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Dec. 24 – Silly Symphony – “The Night Before Christmas”

night before poster

Originally released December 9, 1933.

We have reached a day of great, holiday, release – Christmas Eve. And what better way to mark the occasion than with a holiday short titled The Night Before Christmas. A lot of cartoons have made use of this title, but today’s subject is the Silly Symphony short that falls under that heading. It felt right to tackle this one in the wake of the Merrie Melodies short we looked at a few days ago. Those two brands are forever linked by their similar titles and the competition that existed at the time between the Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Studios, a competition that still exists today.

The Silly Symphony collection was essentially Walt Disney Production’s play area. The Mickey Mouse shorts the studio was famous for were more straight-forward, while the Silly Symphony shorts could be just as narratively tight or could be more experimental in nature. In some respects, the shorts were a testing ground for techniques the studio would employ for its feature-length theatrical productions, like the multi-plane camera used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Technicolor debuted here as well before making the jump to Mickey Mouse and even the studio’s greatest creation, Donald Duck, debuted in a Silly Symphony short (I may be a touch biased there). The shorts could be funny, whimsical, scary, whatever they needed to be. And sure, a bunch of them did just end up being characters largely dancing to some music, but there was also some great stuff in there.

night before title card

Note the top, in case you forgot who the real star is.

This short, The Night Before Christmas, is the 1933 sequel to the 1932 short Santa’s Workshop. In that cartoon, we watched Santa and his elves prepare for Christmas at the North Pole and it ends with the big guy saying “goodbye” to his loyal workers and heading off to deliver the presents. Well, this one is going to show us Santa on his journey that night through at least one house. This one was directed by Wilfred Jackson with Dick Huemer getting the credit for the animation. And as you would expect, it’s an adaptation of the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore. And since this is a 1933 short, it’s in Technicolor unlike the Merrie Melodies short we looked at earlier.

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The cozy confines for today’s short.

Like so many cartoons, this one also begins with a rendition of “Silent Night” as the title card is shown. Lest we forget who the real star is, this is credited as Mickey Mouse presents…, in case you had no idea what Walt Disney Productions was famous for. After the title card is removed the cartoon begins. A narrator is singing the poem from which this short takes its name. Leigh Harline is credited with the music on this short, but I do not know who the vocalist is that’s singing the song. The visuals show us a cozy home covered with snow. Everything is quiet, as the poem demands, and the home’s children are snug in a rather large bed – all 8 of them.

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That was a close one, boys.

The vocals end with the sound of sleigh bells as we see Santa flying high overhead with his team of eight not-so-tiny reindeer out in front single-file. They barely fit onto the roof of the house, which is maybe why Santa’s reindeer are often in a two-across formation, but the lead reindeer is able to keep from sliding off and Santa seems ignorant to the near miss. He climbs out of the sleigh and makes his way down the chimney. He’s a fairly large Santa and certainly a round one. He has a permanent smile affixed to his face and he is prone to frequent bouts of laughter. He’s not exactly the quiet kind of Santa.

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Fire just loves Santa’s ass.

When he emerges from the chimney he’s all covered in soot, but doesn’t seem to mind. Somewhat surprising for a 1930’s short, his sootiness isn’t in the form of a blackface gag which is nice to see. He shakes the soot off and seems to notice the hot coals in the fireplace, a near miss for Santa’s rump. When he turns his back on the hot coals they grow into tall flames which reach out and caress Santa on the bum. He jumps and spins around waving a finger at the fire. He then laughs and the flames go out making me wonder if he has this sort of playful relationship with all of the fireplaces he’ll visit this evening.

mickey silly cameo

There’s something familiar about that toy in front, and something odd about that sheep one.

Santa then gets to work. He first pulls out a modest tree from his sack which isn’t quite as tall as he is. He opens it like an umbrella and places it on the floor. He then pulls out a toy bugle and uses it to summon the toys to work. A marching band comprised of toy clowns emerge first from the sack as they lead the rest of the toys which soon includes dolls and even a toy Mickey Mouse riding on a scooter. The animation with Mickey repeats several times almost as if they wanted to make sure everyone noticed the rather hard to miss cameo. One toy squeezing a sheep is a bit curious looking. I don’t want to say it’s definitely blackface, but it’s close.

The toys then begin decorating the tree which includes some lit candles (there must have been countless Christmas tree related fires over the years). My favorite gag, if you can call it that, would be the team of toy soldiers firing ornaments out of a toy canon at the tree. A plane flies around leaving a trail of garland on the tree while toy firemen coat the tree with artificial snow.

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Santa pretty much thinks anything he does is hilarious.

While the toys take care of what is apparently their job, Santa starts filling stockings. Some are a bit shabby looking, but all have a little note in them detailing what the kid wants for Christmas. One stocking is actually a diaper, which Santa puts a doll in. Another appears to be three socks stitched together which is the perfect size for a baseball bat, which forces a laugh out of Santa. When he comes to one with a hole in the toe, he improvises by first sticking an umbrella in it upside down and then dumps a bunch of toys into it laughing all the while.

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That’s a mighty fine tree there, toys.

