Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Barnyard Concert - April 10, 1930

The Barnyard Concert is Mickey's 16th cartoon and is also historic in its own way. This toon was the first to showcase the Mickey Head with a sunburst behind it; with the advent of color in later years, this opening would go on to become one of the character's most popular cartoon trademarks.

The toon also showcases a brand new title card design. Comparing the new title card with the old one used for the toon Jungle Rhythm, it's easy to tell the major difference: Mickey and Minnie's design. The original title card used the designs for the mice seen in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, which is strange since by Steamboat Willie both characters were redrawn with pupil-less eyes.

The Barnyard Concert opens with Mickey passionately conducting his orchestra made up of various farm animals.

One thing I really enjoy is the fantastic animation of Mickey. His movements and facial expressions are so fluid that you really can tell the Disney animators have started to refine their craft.

Making an appearance as a flutist is Clarabelle Cow. Like Minnie, Clarabelle is seen sometimes with and sometimes without her flowered hat. We have yet to see Clarabelle in any form of clothing, like Mickey and Minnie, and I have to say that I'm excited to find out which cartoon marks that debut.

Also naked as can be is percussionist Horace Horsecollar, who seems to be using one of Clarabell's cousins as a musical instrument.

Because this toon has a very limited story (the animals just play music and nothing more), it is very gag-driven. One of the funnier gags is this one of a pig trumpeter who keeps losing his wig.

Another clever gag centers around another pig trumpeter who keeps playing the wrong, sour note. A frustrated Mickey tries to figure out the problem, and upon closer inspection it is discovered that a fly pretending to be a note is the cause of the confusion.

It must have been hard on the storymen to constantly think up fresh gags, which is why recurring gags are sometimes seen. This one of Mickey pulling the tails of piglets harkens back to Steamboat Willie.

The Barnyard Concert is certainly not one of Mickey's best shorts; it's just an ok cartoon. The film probably seems familiar to most people because it bears much resemblance to 1935's The Band Concert, Mickey's first color cartoon (and one which I suspect is a remake of this toon).

Wild Waves - December 21, 1929

Wild Waves is the 15th cartoon in the Mickey Mouse shorts series. While the toon features great animation, the overall story leaves me wanting more.

Wild Waves opens with Mickey as a beach lifeguard singing to the various beach critters. The animation of Mickey singing and rocking here and there to his musical beat is fantastic and telling of the increased flexibility and freedom of his design. Whether it was a minute change in Mickey's body structure or the Disney animators found their niche, this toon sees a Mickey bursting at the seams with personality and vigor.

Minnie enters as a lovely beach-goer ready for a nice day of playfulness and basking in the warm sun. I'm always partial to these older cartoons because they act in some ways as time capsules, preserving thoughts, fashions, and attitudes of the time period. Minnie's very '20s-'30s bathing suit is just one example of this.

Though all she wants is to have fun, Minnie unfortunately is caught up in a oversized wave and taken out to sea.

Thankfully lifeguard Mickey is on duty to save the day, but after being rescued from a frightful situation, Minnie breaks down and cries.

Here Mickey and Minnie share a short conversation in which Mickey tells his beloved to calm down. An interesting thing I noticed in this toon and a few previous ones is that whenever the two mice converse all music and sound effects stop. This was probably done to better hear the voices, which is understandable, but in later toons the conversations flow much more naturally.

From there, Mickey decides to lead all the beach animals in a happy melody to cheer Minnie up. Seal lions, a walrus, and even beach penguins (?) all dance merrily as Mickey plays a lovely tune on his net-harp.

In the end Minnie is delighted by her lover's attempts at making her happy and plants a wet one on Mickey.

Wild Waves is a decent cartoon with good animation but just an ok story, especially when compared to its predecessor The Haunted House.

The Haunted House - December 2, 1929

Mickey's 14th cartoon is the gem of a film entitled The Haunted House. By this time in 1929, the Disney Studio really began to fully understand its craft and started to experiment more and more with different animation techniques and special effects. The Haunted House is such a great Mickey toon because although it relies somewhat on a familiar formula (song-and-dance), it is a major step in good storytelling as well as a showcase for the best animation could be at the time.

The story of The Haunted House is very simple: Mickey weathers a storm and seeks shelter inside a nearby house. Taking a look at just this frame of Mickey, you can clearly see how well defined and animated the character is. I think this is telling of the major growth taking place in the Disney Studio.

Once inside the house, Mickey soon discovers that he is not alone. He stumbles upon skeletons and a cloaked figure which try to scare him.

In a strange twist, the cloaked figure orders Mickey to play the nearby organ so that the entire household can dance to the happy melody. From this point, the toon turns into a song-and-dance routine.

Much of the fun in the cartoon comes from the skeletons themselves and the stellar animation of them dancing. The gags are all great to watch, and they add so much to the short.

An interesting note is that one piece of animation featuring the skeletons dancing is lifted straight from 1929's The Skeleton Dance, the very first Silly Symphony.

Once Mickey finishes his music, he tries to escape the house but seems to run into seletons everywhere! Finally, however, he is able to get away and leave the house forever.

The Haunted House is currently on the banned Mickey shorts list, or Vault Disney. Towards the beginning of the film, Mickey is seen mimicking actor Al Jolson's now infamous black face routine in 1927's The Jazz Singer. Mickey's playful cries of "Mammy" are certainly not out of the ordinary for cartoons and movies from the late 1920s, but the depiction of black face is still considered rascist and morally wrong.

Another reason why this toon is banned is for another rascist depiction featuring two skeletons caricatured as Hasidic Jews. Again, this is not a gag uncommon in films from the this time period; in fact, many more depictions like this occur in other Disney shorts.

