Ex-Disney Studio legend Ub Iwerks bravely soldiers on
You've probably seen cartoons like this one: it's twilight in the toy shop, the old toy maker yawns and totters off to sleep . . . and then suddenly all the toys in his workshop come to life, singing and dancing and cavorting. Some of them even resemble movie personalities such as Eddie Cantor and Laurel & Hardy. And unfortunately, because this film was made in the 1930s, there's also the inevitable doll in black-face who bleats "Sonny Boy," but mercifully the moment passes quickly. Soon we're caught up in the familiar Hans Christian Andersen tale of the one-legged soldier and the ballerina who loves him, despite royal disapproval. Unlike some cartoons of its day -- and today, for that matter -- this one retains the unhappy elements of its source material, right down to the tragic ending.
It looks like a Disney product, but it's not: this cartoon was made by Ub Iwerks, the master animator who started out in partnership with Walt, and almost single-handedly animated such seminal classics as Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. Unhappily for his career (and his bank balance) Iwerks sold off his large share of Disney stock and launched his own production house in 1930. In addition to giving the world such unmemorable characters as Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, the Iwerks Studio crafted a series of fairy tales along the lines of the 'Silly Symphonies' Ub had helped to create for Disney, using the cheap Cinecolor process and drawing upon similar source material. On the plus side, Iwerks' cartoons feature musical scores composed by his fellow ex-Disney staffer Carl Stalling, and the themes are often terrifically catchy. But despite Iwerks' indisputable talent as an animator, most of the cartoons he made on his own lack the warmth and personality of the Disney product.
Getting back to The Brave Tin Soldier, I'd call it one of the Iwerks' Studio's better efforts. For the most part it's engaging and sweet, with good character design and decent gags, and without the vulgarity that marred some of the studio's other offerings. There are some startling moments, however, especially as the story builds to the courtroom/firing squad finale. A caricatured Groucho Marx makes a pivotal appearance at the climax, though the vocal impersonation isn't very good. And just so the ending won't make the kiddies cry, the filmmakers provided a bizarre coda set in a trippy-looking Toy Heaven. All in all, while it isn't as good as Disney's concurrent output, this is a decent enough cartoon from the erratic Iwerks Studio, easily worth the 7 minutes of your time it takes to view.
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