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Apr 8, 2009

THE DISNEY VERSION - PART 3


A majority of the studios have had iconic cartoon characters that starred in several series of shorts. MGM had Tom & Jerry and Droopy, Universal had Woody Woodpecker and United Artists had the Pink Panther not to mention Betty Boop and Popeye at Paramount via The Fleischers.

None of these (with perhaps the exception of Tom & Jerry whose shorts won a few Oscars) can match up to the output of the Walt Disney and Warner Bros. animation departments.
Richard Schickel in his book THE DISNEY VERSION: THE LIFE, TIMES, ART AND COMMERCE OF WALT DISNEY mentions in one chapter how the Warner Bros. animation department, headed by Leon Schlesinger, had a far superior level of output and the shorts were more memorable and relevant than Disney’s.



Mr. Schickel is an avowed fan of the Warner Bros. studios having recently produced a documentary series for PBS entitled YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS: THE WARNER BROS. STORY (as usual, anything remotely connected with the history of Warner Bros. employs a CASABLANCA reference) accompanied by a comprehensive coffee table volume.
After reading that chapter, I began to compare Disney to Warner, and found that indeed I recalled specifically more Warner Bros. cartoon shorts than I did Disney ones (animated features of course will always favor Disney).



Disney is known especially for Mickey Mouse, the character that has come to virtually define the company (also the reason that the studio even exists today) and in a way, Mickey is an American cultural icon right up there with Baseball and Apple Pie. Stop to think for a moment though, can you think of five Mickey Mouse cartoons by name or by subject matter beyond STEAMBOAT WILLIE (which by the way was the first one, and the first animated short with sound)? Ok, so I am guessing a few people can (like MICKEY AND THE BEANSTALK), but when it comes to exposure while the Disney characters stand out thanks to Disney branding and Disneyland, more people have probably seen and remember more Warner cartoons.

I am referring to the LOONEY TUNES and MERRIE MELODIES series which feature the characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepe Le Pew and of course the immortal (and my personal favorites) Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. On the Disney side there was the SILLY SYMPHONY series, and their individual characters which include the aforementioned Mickey Mouse as well as Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Minnie Mouse, Daisy and Chip and Dale.
The sarcastic wit and aggressive nature of the Warner cartoon shorts made for smarter jokes and sight gags that not only would kids be able to enjoy Bugs and Daffy outwitting Elmer Fudd, but parents also had something that gave them a reason to pay attention beyond the usual pratfalls and anvils falling on character’s heads (which by the way, cracks me up every time).




Disney shorts focused more on physical humor, like when Donald Duck got his comeuppance at the hands of his nephews Huey, Dewey or Louie, or how Goofy would find himself tripping all over the place like one of the Three Stooges (the SPORT GOOFY shorts in particular). One of the biggest jokes with Donald Duck is the fact that you can barely understand what he is saying, if you can understand it at all and the fact that while he could dish out humiliation to others, he couldn’t take it himself.





Is it any surprise that Donald Duck eventually passed Mickey Mouse as a more popular character with audiences? After the early cartoons, Mickey eventually became very bland– not able to get into much mischief thanks to his iconic status especially with families – where on the other hand, Donald was allowed to lose his temper and be more animated. Some of my favorite Disney cartoons are Donald cartoons – the most notable being DER FUHRER’S FACE where Donald is a Nazi (this one is great and also an Oscar winner), and another where he takes a pill to appease Daisy and become more sophisticated (sounding like Ronald Coleman).



Then there are the SILLY SYMPHONY series in the 1930s which featured such classics like THE SKELETON DANCE, FLOWERS AND TREES, THE BAND CONCERT (which is also a favorite of mine and features both Mickey and Donald) and of course THE THREE LITTLE PIGS which spawned a hit song as well. This idea kind of became the impetus for Disney’s 1940 feature FANTASIA (and even later, FANTASIA 2000) which featured a series of animated stories set to classical music – the most iconic being THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE featuring Mickey and the dancing brooms (ok, couldn’t help it – just started humming the music).



On the Warner side, there are so many memorable cartoons, that it is difficult to name them all. Of course all the ones where Daffy and Bugs argue over whether it’s Duck season or Rabbit Season, then the musical cartoons like THE RABBIT OF SEVILLE which places Bugs and Elmer in the middle of the Barber of Seville, and WHAT’S OPERA DOC as well as Bugs messing with Daffy as if Bugs were the artist drawing a Daffy cartoon (“Ain’t I a stinker?). Also, who can forget ROBIN HOOD DAFFY with Daffy making an utter fool of himself to the great entertainment of “Friar” Porky (“ZOINKS and away!”).

