Friday, October 31, 2008

Cartoon a Day: The Skeleton Dance

The Skeleton Dance
Directed by Walt Disney
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - Silly Symphonies
Also: Walt Disney Treasures - The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

For Halloween there was just no other cartoon as appropriate to review than "The Skeleton Dance." This short remains one of the greatest animated films of all time. It is amazingly creative, using images both funny and scary to create an important animation milestone.

One of the reasons this cartoon is so great is the marriage of the visuals and the music. Ub Iwerks animated the film, we talked about his great contribution to animation before, but we mustn't overlook maestro Carl Stalling. His music works right along with the animation, bringing out the humor in some pretty gruesome images. Stalling would later go on to music for the Looney Tunes.

In animation anything is possible! A skeleton can jump out of it's grave, throw his head at an owl, and then start dancing around a graveyard before playing another skeleton like a xylophone...where else but in a cartoon! Filmmakers were still figuring that out in 1929, this film was a huge step forward. One reviewer over at the Internet Movie Database called this "six of the most important minutes in film history," I'd have to agree.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scary Foods

This week, in honor of Halloween, we had a Scary Foods Potluck at One Way Street. As you can see, we have some pretty creative people working with the puppets every day...

Cartoon a Day: Lonesome Ghosts

Lonesome Ghosts
Directed by Burt Gillett
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - Mickey Mouse in Living Color Vol. 1

It didn't occur to me until last night while reviewing "Hell's Bells" that I should've been doing Halloween appropriate toons all week. Oh, well, I'll try and continue the theme through the weekend.

"Lonesome Ghosts" is a cartoon I have fond memories of. When I in around kindergarten age, a friend who lived a few doors down has this toy that was kind of like a View-Master, except it played movies. You'd turn the crank and look through the hole to see the movie. It was cool! One of the cartridges I remember them having was of a few scenes from "Lonesome Ghosts." I loved watching that thing, not to mention turning the crank backwards so you could watch the film in reverse.

In this short, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are the original Ghostbusters (Goofy even utters the line "I ain't afraid of no ghosts"). They have a ghost exterminator business which isn't doing too well, until a bunch of bored ghosts call and send them off to their haunted house so they can have some fun.

The sequence in which Mickey opens a door to find a flood of water coming at him is a favorite. The ghosts floating through on surfboards is funny and the animation is pretty amazing. Goofy's Harpo Marx style mirror sequence with one of the ghosts is also a stand-out. My only real beef with this cartoon is the voices of the ghosts. They sound like the actors were speaking into soup cans and are almost unintelligible at times.

That little movie machine my friend had when I was a kid also allowed you to watch the movie frame by frame, which I did many times. This is a great cartoon to watch frame by frame. There's a alot of skillful animation going on here. Then remind yourself this was made in 1937, still pretty early in the grand scheme of things.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

MTV Plays Music!?!?!

MTV has just launched a new website called This is strange because not only is the name kind of like talking about an ATM know, Automatic Teller Machine Machine, so now we have Music Television Music...but MTV hasn't had anything to do with music for what like 14 years now. But this website is really a cool idea, they have pretty much every video in their library up on the site for viewing, plus your can embed the code on your own site. So, way to go MTV!

Now enjoy one of the greatest videos of all time...not only does it have puppets, but it's my all-time favorite band!

Land of Confusion by Genesis!

Cartoon a Day: Hell's Bells

Hell's Bells
Directed by Ub Iwerks
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - More Silly Symphonies

There is no denying the contribution of Walt Disney to the art of animation. But really there was another person right alongside Walt who was just as influential, Ub Iwerks. With Halloween coming up this weekend, it seemed appropriate to look at one of their great collaborations, "Hell's Bells."

Like so many of the Silly Symphonies, there isn't really a plot, just a bunch of devils having a party. This is more of an animation exercise. This is Disney and Iwerks exploring the possibilities of their art. The characters in this short are very flexible, with skinny, rubber-band like arms and legs which Iwerks takes full advantage of.

One sequence that is especially fun involves a little devil dancing as nearby flames cast his large shadow on the wall behind him. It's easy to not take notice of the the skill involved in this sequence. You almost need to remind yourself that cartoons don't cast their own shadows, that all needed to be drawn.

