops by the studio and tells Walt Disney she likes to watch him drawing some funnies. Walt Disney lacks his familiar mustache in this sequence, but he is already the kind entertainer of children here, and he takes her to a sheet of paper on where a cat chases a dog out of a dog house. The rest of the studio is also populated by animators (Iwerks, Harman, Ising and Maxwell all appear in this cartoon) and toons alike. The whole crew ‘s watching a boxing match between a dog and a cat, for example.

That night Alice dreams she arrives in cartoonland by train. She’s welcomed by animals and she performs a little dance for them. Unfortunately four lions break out of Cartoonland Zoo and they chase her into a tree, into a cave, into a rabbit hole and finally, to a cliff. She falls off the cliff, and then she awakes.

This cartoon is very entertaining. The idea of a girl in a cartoon (the inverse of the idea of Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell, a series that was around for eight years by then) works wonderfully, and the cartoon is lively. It already contains lots of music and dance, and a very rubbery animated train, besides the normal stiff animation you find in most cartoons of the twenties. The animation of the train looks forward to the flexible animation style that would later make Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney famous.

Luckily, Disney was able to sell the Alice series, starting his Hollywood career. His fledgling studio released 56 Alice Comedies in the next four years, until the series was replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. The series was quite successful, allowing Disney to expand and to improve. In that sense, ‘Alice’s Wonderland’ lay the foundation of the Disney imperium.

Watch ‘Alice’s Wonderland’  yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

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