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Moving Day (1936)
Mickey, Donald and Goofy have a moving experience.
About to be foreclosed upon by Sheriff Pete, Mickey and Donald need to move out fast, leading to the usual mayhem. Goofy, as an ice delivery man (ask your grandparents), comes to help them out; but, as usual, he's no help at all.
This is one of the earliest cartoons to team Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and one of the best. The formula is established early on: The trio have a common task to complete, then split up for individual gag routines. The gags are very clever and well timed, and the action is fast-paced, with everything building up to an exciting climax. Of particular interest to animation buffs is Art Babbitt's handling of Goofy. He bends and twists his joints far past the breaking point, yet makes it seem absolutely natural, giving the Goof an astonishing flexibility without seeming rubbery. A must for cartoon fans.
Magician Mickey (1937)
Clash of the Cartoon Titans
Usually, when Mickey Mouse is paired up with Donald Duck (or, more often than not, with Donald and Goofy), they separate and do their own routines, with Mickey getting the comedy short stick. Here, however, the two are constantly in contention, and the cartoon is all the better for it. Mickey is a magician whose act is constantly being interrupted by a certain web-footed heckler in the balcony. He soon makes Donald an unwilling assistant, using his skills of prestidigitation to humiliate him. He makes him spit out cards, turns him into a paper doll chain, and even makes a monkey out of him, literally. It's a pity they weren't used more as adversaries, since it brings out the best in them, pitting Mickey's resourcefulness and pluck against Donald's irascibility and mischievousness. Incidentally, Goofy is in this one also, mostly out of sight as a stage hand. Highly recommended.
Der Fuehrer's Face (1942)
Fun with Fascism
In this marvelously surreal and funny short, Donald Duck is a subject of Nazi Germany, forced to make munitions for the Reich. He has to endure abysmal food rations (wooden bread, Aroma of Bacon and Eggs, and coffee brewed from a single bean), superhuman workloads, 30 seconds of forced calisthenics for his "vacation", and an unrelenting barrage of Hitler portraits which he must hail unfailingly - or else! It's all too much for Donald, who has a nervous breakdown, and the film disintegrates into a bizarre phantasmagoria of dancing missiles and stomping boots. Thankfully, it was all just a bad dream, and Donald is relieved to see that the hailing shadow on the wall is cast by his Statue of Liberty on the window sill. As he kisses it he proclaims, wearing his star-spangled jammies, "Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America." This cartoon, perhaps the most savagely satirical Disney ever made, was a sensation in its day, winning the Oscar and spawning a hit song. After the war, however, it was shelved and kept out of public circulation - and not without reason. Now it has been released on DVD as part of the excellent Walt Disney Treasures collection, "Walt Disney on the Front Lines", for discerning film buffs to enjoy. Many will find it disquieting to see a beloved American icon wearing a brownshirt uniform with swastika armband, hailing pictures of Hitler, and goose stepping to work; but then, Donald doesn't seem too thrilled about it, either. In no way does this cartoon promote Nazism. Instead, it punctures its pretensions of superiority by reducing its brutality to absurd slapstick, turning its Ubermensch into buffoonish caricatures. (Bear in mind that at the time of this cartoon the true extent of Hitler's inhumanity was unknown to the Allied countries.) As Mel Brooks has noted, the best way to deal with monsters like Hitler is to laugh at them. So go ahead and laugh, laugh, right at Der Fuehrer's Face.
The Secret of NIMH (1982)
An old favorite
I have seen this film countless times and it never ceases to amaze me. The animation is spectacular, so detailed and dynamic, and the backgrounds are gorgeously moody. The story has its problems - the whole sword-and-sorcery angle on Nicodemus and the amulet is a bit much - but it does touch on some mature subjects, however gingerly, and never condescends to the audience. It has some of the most thrilling action sequences in all of American animation, and some great comic relief courtesy of Jeremy the crow (perhaps Dom DeLuise's finest performance). Unlike many recent films, it manages to keep a consistent tone, and creates an atmosphere of awe and wonder. Not a perfect film, but a moving and highly entertaining one. Highly recommended.
Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
A logical Avery cartoon - Who knew?