I’m not saying that one studio’s output is particularly better than the other. They both deserve a secure place in animated film history. It just seems to me that whereas one set of Studio characters are more memorable thanks to branding, the others tend to be associated more with actual cartoons.

I think a lot of this comes thanks to Saturday Morning programming. Disney was very much a TV presence, but thanks to a litany of live action features and shows as well as their animated features, the Disney TV program offered more variety. Meanwhile, on Saturday morning we had the Bugs Bunny/Road Runner show which featured an hour of full Looney Tunes every week. I also would say that Warner shorts still get more play on TV than vintage Disney thanks to the Acme hour.



As lead characters, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny couldn’t be more opposite of each other. Mickey is a mild mannered Mouse who doesn’t go looking for trouble; neither does it really go seeking him. On the other hand, Bugs is bold and witty and although he himself doesn’t seek it out, trouble usually finds him and heaven help the individual making it (Bugs is always 10 steps ahead of everyone). Bugs can get away with torturing and outwitting his would be tormentors, whereas if Mickey tried those antic, it wouldn’t suit his character at all.



On the subject of ducks however, both Daffy and Donald are very similar. Both have speech impediments (which was made fun of in that fantastic dueling piano scene featuring both characters in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?), and both tend to let their tempers and egos get the better of them. Daffy has always been painted as being jealous of Bugs, and similarly Donald was always trying to interject his name when the Mickey Mouse Club theme song was being sung. Both tend to end up at the butt end of the joke (although Daffy in earlier cartoons was a lot more looney and tended to get the upper hand).

Through the 1990s until now, Disney has done a good job at creating some memorable and well crafted after-school and Saturday morning shows such as RECESS, THE REPLACEMENTS, KIM POSSIBLE or the character shows like DUCKTALES, TAIL SPIN (which featured characters from THE JUNGLE BOOK), GOOF TROOP, CHIP AND DALE’S RESCUE RANGERS, THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH and DARKWING DUCK. Warner also followed suit with shows like THE SYLVESTER AND TWEETY MYSTERIES, DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH ½ CENTURY (a spin off of a vintage Daffy Duck short) and the Steven Spielberg produced ANIMANIACS (pure genius) and TINY TOON ADVENTURES (Warner tends to focus more on their DC properties like SUPERMAN and BATMAN -- which has spawned 5 different shows). A lot of this comes thanks to the cable channels TOON DISNEY and Turner’s CARTOON NETWORK.


Thankfully a large number of the classic shorts have been released on DVD. Disney has the TREASURES series (sold in metal tins) which include 4 volumes of Mickey Mouse (2 in B&W, 2 in color), 4 volumes of Donald, a Goofy set and Pluto set as well as other compilations such as the ON THE FRONT LINES set (which is worth getting if you can still find it as like many of these volumes, it is out of print). All are hosted by #1 Disney fan and all-around film historian Leonard Maltin, and the extras are outstanding.


Warner Bros. has released a series of 6 compilations known as THE GOLDEN COLLECTION (with more slimmed down versions under the title of the SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION). These are still in print and each volume contains 4 discs jam packed with shorts and special features like commentaries, rare behind the scenes footage and more. The first volume is hosted by Leonard Maltin, but for some reason he disappears from the rest of them (perhaps Warner or Disney didn’t like the fact that they had to share him).

Luckily, none of the cartoons are censored on the DVDs like they have been recently for television airing. Thanks to our age of political correctness though, each short that may contain offending material (like anything racial, or use of weapons or violence) has a disclaimer at the beginning. I love Maltin’s approach which is less serious and more of “it’s a cartoon from another era, get over it” vibe to it. As in most things from a past age, while not condoning racial stereotypes, it is important to take the references for what they are – products of their time.




I happen to be a big fan of both studios’ work so to have to choose one over the other, well, it would have to be done at gunpoint and I’d probably choose to be shot so I wouldn’t have to make up my mind (that would definitely be in a Warner short, not a Disney). However, while I love Disney cartoons I tend to agree with Mr. Schickel’s opinion that the Warner Bros. output has a lot more bite to it, and thus they have managed to stay pretty relevant even today. Hey, if the characters can settle their differences to appear together in the same movie – WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (I still get goosebumps when Donald & Daffy and Bugs & Mickey share the screen but can't imagine what rights hurdles they had to jump through or the money they had to put out to get it to happen) – then I have no problem splitting my allegiance down the middle.