Saturday, December 03, 2005

Red Hot Rutabaga Rag

I have to admit I haven't really been keeping up with the "Disney Treasures," a series of themed collections of Walt Disney shorts. (Many of which, in the Disney company's time-dishonored tradition of pulling stuff off the market as soon as possible, are already out of print.) But I had to check out the new volume, Disney Rarities. In addition to a selection of the silent "Alice" live-action/animation shorts that gave Disney and Ub Iwerks their start, the set mostly consists of one-shot cartoons, especially the ones from the '50s and '60s after Disney had stopped production on all his regular characters (Mickey, Donald, Goofy) and began using short cartoons exclusively for one-time ideas and experimental techniques.

To be honest, I wouldn't say that most of these cartoons are particularly good. "Ferdinand the Bull" is great, "Chicken Little" is still the most gruesome short ever produced by a mainstream studio, and the two-reel (20 minutes) "Ben and Me" was probably my favorite Disney cartoon as a kid. Seeing "Ben and Me" again, on its own (as a kid I encountered it as part of a one-hour Wonderful World of Disney special about "Great Disney Heroes"), it's a little stodgy, as Disney animation usually was by the '50s -- all those fluid, graceful, near-weightless movements seem natural and pretty but a little devoid of personality. But the voices are great (Charlie Ruggles, Hans Conreid, and the inevitable Sterling Holloway), it covers a lot of story in only 20 minutes, and you just have to love the conceit of a film (and before that, a book) whose basic message is that a great historical figure was a complete fraud. You're left wondering if it's supposed to be a patriotic or unpatriotic film, or both, but it's lots of fun.

Most of the other shorts consist of Disney trying out stuff that he wouldn't do in his animated features. There are two shorts that make use of the type of stop-motion animation Bill Justice did for the title sequence of The Parent Trap: "Noah's Ark," which is all stop-motion, and "A Symposium on Popular Songs," which combines stop-motion musical sequences with hand-drawn sequences starring endless chatterbox Ludwig Von Drake, drawn in that flat, kind of messy-looking style Disney was using for 101 Dalmatians, with the characters looking like someone rubbed out half the character with an eraser:

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"Symposium" has a commentary track by Richard Sherman, who with his brother Robert wrote all the songs for this film. It's a great idea for a short -- an illustrated tour through the development of popular music from Ragtime through Rock -- but except for the first song, "The Rutabaga Rag," most of the songs are kind of grating, as is Von Drake (despite Paul Frees' brilliant voice work), and the whole thing just stops being fun after about five of its 20 minutes.

Another early-'60s short on the set is "The Saga of Windwagon Smith," which was designed by Ernie Nordli, one of my favorite layout artists. Apart from his work for Disney, he did about a year's worth of work as layout artist for Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers ("Broom-Stick Bunny," "Baby Buggy Bunny," "Rocket Squad" and "Gee Whiz-z-z" were some of the cartoons he designed). His style of design is very stylized but, unlike a lot of people who created stylized backgrounds in this period, his designs always feel cartoony and allow the characters to "read" well in front of the backgrounds; in some ways I like his work better than the work of Jones's favorite layout man, Maurice Noble. Here's a shot from "Windwagon Smith":

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And here's a sample of Nordli's work for Warner Brothers, from "Baby Buggy Bunny":

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Back to the "Disney Rarities" set: it also has the two UPA-inspired "Adventures in Music" shorts, "Melody" (originally in 3-D) and the Oscar-Winning "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" (in CinemaScope). I'm not a big fan of either one; some nice design, but they're just too long and twee, with all those cute animal characters singing endlessly about musical concepts that would be more entertainingly explained by Leonard Bernstein.

They also have the two solo cartoons for Humphrey Bear, an unusually comical, MGM or Warners-style character for Disney cartoons. The one everybody remembers from childhood viewing is "In the Bag," with Bill Thompson (voicing the Ranger) leading all the bears in a great dance number to the catchy song "First you stick a rag, put it in the bag, bump bump." By the way, the Ranger has to be one of the ugliest-looking characters in Disney cartoons:

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So where was I...? Oh, yeah. I'd recommend getting this set, or at least renting it if possible; the cartoons aren't masterpieces or anything, but it's a pretty fascinating tour through the history of Disney, from his beginnings in Kansas City to his '60s multimedia empire.

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