Editor’s Note: If anyone knows early-talkie cartoons and rubber hose animation, it’s animator Mark Kausler. I asked him to compare Disney’s new “Get A Horse!” against the 1928-31 Mickey Mouse originals – and below are his thoughts on the matter. Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the short yet (and I strongly recommend that you do) this review reveals some secrets, gags and tricks that might otherwise spoil the surprise of seeing it the first time. If you have seen the short, we welcome your opinions in the comments section below. - Jerry Beck
GET A HORSE!
Directed by Lauren MacMullan, Head of Animation: Eric Goldberg (2D), Adam Green (CG). Animators: Mark Henn, Dale Baer, Mario Furmanczyk, Patrick Danaher, Alberto Abril, Andrew Chesworth, Anthony De Rosa, Russ Edmonds, Matthew Kummer, Alex Kupershmidt.
This short had a very creative promotion, as it was touted as a “lost” Mickey Mouse cartoon, and that the soundtrack would feature Walt Disney’s voice. None of this turned out to be true, Get A Horse! is really a modern experimental film, using a combination of drawn animation in a faux-1928 Disney/Iwerks style and 3D Maya based computer animation – and the sound track uses existing material, not newly discovered Walt. It features Mickey, Minnie, Peg-Leg Pete, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow and many other animal and bird characters. The 3-D effects are impressive without being intrusive, such as Mickey being catapulted against the fabric of the movie “screen” before bursting through it and landing on the wooden stage just behind the proscenium arch.
The animators got to play with the world of drawn and Maya, as in one very impressive scene, the characters chase each other through two holes in the screen; when they emerge through the hole on the left and step on the stage they become Maya characters and when they slip through the hole on the right of the screen and re-enter the projected image, they become drawn characters again. This was the most difficult scene to work out, as Eric Goldberg told me, since it involved such close collaboration between the drawn and digital animators. This scene only underscores that drawn animation has no problem with flexibility, but Maya based animation has a “dolls come to life” look There’s a funny gag that takes place when the Maya Mickey calls Pete in the drawn world on his cell phone. Pete draws a 1928 Candlestick phone from his pants and answers Mickey’s call! This gag will probably “date” this film the most, but it’s a standout.
The biggest difficulty I have with the film is that the style of the characters is really very compromised. It is a combination of some of the hallmarks of the Ub Iwerks 1928 world (like the bodies) and the 1933 Mouse of The Mail Pilot era (the faces). Ub drew Mickey’s face with a distinctive bottle shaped nose, the snout stuck out of the head mass in a nearly straight line, with the smaller bottle shaped black nose nestled in the front of the snout. The Get A Horse models use The Mail Pilot Mickey head with the slightly turned up, and more streamlined snout. This rule applies to all the characters, they have the surface texture of 1928, but if you really look at them, they are sweetened up, and lack the rough, newspaper comic style pen lines that made the Steamboat Willie drawings unique. The basic shapes of 1928 characters are not so much perfect circles as slightly squared circles. Rounder characters were easier to draw and they became rounder as the 1930s rolled on. If you are going to go by a strictly 1928 sensibility, the film makers had only four Mouse cartoons to use as models: Steamboat Willie, Gallopin’ Gaucho, Plane Crazy and The Barn Dance. These four cartoons were almost completely the work of one animator, Ub Iwerks, with support from Les Clark, Wilfred Jackson and Johnny Cannon.
The animation in Get A Horse is very good, but not really of the 1928 period. The action is mostly on ones, very frantic throughout, and has the total immersion, roller-coaster mind set of this century’s animation. The Barn Dance has one of the best sequences ever done with the silent era style, and that’s when Mickey is dancing with Minnie and his shoes grow to enormous size as he clumsily steps all over her body (see frames below). Although author and historian Mike Barrier would characterize this kind of thing as “violation of the body”, which in his view held back the development of personality in drawn animation, I see it as true CARTOON acting. Mickey’s shoes don’t grow big just for the hell of it, they grow to convey his utter ineptness in dancing. Minnie’s body isn’t stepped on and stretched and distorted because Ub was playing with the medium; her body is “violated” to show what’s in her mind and her attitude toward Mickey’s dance steps. In Get A Horse, there is some “violation” going on, as when Mickey creates a step ladder out of his leg for Minnie to climb upon, but it doesn’t serve the acting well, there is no real reason for Mickey to make a step ladder out of his leg than showing off the flexibility of his cartoon body.
The voice track to Get A Horse is a combination of dozens of lifts and clips from existing Mickey Mouse sound tracks, equalized and mixed to form a new track. Some of the little exclamations and “Heys” work well, as the 1928 Mickeys had no real dialog. Because a lot of the voice track for Mr. Mouse Takes A Trip is extant “in the clear”, they used lines from that cartoon. However, to put the “I had a little cat once..” speech from Mr. Mouse, in the 1928 Pete’s mouth, seems really jarring. For one thing, Pete was a big Palooka of a CAT in his first appearances, dating back to the Oswald series. By 1940, he had evolved into more of a man than a cat, so his fake reminiscences about a pet cat which he makes in his role as a Pullman porter in Mr. Mouse, seem to work with his more human self. But for a big 1928 CAT to talk about having a little cat for a pet seems strange. Pete’s punishment in Get A Horse, falling in and out of the screen, stumbling into a cactus and so forth, is a tour de force of 21st century animation, it does not recall Iwerks 1928 so much as a contemporary animation romp. Oddly enough, what happens to Pete recalls what happened to the bad Bobcat in Harman and Ising’s Poor Little Me (1935), he fell in a cactus too!
The one scene of dialog between Mickey and Minnie toward the end that has actual lip sync is a step in the right direction, as the exaggerated mouth shapes look ahead to Mickey’s Follies from 1929. That picture has an extended song sequence in which Mickey sings his new theme song, Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo. Johnny Cannon (my best guess) animated some of the zaniest and most exaggerated mouth action of all time as Mickey sings “the crows Caw-Caw and the mules Hee-Haw”; the action looks like he studied his mouth movements in the mirror and grafted them onto Mickey’s face, whether they fit or not! Of course, Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo was NOT Mickey’s theme song in 1928, it hadn’t been composed yet.
To get this film made at all, must have been an end-run fluke. When I worked at Disney, we used to dream of a project in which we could use a 1920s attitude toward the body in a contemporary story, using old character models, but no one wanted such a picture. Anyone who wanted Mickey to look like the 1928 character was just out of luck, it just “wasn’t done”. Mickey as a corporate symbol was an untouchable icon then, so getting to do a project like Get A Horse, must have been tremendous fun, despite the obvious design compromises. I’m sure it was quite an accomplishment just to leave Mickey’s hands black! When DisneyCo won Oswald Rabbit back again, I had hopes that maybe some 1926 type animation might be attempted to support Oswald’s re-birth. Instead, DisneyCo green lit Epic Mickey, a series of videogames which recast Oswald as a strictly Maya based character with a moderately flexible body. (Oswald does make a very brief cameo toward the end of “Get A Horse”, waving to the audience from the wings of the stage.) It’s great to see at least a little bit of Iwerks/Harman/Ising/Freleng 1920s style thinking re-enter the canon. Maya animation and 3-D glasses were stirred into the pot to make the project contemporary enough to be green-lighted.
We can only hope that if Get A Horse is successful, more imaginative 1920′s style drawn cartoons will emerge from the mix.