Flight is cool. It’s always been cool. Its sheer physical absurdity and majesty has inspired countless works of art. Look no further than the trio of Oscar-winning cartoons I featured back in April, all of them about birds. Animation is particularly adept at capturing the breathless drama of a creature shooting through the open air. That’s certainly part of why we are now facing a second DisneyToon Studios movie about sentient aircraft.
Thanks to the impressive box office success of last year’s Planes, in the face of absolutely dismal reviews, this weekend brings us Planes: Fire and Rescue. The cast list includes not one, but three talking forklifts. That may very well be all that anyone needs to know about the film, and you will be forgiven if you don’t rush out to see it. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seize another opportunity to celebrate the long love affair that animators have had with airplanes.
The 1920s were a pioneering decade for both cartoons and aeronautics. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic flight, landing his “Spirit of St. Louis” in Paris on the evening of March 21st. His biggest fan? Mickey Mouse. America’s favorite rodent wouldn’t make his debut until November of 1928 in the enormously significant and eternally charming Steamboat Willie. Yet the first Mickey short produced was actually Plane Crazy, something of a Lindbergh fan film.
The plot of the cartoon is pretty simple. Mickey, inspired by the celebrity pilot, wants to make his own plane. He fails spectacularly at first but eventually ends up in the air with Minnie in tow. His craftsmanship isn’t perfect, though, and things get both silly and dangerous very quickly. This isn’t the best work of co-directors Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks but it also isn’t their worst. In hindsight it seems somewhat odd that they couldn’t find a distributor for the original silent version of Plane Crazy, which they test-screened in March of 1928. So it goes. Eight months later they conquered the world with synchronized sound. The earlier short was repackaged as the fourth entry in the Mickey series and finally premiered on March 17th, 1929.
In spite of this somewhat troubled release history, however, Plane Crazy remains a charming landmark in American animation history. The relationship between Mickey and Minnie is fresh and complex, particularly in a late moment in the cartoon when Minnie decides to liberate herself from her klutzy boyfriend’s daredevil antics. It’s also emblematic of the constant motion of early Disney, which would later be taken to technical and artistic heights in the Silly Symphonies series. Even the use of animals as both characters and building materials is an antecedent of later American cartoons, most obviously The Flintstones.
Finally, here are two final things to look for in this charming, obscure short. The first has to do with the music. When Plane Crazy was finally released in 1929, Disney and Iwerks needed to compensate for the fact that it had originally been a silent film. They hired composer Carl Stalling to write the score, which is very much in the style of the improvisational organ accompaniment. Listen for episodic quotations of universally recognizable songs, like “Dixieland” and “Rock-a-bye Baby.”
Last but not least, Plane Crazy is the first ever cartoon to ever use a camera move. At one point there is a POV shot from the plane, flying about and crashing into things. The animators actually placed books under the background to move the artwork closer to the camera while shooting the scene, a perfect example of the ingenuity that characterized the early days of the American cartoon.