Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders what Darwin would think of the relationship between Pluto and Goofy.
"Woof!"—Pluto, explaining his approach to humor
Another season, another set of Walt Disney Treasures. For 2006, Disney digs into the vaults and finishes off the solo cartoons of Mickey Mouse's favorite pet, the irascible Pluto.
Let's be honest here: Goofy was never a dog. While he may have been briefly called "Dippy Dawg" by the Disney team before his more familiar name settled in, Goofy was no more a dog than Mickey was a mouse. No, the world of Disney characters is not ruled by animals. There is only one real animal in its pantheon. His name is Pluto.
Pluto was a good workout for the Disney animators in between major projects. While the feature films became increasingly dependant on dialogue and musical numbers, the Pluto cartoons are almost continuous pantomime. The downside: because Pluto is a silent character—and a pet lacking in opposable thumbs—there are limited story opportunities for him. But with Mickey largely retired by the 1940s (he only appears in three cartoons on this entire set), the door was open for Pluto to have solo adventures.
For much of the time in the 23 Pluto-centric cartoons on this two-disc set, we see Pluto behaving as, well, a dog. (If this seems redundant, consider that by this time Goofy has lost his dog ears in many cartoons, and is often commuting to a job.) Many gags are built around his limited reasoning capacity, such as when he fights an inanimate totem pole in "Mail Dog." He also spends much of that short chasing a hare through the snow. In fact, most Pluto plots by this period involved the dog's conflict with some other animal. A baby seal in "Pluto's Rescue." A turtle in "Pluto's Surprise Package." Birds, bees, gophers, a wolf and his cuddly son (for three shorts—I suppose Disney was trying to groom these characters as semi-regulars), and especially other dogs. Occasionally, Pluto tries to impress a pretty female dachshund ("Pluto's Heart Throb" and "Wonder Dog"). By Disc Two of The Complete Pluto, Volume Two, though, the yellow pup has run out of steam. Still, Pluto does go out with a bang. The 1951 short "Plutopia" reunites Pluto with master Mickey, then segues into a trippy, abstract dream that anticipates the simplified UPA style that would soon overtake the studio's output (and throws in the day-glo color schemes from Dumbo's pink elephant fantasy).
These days, Pluto is considered an indispensable member of the core Disney group, but looking back on these cartoons, it is easy to see why he can be overlooked. Many of these shorts are sweet and pleasant, but none are memorable. In his book Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin even describes journeyman Pluto director Charles Nichols as "soft on action." And yeah, that pretty much describes the generally unthreatening tone of these cartoons. The real action was increasingly going to Donald Duck, with the social satire landing in Goofy's lap. So there really wasn't much for Pluto to do.
As a result, Pluto cartoons are generally shorter that those of the other stars (often well under seven minutes), and there are fewer extended gag sequences. In "Pluto's Fledgling," for example, our hero tries to teach a baby bird to fly, but there is only one lengthy attempt (with a series of pratfalls) before the cartoon ends. The first two acts (the bird falling out of the tree, followed by Pluto trying to return the bird to its nest) are extremely short. The typical structure of a Disney cartoon in this time period involves a brief set-up, followed by two or three gag sequences. The third act is always the longest, playing out the gags set up in the premise. At times, the situations set up in the first two acts of some cartoons in this set do not even seem to fit together. For example, in "Bubble Bee," Pluto steals a bee's collection of gumballs (Act I), has some difficulty chewing the gum (Act II), then deals with the bee's counterattack (Act III). It is a safe bet that the writers had a couple of bee gags and a couple of bubblegum gags, couldn't figure out how to fill a complete cartoon with either one, and therefore decided to have the bee collect gumballs.
Compared to some of the other recent entries in the Walt Disney Treasures series, the cartoons in The Complete Pluto, Volume Two appear to be in pretty good shape, in spite of clearly being cheaper (and their approach to Disney's squashy anatomy sloppier) than the toplining cartoons that drew bigger crowds. It would be stretch to call these cartoons essential. In fact, it is a sign of how slim the pickings are here that the "Master's Class" segment of the bonus materials feature animators Randy Cartwright and Andreas Deja discussing cartoons (respectively 1940's "Bone Trouble" and 1937's "Hawaiian Holiday," in which Pluto only has a small part) that actually appeared in other Treasures sets. A deconstruction of 1935's "Pluto's Judgment Day" is also featured. Disc Two fills out its bonus section with three Figaro cartoons (and a cameo as Minnie's pet cat in "Pluto's Sweater"). Yes, the cat from Pinocchio had enough solo turns that he could muscle in on Mickey's dog. These cartoons (which feature some ethnic caricatures) are segregated in the "From the Vault" section, along with Pluto's final starring roles in "Cold Turkey" (probably here because characters get shut up in a refrigerator—and we don't want kids doing that, do we?) and the surreal "Plutopia."
Completists will be picking this up anyway, but for the casual viewer, this collection does not offer anything particularly memorable. I suppose there are bound to be lulls in the Walt Disney Treasures series; times where which Disney is pretty much just releasing discs in order to clear out the vaults. This is one of those times. But fans of the classic Disney cartoons should not fret: a dozen years of Donald Duck and his increasingly frenetic adventures remain on tap. If Pluto fails to get much of a rise out of you, just wait until next year.
For the sake of series completeness, Disney is allowed to slide this time around. But the court expects to be compensated next year by some better cartoons.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Leonard Maltin Introductions
Review content copyright © 2007 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.