Horns sound to apparently announce that the tree has been decorated. All that is left is for a toy zeppelin to fly to the top with the star-shaped tree topper. Once it’s placed where it belongs a small cheer goes up and the clown band starts playing “Jingle Bells.” The other toys dance merrily while Santa gets in on the act via a toy piano. If you’re thinking this must be noisy as hell, then you would be right. Soon, the kids perk up due to all of the commotion, and a patch on the comforter even flips open to reveal a ninth kid had been sleeping underneath it. The kids race to the top of the stairs for a look, with our ninth kid apparently the focal point as he’s the straggler and the seat of his pajamas is unbuttoned revealing his naked bottom. As the kids look on, it’s this little guy who tries to hold back a sneeze, and fails, alerting Santa down below.

Santa hastily orders the toys back to their places. They all head for their spot under the tree with some toys returning to their packaging. As the kids descend the stairs, Santa squeezes himself into the fireplace with his empty sack, places a finger beside his nose, and vanishes up the chimney.

junior blackface

And we almost made it to the end…

The kids then attack the tree as they all reach for the toys that stand out most to them. Our little straggler, who is apparently named Junior, is the only one who apparently noticed a disturbance by the fire place and he heads for that first. Looking up the chimney, a blast of soot falls on his face and there we have it – a blackface gag (sigh). Our attention is soon directed to an unopened present under the tree addressed to Junior and he heads over and opens it. Inside is a little, black, Scottish Terrier which licks the soot off of his face. All of the kids then run to the window when they hear the sound of sleigh bells and they watch as Santa and his team of reindeer fly off into the creepiest looking moon I’ve ever seen. It has an unpleasant grin, and this is basically the same shot that ended the previous short, Santa’s Workshop. The vocalist from earlier returns as well to sing the final stanza of the poem with the short ending on the now famous line “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

junior and dog

Having an adorable puppy erase the blackface is probably the best outcome we could have asked for.

The Night Before Christmas is a fairly tame piece of animation, that one instance of blackface excluded. It has a simple premise and follows the Silly Symphony formula of showing a bunch of characters acting out a mundane process, but with a touch of fantasy. There’s no spoken dialogue in this one, aside from the narration of the poem, as Santa just laughs a bunch and never actually says a word to the reindeer or the toys. He doesn’t even get to belt out that closing line. The kids also don’t really say anything, they just cheer or make a noise of surprise or delight. I like that they never actually see Santa until they get to the window, as even from atop the stairs they couldn’t see anything since the room Santa was in is blocked by a door.

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I expected an ending in which Santa flies in front of the moon. What I did not expect was for that moon to wear a maniacal grin.

What this short does have some fun with is merely the process Santa goes through at each house. It’s a bit surprising to see so many toys bestowed upon these children since this was released during The Great Depression. I suppose we get some sense of that via the shabby stockings and the fact that all of the kids share a single bed. Santa bringing the tree and decorating seems to be a relic of the old days. I know my dad’s family never decorated their tree, that was Santa’s job, though I think they at least put it up first. I think some families did decorate it together on Christmas Eve before going to bed, as I’m sure some probably do that now. I think for many homes though the customary thing to do now is to get a tree and then decorate it as soon as possible. The only matter up for debate is how soon is too soon. I like getting as much visual enjoyment as possible from a tree so I’m more of the sooner the better camp. However, I have my limits. My neighbors literally put their tree (an artificial one) up the weekend after Halloween which is something I thought only happened in Bob’s Burgers. If you want my advice, even though it’s pretty useless advice coming on Christmas Eve, I say cut down your own tree if you can that way you can put it up in early December and it will still be relatively fresh come the end of the month. Those lot trees are often cut in October which is why they often don’t last very long. And if you do have a tree, don’t put lit candles on it or leave it plugged in when you’re not home or asleep. Lets avoid those Christmas tree fires, everyone.

If you want to check out this short this year then it would be rather helpful to have the collection of Silly Symphony shorts, More Silly Symphonies, which was released in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Treasures line. It’s since gone out of print, and as of this writing it wasn’t on Disney+ and if you’re reading that then it wasn’t added before this went up, which is a shame, but that blackface gag could be to blame. There’s still hope though as Disney is not very protective of these shorts so if you just punch it into your preferred search engine you’ll probably find it no problem. And if you can’t, maybe that too is a bit of a good thing as it likely means Disney is prepping this for a future release on Disney+ or via some other method. We’re still waiting on an HD release of all of the classic shorts, so come on Disney, what are you waiting for? Needless to say, have a Merry Christmas Eve and hopefully you can find some time to check back tomorrow for the final entry in this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot.


The Chronological Donald Duck Volume 4

donald vol 4For the third year in a row, we’re marking the birthday of Donald Duck with a post about The Walt Disney Treasures releases baring his name. Today is Donald Duck’s 85h birthday dating back to June 9, 1934 when the theatrical short The Wise Little Hen was released to theaters. Donald may not be the star today that he was back in the 40s, but he’s still one of the most recognizable cartoon characters around the world and it’s hard to imagine that changing anytime soon.

On November 11, 2008 Disney released the final edition of The Chronological Donald Duck. Allegedly, the company was going to stop at Volume 3, but enough fans made their voices heard and Disney finished off the series in proper fashion. I’m not sure why Disney would have stopped before this. Certainly, the amount of cartoons remaining may have been less celebrated than those on Volumes 2 and 3, but there were still enough remaining that Disney should have basically felt obligated to finish. Then again, the company is somewhat famous for incomplete releases as they just now finished releasing all of the episodes to the show DuckTales.

