Animated Shorts

Adorable Couple (2014)

Comebacks are tricky things to pull off, and tend to fail more often than they succeed. For every Elvis there’s a dozen Lil’ Kims. It takes a mixture of luck, talent and, most importantly, perseverance. The character of Mickey Mouse has been pretty vaguely defined over the years, but one thing that does stay constant about him is that he never gives up, which is appropriate for a guy who’s been trying to make a comeback for eighty years.

See, Mickey Mouse was, at one point, no question, the most popular cartoon character in the world. A beloved American icon. And that period lasted from his debut in 1928 aaaaaaaaaall the way to…1935. When he lost the top spot to a tattooed stroke victim.


Mickey was a perfect salesman for early talky cartoons, but his generic everyman persona was quickly outshone by more distinct, dynamic characters like Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and even his fellow Disney stablemates Donald Duck and Goofy and he never regained the kind of adoration he’d had in the years after Steamboat Willie.

The uncomfortable fact is this: Mickey Mouse is pretty difficult to like. Aside from an…interesting…vocal performance by Walt Disney who decided long ago that his flagship character should sound like a castrato in agony, his ubiquity on every piece of over-priced tat the Disney corporation has tried to sell over the last nine decades has made him more mascot than character, with more in common with Ronald MacDonald and the Nesquik Bunny than his fellow cartoon stars.


You sold out, man.


This left Disney with a conundrum. They were a company famous for creating beloved cartoon characters, whose mascot was a cartoon character beloved by virtually no one. And so, over the decades, Disney tried to relaunch Mickey not just as a brand but as a character. And they tried it again…


And again…


And again…

And again…


And again…


And again…


And again…


And again…

And while some of these attempts were definitely worthwhile in their own right, no one’s going to claim that Mickey Mouse is what makes Fantasia an all-time classic.

This guy. This guy is what makes Fantasia a classic.

It seemed that Mickey was simply a character that could not be salvaged and made interesting*, and the Disney corporation’s insistence on trying to make him happen was starting to get downright sad. To put it in perspective, imagine if Warner Brothers, instead of embracing Bugs Bunny as their mascot, was still trying to make America fall in love with Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid.

“Too racist!”- 1930’s America.

But then, in 2013, Disney unveiled a new series of Mickey Mouse Shorts directed by a coterie of modern animation stars including veterans of shows such as Dexter’s Laboratory, Sym-Bionic Titan and Powerpuff Girls.

And stick cheese in my cheeks and call me a gerbil, but they actually did it. They found a way to make Mickey Mouse work in a modern cartoon. These cartoons are awesome, almost definitely the best use that’s ever been made of the character outside of some classic Golden Age shorts and honestly? I’m not even sure if that’s not just nostalgia talking. What makes them so good? Well, if I might get a little technical here, they’re really good because they’re really good. By which I mean the animation is fluid and engaging, the backdrops are gorgeously designed, the voicework is top-notch, the music is beautiful and expertly integrated into the action and they’re crammed with great jokes both visual and verbal executed with crack timing. They’re also crammed with shout-outs to Disney fans, which, with all manner of obscure character showing up for a cameo. I knew this series was for me when Mickey and Minnie went to a dance with the kids from the “All the Cats Join In” sequence from Make Mine Music. I mean, that is a deep cut.

It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the new Mickey Mouse shorts with the older classic shorts to see how they’re different and also how they’re similar. Because they are different, no question. They have a very modern sense of humour despite being set in a classic Golden Age cartoon world where everything from the animals, to the sun, to the buildings is a sentient, talking being. And they’re…I don’t want to say “dark and edgy” because that conjures up some kind of twisted Frank Millar-esque nightmare whereas these shorts are glorious, sunny little things fit for all ages. But they are darker than the original cartoons, and certainly more willing to actually see Mickey Mouse suffer for comedic effect. The characters are also more flawed. Goofy is a bit more of a jerk, Donald is much more of a jerk. But the real revelation is how the cartoons treat the character of Mickey Mouse. And the remarkable thing is, Mickey hasn’t really changed at all. He’s still the same perpetually happy, squeaky clean, goody-two shoes that he’s always been. The key difference here, is that now that’s the joke. The cartoons take Mickey’s essential lameness and find ways to mine rich humour from it. Take for example, today’s short: “Adorable Couple”.


Charlie the Unicorn (2005)

I hate the internet sometimes. Sometimes I feel like it’s just this huge malevolent thing that holds me in its thrall, designed to make me outraged and depressed and extract as much money from me as is physically possible. Sometimes it’s hard to keep sight of just how much it’s changed the entire world, and often very much for the better.

Oh yeah, this series is still going. Sorry about the delay. One of the reasons why (apart from work being crazy) was the sheer, monumental task of picking just one animated short to represent the first decade of the 21st century. It’s like I said; before now there were only so many animation studios producing shorts in the West to choose from. Now though, virtually anything that appeared on Newgrounds between 2001 and 2010 was fair game, literally thousands of creators. How to pick just one? I bounced around between Homestar Runner and Badgers, which was essentially “something I could never cover in just one post” versus “something I couldn’t talk about long enough to fill even one post” before finally settling on today’s short; Charlie the Unicorn.

