Monday, June 29, 2009

"Brave Little Tailor" - The Measure of a Mouse

"Remember, he's just a mouse." - Walt Disney

Mickey Mouse celebrated his 80th birthday last year. With countless appearances in short cartoons, feature films, television shows, comics, theme parks, and various other media, Mickey has stepped into roles from amateur pilot to master of ceremonies, band conductor to ghost exterminator, apprentice to the sorcerer to teacher of preschoolers, average little guy to corporate symbol. With such a long and prolific career, it can seem hard to define Mickey as a single personality. But there are milestone moments in the Mouse’s history that give us a picture of who Mickey was at the time and who he ultimately is.

Brave Little Tailor has long been considered one of the classic Mickey Mouse shorts. Animations fans and critics hold it in high regard. It was nominated for an Academy Award the year it was released. Most merchandise depicting Mickey through the ages includes him as he appeared in this cartoon. The short expertly combines humor and drama and focuses on narrative at a time when many short cartoons concentrated mainly on gags. In both story and visuals, it is one of the best Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Right from the title card, we get an idea of what kind of story this is going to be. On one side of a heraldic coat of arms, we see a knight in armor, though his lanky build and squat-legged stance remind us that he is very much a cartoon character. On the opposite side is Mickey, clothed in a baggy shirt and feathered cap. With an air of relaxed confidence, he leans on a pair of oversized scissors. (Audiences of 1938 were quite familiar with Mickey and knew that he was almost never the size of a real mouse.) We can easily tell that the story following will be set in the magical world of knights and dragons. But more than that, we see the traditional hero, represented by the knight, and our hero Mickey, the ordinary little guy who becomes a hero without really intending to.

A sign is posted on a stone wall reading “Citizens Beware! Giant at large!” Alongside the sign is a poster depicting an enormous foot. The shadows of the townsfolk move about over the wall and the two posters as the villagers themselves worriedly discuss the giant’s impending arrival. The use of shadows keeps the poster unobstructed so the audience can read it and heightens the sense of drama. Since shorts are, by their nature, short, economy of storytelling is important. Information needs to be presented qickly and clearly so that the audience gets it without a lengthy explanation that eats up precious time. So what is the central problem in “Brave Little Tailor”? A giant is coming to the village. Why is this a problem? Because, as the villagers lament, he will devour their crops and crush their town. The audience learns all of this from a few brief lines of dialogue and the first shot in the cartoon.

With the camera set further back, the large crowd of fearful villagers is revealed. The image of the foot is shown to be just part of a life-sized image of the giant taking up nearly the whole stone wall it’s posted on. Showing the giant and full size illustrates just how much of a problem he poses, but his sagging shoulders, tiny eyes, and slightly slack jaw suggest a giant who is light on grey matter rather than cruel and murderous. He looks more confused than anything. Animated shorts at this time were still primarily humorous. So while the giant still poses a real threat, he isn’t going to be as formidable a foe as a villain in a feature length animated film would be. He’s big, which makes him a threat, but that’s it.

So where is out hero in all of this? Staring up at the picture of the giant and thinking what a great adventure it would be to try and capture him? Wondering what kind of reward is offered for saving the town from this menace? At the castle, offering his services to the king? No, no, and no. Not even close.

One street over from the crowd is the tailor’s shop. Mickey is at work, whistling a happy tune as he sews. Thoughts of giants, adventure, and rewards couldn’t be further from his mind. The rest of the townsfolk may be worrying about the giant, but Mickey is just an ordinary tailor and his problems are much more mundane. All he wants to do is fix the garment he’s working on, but a small swarm of flies is buzzing around his head and distracting him. Though he seems happy enough with his life, Mickey is clearly pretty low on the societal totem pole. Even tiny flies aren’t afraid to gang up on him, taunt him, and buzz him like a small army of fighter planes. But for once, Mickey has the advantage of size and strength over his foes. More importantly, he’s smarter than them. Mickey grabs two nearby flyswatters and hides them behind his back. Once the flies get close enough, he slaps the flyswatters together, catching the lot of them in between. The flies plummet to the ground. They hit the floor to the sound of six drumbeats and a final clash of cymbals. “Oh boy!” Mickey exclaims. “Seven!”