Shorts from this time period are such a treat to watch. As you watch you can see the animators discovering new techniques along the way. We see the art of animation progress right before our eyes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cartoon a Day: A Pest in the House

A Pest in the House

Directed by Chuck Jones (as Charles M Jones)
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5

There have been many versions of Daffy Duck over the years. In the early films he put the "Looney" in Looney Tunes. Later he became a bit of a selfish ego maniac. In "A Pest in the House" we have another version of Daffy, here he's just plain clueless. As the bellhop in Elmer Fudd's hotel, he is given the task of taking a tired businessman up to his room. The businessman wants nothing more than to sleep, which Daffy, though at times he's trying to help, makes pretty much impossible. Daffy isn't trying to keep the man from sleeping, but, God bless him, he just can't help himself.

Mel Blanc's performance as the voice of Daffy is great, it's an interesting contrast with his foil, the businessman who only speaks at the beginning of the picture, other than that he's all reactions.

Some interesting things happen with Daffy's poses as well. The design of the character seems a bit different than we're used to seeing. He seems a bit more slender and his beak seems a bit longer.

This short is a good example of how cartoons were not always seen as kid fare. One of the best gags in the film was not written with the kiddies in mind. It involves the businessman hearing a loud drunk singing in a nearby room. Daffy heads over to silence the drunk, but soon we hear his inebriated voice joining in on the song. We never see the drunk, or see Daffy getting drunk, but we all know what happens.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cartoon a Day: A Star is Bored

A Star is Bored
Directed by Friz Freleng
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5

I just realized this is my 200th blog post. Anyhow, I've been a bit behind on my "Cartoon a Day" postings. I spent a nice weekend with the family up in the mountains with no internet access. I did still watch a cartoon each day, though, so I'll try to get caught up on the three missed days soon.

Today we look at "A Star is Bored," but, contrary to what the title card says, the star of this short is not Bugs Bunny. Bugs plays straight man to Daffy in this one. Daffy is tired of Bugs getting all the attention, so he ends up taking a job as Bugs' double for a new movie. Just the image of Daffy in a loose fitting rabbit suit is hilarious by itself.

In some ways this film caries on the same general theme of Chuck Jones' great trilogy of "Rabbit Fire," Rabbit Seasoning," and "Duck, Rabbit, Duck," where Bugs pretty much just hangs around and looks innocent while Daffy gets pulverized. This relationship between Bugs and Daffy works so well and it creates some of their funniest shorts.

As usual, Freleng's comic timing is right on. Especially great are the moments where he plays with Daffy's smugness and over-confidence but then shows a moment of weakness. Daffy will march onto the set claiming he knows all his lines, and then turn to examine his script midway through a scene. Being a puppeteer, I can't help but think of similar moves that Frank Oz would do with characters such as Fozzie Bear or Sam the Eagle. I can't help but wonder if Oz was inspired by pieces of animation such as this when performing with the Muppets.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cartoon a Day Break

I may be unable to connect to the old inter-webs for the next few days. I will still be watching a cartoon a day, but I may not be able to blog about it until the end of the weekend. Stay tuned.

Cartoon a Day: The Winged Scourge

The Winged Scourge
Directed by Walt Disney & Bill Roberts (both uncredited)
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - On the Front Lines

I originally said that this whole "Cartoon a Day" mission was to bring a little more laughter into my life. So including a short like "The Winged Scourge" doesn't really seem to fit. This film was one of many educational shorts produced by Disney during World War II. It's about how mosquitoes spread malaria, kind of gross. But it's not just the humor of cartoons that makes me smile, it's the enjoyment of the art, so that means occasionally we'll look at a film that's not a comedy.

"The Winged Scourge" starts off with a look at how mosquitoes spread disease and the ruin this causes the folks who can no longer work to support their families when they get sick. There is actually little animation in this segment, but there is some pretty impressive art. The paintings of a destroyed farm are pretty graphic.

Things lighten up a bit in the second half of the film as the seven dwarfs demonstrate different things you can do to stop mosquitoes from multiplying and to help safe guard your home. Some scenes are somewhat cringe worthy as we see the dwarfs spraying chemicals all around the forest and even pouring oil over the pond to kill the mosquito larva. The animation of the dwarfs is excellent, though, on the same level as they appeared in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." That's the beautiful thing about Disney in those days, there was no difference in the quality between features and shorts. Not like the difference we see between feature animation and television today.

"The Winged Scourge" deals with some pretty unpleasant subject matter, but it's nice to see the dwarfs back in action. They really were well designed characters that had such a wide range of movement and expression.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Cartoon a Day: Chilly Willy

Chilly Willy
Directed by Paul J. Smith (uncredited)
Available on: The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection

The debut of Chilly Willy, probably Walter Lantz's 2nd most popular character after Woody Woodpecker, is a cute little film with some good recurring gags. Many cartoon characters look very different in their first films, and Chilly Willy is no exception. Here he's a bit taller and skinnier than he ended up being in famous, more rotund form.