I said back when I reviewed Injun Country that just because a cartoon is cheap doesn’t mean it can’t be good and Charlie is a pretty excellent example of that. It is objectively the worst animated of any of the shorts I will review for this series but it overcomes that through a combination of strong writing and hilarious voice work (all done by animator Jason Steele) all leading up to a single, hilariously dark punchline.

It’s a great short, and pretty much a perfect summation of my generation’s sense of humour. There’s a clear Simpsons influence with an even bigger debt to South Park, two of the single most important shapers of the comedic voices of anyone who grew up in the nineties. It’s also a reaction to the  ridiculously saccharine cartoons of the eighties, correctly twigging that there was something undeniably sinister about relentlessly chipper characters who want everyone to get along and have fun no matter what.

Be honest. If it turned out the Care Bears were harvesting organs, would you be shocked?

Animation was once one of the most exclusive and gated art forms in existence, with only a handful of universities and companies worldwide offering an entry point. Now, with the explosive democratisation of the artform brought on by the internet, anyone with an idea or a story to tell can buy some inexpensive software and become an animator. And, with the advent of sites like YouTube, they now have the perfect platform to thrive on.

Animated shorts never died, they just went to heaven.


Roller Coaster Rabbit (1990)

Alright, this series of reviews that was supposed to last for one month has been going on since August so it might be a good time to pull the car over and try to figure out how we got here before the cannibal hillbillies come back. We started with animation in the silent era before moving to the dawn of integrated sound. We then had animated shorts as visual accompaniement and advertising for music and then as wartime proganda. Moving into the fifties we had the Golden Age of Warner Brothers shorts, the ignoble end of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies in the sixties, the advent of more adult themed animation in the seventies and the first glimmer of the Pixar era in the eighties. So that brings us up to the nineties, a decade I am old enough for it to still feel like it was ten years ago. Refresh my memory, what was happening in animation in the nineties? Oh that’s right! The renaissance!


No, no, no. The ACTUAL renaissance.



Thank you.

So, exciting times. Great time to be an animation fan. Disney’s back, kicking ass and taking names, animé is more readily available in the west than ever before and even Western TV animation has stopped eating paste and is becoming increasingly not-awful. What changed? Well, the generation of kids who had grown up watching classic Disney movies and Warner Bros shorts were now adults and working in the film industry and wanted to bring the medium back to its former glory. Foremost amongst those kids was a guy called Steven Spielberg. Now, I say the word “Spielberg” and, depending on your age the first image that pops into your head is:





AP-SS-233 The Spy Who Shagged Me , February 4, 2004 Photo by Blake Little/ To license this image (3905509), contact NewLine: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) (e-mail) (web site)


JURASSIC PARK, 1993. ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection


Schindler's List

But you probably don’t immediately think of animation. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg is like the Forrest Gump of American animation post-1980. Practically every pivotal moment involved him somehow. Don Bluth? Spielberg produced his earliest films. The Disney Renaissance? Wouldn’t have happened without Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The drastic improvement in TV animation? Would have looked very different without Tiny Toons, Animanaics and Pinky and the Brain. Dreamworks? Whaddya think the “S” in “Dreamworks SKG” stands for, hombre?



So in the wake of Roger Rabbit’s incredible success, Spielberg’s production company Amblin and Disney partnered to bring the long defunct animated theatrical short roaring back to life with a series of high budget, high quality Roger Rabbit shorts. And my God, you just need to look at the calibre of talent attached to these things to see how serious they were. Rob Minkoff, who would later go on to direct the single greatest canon Disney movie of all time I said it it’s official no one can disagree it’s over I won,  super producers Don Hahn, Rob Marshall and Spielberg himself of course, Charles Fleischer and Lou Hirsch as Roger and Baby Herman and they even got Kathleen Frickin’ Goddamned Turner back to voice Jessica Rabbit even though she only averages three lines a short. So, before we go any further there’s two things you need to know about these shorts.

1)      As animation, they are absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

2)      As cartoons, they don’t really work.

That’s not to say that they’re complete failures. Anything this beautifully animated fully justifies its existence. But they are a fascinating example of the whole being less than the sum of the parts, and why sometimes fans of something are not always the most qualified people to make a new version of that thing. I’ll get back to that in a second. Only three shorts were made, with a fourth cancelled in pre-production and they very closely follow the formula established in Somethin’ Cookin’, the opening short in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The formula is as follows:

1)      Mommie Dearest leaves Baby Herman in the care of Roger Rabbit, warning him that there will be dire consequences if anything happens to him.

2)      Baby Herman wanders off into danger.

3)      Roger loses his goddamn shit and screams like a Bedlam inmate.

4)      Roger has to protect Baby Herman while suffering violence upon his body normally reserved for the Christ.

5)      Gratuitous Jessica Rabbit cameo.

6)      Gratuitous Droopy cameo.

7)      Roger ruins the take and bursts through the fourth wall into the real world and everybody hates him for being a screw up.

8)      FIN.

So let’s see how that plays out in practice with Roller Coaster Rabbit, the second short and by far the strongest.