Volume 4 of The Chronological Donald Duck was limited to 39,500 copies. The original pressing also contained an error with one short, Bee on Guard, in which about five seconds were missing. Disney issued replacement discs, which probably won’t help you out in 2019 if you go seeking a set on the after market. Over 39k being issued seems like a lot for what is probably a niche release, but it’s a small enough printing that this volume is hardest to acquire. It routinely sells for well over $100 and I wonder if some of its scarcity is due to Disney collectors buying them when they first came out with the intention of sitting on them. With Disney+ on the way this fall, maybe prices will start to come down if these shorts wind up there, but for now this set is all we have if we want to see late era Donald Duck from the 1950s.

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Donald was basically the only character at Disney still getting the short treatment, which included a poster for every release. If I were a rich man I’d be a collector of these posters. They’re beautiful.

If you’re a Donald Duck fan and you don’t already have this set, then you’re probably looking at those after market prices and wondering if you should bite the bullet and grab a set. I’ll do my best in this post to help you make an informed decision, though it should be said if you’re staring at an eBay listing for $250 then there is probably no way a collection of old cartoons could live up to that price point (unless you’re quite wealthy and that kind of price tag is meaningless to you). I’ll say upfront that if all four volumes were readily available at retail then this set would be the least desirable, though certainly still worth the MSRP.

The cartoons in Volume 4 span almost the entirety of the 1950s beginning in 1951 with Dude Duck. It also contains the educational Donald shorts from 1959 and 1961. In addition, there are also 10 Mickey Mouseworks shorts starring Donald Duck from 1999-2000 included as bonus features. They’re not as good as the classics, but still a welcomed edition. Some of the shorts on this set are quite popular and probably the most popular is Trick or Treat, the 1952 short featuring Donald playing a trick on his nephews at Halloween rather than treating which invokes the wrath of the witch Hazel (voiced by the legendary June Foray). There are also encounters with Chip and Dale to be found here, Donald’s best foils.

nephews and witch hazel

Trick or Treat is probably the most famous short from this collection.

Chip and Dale do some heavy lifting, but they aren’t the only foils who show up. The set begins with Donald opposite a reluctant horse when he visits the Bar None Ranch (maybe that’s where Nickelodeon’s Hey Dude got the idea) in Dude Duck. Humphrey Bear makes his second ever appearance in the short Rugged Bear in which he hides from hunters in Donald’s cabin and disguises himself as a bear skin rug. It’s good fun to see Donald unwittingly interacting with a bear. Humphrey also returns in Grin and Bear It where he’s basically a precursor to Yogi Bear as he seeks to steal Donald’s food. He’ll make a few more appearances as well making the second disc feel like The Humphrey Disc. There’s also a one-off adversary in The Flying Squirrel in which Donald is victimized once more by a rodent, only now this one can fly! Louie the Mountain Lion also returns in Donald’s first exposure to CinemaScope in Grand Canyonscope. Obviously, the cartoon wanted to take advantage of the aspect ratio by setting it at the Grand Canyon, but it’s still a worthwhile short to take in, especially since it actually includes Donald Duck basically destroying a national treasure.

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Grand Canyonscope also featured a new widescreen intro for Donald.

In addition to the usual, there are also some experimental shorts on this set. Probably the most entertaining is Donald’s Diary in which a narration (performed by Leslie Denison) of Donald’s life via his diary accompanies the visuals of Donald falling in love with Daisy and then having his life ruined by her. It livens up the format, though some of the humor may be a bit outdated, I still had fun with it, nonetheless. And then there are the two How to Have An Accident shorts, one being set in the home and the other at work. They’re hosted by a character named Fate and they’re basically slapstick cautionary tales imparting some pretty basic advice. I’m surprised Donald was called on to star in these as it feels more like a Goofy concept, but Donald is pretty entertaining when he’s getting hurt. The second of these shorts, How to Have An Accident at Work, is confined to the Vault section due to an offensive Chinese impression, but by Volume 4 the disclaimers have grown less intrusive.

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No Hunting features a rather hard to miss cameo.

Speaking of the Vault, there are only four additional shorts deemed “worthy” of the section. Uncle Donald’s Ants landed in the section due to an insensitive portrayal of Indigenous Africans via some ant characters. A couple of others are apparently there due to violent imagery. The previously mentioned Rugged Bear is a vaulted cartoon probably due to some uncomfortable gunplay and Donald “mowing” Humphrey with a lawnmower. No Hunting features more gunplay, though it’s a short that’s mostly known for featuring a cameo by Bambi and his mother. Spare the Rod also contains some characters called Pygmy Cannibals that are certainly offensive by today’s standards though also commonplace in media from the era. I would say, in general, the vaulted cartoons on this set are the least offensive we’ve seen, but I also grew up seeing worse on television as a kid.

alice donald

Bugs Bunny wasn’t the only one doing drag in the 50s.

