Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Background Art: Mickey's Choo-Choo

It's easy to admit that by today's standards the early Mickey Mouse cartoons were primitive. Lush drawings and animation didn't really begin to appear until later years. Yet even though these films may not look as sophisticated as some of the Mouse's later toons, the animation art presented is still unique.

Below are background paintings from Mickey's Choo-Choo accompanied by actual screen shots from the finished cartoon. One thing you should notice is that at times the film does not make full use of the background, opting instead for a close-up shot. Enjoy taking a looking at the art behind the action.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Birthday Party - January 7, 1931

The Birthday Party is Mickey's 25th cartoon in his black and white film series. The toon is a decent one and features the celebration of the Mouse's birthday.

The film opens with Mickey joyfully whistling on his way home. Unbeknowest to him, Minnie and some friends are waiting eagerly inside to suprise the Mouse for his birthday.

Of course, all Mouseketeers should know that the Mouse's recognized birthday is November 18, 1928 (the same day Steamboat Willie premiered).

As Mickey steps through the door, everyone screams suprise! Mickey is amazed and truly suprised.

If the above frame looks strange, it's probably because the animators used a mirror effect to create a larger group of animals by simply reusing animation. The technique saves time and money as well as creates two of every guest. Just behind Mickey stand two Clarabelles and two Horaces.

Next, a delicious-looking cake is brought out complete with candles. It's too bad no one is able to taste the chef's creation.

Notice how there are two candles on Mickey's cake. This leads me to think that perhaps this toon was originally planned for release in 1930 (Mickey's 2nd year) and for whatever reason was pushed back to the beginning of 1931. In any case, I suppose the film can be seen as a belated birthday party for the Mouse.

Minnie presents Mickey her gift, which is a brand new piano. A strange gift, considering that Mickey already has a piano in his home.

With two pianos to play, Mickey and Minnie get the party hopping with some delightful tunes.

The cartoon ends with Mickey playing his xylophone (which seems to appear from nowhere).

Though not very special, The Birthday Party is an entertaining toon and goes on to inspire a few remakes involving not only Mickey and Minnie, but other yet to be seen Disney characters as well.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Pioneer Days - December 5, 1930

The 24th film in Mickey's cartoon shorts series is the gem Pioneer Days. This toon is a great example of the fantastic progress the Disney Studio was making in refining their animation techniques.

The film opens with pioneers Mickey and Minnie heading their group's wagon train. The pair joyfully sings about not being afraid of Indians.

Unbeknowest to the wagon train, a lone Indian scout watches them as they pass through the desert.

The scout hurries back to his tribe and tells them of the strangers in the valley. Pioneer Days is a favorite toon of mine because of its extensive use of detailed animation techniques. Just look at the shadows of the Indians.

By the light of the moon, the tribe dances around their fire and prepares for battle. This short war dance sequence is so well staged; it clearly demonstrates the animators' advanced skills.

Back at the pioneers' camp, another type of dance is going on. After a long day's wagon ride, the camp relaxes by enjoying some folk music.

After the dance, an old codger sings tearfully about his deceased wife. The song is actually "Darling Nellie Gray", a tune composed in 1856 by American composer Benjamin Hanby. Hanby's most famous work is probably the Christmas classic "Up On the Housetop".

This scene is also one of the few to show pioneers Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow.

The touching song is suddenly and abruptly interrupted by an arrow that lands very close to Minnie's head. The Indians have attacked!

The next shot is my favorite in the whole toon. Anyone who has been a fan of this blog knows that I love shots where the action is coming straight towards the camera. Here we have Indians racing every which way towards the audience.

In another POV shot, the pioneers shoot a few rounds at the Indians in hopes of stopping their attack.

Bent on capturing and destroying the invaders, the Indians quickly encircle the pioneer camp.

It's hard to demonstrate here, but a great rechnique is used in this scene. The camera stays on the Indians as they ride around the wagon camp, and the wagons actually turn as the camera does. The result is an almost 3-D rendering of the wagons. The technique is extraordinary for a cartoon made in 1930.

A nice gag is seen when Mickey scares a trio of Indians away by using a porcupine as a bow and arrow.

Minnie is soon captured by a tough Indian and taken back to the tribe's camp. Mickey follows in hopes of rescuing his love and finds Minnie tied and gagged. Suddenly the Indian turns his fury against the Mouse.

The following scuffle is brilliantly staged by the animators. It's the first real physical scene in a Mickey Mouse short, and its superb execution creates tension, excitement, and drama.

Luckily the Indian has no idea how to tie tight knots, and Minnie easily escapes. She uses an extremely hot coal from the nearby fire to chase the native away.

Back at the camp, the battle between the pioneers and Indians continues. A funny gag is shown involving a pig pioneer. He offers his toupee to the Indian in order to avoid being scalped.

