Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What I like about DISNEY!

Welcome to the depths of evil.

Greetings, cartoon pals. I’m back on this July afternoon rummaging around the old bones of Uncle Johns Crazy Town. And bag of bones it is. Some of the writing here is barely at the level of a high school essay competition. Still, I don’t regret being a booster for favourite studios of the 30’s. These days it’s almost all online for the asking. But what’s one more bone, give or take? I’ll place it carefully between the old work boot and empty can of beans. 

Over the years  of my posting here I liked to single out Disney for criticism. This was primarily to provide counter narrative to the tale that the company, and some of it's more fervent admirers, like to tell. In that version animated cartoons were basically created by the Disney studios after some primitive experiments and forgettable predecessors. This in turn caused the studio to create the best animated cartoons ever. It’s a preposterous notion that I delighted in poking at. But it might give the impression that I dislike Disney altogether. T’aint so, McGee. It just so happens I have a very specific liking for Disney.  And what better way to dump an opinion then into the bottomless pit of the internet?  Fascinated? Read on. Don't like it? Hitch the next box car.

 In the Great Animation Sweepstakes of the 30’s Disney had an early lead. Steamboat Willie was not necessarily better animated than other cartoons of 1928. Bill Nolan’s work was  about as good as Iwerks. And Dick Huemer’s animation was arguably superior to both. It's actually a pretty lame cartoon compared to the other Iwerks' Mickeys. What it cemented though was not only audience acceptance for sound but a taste for more.  It payed off big time for the independently financed Disney studio and put the cartoons (and Mickey in particular) into a popular lead. Everybody remembered the first time a cartoon ‘talked’ (squeaked?) and who that character was.  Probably didn't hurt that  there was a strong magazine and newspaper presence for Mickey practically right from the start. 

Still getting booked a year after 'Steamboat Willie' was released. 1929 ad.

What followed was what I consider the classic Iwerks period of Disney. I won’t be discussing those as, to my eyes they share a closer bond with his Celebrity/Pat Powers  cartoons despite most of those being animated by others. Needless to say, I like the whole of Iwerks animation career but would rather limit the scope of observations specifically to the 1931-1939 period at Disney: a period often glossed over by guys like animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson as  both primordial and yet superior to the cartoons of all other studios. Geez, Walt must have gotten those loyalty oaths signed in blood!  

One of the last Disney Iwerks cartoons 'Springtime' (1929) actually LOOKS like it was animated while walking out the door!

Iwerks' first Celebrity Productions' Flip the Frog cartoon: 'Fiddlesticks' (1930) 

The truth is that Disney cartoons of the immediate post-Iwerks period are a shaky lot. Does anyone hold up ‘Babes in the Woods’ as a leading cartoon of 1932? Is 'King Neptune' really better than what the Van Bueren studio was cranking out at the same time? I’d say you already know the answer. In researching for a lecture last year I found myself suffering through a glut of 1932 Mickey Mouse cartoons wondering how the hell anybody could sit through these. Other studios delighted in surprise gags or surreal touches which gave them an almost improvisatory feeling. This is part of why they hold up so well. Mickey's painfully linear cartoons are, by comparison, strictly cartoon Xanax.

Disney's really bad year: 'Babes in The Woods' (1932)

The magic of Pluto: 'The Mad Dog' (1932)

Not better drawing but livelier action and better music: 'Pots and Pans' (Van Bueren Studio, 1932)

Meanwhile Fleischers was already getting into dynamic shots like this: 'Betty M.D.' (1932)

Still, I like me some Disney and I’ll tell you why. True that I’m smitten with 30’s animation but I still love a beautifully rendered static cartoon drawing.  Disney must have shared the fetish since starting in the mid-30's the animated cartoons often seem as obsessed with the quality of the individual drawings as the motion of the characters. By that I mean not only were the key poses  rendered on-model but the in-betweens too. This had to have meant scenes were going back to assistants or animators over and over until they had a folder of ‘uniform’  drawings to put before the camera. What ever the cause, the Disney shorts of the 30's suffer a stiffness of movement that didn't begin to abate until the latter part of the decade.  Still,  goddamn if it didn’t produce some beautifully rendered drawings.

By 1935 Disney began pulling the fat from the fire.  'Cock O' the Walk'  has some nice animation but there are scenes like the ones above where the movement gets really choppy. So, what happened? 

Another cartoon that runs variably stiff but has great drawings is 1935's  'The Golden Touch'  How could anyone dislike King Midas' 'greedy dance' (above)?  Plus the cartoon introduces Disney's greatest character ever: Goldie! 

A dynamic shot from 'Mickey's Man Friday' (1935) demonstrates a knack for Layout: another area in which Disney excelled as the 30's wore on.