This set also includes Donald’s brief foray into the world of “edutainment.” Depending on your age, you may have even seen some of these in school, in particular Donald in Mathmagic Land. The other two are Donald and the Wheel and The Litterbug. None are particularly entertaining, but worth a watch for the hell of it, I suppose. I can’t really attest to the educational value of them, but I suppose you could do worse. Surprisingly, Disney elected not to include Scrooge McDuck and Money which I actually would have liked to have seen here for the simple reason it was Scrooge McDuck’s first appearance outside of the opening credits to The Mickey Mouse Club show.  Donald also had other educational cartoons not featured, but I can’t say it’s a great loss. Sure, as a completionist, I’d have liked to have seen Donald’s Fire Survival Plan and Steel and America, but I can’t honestly say I miss them.

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When Disney started making new shorts for television in the late 90s of course Donald got to star again!

Lastly, we have the 10 shorts from the Mickey Mouseworks line of the late 90s and 2000s. I do enjoy the fact that Disney tried to resurrect the cartoon short and these characters specifically, but there’s definitely something missing. They don’t look as good as the old cartoons, despite being more recent, though they’re hardly ugly or anything. The characters often look and animate just fine, it’s the backgrounds that tend to be sparse and flat. Still, I’m glad someone like Tony Anselmo got the chance to voice Donald in proper shorts after voicing the character for so long. Daisy and the nephews get to appear as well and there are a handful of good gags, and a lot of recycled material. They’re worth watching, even more so than the educational stuff, but you’ll likely prefer the older cartoons to these.

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The Mouseworks shorts look pretty good for what they were, late 90s television animation.

The Mouseworks cartoons comprise the bulk of the special features. Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck provide audio commentary on two shorts and it’s another thing worth a listen at least once. There’s also a walkthrough hosted by Eric Goldberg of an unproduced Donald Duck storyboard from 1946 called Trouble Shooters and it actually looks like we missed out on a pretty good cartoon. Lastly, there’s a little feature on Donald Duck’s foray into the world of comics. It only really covers the comics of the era these shorts are from and into the 60s, so Don Rosa fans might be let down. It’s a suitable overview though.

It was at this point that Donald Duck was showing some age. In particular, the shorts starring Chip and Dale can get a bit too familiar. There are three shorts here in which the plot is basically Chip and Dale getting involved in some miniature hobby of Donald’s:  a small house and village in Out of Scale, a miniature airplane in Test Pilot Donald, and a miniature sailboat in Chips Ahoy. Individually, they’re all pretty good but if you’re binging these (and they were never created with that idea in mind, to be fair) then you may experience a feeling of diminishing returns. There also appears to be a desire to shake things up here and there. In Lucky Number, for instance, the nephews appear to be teenaged as they are able to drive a car. Then, of course, there was also gimmicky stuff like the Cinemascope debut and even a 3D cartoon, Working for Peanuts, which is understandably not presented in 3D on the set.

humphrey and donald

Humphrey Bear and Donald are a somewhat forgotten, but quite entertaining, pairing.

Volume 4 of The Chronological Donald Duck is a good finale for the character. There are some great shorts on this set, some that should be celebrated more than they are, and they are definitely worth owning if you’re a fan of Donald Duck or a fan of animation in general. Sure, some of the gags presented here are a bit too familiar and may have been done better in a previous short, but they’re still entertaining. The quality in the production is also still there. These may not be the very best looking Donald or Disney shorts, but they still hold up as a wonderful example of the type of animation we’ve lost. I don’t know what a fair price is for this set and thankfully I’ve owned it long enough at this point that I can’t remember what I personally paid for it. I don’t think I’d ever pay upwards of $200 for it, but I’d probably pay half that and even a bit more because I’m such an enthusiastic fan of Donald Duck. If you’re more of a casual fan then feel free to ignore this set. Get Volume 2 which is the cheapest and if you really want more after watching all of the cartoons on that one then you’ll have a better idea of what you’re willing to pay. And like a lot of classic Disney shorts, if you really just want to watch them they’re not hard to find streaming for free online.

The Shorts

1951

  • Dude Duck
  • Corn Chips
  • Test Pilot Donald
  • Lucky Number
  • Out of Scale
  • Bee on Guard

1952

  • Donald Applecore
  • Let’s Stick Together
  • Trick or Treat

1953

  • Don’s Fountain of Youth
  • The New Neighbor
  • Working for Peanuts
  • Canvas Back Duck

1954

  • Donald’s Diary
  • Dragon Around
  • Grin and Bear It
  • The Flying Squirrel
  • Grand Canyonscope

1955

  • Bearly Asleep
  • Beezy Bear
  • Up a Tree

1956

  • Chips Ahoy
  • How to Have an Accident In the Home

1959

  • Donald in Mathmagic Land

1961

  • Donald and the Wheel
  • The Litterbug

The Vault

  • Uncle Donald’s Ants (1952)
  • Rugged Bear (1953)
  • Spare the Road (1954)
  • No Hunting (1955)
  • How to Have An Accident at Work (1959)

Mickey Mouseworks (1999-2000)

  • Bird Brained Donald
  • Donald and the Big Nut
  • Donald’s Charmed Date
  • Donald’s Dinner Date
  • Donald’s Failed Fourth
  • Donald’s Rocket Ruckus
  • Donald’s Shell Shots
  • Donald’s Valentine Dollar
  • Music Store Donald
  • Survival of the Woodchucks

Batman: The Animated Series – “Deep Freeze”

deep freeze titleEpisode Number:  84

Original Air Date:  November 26, 1994

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

First Appearance(s):  Grant Walker, Nora Fries, Bat-Mite

Thanksgiving 1994 brought fans of Batman:  The Animated Series something they had been looking forward to for over two years. The penultimate episode, and final broadcast episode of Season 3, marks the return of Mr. Freeze who was last seen in “Heart of Ice” which aired September 7, 1992. That episode was so well-received that the writers didn’t really know where to go with Freeze following it. He couldn’t just become some garden variety super villain who shows up from time to time. His story was fairly complete when that episode ended:  Freeze, devoid of all emotion except vengeance, set his sights on the man who wronged him. While Freeze was unable to kill Ferris Boyle, he did out him as something of a monster and it’s presumed his life was ruined as a result. He may even be in jail, which is where we last saw Freeze pining for his wife in a cell coated in ice and snow.