The fight finally ends when the Indians see and hear the cavalry coming around a sand dune. They promptly run away to avoid being killed in the massacre. However, the "cavalry" turns out to be just Mickey, Minnie, and a large log.

Pioneer Days is an excellent cartoon full of solid animation, suspense, drama, and fun. I recommend viewing it again if you happen to have it in your library.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Picnic - October 23, 1930

23rd in Mickey's film series is the charming cartoon The Picnic. Not only is this toon a solid film, but it also marks the true debut of Pluto... sorta.

The toon opens with Mickey whistling happily on his way to Minnie's house. An interesting note here is that the tune Mickey whistles is actually "Minnie's Yoo-Hoo", the same song he infamously crooned in 1929's Mickey's Follies. The song served as Mickey's theme song (until what year we have yet to find out) and can be heard at the beginning of most of the Mouse's early toons.

Mickey makes it safely to Minnie's, where he is greeted lovingly by his sweetheart. It appears that the two mice are going out for a peaceful picnic. Before they leave, Minnie asks if she could bring along her "little Rover".

Her Rover turns out to be Pluto, with a name change of course. It's very interesting to me that Pluto, known as Mickey's best pal, began as Minnie's faithful dog. Well, technically Rover was Minnie's dog, so I suppose it's correct to say Pluto has always been Mickey's pet.

Mickey ties Rover up to the bumper of his car, and the trio are off for a relaxing day in the sun (luckily, Rover does not suffer the same fate as the dog in National Lampoon's Vacation).

Rover is a very curious dog, and soon two mischievious bunnies catch his attention. The dog runs after the rodents, bringing Mickey and Minnie along for the ride.

Rover is able to break free from Mickey's car and chases the rabbits all the way to their rabbit holes. In a gag that reminds me of Roger Rabbit's portable hole, Rover's pride is deeply bruised.

Mickey and Minnie find a beautiful place to set out their picnic blanket. With the addition of lovely music from Mickey's record player, the pair have a relaxing dance through the woods. Unfortunately, the forest critters decide to have a relaxing lunch at the mice's expense.

The sky begins to turn a nasty black and it seems that the lovely picnic day has been ruined. I love the lightning bolt as a corkscrew gag here. Very inventive.

With Rover acting as a much needed windshield wiper, the trio decides to head home, thus ending their picnic day and this toon.

One last little thing I'd like to share is this frame comparison from The Picnic and The Chain Gang. Remember how that toon is known for the appearance of the character that would eventually become Pluto? Well there you have it; with a few minor changes, a random bloodhound becomes a named dog with superstar in his future.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Gorilla Mystery - October 10, 1930

Mickey's 22nd film is the very entertaining The Gorilla Mystery. This toon is a favorite of mine because it fantasticly showcases the animation talents of the Disney Studio as well as provides a thrilling story. It's definitely a perfect cartoon for the October month.

The short begins with a shot of a newspaper article highlighting the escape of a "mankiller" gorilla. Fearing for his beloved, Mickey calls Minnie in order to warn her of the dangerous creature; however, Minnie thinks Mickey is worrying too much.

Unbeknowest to Minnie, the ferocious gorilla has managed to find her home and is right outside her window. The scene where the gorilla peers into Minnie's home is heightened by the superb animation of the character as well as the great use of lighting and shadows.

Trying to calm Mickey down by playing a gay piano tune, Minnie is completely oblivious to the approaching evil behind her. The use of the gorilla's shadow is a very thrilling story device, one that I think helps to make this short one of the best from this period of Mickey's career. Audiences at the time were no doubt scared just a bit for Minnie.

The scene reminds me of Dracula, though that movie would premiere a year later in 1931; perhaps the Disney animators were taking inspiration from 1922's Nosferatu.

The gorilla snatches Minnie from her piano stool, and the scared mouse's screams are heard by Mickey through the telephone.

Mickey of course rushes quickly over to Minnie's home, where he thinks he hears his beloved's screams for helps behind a locked door. After he breaks down the door, Mickey discovers to his dismay the screams of help were coming from Minnie's pet parrot (who we have not seen in a while).

Mickey decides to throw a book at the tricky parrot, once again demonstrating his undying love for all animals.

Finally Mickey is able to discover the whereabouts of Minnie. With the use of a fantastic camera view through a keyhole, we see that Minnie is tied up and gagged in a room.

Unfortunately Minnie is not alone in the room, and Mickey soon comes face to face with the gorilla. A great shot follows of the gorilla stalking towards the camera and eating the audience whole.

Luckily the Mouse is able to distract the gorilla long enough to untie Minnie. Together the two mice trap and ensnare the ape, ending their nightmarish ordeal once and for all.

Before I end this post, I want to point out a very interesting "Hidden Mickey". In the beginning of the toon when Minnie is running to answer Mickey's telephone call, two bookends shaped like the two mice can be seen briefly in the background.

Interesting, isn't it?