I should mention the design of Mickey in this short. This is one of the last cartoons to feature this incarnation of Mickey before he underwent his last major redesign. Steamboat Willie debuted ten years before this short did and Mickey did undergo some changes during that decade. He has gained his signature white gloves, his body is now more pear-shaped, and his snout is shorter and rounder. He is recognizable as the classic “retro” Mickey. His face is white rather than flesh-colored, a leftover from his black and white days. He also retains his older style eyes, which are a source of confusion to many people. Comparing the older design to the modern one, it looks as though the older Mickey has solid black eyes with no whites. But in fact, those aren’t his eyes; they’re his pupils. Back in Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho – the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons produced and originally silent - Mickey had a line running down from the point in the center of his forehead that split above his nose into two curves that met up with the points at his cheeks. These lines defined the whites of his eyes, a look very similar to Felix the Cat. For Steamboat Willie, the lines disappeared, resulting in a Mickey much closer to the one we know today. But the black dots remained his pupils and would move around the white area above his cheeks and snout as Mickey looked in various directions. Confusing matters further, when Mickey blinks in this cartoon, the arcs of his eyelids only appear to go from one side of his pupil to the other, unlike Minnie’s, which reach fully across her whites.

Three of the townsfolk have gathered outside of Mickey’s shop window. One of them is asking his friends if they have ever killed a giant and they shake their heads no. It is that exact moment that Mickey chooses to fling open his shutters and announce to the world “I killed seven with one blow!” He’s probably expecting the public to be impressed with his skill, but even Mickey is a little confused with how surprised the bystanders seem and how quickly they rush off to tell everyone they know.

The whole town has soon heard the story of how the tailor slew seven giants with a single blow. The news finally reaches the palace guards and a knight who looks very much like the one from the title card. The knight races into the palace and upstairs to the throne room. The king and his daughter, Princess Minnie, look dejected and worried, just as concerned as the townsfolk about the whole giant issue. In his rush to tell the king what he’s heard, the knight trips and slides across the floor. He crashes into the steps in front of the two thrones, leaving his armor a pile of refuse. He tells the king what he has learned and the king orders that the tailor be brought to him.

The throne room is now crowded with onlookers watching as Mickey makes his appearance before the king. The king himself looks skeptical, perhaps not convinced that this little guy killed seven giants single handedly. But Princess Minnie is immediately smitten, clasping her hands and beaming at the nervous tailor. Mickey is fidgeting with his hat in his hands, likely wondering why the king is so interested in his fly killing prowess. The king asks, “Did you kill seven at one blow?” Mickey hesitantly replies, “Yes, your honor” adding “And how!” while swinging his fist through the air to add some punch to the statement. “How” is exactly what the king is wondering, and he asks Mickey to explain how he did it.

This is a precarious point for the story. In order for the plot to work, Mickey needs to go a little while longer without learning that everyone else thinks he killed seven giants and Mickey himself can’t reveal that all he really did was kill seven flies. But the king has no reason to avoid mentioning giants and Mickey has no reason to conceal the actual nature of his triumph. If the characters continue to speak in vague generalities without any reason to, the story could start to feel very forced.

Fortunately, Mickey’s performance avoids this potential misstep. To some degree, Mickey does believe that his ability to kill seven flies is a big deal. Now he’s been brought before the king because of it, so it must be an even bigger deal than he thought. This may be the only time Mickey ever gets an audience with the king, so while he’s not going to lie about what he did, he is going to make the most of his story. And don’t forget, Walt Disney himself is still voicing Mickey at this point. Many of the story artists who worked with Walt talked about his ability to act out the characters being discussed. So here is Walt Disney the storyteller putting himself into the role of Mickey, who is himself telling a story. His acting talents and the animator’s skills combine to sell a scene that could have easily come off as false and awkward.

Mickey doesn’t merely explain how he performed his impressive feat. He looks above him and spreads his arms as he tells how he found himself surrounded by his foes. He dodges back and forth, describing how they came at him from the right, then the left. He punches at the air so furiously that he falls over, but he doesn’t miss a beat. “They were right on top of me!” he narrates, putting up a hand to fend off an imaginary attack. The king is completely engrossed in Mickey’s tale, biting his nails and wiping sweat from his brow as Mickey tells how he at last emerged victorious. Princess Minnie claps enthusiastically. Mickey finishes his story with a triumphant swing of his scissors. He leans on them and soaks up the crowd’s cheers and admiration. It’s his fifteen minutes of fame, before he goes back to life as a tailor.