That ending image to “Heart of Ice” was so well done that it was essentially re-shot for the feature film Batman & Robin. It was about the only thing that film got right when it came to the character. For Freeze to return he would need a new motivation, but how do you motivate a guy who claims he has no emotion? The answer is Nora Fries. We had only seen Nora in a flashback, and she was presumed dead as a result of Boyle’s actions, but Freeze is about to find out that isn’t the case. If Freeze could bring his wife back would it restore the humanity he once felt inside? And to what lengths would he go to in order to save her? Those are the pertinent questions Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had to ask themselves before determining if it was worth pursuing. For some reason, the answer to that question is going to partly include a Walt Disney parody. Confused? Read on.

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Mr. Freeze is kidnapped, and only Batman can find out by whom.

“Deep Freeze” opens in an interesting way as the camera finds a robot outside what I believe is Stonegate Penitentiary. The setting by the seas looks right and Fries is in a prison jumpsuit, though other write-ups I checked assume it’s Arkham.  The robot is fairly large, somewhat boring looking, but it has no problem getting past the security measures. In a scene that feels similar to Magneto’s debut in the X-Men episode “Enter Magneto”, the robot zeroes in on a specific cell. We know it to be the cell of Victor Fries, also known as Mr. Freeze, because it’s filled with ice and snow. Inside, Fries (Michael Ansara) watches the robot approach and begins to panic. He’s actually scared, as he bangs on his cell door and calls out for help. The robot breaks through the wall and approaches, grabs him, and jams him inside its body. As this unfolds, the camera pans back to reveal the music box/statue of the ballerina Fries associated with his late wife has been shattered in the process.

At the Batcave, Batman and Robin review the security tape of Fries’ abduction. Robin is impressed with the lengths he went to escape, while Batman points out that for a man who claims to feel no emotion, he sure looks scared on film. Batman is fairly certain that this was not orchestrated by Mr. Freeze and that someone has abducted him against his will. The presence of a robot offers one lead and we’re about to pay a visit to another old friend.

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A character I never expected to see in this show:  Bat-Mite.

Batman and Robin arrive at the office of Karl Rossum (William Sanderson), the Blade Runner homage whom we last heard from in “His Silicon Soul.” Interestingly, Rossum’s debut came in “Heart of Steel” so this episode is a marriage of the two prior “Heart of…” episodes from this series. Anyway, when the heroes knock on the door they’re greeted by a flying, Batman inspired robot. Fans will recognize this little fellow as Bat-Mite (Pat Fraley), who in the comics is a transdimensional imp who idolizes Batman. He’s mostly comic relief, and really wouldn’t fit into the tone of this show, which is what makes his appearance suitable here as he’s a robot designed by Rossum. Batman and Robin find out Rossum now just uses his brains to make toys, if he’s given up on farming he doesn’t say, and he’s a little surprised to see the two pay him a visit. Batman shows him an image of the robot that abducted Fries and Rossum does recognize it as one of his designs, only his version was much smaller. It was designed for theme park operator Grant Walker who would use it for his attractions as a little animatronic. Rossum theorizes that Walker was able to reverse engineer the robot and build it in a larger scale.

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Meet Grant Walker, who bares a strong resemblance to a real world theme park mogul.

It just so happens that Grant Walker (Daniel O’Herlihy) is putting the finishing touches on a new park:  Oceania. That’s where the robot who abducted Fries has taken him. As its name implies, Oceania is located in the ocean off the coast of Gotham. It’s a floating artificial island and the robot enters it from below the water’s surface. It appears in a tube and Fries is let out. There he’s confronted by the elderly Walker, who is something of an admirer of Fries’ work. He says Fries is going to help him complete Oceania, while Fries is doubtful. Walker instructs him to get comfortable and he and the robot disappear in the tube. As they leave, someone contacts Walker to say they’ve detected a vessel approaching and Walker instructs him to deal with it in the usual fashion.

Knowing where to find Walker, Batman and Robin board the Batboat and start heading for Oceania. Oceania’s security measures detect the approaching watercraft and Walker orders it be fired upon, so this is apparently more than just some park. Batman is unable to avoid the torpedoes from Oceania, and the Batboat is destroyed in the process. Walker is informed that the watercraft has been taken care of, and he’s free to turn his attention back to his would-be business partner.

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Walker knows how to make Mr. Freeze play along.

Fries is then reunited with his suit and freeze ray. Once again as Mr. Freeze, he turns to Walker and questions what is stopping him from using his weapon against him. Walker then turns on the charm. Walker believes that due to the accident Fries endured that his body’s aging process has been essentially frozen in place. In other words, he’s immortal or as close to immortal as a human can get. Walker wants to achieve the same for himself, as he’s nearing his own end and wants to see his life’s work to completion. Fries initially refuses, and even seems insulted, but then Walker reveals he has something that Fries would be very interested in:  his wife Nora.