The Haunted House is full of great animation and special effects. The use of sillhouette, shadows, flickering candlelight, lightning, wind, rain, and bats flying straight towards the camera are prime examples of the growing sophistication Disney started to give its cartoons. This toon is certainly one of Mickey's best and a stepping stone for further more complex films.

Jungle Rhythm - November 15, 1929

Jungle Rhythm is the 13th Mickey Mouse short. As you probably can tell, the cartoon takes place in the jungle and is a typical song-and-dance toon from Mickey's early years; however, it is enjoyable and features some interesting animation gags.

Before Pluto, Mickey was paired up with a large elephant serving as his exotic hunting "dog". The cartoon begins with the two out in the jungle searching for game while playing a few merry tunes on an accordion.

Unfortunately for hunter Mickey, he stumbles across an unfriendly bear and a ferocious lion. Teeth bared, the hungry animals scare Mickey out of his wits!

Luckily for Mickey a parrot and a monkey find his accordion and play a happy little jig. The music distracts the bear and lion, and soon the entire jungle is dancing to the beat. I like Jungle Rhythm for its visual gags, especially the funny ostrich dance seen above.

It's a habit of Mickey's to use nearby animals as musical instruments, and he does not fail to amuse here. Whether it's using tiger whiskers as a harp, tiger screams for melody, or a lion's tongue for an instrumental plucking, Mickey certainly is creative.

My favorite gag in this toon is the lion who does the hula. He uses his mane as a skirt and a nearby snake as an inventive lei.

All in all Jungle Rhythm does not present anything notable storywise, but its gags make it one of the better films in Mickey's early career.

The Jazz Fool - October 15, 1929

12th in Mickey's cartoon series of shorts is The Jazz Fool, a rather boring short featuring Mickey playing musical tunes.

The toon starts with Mickey riding into town advertising for his big road show. He sits playing a joyful tune on his calliope as the entire town follows him down the street.

Also included in Mickey's Big Road Show is a hatless Horace Horsecollar playing percussion instruments as Mickey dances and entertains the crowd.

Mickey steps out from behind the curtain and sets his piano up to play for the audience. The rest of the cartoon just features Mickey playing piano tunes, which is why I tend to find the short a bit boring and unoriginal.

As I watched The Jazz Fool, it for some reason seemed very familiar to me, as if I had seen Mickey do all this before. I went back to Mickey's previous shorts and discovered that The Jazz Fool borrows heavily from Mickey's piano performance in The Opry House. Both include Mickey banging on the piano keys...

...both feature the piano itself becoming personified with a face...

...and both feature the piano retaliating against Mickey. So because half of The Jazz Fool is basicly a remake of an earlier Mickey short, I find it to be repetitive and unimaginative. Solid animation, but nothing remarkable.

Mickey's Choo-Choo - October 1, 1929

Mickey's Choo-Choo is 11th in the mouse's cartoon series. I personally really enjoy this toon because I see it as a small yet significant advancement in character personality for both Mickey and Minnie. The toon itself is also just plain enjoyable to watch.

Mickey is the operator of a personified steam engine, or "choo-choo". While watching this cartoon, the train reminded me immediately of Casey Jr. from Dumbo. Though the two characters are separated by about 12 years, I just find it funny how they both act similarly. More than likely the characters are based on the train from "The Little Engine That Could" (a good example of this will be discussed later in this post) which is why they seem alike.

In any case I found it interesting.

Another funny coincidence is this dog, a playful friend of Mickey at the train station. Am I crazy for pointing out that the character looks like a primitive Pluto? This dog even has that familiar bump on its head like Pluto, not to mention a similar bodily form. Officially animation historians cite The Chain Gang as the toon which introduces the character that eventually evolves into Pluto, so I'll agree with that; however, I'll always see this dog as a distant cousin of the famous yellow pup.

Like I said, Mickey's Choo-Choo develops Mickey's and Minnie's personalities a little more by allowing them to converse with each other. While this may not sound that important, consider that in previous cartoons the pair never really talked to each other. Instead they either sang or pantomimed everything. In this toon they exchange a few words and their first real conversation is held.

Mickey asks Minne to play a song on her fiddle (the same instrument she carries in Steamboat Willie) and we get to hear a rousing rendition of "Look Away, Look Away, Dixieland".

Whenever Mickey and Minnie go into one of their song and dance routines in these early shorts, it's interesting to see how the characters use their environment. Mickey especially has a habit of using nearby objects and animals as musical instruments.

One gag I like is when Mickey uses the floorboards of the train depot as a giant keyboard. It reminds me of the playfulness in a classic scene with Tom Hanks from the movie Big. Totally unrelated, but interesting nonetheless.

That example I mentioned earlier that tied Mickey's choo-choo train and Casey Jr. to the train in "The Little Engine That Could" is this scene they all share. All three trains have trouble climbing a steep mountain, and all three trains manage to overcome their struggle.

Unfortunately for Minnie, the caboose unlatches from the train with her on it. A great POV shot follows with Minnie atop the runaway car going through tunnel after tunnel.

Thrown in for good measure is a great gag that I've always enjoyed in any cartoon where something fast goes by stationary characters that lose their clothes (or feathers as the case may be).

Along the way, Minnie and the caboose find a cow on the tracks. In a gag that is reminiscent of the "gochig" one from The Plowboy, the petrified cow runs into a tree (along with the caboose) and is squashed.

Mickey's Choo-Choo ends with a happy Mickey and Minnie playing on a makeshift see-saw as they roll off into the sunset. A great little cartoon.