After motioning for the crowd to settle down, the King makes his proclamation. He proclaims Mickey “Royal High Killer of the Giant.” In a delayed reaction, Mickey’s scissors slip out from under him and he falls to the ground, stunned. He’s now aware of the mistake and tries to stammer out the truth, but the king interrupts him. Mickey will be rewarded, he decrees, with one million “golden pazoozas”, the local currency. Mistaking Mickey’s continued stammering for haggling, the king offers two million pazoozas, then three, all the way up to six. The king is becoming desperate when his daughter tugs at his arm and whispers to him. He amends his offer to include Princess Minnie’s hand in marriage. Mickey is even more stunned, but Minnie is clearly enthusiastic about the idea she suggested. She runs over to Mickey and kisses him repeatedly, leaving red lipstick marks all over his face. Money may not have been enough to convince Mickey to take on a giant, but love? Mickey stumbles backwards in a stupor of joy. Picking up his fallen scissors, he brandishes them like a sword, accepting the job.

Throngs of well-wishers turn out to cheer Mickey on as he strides out the town gates. Smiling and waving, he is still full of confidence, assuming he can stop thinking about Princess Minnie long enough to remember what he has to do to win her hand. He’s partway down the drawbridge, still waving to the admiring masses, when the doors slam shut behind him. They’re heavy doors; it took two guards to push each one open. But they close with remarkable speed. In that instant, Mickey’s confidence evaporates. The impossibility of the task and the fact that he is now totally alone both come crashing down on him. He dashes back to the doors and pounds on them furiously. Another burst of cheering erupts and Mickey looks up to see his adoring fans waving at him from atop the castle walls, including Princess Minnie. It’s too late to turn back now, so Mickey starts off again. “Well, so long,” he says with a nervous smile. “I’ll be seeing you.” Looking back one last time he adds a final, worried, “I hope.”

This marks the end of the story’s setup. Through misunderstanding, our hero finds himself assigned to a task he is woefully unprepared for. He now has adequate motivation to defeat the giant. He wants to win the hand of the lovely princess. But he’s in over his head. His big accomplishment in life was killing a bunch of flies. To his new opponent, it’s Mickey who is the insect. Even the flies fought in a group, but Mickey is all on his own. Sitting on a rock, Mickey sighs and states his predicament explicitly for the first time: he has no idea how to catch a giant.

As Mickey sits and worries, the ground beneath him shakes in time with booming footfalls. A huge shadow passes over him. Mickey looks up in alarm and runs just in time to avoid being crushed beneath an enormous sandaled foot. He keeps running as the giant continues his stroll, crushing rocks and trees in his path and creating enormous waves as he walks through the water while Mickey flees in a convenient rowboat. The giant hasn’t even noticed Mickey yet, demonstrating again that he is a problem mainly because he is so enormous and that Mickey is seriously outmatched. The giant has no idea that Mickey exists, but he could still kill the mouse simply by taking a walk.

Mickey takes refuge in a cart of pumpkins as the giant sits down on a small farmhouse, which bends under his considerable weight. The giant still does not look like a particularly intelligent fellow, a suspicion that is confirmed when he spies the pumpkins and remarks “Mmmm! Food!” followed by a dopey, low-pitched laugh. He grabs a handful of pumpkins and Mickey and, without ever noticing the mouse, tosses them all into his mouth. Mickey narrowly escapes being swallowed by grabbing onto the giant’s uvula. Next, the giant uproots a nearby well and drinks its contents down. Mickey is swept away with the water and only escapes the giant’s stomach by grabbing onto the bucket and rope that are still attached to the well. The giant tosses aside the well with Mickey still in the bucket. Mickey attempts to hide in a tarp-covered haystack, but the haystack is the next thing to catch the giant’s attention and he bellows “Smoke!” He grabs the haystack, the tarp, and Mickey, and rolls the whole thing into a giant-sized cigar. Lifting the roof of a small house, he picks up a pot-bellied stove and uses it as a lighter. The smoke from the cigar he’s trapped in causes Mickey to cough and sneeze, blowing the cigar apart and at last revealing Mickey to the giant.