Sometime after the accident that supposedly killed Nora and turned Victor Fries into Mr. Freeze, Walker was able to acquire the body of Nora who is still suspended in a capsule. She’s there, in a liquid floating as if she’s a human snow globe. Fries is shocked to find his beloved wife is still alive, and Walker insists his team of scientists has the ability to restore her. If Fries would like to be reunited with his wife, he’ll need to help Walker get what he wants.

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Batman and Robin’s infiltration does not go well.

Batman and Robin are able to eject, and continue on to Oceania. They sneak in, and end up in a town square of sorts where Walker addresses the inhabitants of Oceania from a large video screen in the sky. It’s here we get a good look at just what Oceania is. It’s basically Walker’s attempt at Utopia, which makes sense since it shares a name with a country from George Orwell’s 1984. Walker also isn’t planning on just creating a community that will live in peace and isolation, he intends to destroy everything around it. Deeming humanity too cruel to exist, he’s created a giant version of Mr. Freeze’s freeze gun and is planning on freezing all of Gotham as a start to completing his vision.

toony batman

Sometimes, Batman gets real stretchy and toon-like in this one.

Naturally, this isn’t something Batman and Robin are going to allow to stand, but they’re noticed by the security robots. They’re swarmed by flying droids, and they’re unable to handle them. The two get to toss some righteousness at Walker, but their words hold little sway. The robots then take them down below where they then come face to face once again with Mr. Freeze. He gets to do the aim at the camera gag again as he fires upon the heroes.

walkers new duds

Walker gets what he wants, as billionaires often do.

Batman and Robin get to watch from frozen restraints as Freeze prepares to do to Walker what Boyle unwittingly did to him. Walker climbs into a suit of his own and Freeze administers whatever it is that freezes a man. Walker’s skin turns pale blue, and he doesn’t die, indicating the process was a success. Walker seems quite happy to find his suit has enhanced his strength. With his job done, Freeze just wants to return to his wife as he considers his business with Walker concluded.

freeze reckoning

Mr. Freeze has to abandon his short-term goal of reviving his wife in order to save Gotham.

Batman and Robin are with Freeze as he tends to his wife, not really doing much of anything. From there, Batman is able to appeal to Freeze by referencing his wife. He reasons that should she wake up in a world of ice and snow created with the help of Freeze that she’ll resent him, even hate him. Freeze is initially dismissive, but apparently he reaches the same conclusion. He frees Batman and Robin, and decides to help them prevent Walker from carrying out his plan.

They attack Walker’s command center. There they’re forced to contend with Walker’s robotic minions once more, but this time they’re prepared and with the aid of Mr. Freeze they prove to be no match. Walker is shocked to see Freeze has betrayed him, and he’s helpless since he didn’t think to arm himself with an ice gun of his own. Freeze encases Walker in a giant ice cube and also freezes the controls to his massive ice canon. He uses the console to set the core to overload before broadcasting a message to the inhabitants of Oceania that if they value their lives they should escape. He tells Batman and Robin to do the same, but they insist he come with them. Freeze refuses, insisting his place is beside his wife.

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Mr. Freeze’s solution to his problem is very much in character.

As the ice begins to engulf Oceania, Batman appeals once more to Freeze. To put an end to the discussion, Mr. Freeze uses his freeze ray on Robin, instructing Batman that he’ll need medical attention and soon. Batman is forced to abandon Freeze, who returns to his wife. The place is falling apart, but Freeze appears resigned to his fate as Batman and Robin are shown escaping in the last lifeboat. As for Grant Walker, he’s found himself in a giant ice cube and he rages as it sinks into the water where he’ll never be heard from again.

In the Batcave, Dick is still thawing out as Alfred tends to him. Dick remarks he thought he’d end up like Walker, frozen in an ice cube forever, which is an interesting point since it makes it clear the duo know how he ended up, but it sounds like they have no intention of trying to extract him. An unusual dose of cruelty from the Dynamic Duo. As he shakes away the chills, he asks Bruce if he thinks they’ll hear from Mr. Freeze again (I feel like they’ve done this before). Bruce reasons that if his condition has really made Freeze immortal then there’s a good chance they will. On cue, we cut to a block of ice floating in arctic waters. Inside, the ice is apparently hollow as we see a silhouette of Mr. Freeze kneeling before Nora’s capsule. He extends a hand towards her as the episode ends.

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Not quite as good as the image of Freeze in his cell at the end of “Heart of Ice,” but still an effective and memorable way to end the episode.

Mr. Freeze’s return is certainly welcomed given how well he was portrayed in “Heart of Ice.” Using Nora as a means to motivate him is also in-character and really the most appropriate way of doing it. The only other option would be to return the villain with another revenge angle, either resuming his quest to murder Boyle or in revealing there was another person associated with the accident, which would have been the lazy way of doing things. The portrayal of Freeze here feels authentic and in-line with his prior appearance. The only issue I really had with it is likely due to time constraints. He changes on a dime when confronted by Batman. One would think he’d be so consumed with restoring Nora that he would not have acted until he knew how to achieve it. It’s possible Walker was bluffing, or that he intended her to be able to exist in a sub-arctic environment alongside her husband after his plan was completed. That isn’t really explained. Perhaps had this been a two-parter such questions could have been addressed, and maybe that’s partly why the character will return in a feature-length production shortly.

