From the late 1920s to early 1960s, Walt Disney made the best animated shorts in the industry. Other production studios like Warner and MGM also did amazing work in the genre, but I’ve always preferred the calmer, sweeter Disney pictures.
It used to be that when one visited the cinema, he would see a newsreel and a cartoon before the feature presentation. All movies were led by a cartoon, not just movies for children and families. It was part of the cinema-going experience. These shorts were made decades before my birth, yet became such a timeless staple of the of popular culture that I still grew up watching them. Just now we’re starting to see a return of theatrically-released shorts, but only in front of animated features. How I wish that Disney/Pixar and other studios would go back to producing dozens of shorts a year instead of one or two. I would certainly go to the movies more if a cartoon led every feature.
One of the things that continues to fascinate me about classic animated shorts is the physics of the cartoon universe. Not only did animators anthropomorphize anything and everything, but there seemed to be rules. Cartoon characters could break the rules of our physical universe, but still had a set of their own. Gravity exists only after you realize that you’re no longer on the ground. Fragrance can be visible, and when something smells good, a character may float involuntarily. A ‘toon can be flattened like a pancake, but will return to his original form when he re-inflates himself. When two cartoon characters get into a fight, they’ll be surrounded by a dust cloud (or in a very intense fight, a tornado).
Today I’m going to talk about a beautiful Mickey Mouse short that plays homage to one of my favorite literary works, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. The short is Thru the Mirror, and it’s full of some of the best examples of cartoon convention. It was directed in 1936 by David Hand, who is perhaps best known for his work on Bambi and the Animaland series. Thru the Mirror is my favorite piece in his highly impressive body of work.
Mickey Mouse falls asleep while reading Alice Through the Looking-Glass and dreams that he too is transported to a magical place. From the opening scene, we see touches that would become signature images of Walt Disney Animation, in both shorts and features.
The storybook in the opening shot was something that Disney would use in many of his features, starting with the very first one: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It’s a simple and attractive way to remind the viewer that the story that they’re about to see is a re-imagining of a classic fairy tale. The technique wasn’t unique to Disney, nor did it begin there. The first instance I’ve seen of the opening shot storybook was in the Mutt & Jeff short, A Kick for Cinderella, which was directed by Del Andrews. Although that 1924 film is the earliest example I’ve personally seen, it probably happened much earlier than that even. I suspect that Walt’s animators may have borrowed the opening shot storybook from Ub Iwerks, who was also fond of the device. Iwerks opened his own Wonderland short, The Queen of Hearts (1934) the same way. Of course we’ve seen it in Disney films countless times since, but that’s a whole other post.
We know that Mickey begins to dream when his consciousness leaves his body. It’s another common trope in both animation and live-action film. A transparent form of the character will slowly float up from his body. It usually signifies dreaming, though sometimes it represents death. Famously, the Weasels souls leave their bodies when they die of laughter in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The earliest example I know of this pre-dates even the earliest Disney cartoons. In 1903 a silent live-action French short called Le Chaudron Infernal used the device. In that film, demons throw people into a burning cauldron, then the spirits of the dead rise from the flames. Morbid stuff, right? Usually when used by Disney, it’s in a much less violent manner. Even when it’s used to represent death, such as in 1935’s Pluto’s Judgement Day (which will get its own post) it’s most often paired with another great cartoon convention: the “It Was All a Dream” ending.
A dreaming Mickey makes his way over to his mantel and discovers that his mirror is a portal to another dimension. Cartoonists understood, possibly better than the general public did at the time, that glass is an amorphous solid. Mirrors in cartoons often liquefy or vaporize, allowing characters to walk through them and indeed, through the very fabric of the universe. It’s a big device in other cinematic Wonderland references, but it’s also used in other creative ways. In the 2009 Henry Selick film, Coraline, the title character discovers that she can use a mirror as a portal to an alternate reality. The same thing also happened in the Emmy-winning 1985 TV movie, The Hugga Bunch. (I’m not kidding! Those dimply puppets designed to get little girls to buy toys really won an Emmy!)
But I’m getting off-topic.
Mickey enters a mirror-image of his own living room, but everything here is different! In true ‘toon style, everything that Mickey encounters self-animates. We have anthropomorphic furniture, clothing, household items and appliances.
Mickey experiences the same transformations that Alice does when she goes through the looking-glass, such as sudden changes in size.
Mickey dances with his own gloves in the next iconic scene. It won’t be the only time we see dancing gloves in a Mickey Mouse short.
At first, Mickey enjoys marching with the cards.
But the King picks a fight. Mickey has to fence with a needle.
More than once a needle becomes the diminutive mouse’s weapon of choice. In Brave Little Tailor (1938), Mickey uses an needle and thread to best a giant!
One of my favorite moments in the film comes toward the end. As Mickey makes his escape from the King, he runs on to a globe. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that this is no ordinary globe. It acts as a small planet, complete with land, water, and physical latitude and longitude lines. There are a few cartoons where characters swim in the water of a map, but I think this is one of the most stylish takes on that particular convention.
The film ends with Mickey’s subconscious diving back into his sleeping body and waking to his alarm. Whole books could be written about the “It Was All a Dream” convention. You’ll see quite a few more examples in posts to come.
What are your favorite cartoon conventions from Thru the Mirror or other animated shorts? Let me know in the comments!