This is perhaps Tex Avery's best cartoon, and it's because it has something one would not think of looking for in a cartoon, let alone one by Avery. That secret ingredient is logic. Yes, logic. This is a very logical cartoon, not because it presents realistic action (it certainly does not), but because the action - unreal as it is - follows a logical progression, and it's all the funnier for it. The cartoon has a very simple concept: a white kitten, harassed by a guffawing bulldog, hires the services of Bad Luck Blackie. With one blow of a whistle, Blackie crosses the bulldog's path and gives him bad luck - i.e., something drops from the sky and hits him on the head. The entire film is comprised of variations of this simple scenario, normal procedure for Avery. But rather than merely repeat the gag ad nauseam, Avery builds up the situation to a crescendo of outlandishness. With each scene, the objects become larger and more unlikely - from a simple flowerpot, to a piano, a lit bomb, a fire hydrant, and on and on until...let's just say that Avery doesn't stop at the proverbial kitchen sink. The dog tries to stop Blackie by any means necessary - good luck charms, setting traps - but always he succumbs to the inscrutable logic of the situation; whenever the whistle is blown, Blackie passes by and the dog gets conked. No matter who blows the whistle, no matter where the dog is, the result is always the same: whistle=black cat=conk! Finally, the dog gets the upper hand by applying some logic of his own. If a black cat causes bad luck, painting the cat white negates the effect, and that is just what he does. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true, so the kitten paints himself black and saves his hero and gets revenge on his tormentor at the same time. Anyone else would have ended the cartoon right then and there, but Avery gives us one more twist, one that is ridiculous, yet still in keeping with the logic established early on. (Think Pavlov) If this film teaches us anything (besides being kind to kittens and beware of black cats) is the importance of logic in cartoons. Avery isn't merely laying one gag after another. He is developing the situation, letting it build naturally to a satisfying conclusion. He sets up rules for his characters to follow and bends them without breaking them. The result may be irrational, but it is never illogical, and it's funny as hell.
Third time's the charm
Balto was the third and final film by Steven Spielberg's short-lived Amblimation studio, which he founded after the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The studio suffered from mediocre box-office and was put out of its misery when Spielberg founded Dreamworks and moved its key personnel to that studio's animation division. Before leaving this world, however, the Amblimation team left this beautifully crafted film, which, although not great, is diverting and admirable nonetheless. Balto marked a point of maturity for the Amblimation studio. Their previous efforts --An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and We're Back: A Dinosaur's Story-- were lighthearted kiddie fluff, lively and occasionally clever, but inconsequential on the whole. Balto, on the other hand, has at its core a far more substantial story with a more adult tone, and addresses, however gingerly, serious issues like prejudice and acknowledgement of one's heritage. The story is told simply and effectively, concentrating on its strong themes of heroism and acceptance. The less-is-more attitude that shaped the story is also evident in the animation. The previous Amblimation films were busy and frantic, with dizzying camera moves, constantly shifting perspectives, and characters mugging the camera whenever they could. One got the sensation that the animators were too busy showing off to bother with emotionally involving the audience. With Balto the animators toned things down and went for subtle emotion and simple yet strong visuals. Even the comic relief characters are considerably more restrained than in other films. This is not to say that the movie is free of excitement; the pace is brisk and the action scenes are well staged. It just means that, unlike most modern movies (animated or otherwise), it doesn't overwhelm the viewer with relentless activity. As I mentioned, Balto is not a perfect film, but it is a simple, well-crafted tale with surprising maturity and an understated beauty. Give this film a chance.
Wild Over You (1953)
How did the censors let this one pass?
This is the kinkiest of all the Pepe Le Pew cartoons (and the series is pretty out there to begin with!). Pepe's quarry in this one is an escaped wild cat, disguised as a skunk to elude capture. When Pepe goes after her, she doesn't merely run away--she viciously mauls him in a hissing flurry of fur and claws. Rather than deter him, the violence seems to entice him all the more! At the end, he tells the audience, "If you have not tried it, do not knock it". Hard to believe that this cartoon was shown to 1950s theater audiences, or that it is still shown to children. It's twisted and subversive...and funny as all get out! It just goes to show what you can get away with in animation.
Dough for the Do-Do (1949)
Remake of "Porky in Wackyland"
Years before Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene remake of "Psycho", Friz Freleng made a color remake of Bob Clampett's b/w classic "Porky in Wackyland". For the most part, Freleng took the original soundtrack and animation and added color, thus retaining the looney charm of the original. He did make several changes, cutting some scenes and adding a couple of new ones, including an alternate ending. The best addition is the background styling, a clever pastiche of Salvador Dali paintings. (The original backgrounds were inspired by 1930s comics, particularly Smokey Stover.)As remakes go, it's better than most. Best to see the original, but if you can't, "Dough" will do-do just fine.