The aspect of the episode that I can’t get over resides with the Grant Walker character. He is very obviously a Walt Disney parody. A theme park operator, the cryogenic connection, and even his appearance evoke Disney. Of course, the whole cryogenics rumor regarding Disney being frozen is just an urban legend, but it was still pretty popular in the early 90s. Oceania is also an obvious reference to Disney’s original interpretation for EPCOT, his Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Now, it’s just Epcot with the acronym having been abandoned since it’s just a theme park, but his vision for it was more ambitious. As far as we know though, he never intended to create a utopia at the expense of the rest of the world. About the only thing missing is a reference to Walker being an anti-semite or something, though Batman does remark that people like Walker are obsessed with power and think they can do whatever they want.

The Disney part of the equation doesn’t offend me as someone who is a fan of Walt Disney. It’s just too on-the-nose to be clever, and in an episode centered around the show’s greatest villain and most melodramatic character feels off. The show was so reluctant to revisit Mr. Freeze because of how well “Heart of Ice” turned out, and yet what appeared to bring about his return feels like it began as a joke.

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There are lots of visual callbacks to “Heart of Ice” in this one.

Like so many of this season’s episodes, this one is animated by Dong Yang Animation. It, more than some of the others, really seems to have that “toon” quality to it that shows up from time to time. Batman and Robin’s first fight with Walker’s robots being the best example of this, along with the character of Bat-Mite. With Bat-Mite, I assume that was the desired result as he’s basically a cartoon character. Still, I like it and Oceania is an interesting locale to visit. There’s also a fun visual callback to “Heart of Ice” when Freeze first confronts Batman. He’s drawn as a background with the only animated part being his mouth and his glowing, red, eyes. The return of the Freeze theme is also welcomed as it suits the character so well.

Since this is the next to last episode of the show, it obviously contains some final appearances. Grant Walker won’t be seen again, though he was returned in the comic tie-in to the show. Mr. Freeze will return once more in this form in the Batman & Mr. Freeze movie and will then transition to not only The New Batman Adventures, but Batman Beyond as well where his immortality is really put to the test. Most surprising though is that this episode is the sort of final appearance for Batman himself. He will appear in the last episode in a dream sequence, but otherwise is not a part of the plot. The episode also marks the last onscreen appearance for Alfred, though he doesn’t speak in either of his scenes. This is the final episode directed by Kevin Altieri, who has directed 19 episodes of the show including this one. Fans of this show likely encountered him next with The Spectacular Spider-Man. He currently works on Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, but surprisingly has never returned to the DC Animated Universe.

In the end, “Deep Freeze” is a semi-satisfying return for Mr. Freeze. His character isn’t betrayed in any way, and it’s mostly a good thing that the show gave him another episode. His return was always going to be compared to “Heart of Ice” and it was likely not going to live up to it. And really, none of his following appearances will match that one. It was just the right time for him and there was no way to recreate the surprise fans felt when they actually discovered there was a way to make the character resonate in an emotional fashion. Prior to that episode, Mr. Freeze was just a joke, an old guy who made stuff cold. Under Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, with an assist from voice actor Michael Ansara, Mr. Freeze became so much more and is now probably one of the most famous villains associated with the property. That episode alone basically lead to a feature film, even if that film wasn’t very good (which wasn’t the fault of the character, but of a lot of things). I do wish this episode had gone in a different direction and didn’t lean heavily on a joke character, but ultimately it’s fine. A mid-tier episode for an upper tier villain.


Lego 21317 – Steamboat Willie

img_3808It was just over a week ago I made a post wondering what happened to the Lego/Disney relationship. Sure, there have been some Duplo sets and the Lego Friends brand has featured some princess characters, but nothing major followed the 2016 release of mini figures and Cinderella’s Castle (based on the structure in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom). At the time, I thought those releases were just a start of things to come, but Lego has been content to just stick with movie tie-in sets for Disney owned properties like Avengers and The Incredibles.

Last year presented an opportunity for something special. On November 18, 2018 Disney celebrated 90 years of Mickey Mouse dating back to the release of his official debut cartoon Steamboat Willie (insert obligatory acknowledgement that the first Mickey cartoon was actually Plane Crazy). Steamboat Willie seemed like an obvious release for Lego given the occasion and the fact that it would be a fairly simple set:  a steamboat and re-releases of Mickey and Minnie. When November came and went without such a set, I was actually surprised and just assumed that Lego didn’t see the value in coordinating a release with Mickey’s 90th.

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The rear of the box.

Apparently, it was just an issue of timing. For whatever reason, Lego held off until April of 2019 to properly celebrate the 90th birthday of Mickey and Minnie as Steamboat Willie is now in brick form. And to top it off, Lego even announced a second wave of mini figures to follow in May (still no Goofy or Pluto though). Perhaps it was just an issue of not getting the legal side of things straightened out, not just with Disney, but also with the creator of the set, Máté Szabó. This one originated as a Lego Idea, meaning a fan created it and uploaded it to Lego’s creator website where other fans could choose to back it or not (there’s no monetary component for backers like there is with a crowd-funding site, it’s just a simple vote of support) and when it hit the required amount of votes it then went to Lego for final approval. This is how many sets have made it to retail and for Lego (this one is numbered #024, apparently it’s supposed to be #025 though) it’s practically free development as they’re under no obligation to produce anything, no matter how many votes it gets.

