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The Band Concert (1935)
By the mid-1930s, Disney was hard at work pushing the boundaries of animation as groundwork for his feature films, his 'Silly Symphonies' were becoming more sophisticated at creating characters with physical weight and substance, moving through increasingly realistic surroundings with plenty of nuance in their 'acting'. He was turning the old 'short subject' diversion into serious art.
All this put his resident star Mickey Mouse into a curious spot originally the bouncy, anarchic free spirit, now bound in his Technicolor debut to driving his rubber-limbed barnyard co-stars to higher purpose. As band leader, he does his level best to create high art, but is stymied by the very realism he seeks to embrace. His music stand buckles under gravity, his realistically weighty jacket hinders and trips him up and against more realistic character design, his own facial features come into question. His trademark ears start to defy dimensional correctness to retain his distinct silhouette, and the free-floating pupils in his eyes show their limitations as he shoots sideways glares to his cowing orchestra.
With all this to contend with, in walks Donald Duck. Created as a model of disreputable behavior in "The Wise Little Hen", he was quickly overtaking Mickey in the hearts of movie audiences. Even with a weightier, more realistic design (much more duck-like than he would later become) he cheerfully dismisses the new realism with a wink to us he produces a seemingly infinite number of flutes from thin air! His breezy attitude easily infects the old-style band members, who quickly, repeatedly revert to their roots, veering off the 'William Tell Overture' into 'Turkey in the Straw' at Donald's lead.
Mickey soldiers on regardless, squaring off against both his box-office rival and the intimidating weight of his newly-realistic surroundings, summed up in a full-blown storm that swirls him and his old cohorts into the sky like autumn leaves. Through sheer determination, he holds things together to a triumphant end, proving himself up to this new world he's in but the Duck gets in the last laugh.
(Note: It may be pompous over-analysis to take what is simply a cartoon that's a technical masterpiece, consistently funny, and understandable to anyone, anywhere, at any age, and hold it up as a metaphor for Disney's internal struggle between his lofty ambitions and his lowbrow roots, but that's what being a do-it-yourself internet reviewer is all about.)
Double or Mutton (1955)
Back to the salt mines
This is the third in the Ralph Wolf/Sam Sheepdog series by Chuck Jones, and the first to really nail down the premise. The first has only Sam punching the time clock (and trading shifts with another dog) while the wolf is simply a constant on-site predator - the second has both the wolf and the dog going to work, but independently at separate clocks - it's here that they're first seen to be on amicable terms with each other off business hours. Also note by this point Ralph the wolf brings a lunch box to work - hunger is presumably not an issue and this is just a job!
With virtually no dialog over it, Carl Stalling's music score is front and center, and it's clear how his work really defines the mood and action of these cartoons. I love the 'hair growth tonic' scene where Ralph goes from anxious caution to brazen confidence, orchestrated by a single bassoon and a constant bass note - brilliant stuff!
Beanstalk Bunny (1955)
'Beanstalk Bunny' has the distinction of pulling together several standard Looney Tunes conventions, most of these distinct to director Chuck Jones:
The unique skewering of a classic fairy tale story already done by rote dozens of times by other studios.
Casting Daffy Duck in a stock starring role, his being aware of playing the part, and failing spectacularly.
Elmer as a potentially dangerous adversary who gets easily stalled and confused by Bugs' persuasive power of speech.
Jones' having Bugs content to mind his own business until external forces prod him to action.
Jones' oft-used staging a scene behind glass, where character acting makes dialog unnecessary.
Jones' tendency to put small characters in outsize surroundings, seen throughout his career, from the maudlin 'Tom Thumb in Trouble' to the bizarre 'I Was a Teenage Thumb'
All that, and a hilarious cartoon. How does Daffy come up with 'Aloysius'?
Bewitched Bunny (1954)
Iss goot! Ja?
This cartoon alone may be enough for me to buy the newest DVD collection. The Looney Tunes, especially with Bugs, have done some great twists on fairy tales and this is one of their best - I love Chuck Jones' take on Hansel and Gretel as walking ham hocks with blank doll eyes!
This one takes the flattened-out, stylized UPA-style graphics of the time to a unique level in Witch Hazel's house interiors, that loudly defy gravity and physics. Hazel herself scuttles crablike across the screen as a hilarious and literally two-dimensional presence. I'm impressed at how seamlessly the classic Looney characters fit into this new design scheme in this and other cartoons of the time.
Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z (1956)
THE classic Roadrunner cartoon!
"The Music Box" is the famous Laurel and Hardy film where the two struggle repeatedly to carry a piano up an endless flight of stairs up a hill. One really sympathizes with the two, until they reach the top, discover there's a road that leads up there, so they laboriously haul the piano back down the stairs to bring it up properly.
In the same spirit, "Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z" has us sympathizing with the Coyote, but realizing he's going to fail even if his contraptions do work - it isn't just physics he's fighting, it's his limited thinking.
First, the Bat-Man costume - as he plummets to certain doom, he pulls up at the last moment and starts soaring beautifully (and the roadrunner sure can't fly!) but he gets cocky, and never sees the bluff looming in front of him.
Then there's the jet engine with handlebars - it should defy working at all, but work it does (I've always wanted one of those!). He's got the roadrunner matched at last (the chase, with Raymond Scott's 'Powerhouse' playing, is such a euphoric depiction of speed), but falls for the exact same situation from the beginning of the cartoon when the roadrunner pulls a U-turn. Small wonder the coyote looks so sheepish when plummeting yet again, at least given the dignity of ending the cartoon before impact.