Richard J. Leskosky: 85-year-old returns to screen
A popular fictional character that has entertained us on screens and in other media for decades with his adventures among strange-looking creatures — and whose appearance changes every so often — has a special anniversary celebration this year where different versions of himself, along with some of his familiar companions, have an encounter with an old adversary across time and dimensions.
What, you say, another column on the "Doctor Who" 50th anniversary? No, I'm talking about Mickey Mouse and "Get a Horse!" — a Disney cartoon released in Mickey's 85th year. After appearing at animation festivals in Annency and Ottawa, it now screens with Disney's latest feature, "Frozen."
The short opens with the logo Disney places on its classic rereleases: a clip of Mickey whistling at the helm from his 1928 theatrical debut, "Steamboat Willie." Then it goes into the old, squarish Academy ration image of a black and white title card and a scene of Horace Horsecollar pulling a wagon loaded with hay and Mickey's late 1920s pals. They pick up Mickey, even though his pants (!) seem reluctant to accompany him, and then he helps Minnie aboard. But then Mickey's old feline nemesis, Pete, shows up and, as usual, makes off with Minnie.
Mickey battles Pete until (spoiler alert!) Pete starts throwing him and Horace against the surface of the screen and finally right through it into the theater and the third dimension. At this point, Mickey winds up in color three-dimensional CGI, and the action keeps moving back and forth between black and white 2-D and color 3-D as Mickey tries to get back into his old world and rescue Minnie.
"Get a Horse!" is the brainchild of Lauren MacMullan, and with this project, she became the first woman to solo direct a Disney animated film. MacMullan was fascinated with the look and action of the very early Mickey cartoons and took extra care to recapture their look and feel in the 2-D component.
All the 2-D animation is actually hand-drawn, though with some computer-assisted tweaking to make it look like old film footage. Eric Goldberg's hand-drawn images faithfully capture the style of Disney stalwart Ub Iwerks, Mickey's first animator. Even a fair amount of the old early Disney barnyard humor is in evidence, including much damage to characters' posteriors.
Mickey looks much as he did in "Steamboat Willie": rubber-hose limbs, no gloves and eyes with dark pupils with no glints to them. He only started wearing gloves in 1929's "The Karnival Kid," because otherwise, his hands did not show up well when they passed in front of his black body.
(Minnie, however, does not sport the somewhat disturbing-looking bra she wore in "Steamboat Willie" and a couple of other early cartoons.)
My only quibble with the visual reconstruction is that while the early Mickey limbs were rubbery (and his tail sometimes prehensile) and could be stretched to hilarious lengths, they did not transform into usable objects as they do here to form a stairway to permit Minnie to climb up onto the wagon. That was the sort of thing Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat typically did, and Walt's pre-Mickey star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit continued that tradition.
But in his trajectory toward the illusion of life in his animated cartoons, Disney was already moving away from that sort of cartoon convention. (And he had almost left the point-of-view shots as characters careen down country roads behind by this time, too, but not entirely, so the couple here are actually not quite out of place.)
Up until 1947, Disney himself supplied the voice for all of Mickey's theatrical films, and MacMullan and her crew pulled his voice from various cartoons for Mickey in this new short.
That's not as easy as it may sound. Apparently, Walt never said the word "red" as Mickey. It took technicians two weeks to construct that word here, taking bits and pieces of other words he did speak and editing them together to make a natural-sounding red.
I've seen "Get a Horse!" in both 2-D and 3-D, and I would recommend seeing it in 3-D. Many of the gags depend on the 3-D process or the switching between dimensions for their full effect. I'd even go so far as to say that for animation fans, it alone would be worth the extra dollars you would have to pay to see it with the 3-D version of "Frozen."
For that matter, seeing "Frozen" itself in 3-D makes sense. Polarized 3-D glasses can cut down on the light reaching the eye by as much as 20 percent, so movies that deal with dark settings (such as, oh, "Thor: The Dark World") are really not the best to see in 3-D. But "Frozen" has a wintry setting, all snow and ice with glittering reflections, so the polarized lenses are not going to obscure any details here.
In any case, whatever version of "Get a Horse!" you see, you'll be in for a clever treat. And at the other end of the "Frozen" screening, be sure to stay through all the credits.
One character returns for a charming little gag in a post-credit sequence, and there's a disclaimer that's probably the funniest (and certainly the most amusingly, innocently gross) ever to appear on a Disney film.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.