I can't talk about Disney high points of the 30's without mentioning  'Toby Tortoise Returns' (1936). It didn't hurt that a good chunk of it was done by master animator Dick Huemer. It's still a little too measured for it's subject (especially compared to the boxing entries of other studios) but overall it's a great cartoon in layout, effects and animation.

 Like Warner Brothers, Disney didn't really hit their stride until the late 30's. Some of the best Donald Duck cartoons were made around this time such as  'The Sea Scouts' (1939).  The series would fall into a rut in the years to come in cartoons featuring such regrettable characters as Spike the Bee and Chip and Dale.

Another aspect of the cartoons where there was no other like Disney was  effects animation.  The first film to achieve realistic effects,  Winsor McCay’s ‘Sinking of the Lusitania’ (1918), gets it wrong  about as much as it does right.  Still, some of the wave animation in it is astonishing for such an early film.  After McCay, effects animation turned to a more graphic, newspaper influenced approach until guys like Cy Young and Ugo D’orsi (at Disney) finally cracked the code. The effects sequences that followed were both beautiful and profoundly influential.  Effects heavy Silly Symphonies like 'The Old Mill' and 'Moth and the Flame' set the stage for things like 'Fantasia'.  Pretty well any effects animation you see today is following in the footsteps of what was pioneered here. 

The first believable effects animation: Winsor McCay's 'Sinking of the Lusitania' (1918)

Disney was great at using effects to convey atmosphere.  'The Old Mill' (1937) is definitely what I'd qualify as an 'egg timer' cartoon.  I can't believe what was passed over for this to win best animated short. But the injustice of that shouldn't detract from a pleasant piece of cinematic wallpaper. Great to put on while making a sandwich or dusting the hydrangeas. 

By 1938 the Disney studio was so confident in what they were doing that they were able to make a special effect into a character in the impressive 'Moth and the Flame'.

Another area of Disney dominance was in the area of promotion and merchandise. From books to games to the venerable Mickey watch: there was no studio who focused as much on the quality, and even ubiquity, of their merch. The one studio who did attempt to compete, Charles Mintz' Scrappy, was too scattershot and increasingly disconnected as the films themselves grew worse, and less popular, over the latter part of the 30’s. If one also counts Floyd Gottfriedson’s masterfully drawn Mickey Mouse strip and the radiant posters which accompanied the films one quickly sees what an amazing body of work it is. The animated cartoons may have sucked but the products promoting them always looked great.

Personally I prefer 'Three Little Wolves' (1936) to 'Three Little Pigs' (1933) but there's no denying the influence the original had on generations of cartoon wolves: from Tex Avery to Famous Studios.

Masterfully drawn but kind of a dull read. Still, Floyd Gottfriedson's strip looked great.

The cartoon sucks ... but how can you not love this poster?!

The 'fly in the ointment' ... or their greatest strength (depending on personal taste I guess)  was Disney's unique 'balletic/operatic' approach to animation. Balletic for their softness and grace.  And operatic for the melodrama the films sometimes revelled in. It's exquiste, in it's way, but not appropriate for everything. Comedy always buckled under the weight of such self serious artistes. But in the context of a deliberate ballet, as was done with Fantasia, the result is an astonishing hybrid. No other studio would or could have made a film like this.   

Perfectly suited to a style: 'Fantasia' (1940)

I won’t go too deeply into the features since Disney only produced one in the 30’s: Snow White. Intellectually I can see what the fuss is about. But personally I find it nearly impossible to sit through the whole thing.  As insane as it sounds I actually prefer Fleischer’s somewhat disastrous Gulliver's Travels!   It's rougher and full of mistakes but I somehow engage better with the characters and music despite the giant roto-man. In short: I can get through it. So, that's not exactly high praise either. That being said, I’ve always felt shorts were the best delivery system for animated cartoons. My favourites among the Disney features tend towards the 'package pictures' (features made up of individual shorts) as were films like Melody Time, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros and the aforementioned Fantasia

Sure the film has some nice sequences like those with the witch or the evil queen. But I prefer things like that excerpted. The movie as a whole is just too much of a slog.

Sniffy, Snotty, Weepy and ...

wait, how'd you get in here?

Bottom line is that every animation studio of the 30’s had something to recommend it. Even the crude 1930's Terrytoons had their own propulsive charm. For Disney the 30's marked a crucible not a landslide victory. What they brought to animation was a unique brand of theatrical lyricism. There was no other studio quite like them. That didn't make them the best but it did make them unique; and that uniqueness is worth noting.  Sure, the cartoons could be kind of boring but even a fifth or sixth favourite ice cream is still ice cream.  If you're in the right mood there’s some cool stuff in there. Personally I'm glad they're out there. I could go on but I have to cue up some Goldie. God help me.