January 13, 2015

Treasures from the Disney Vault: Santa’s Workshop, On Ice, Chip an’ Dale

Santa's Workshop, released in 1932
Santa's ready for action in this 1932 Technicolor short from Disney's early days. 

One of the most exciting aspects of TCM’s “Treasures from the Disney Vault” series is the chance to see vintage animated shorts that reveal a different side of Disney history. These shorts are available on various DVD releases, but they’re sometimes out of print. We’ve grown accustomed to the harmless (and sometimes grating) images of Disney's current TV shows. Seeing familiar characters acting very differently is refreshing, even when they drift into murky territory. It’s also intriguing to note important advancements in the world of animation that came from Disney in its early days.

Ben Mankiewicz and guest Leonard Maltin host this segment and offer historical background about each short. Maltin is the right choice because of his connections to Disney and extensive knowledge about the company. His story about first getting involved there follows the shorts and provides an interesting look at Maltin’s love of Disney. His overly friendly style isn’t for everyone, but it works for this type of segment. Maltin is a fan but doesn’t gloss over the less savory parts of these films. The culture was a bit different in the ‘30s and ‘40s, so it helps to have some context for the time period.

Santa’s Workshop (1932)


One of the earliest shorts presented in Technicolor, this Silly Symphony entry is fun because of the well-choreographed animation. The many toys and elves move seamlessly together and mesh with the music to show what the medium can do. It’s a pretty simple tale of Santa and his helpers preparing for Christmas, but there are some cool touches. The giant books with the naughty and nice lists while Santa opens the letters are clever and play well on the silly ideas of the Christmas myth. The running time is only seven minutes, but there are a lot of sight gags packed into the brief story.

One downside is some unfortunate racial caricatures, particularly Asian stereotypes. Mankiewicz and Maltin mention them during the introduction, and it’s refreshing that they’re noted but uncensored. Given the attention from the hosts, I expected them to be more prevalent. There are also inventive touches in the toys, including Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp and Noah’s Ark. Watching the presents come alive and jump into the bag is endearing and creates the right tone for this pleasant short.

On Ice, released by Disney in 1935
Mickey gives Minnie a hand with skating in the 1935 Disney short On Ice

On Ice (1935)


The familiar Disney characters appear in this Mickey Mouse cartoon that seems fitting in the cold of winter. Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Clarabelle all appear to skate on the frozen pond. Three years after Santa's Workshop, the animation has already improved significantly. Shots of Mickey dodging around trees include surprisingly inventive camera moves. The technical success is the best part of this forgettable short, however. We spend a lot of time watching Donald laugh at Pluto, and it’s stunning to see him acting so mean. He’s been converted into more of a likable grump today.

Another unfortunate aspect is the fact that the women can’t skate and need the guys to help them. Mickey shows off his amazing skills but must help Mickey even stand up on her own. It is fun to see a less sanitized version of the characters with Goofy cutting up tobacco as bait for unsuspecting fish. He plans to hit them with a club but is no match for the clever adversaries. It’s interesting to note how supporting characters like Donald and Goofy take over this short. Mickey is the best skater, but he offers little comedy and is really just the starting point for the others to entertain us.

Chip an’ Dale (1947)


This final short brings the arrival of a new enemy for the easily irritated Donald. Chip and Dale repeatedly prove they’re too bright for the volatile duck in their first starring roles. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Donald, who laughs at the chipmunks after stealing their house. He’s still a mean duck, though that might explain why audiences took to him more than Mickey. There’s little depth to the mouse, who keeps everyone together but isn’t very exciting. Donald gets angry and will use dirty tactics to battle opponents like Chip and Dale, and that’s a lot more interesting.

Chip an’ Dale received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film in 1948, and it’s easy to understand the acclaim. The physical comedy works because it’s simple and easy to like. The ingenious way that Chip and Dale take out Donald with the giant snowball (and then kick him in the butt) is a fitting ending. It isn’t a milestone for animation techniques but sets the stage for numerous battles in other shorts. I’m surprised to realize just how many films showed Donald fighting with Chip and Dale. Disney recognized a popular formula and kept it rolling until the audience lost interest. Chip and Dale remain present in Disney’s modern shows, but they lack the same bite as they did in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That’s the most telling part of these three shorts. They showed Disney in a less sanitized form with rough edges that are long gone today.

2 comments:

  1. I used to love Chip 'n Dale as a kid. They were so much fun. And yeah, today's Disney is so polished and, yes, sanitized it's to the point of being annoying. That said, I am glad that they've become much more racially sensitive in recent years. Now, if they just find a way to regain some of the edge that has helped their competitors...without buying them, if at all possible.

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    1. I agree that the racism and poor treatment of women can make it a little trickier to watch early Disney shorts. They have been doing some new Mickey Mouse cartoons that are more in line with the earlier style. That's a good sign compared to some of the current popular shows.

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