December 21, 2007

Skeleton Frolics (1937)

In 1929, director Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks changed the face of animation with the release of the very first installment of their "Silly Symphonies" series, "The Skeleton Dance". Iwerks and Disney had been collaborating together since the early 20s, in Disney's "Laugh-O-Gram" cartoon series; however, their friendship suffered a tremendous blow when Iwerks accepted an offer by a competitor to leave Disney and start his own animation studio. That was the birth of Celebrity Productions, where Iwerks continued developing his style and technique (and where he created the character of Flip the Frog). While his work kept the same high quality, it wasn't really popular and by 1936 the studio was closed. Later that year, Iwerks was hired by Columbia Pictures, and Iwerks decided to return to his old skeletons for another dance, this time in color.

1937's "Skeleton Frolics" is essentially, a remake of the 1929 classic "The Skeleton Dance", the movie that borough him fame and fortune. Like that short film, it is set on an abandoned graveyard, where at midnight the creatures of the night come alive and begin to play. The dead rise from their coffins, ready for the show that's about to begin, as a group of skeletons has formed an orchestra, and begin to play a happy tune. Now, it's not easy to be a musician made of just bones, as some of the orchestra members have problems with their body parts, however, the band manages to put a good show and another group of skeletons begin to dance. A lovely couple of them faces the same problems that troubled the orchestra: it's hard to dance with loose body parts. Everything ends at dawn, and just when the sun is about to rise again, the skeletons run towards their graves.

Directed and animated by Ub Iwerks himself, "Skeleton Frolics" follows faithfully the pattern set by "The Skeleton Dance" years before, although with a crucial difference: Iwerks did the whole film in Technicolor. The bright tonalities allowed Iwerks to create a more visually appealing film, and also to use the many new techniques he had been practicing since leaving Disney, creating even better effects of depth and dynamism than those he conceived before. It is certainly a more experimental film than "The Skeleton Dance", although sadly, this doesn't mean it's necessarily a better film. For starters, the film is practically identical to the one he did with Disney, with the only differences being the music (more on that later) and the color effects. It looks beautiful, no doubt about it, but it definitely feels kind of unoriginal after all.

However, it is not the unoriginality of the concept what truly hurts the film (after all, Iwerks executes it in a wonderful way), but the fact that the musical melody created by Joe DeNat for the film is pretty uninteresting and lacks the charming elegance and whimsical fun of the one done by Carl W. Stalling for "The Skeleton Dance". In other words, while DeNat's tune is effective and appropriate for the theme, it's easy to forget about it rapidly while Stalling's song has a unique personality that makes it unforgettable. Being a musical film, this is of high importance, and so the mediocrity of the music brings down Iwerk's flawless work of animation. Personally, I think that with a better musical accompaniment, "Skeleton Frolics" would be remembered as fondly as "The Skeleton Dance despite not being as groundbreaking, as it's still a fun film to watch.

It's kind of sad that most of the work Iwerks did after leaving Disney is now forgotten due to his poor success, however, it must be said that if Iwerks lacked the popularity of Disney or Fleischer (Disney's main rival), he did not lack the quality of those companies' films. It was probably just a case of bad luck what made the man who gave life to Disney's mouse for the first time to face failure out of Disney. Despite its shortcomings, "Skeleton Frolics" is a very funny and visually breathtaking film, that while not exactly the most original and fresh film (one just can't help but thinking of "The Skeleton Dance" while watching it), it definitely reminds us that Iwerk's skeletons are still here to haunt us, and inspire us.


Buy "Skeleton Frolics" (1937)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow! thanks for this review! and the link to the video. it's brilliant. i love "old" disney.