Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cartoon: The Old Mill (1937, Wilfred Jackson)

The Old Mill (1937)
USA, 9 min
Directed by: Wilfred Jackson
Written by: Dick Rickard (uncredited)

Walt Disney's series of "Silly Symphonies," which ran between 1929 and 1939, was originally envisioned as a testing-ground for many of the elaborate animation techniques that would eventually be utilised so effectively in the studio's feature-length films. The cartoons, running less than ten minutes, began as brief vignettes of dancing animals and plants (and even human skeletons) set to classical music, such as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), but eventually expanded towards adapting classic fairy-tales, as seen in Three Little Pigs (1933) and both versions of The Ugly Duckling (1931 and 1939). Thus, throughout the ten years that Silly Symphonies were produced, the emphasis was always on visual innovation, and dialogue was always kept to a minimum. Wilfred Jackson's The Old Mill (1937) is perhaps Disney's all-time greatest achievement, and certainly my favourite to date, and was originally conceived for artists to experiment with the animation of animals, rain, wind, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflection, and was the debut of Disney's revolutionary multiplane camera.

Interestingly, that The Old Mill was essentially a trial-run for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) probably contributed to its greatness. Unburdened by any notion of a solid narrative, the film allows the viewer to simply sit back and lose themselves in the atmosphere of the nature scene. The loose plot concerns the wildlife inhabitants of an old mill situated in an isolated swamp, and whose quiet night is suddenly violently interrupted by a terrifying and immensely-powerful storm that threatens to tear their home apart. The cartoon's attention-to-detail is simply staggering, every character lovingly drawn, their every movement and gesture almost poetic in its execution. Disney's radical and expensive multiplane camera, used here for the first time, allowed the artists to communicate animated depth like never before, and the richness of their creation feels so genuine that you could almost step into the cartoon and explore for yourself. The storm effects had come a very long way from those seen in Springtime (1929), and the lightning streaks across the sky with frightening authenticity.

Though Yuriy Norshteyn's Tale of Tales (1979) holds the official title as my favourite work of animation, Jackson's The Old Mill certainly comes a close second. The meticulousness of the animation work is such that I can almost feel the wind and rain beating across my face, and the miniature dramas of the rainstorm – the bird protecting its eggs from the spoke of the wheel, the owl shielding itself from the elements, the mill pitching over in the gale – always keep me gripping my seat in anticipation. The choice of music, too, plays a pivotal role in developing the required atmosphere. The musical tone early in the film is lighthearted and bouncy, with the chorus of croaking frogs forming a melody that sounds a bit like "The Sorceror's Apprentice." I'm unsure of the piece that plays during the storm's onset, but it is wonderful, bringing a frighteningly ethereal tone that suggests something epic and supernatural about this force of nature. A "silly" Symphony this is not; The Old Mill remains one of the most majestic and heartwarming cartoons ever made.

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