The fight is on, though from the giant’s point of view, it’s less of a battle and more of an annoyance. Mickey jumps onto the giant’s nose and tries to maintain his balance as the giant contorts his huge face in an effort to get Mickey off. The giant reacts to Mickey much as a normal sized human would to a fly, like the ones Mickey himself slew. Mickey continues to struggle with just the giant’s facial features, swinging from one of his eyebrows, getting his foot caught in a fold of skin when the giant furrows his brow and sliding down into the giant’s hand when the brow becomes smooth again. The giant closes his hand around the mouse and brings it up to his face. It could well be curtains for our hero, but when the giant opens his hand again, Mickey makes his first attempt at being the brave knight he has been mistaken for. “Don’t move!” he squeaks. “I got you covered.” He stabs at the giant’s nose with his scissors, but the move produces nothing but a loud “honk”.

The giant tries to squash Mickey between his palms as Mickey narrowly escapes into his sleeve. As we saw in the title card, Mickey is no knight in shinning armor. He can’t defeat the giant in a head-on fight. So what is Mickey? Mickey is a tailor. He has the tools of his trade at his disposal, and he may just have the smarts to outwit his foe.

Finally going on the offensive, Mickey pokes his head out of the giant’s sleeve, whistles, and waves his hat around. The giant takes the bait and plunges his opposite hand into sleeve. Mickey at last uses his scissors for their intended purpose as he cuts a hole in the giant’s sleeve. The giant’s hand tears through after him. Discarding his giant scissors in favor of an equally oversized needle and thread, Mickey stitches up the hole around the giant’s hand to form an improvised straightjacket. While the giant struggles to free himself, Mickey climbs to the top of his head and anchors a second, much longer thread around the giant’s nose. Mickey swings around the giant repeatedly, tying him up from head to toe. Once he reaches the ground, Mickey gives a tug on the thread. Big as he is, the giant falls incredibly hard, creating hills from what was once flat land as he hits the ground. A chunk of earth from atop the highest of the newly made hills hits the giant on the head, knocking him out into a peaceful slumber. After checking to make sure his foe is really down for the count, Mickey sighs in relief, then brushes off his hands with the satisfaction of a seemingly impossible job well done.

The next scene is a carnival in progress, complete with a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. The townspeople are celebrating the giant’s capture and the hero who accomplished the deed. They have found that the giant himself can actually be pretty useful, so long as he’s sleeping and securely bound and chained. His massive snores turn a windmill, which connects to a system of gears that powers all the rides. Mickey the hero has received his well-earned reward. The millions of pazoozas are nowhere to be seen, but Mickey was always far more interested in winning the Princess Minnie’s hand in marriage. They ride happily side-by-side on carousel horses and share a kiss. One the horse ahead of them rides the king. He is free of his worries about the rampaging giant and thrilled to have his daughter married to the brave giant killer she has fallen for. Without a care in the world, he joyfully licks his ice cream cone and cries out “Yippee!”

It is a happy ending all around. The townspeople no longer have to live in fear of the giant. The king successfully kept his people safe by finding a hero to vanquish the giant. Princess Minnie is happily married to the tailor she fell in love with at first sight. Even the giant seems reasonably content as he snoozes away, though he may not be quite so happy once he wakes up. And Mickey, the ordinary little guy who originally wanted nothing more than to fix clothing without being bothered by flies, has used the skills he already had to defeat the giant, save his homeland, earn himself a place in the royal family, and find true love.

All images from this article are copyright Disney.

Welcome to the Ink and Pixel Club!

I love animation. Be it hand drawn, computer generated, clay, stop motion, oil on glass, or anything else, animation fascinates me. I've enjoyed animation since I was little and as I've grown older and learned more about the time and work it takes to create a piece of animation, my enthusiasm for it has only grown.

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The Ink and Pixel Club probably would not exist if I hadn't stumbled onto the blog of Todd Alcott. Todd is a professional screenwriter whose smart, engaging, and extremely perceptive analysis of various movies got me thinking about story and film in ways I hadn't before. If you've never checked out his blog for yourself, I recommend that you do so right away. Another reason that I started the Ink and Pixel Club was that I got impatient waiting for Todd to talk about some animated films. When he gets around to doing so, believe me, I will let you know.

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