In this short, a dog is left guarding an arctic ship when the crew (which appears to be one guy) goes out. A penguin who can't stand the cold happens a long to try and warm himself on the ship's stove. The basic is premise is one that we've seen different versions of in many cartoons, so there's nothing really original there. But I enjoyed the use of recurring gags in this short.

The bouncy gangplank makes for a funny gag a few times. The best recurring bit, however, is Chilly obeying the sign asking people to wipe their feet when coming aboard. So he insists on wiping his flippers on the dog's tail.

Though it has it's funny moments, there are a few timing issues at other points. All in all, this is a good first film from a character that would become a favorite for many over time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cartoon a Day: Bugs and Thugs

Bugs and Thugs
Directed by Friz Freleng (as I. Freleng)
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 1

In "Bugs and Thugs," Bugs Bunny is enjoying a stress-free city life when he suddenly ends up in the getaway car with two bank robbers. Director Friz Freleng is a master of comic timing, and this cartoon is no exception. While the timing of the animation is great, the voice work for the gangster Rocky is a real standout. There is almost no emotion in any of his lines and it fits perfectly. He's too cool to show emotion, even when telling his partner to "Shadup" for the 10th time.

If you haven't figured it out from the other reviews I've written, character design is a favorite element of animation for me. I love the design on the gangsters Rocky and Mugsy. The leader, Rocky, is a tiny man who makes up for it by wearing a hat as tall as he is. His face stays locked in pretty much one expression, and his eyes are always hidden. Mugsy, meanwhile, is a huge, dim-witted character. A giant body on tiny legs who looks like he could topple over with the tiniest gust of wind. They are great examples of the originality which defined Warner Brothers animation.

The gags in "Bugs and Thugs" are good, though some are borrowed from other shorts. The two gangsters are great characters for Bugs to play off of. He doesn't have to put that much work into it. In one scene he actually looks at the audience and asks if it could really be this easy. With these two crooks, he pretty much has his work cut out for him.

Movie Montage

One of the best parts of the annual Oscar broadcast is the movie montages. I know, I'm a sap, but those silly montages remind of why I love movies so much. In exploring YouTube this evening I ran across a person who has done a bunch of his own montages to salute the work of various filmmakers. Among those "barringer82" has created are tributes to Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino. The guy is quite talented, so enjoy this one that highlights the work of the Coen Brothers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cartoon a Day: Runaway Brain

Runaway Brain
Directed by Chris Bailey
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - Mickey Mouse in Living Color Vol. 2

For a long time I've wished that studios would start showing cartoons before the features again. It just helps complete the whole moving going experience to me. Every now and then Disney will create a new animated short that runs with one of their features. "Runaway Brain" was a new Mickey Mouse short with "A Kid in King Arthur's Court" in 1995, but I first saw it during it's re-release along with "George of the Jungle" two years later.

This is unlike any other Mickey short you will see. It's essentially a horror movie parody in which Mickey's brain is swapped with that of a giant Frankenstein's Monster type version of Peg-Leg Pete. The doctor doing the experiments is one Dr. Frankenollie, named in tribute to Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. One quick shot even parodies the famous poster image from "The Exorcist."

The pacing is quick and the characters are animated in a stretchy style similar to that used in the successful Roger Rabbit shorts the studio released between 1989 and 1993.

Check out the unique shape and posture of Dr. Frankenollie in the above screen capture. This style can be seen throughout "Runaway Brain" and it gives the movements of the characters some extra visual punch.

Some might be taken aback by the sight of sweet lovable Mickey Mouse as a snarling monster, but the film is still very funny. There is a lot of attention paid to humor that works on many levels. There are plenty of inside jokes, such as a photo of Mickey from the "Steamboat Willie" days in his wallet, and Mickey whistling the same tune he whistles in that classic film. Mickey playing a "Mortal Kombat" style video game in which Dopey and the old hag from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" battle it out is also a great gag.

Mickey purists may not go for this one, but I enjoyed it. So hear this Disney...more animated shorts please!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cartoon a Day: Pigs is Pigs

Pigs is Pigs
Directed by Jack Kinney
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures - Disney Rarities

Well, the last few days we've been doing shorts that don't feature an animation studio's regular characters, so we might as well keep it up with this entry from Disney.

