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Disney Animation

From David Pruiksma, a supervising animator on such Disney features as Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas: I am a 20 years-plus Disney Feature Animation veteran with the scars to prove it. I "retired" at age 44 (two years ago) because I just could not stand working in the industry as it has become. I wanted to let you know that I have been reading your writings on your page, and I have been really enjoying them! I think your reviews and comments are very deep and insightful. I have really felt the frustration of the industry and its apparent shunning of its history. To me, it's as though everyone has forgotten what the animated cartoon is really about.

I thank you very much for your insights.I share your feelings almost exactly. Thank you for putting those thoughts so beautifully and succinctly into words.

From Andrew Lee Hunn: I just checked out your Web site and happened to read your commentary on Treasure Planet. Though I appreciate your effort and I’m always happy to see more writing about animation, I really think you need to step back a little, as you’re reading far too much into every little detail. I’ve seen this in other critics of film lately, and particularly of animation. Treasure Planet failed because of lousy timing (Two Towers and Harry Potter hogged all the multiplexes) and because of TV ads that showcased the thirty possibly-most-irritating-if-removed-from-their-context seconds of the film. I almost didn’t go see it, solely based on those stupid "Look at us, we’re cool" ads. Was it the best film ever? Of course not. How many films are?

But I enjoyed it, even made a return trip to the theater. You, and Roger Ebert, and a few other people I can think of, need to stop watching any film or TV for half a year. Go work in the garden or something. Don’t read any criticism, either. You’ve become too jaded, and can’t see the forest for the trees. I know it because I’m a writer and it’s happened to me before. My own work becomes meaningless if I obsess over it too much. I have to put it away for some time and find something else to do. Hate to sound so critical of you, but really. Stop nitpicking.

From Tom Klein, proprietor of www.animation-books.com: I have to disagree with your dismissal of Richard Williams’s Animator’s Survival Kit. To my mind, especially considering how much I now study that book and keep it handy as a practical guide (as do so many animators in L.A. these days, both the employed and the swelling ranks of unemployed!), it’s quite simply one of the best books ever written about animation. I really don’t think that it somehow has a flawed foundation, just because Williams was inspired by Jungle Book. Immersed as Williams was in the graphic pop animation that was so trendy in the sixties and seventies, seeing Milt Kahl’s tiger could easily have served as an epiphany that led him to seek out the Golden Age animators. His discussion of animation technique in the book, with clearly illustrated examples, really is a milestone. It’s the sort of shorthand info that allowed me to critique and evaluate my own work in a way that I hadn’t before. It gave me a fresh approach to things like inventing new walks. Much of this was never substantively mentioned or taught at UCLA, where I went, or even at Cal Arts, where many of my co-workers studied animation. So I think maybe you’re investing too much in the dangling of the Jungle Book carrot. Williams draws inspiration from different Golden Age animators and traditions, not just the Nine Old Men, even if he leans heavily on their work.

[Posted 2003]

From Vincent Alexander: Since there has been so much on your site recently about the 1940s Goofy cartoons, I thought I might throw out a similar topic of discussion.

Other than Kinney's Goofy series and one or two other exceptions, the Disney cartoons of the 1940s are generally ignored. This is fair enough, because most of them are slow and derivative. The Donald Duck cartoons during this era do not show the duck in his prime, and the Pluto series is a bit hard to stay focused on. However, perhaps my all-time favorite Disney short was from the '40s, and I have rarely heard it even mentioned. This hilarious cartoon is titled Symphony Hour.

For one thing, I think this is my favorite Mickey Mouse design. It's used in all four of Riley Thomson's Mickey cartoons, and to tremendous effect. It's sort of a "cartoonified" version of Mickey's design in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and it slightly exaggerates his features to enhance the comedy. The result, I think, makes Mickey particularly aesthetically pleasing.

And the film itself is hilarious. It plays out like a parody of The Band Concert, and it's done so brilliantly well that it makes me laugh every time I see it. Mickey's nightmarish desperation as he tries to conduct an orchestra full of busted instruments, while constantly looking back at Mr. Sylvester Macaroni, who is expressing his anger in such bizarrely exaggerated ways, invites us to feel the pain of all of this right all with Mickey, even while we sit back and laugh at it. When the audience actually loves it, and Mr. Macaroni runs out to greet the adoring fans, you can practically feel the relief gushing out of Mickey as he gives a dazed expression, still holding his arm up to conduct. The Spike Jones-esque music is great (my favorite sound effect has to be the donkey sound coming from the accordian) and the gags are hysterical. The single best moment has to be when Donald is trying to leave mid-concert, and Mickey pulls a gun up to his head to make him stay. Now, a lot of modern adult cartoons try to get shock value by employing every kind of profanity imaginable (South Park, Family Guy and The Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoons for starters), but these R-rated farces are generally so wrapped up in their own depravity that you come to expect the worst and are more likely to greet the jokes with a yawn than a gasp. But Mickey threatening Donald with a gun is so unexpected and outrageous that it's hard not to laugh. But it's not completely random... you can see that Mickey is desperate enough to do anything to save the concert, you just don't expect him to go that far. This cartoon is full of great moments like these, and altogether the result is a classic film.

But what I don't understand is why immediately following Symphony Hour they ceased making Mickey Mouse cartoons until the war was over. I've heard from a few places that Mickey's good-natured attitude was not suited for the brash and witty cartoons of the wartime era, so he was put on hiatus. However, if this film is any indication, Mickey is as well suited for anarchic comedy as anyone, albiet as the straight man. I think this short has enough Bugs Bunny humor in it to make it especially funny, but it's still very thoroughly a Disney cartoon. This combination turns out to be a winning mix, and had Disney continued making the Riley Thomson-directed Mickey series, they could've churned out some of their best work. This isn't exactly a one-hit wonder, considering Thomson also directed two other excellent Mickey shorts, The Little Whirlwind and The Nifty Nineties. He also made Mickey's Birthday Party, which has a great dance sequence in it, although the rest of the film is somewhat weak. Unfortunately, by the time they started making Mickey films again, the Disney shorts were in serious decline and the mouse never returned to his past greatness.

So, I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this particular cartoon, or on Riley Thompson as a director or why the Mickey series ended. The Mickey films of this era are snubbed so often, it would be nice to see some light shed on them.

From John K. Richardson: I just thought I'd mention "Gaucho Goofy" (from Saludos Amigos) as one of my all-time favorites. Since it isn't one of his official solo shorts, it often seems to be ignored in discussions of this type. I always love a great slow motion demonstration when it's done as brilliantly as here, and I think this counts as an instructional film that retains Goofy's character. In some of the earliest of these educational offerings, he's not a cipher at all. I've always seen it as the same old Goofy, good-naturedly helping out this guy who's trying to make a serious instructional film. His diving demonstration and horseback riding demo are both examples of good old Goofy just trying to help out. For me, it started to be a mistake later on, with whole teams and crowds full of Goofy. Some of those are great fun to watch, but a move in the wrong direction. And then from about 1950 on, I find them almost unbearable to watch. Since they revived the "real" Goofy - was it in the '70's? - my biggest moments of nausea come when they make him act as a dad. and especially as a pitiful dad. Why is this such an entertainment trend? Pitiful widower in a funny cartoon. yichhhh. Any way, back to my main point: don't you think his sequence in "Saludos Amigos" should be considered one of his all-time best "shorts"? How could any rational being possibly not agree with me on this? (Just curious.)

[Posted May 10, 2008]