The 50's was an interesting time for Disney animation. There was a lot of innovation going on in the shorts this time. "Pigs is Pigs" has a very unique style. The character design is somewhat geometric in nature. This style is used in other Disney shorts of the time, including one of my favorites "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" (we'll cover that one in the future). You can look at the characters and see the basic shapes used to created them. The guinea pigs are pretty much just pink beans with faces. This general style has influenced me personally in the way that I design many of the shadow puppets that I have made for some of my programs. The backgrounds and color scheme also really set this cartoon a part.

The film is based on a short story by Ellis Parker Butler. Told in rhyme, it concerns a railway agent who receives a shipment of guinea pigs and is confused by whether to charge the pet rate or the livestock rate (because they're pigs). While the paperwork trying to find out a answer circulates around the corporate offices, the "pigs" multiply and soon overrun the station. It's quite possible that this basic story served as some inspiration for the famous "Star Trek" episode "The Trouble with Tribbles." One has to wonder if there wasn't a bit of commentary going on about the sheer size the Disney company itself had grown to by 1954 in this film as well.

This is a pretty funny short, but it's really the unique animation that makes this film worth a look. People often comment about the "Disney style," yet it's films like this that show he wasn't afraid to let his animators explore and expand their talents.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Cartoon a Day: The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall

The Dover Boys at Pimento University or The Rivals of Rouquefort Hall
Directed by Chuck Jones (as Charles M Jones)
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2

"The Dover Boys" is an odd little cartoon which I must admit I had not seen until tonight. It's presented as an 1890's style melodrama in which three college boys must rescue their girl from an evil cad.

Some of the humor may be lost on audiences today as we are not as familiar with the style being parodied, but a lot of the humor still holds up. The sequence in which the villain kidnaps the maiden is especially funny, not just because of the gags but because of the style of animation. It utilizes a technique called "blur animation" (according to the commentary track). This is where the character jumps between poses very quickly, with little in-between artwork. This works really well with the unique character design.

This is also an unusual film for Warner Brothers as it features an all human cast. None of the regular stable of characters or talking animals of any sort appear. But the design of these human characters is really intriguing. The three Dover Boys are all very different in their design, and the stiff design of the girlfriend works so well, especially when she breaks from her rigid pose quickly to throw the villain across the room.

The is definitely a cartoon that deserves further examination. I'll have to watch it again soon.

Friday, October 17, 2008

My New Car...I Wish

This was parked in the parking lot at the church where we're having a puppet festival this weekend. Jinkies!!

Cartoon a Day: Hysterical Highspots in American History

Hysterical Highspots in American History
Directed by Walter Lanz
Available on: Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection

Not every cartoon that ends up on my "Cartoon a Day" reviews is going to be a gem. "Hysterical Highspots in American History" is not a bad cartoon, but there's nothing spectacular here either.

The work of Walter Lanz (most famous for creating Woody Woodpecker) is not quite on the same level as Disney or the Looney Tunes shorts. Don't get me wrong, though, I have a great deal of respect for Lanz's work, he was a great contributor to the art of animation.

This film goes through events from Columbus discovering America to the start of World War II, some of the jokes work, some have not held up over the years, and some fall flat.

I did find some sequences fun. The Gettysburg address and the opening of the Panama Canal did make me laugh. From an animation standpoint, there is some skillful work on display, but I would've liked to have seen more variety and originality in some of the character designs.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cartoon a Day: Buccaneer Bunny

Buccaneer Bunny
Directed by Friz Freleng (as I. Freleng)
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5

Ah, Yosemite Sam. He was always my brother's favorite, and I've got to admit a great love for the character too. What is it about a character of pure rage that is just so funny to watch? Makes me realize a bit how stupid I probably look when I loose my temper. Guess many of us could learn a bit from watching old Sam.

Sam is a pirate who makes the mistake of trying to hide his treasure in Bugs Bunny's hole. The gags in this short come in little groups. There is a series of gags involving Bugs hiding out in the crow's nest, a series involving cannons shooting Sam in the face, and a series gags involving doors. It goes to show how Freleng is a master of comic timing. The end result of each gag in the cannon sequence is the same, yet it stays funny because the timing is so precise.

Probably my favorite bit in this short is the one where Bugs throws a match into the gun powder room which Sam has to run in after. After several times Sam tells him that he's not going in after it again. Bugs, of course, throws the match again.

Sam goes through a quick series of poses as he tries to fake not being nervous and trying not run in after the match. He stands with arms crossed tapping his foot, plays with a yo-yo, and sits down for a game of jacks. Ultimately, he can't stand it and runs in after the match, only to have the room explode in his face. It's a great sequence.