Steamboat Willie was likely an easy approval for the company since it’s a relatively modest set with a recognizable character owned by a company that Lego regularly does business with. It may have arrived a few months late, but I suppose that’s better than not arriving at all. And if one were to create a set celebrating 90 years of Mickey Mouse, is there really a set more appropriate than a recreation of the S.S. Willie?

There’s a good chance that Steamboat Willie is no one’s favorite Mickey Mouse short. It’s basically a show-off piece for 1928 for how sound could be integrated into a cartoon. That’s why a large section of the sub 8 minute runtime is just Minnie and Mickey playing music with farm animals aboard the ship. It’s not without its charms though and it’s probably almost shocking for new viewers to see Mickey chuck a potato at an obnoxious parrot since he’s so squeaky-clean by today’s standards.

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Sadly, there are no included potatoes for Mickey to hurl at the bird.

The classic steamboat makes for a nice visual when completed. It utilizes colored bricks in the construction, but once completed they’re all hidden preserving the black, white, and gray look. Some silver accents are used in the lettering which is a nice touch. It probably goes without saying, but this isn’t meant to actually float on water which is why it’s actually on wheels. As the set is pushed along a hard surface, the dual paddles spin and the smokestacks move up and done as they do in the cartoon. The mechanism for the smokestacks is essentially free-floating atop the axles so it’s not always a smooth motion and for mine the rear stack moves while the forward one does not. If I messed around with it I could probably get it to function better, but it’s not something I’m all that concerned with.

The build is simple and fairly painless. About the only thing I found annoying was clipping on the rear and the bow of the ship as it was hard to do without disturbing other pieces already in place. The paddles also weren’t a ton of fun, especially for someone like me recovering from a recnet hand injury. Still, it wasn’t a long build which is to be expected of a set with only 751 pieces in it. I spread it out over three nights as my 4-year-old likes to “help,” but I’d guess I could have put it together in just a couple of hours if I was prioritizing speed, though I often take a leisurely approach to Lego sets. It’s the journey, not the destination.

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The crane adds a bit of fun to the set.

The set features a working crane on the rear of the ship which also includes actual black thread. Threading it is not the most fun and takes me back to Home Ec class, but it’s hard to imagine it working much better if done differently. The crane can pick up blocks and there is a specified potato bin for just that, harkening back to the closing scene of the short. Other necessities include the bell and the trio of whistles atop the boat. Some of the noise-making equipment is present as well including a mallet, bucket, and a pair of pans clipped to the exterior of the cabin. The short includes many animals, but the only one included here is the parrot, who looks more like a standard bird. The goat does get a shout-out via Minnie’s sheet music brick which includes a graphic of the happy goat, a nice tough added by Lego graphic designer Crystal Bam Fontan.

Two mini figures are included with the set, and it’s probably no surprise to find out the figures are Mickey and Minnie. They’re both done in black, white, and silver to make them seem a touch “special.” Standard black and white versions are to follow in the mini figure wave in May. These are basically repaints of the other Mickey and Minnie figures from a few years ago only now Mickey has a captain’s hat that fits into a peg hole on his head and Minnie has her classic hat in place of a bow. Minnie does not feature her top from the short and her skirt is polka-dotted instead of plain. She comes with a ukulele which is a fun little piece that she’s able to hold with relative ease. There’s also a little Mickey head backdrop/platform included. It’s a simple and elegant touch and it can be propped up or placed flat on a surface for the characters to stand on.

This is a nice set, but this is also the part where we discuss what’s missing. The general look of the ship is preserved, though the construction cheats a bit. There’s no access for the cabin, both the lower and upper portions. No stairs, and the doors are intentionally blocked as the interior of the set was needed to house the guts of the smokestack mechanism. Mickey can fit into the bridge with the steering wheel, but it’s not easy and you’re better off removing the top first if you want to make him grip the wheel. Perhaps a hinged-top should have been included, but maybe that didn’t look right. I’m also a little disappointed there’s no Pete included, since we haven’t received a Pete figure yet. And like Minnie and Mickey, they could have slotted a repaint of him into the upcoming mini figure wave. I’m guessing he’s not here because the set wanted to celebrate Mickey and Minnie, but damnit, Pete has feelings to!

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The past meeting the present.

At a suggested retail price of $90, Steamboat Willie is a bit on the pricey side given the size of the set. Some extra cost is to be expected with anything Disney-related and I think the price is also meant to reflect that this is more of an adult, collector, piece than a toy. Sure, a kid would have some fun pushing this boat along and playing with the crane for a bit, but some parts are a touch fragile and really there are better boat sets out there if play is what you’re after. I have a fairly extensive Disney collection, so this set was a no-brainer for me. The $90 price tag is probably about the limit of what I would want to spend on such a set, and I’m mostly okay with it. Hopefully there are more fun Disney-related sets for Lego to consider and I expect something equally fun for when Donald Duck hits 90. He is the superior character, after all.

 


Dec. 13 – Donald Duck in Christmas on Bear Mountain

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Four Color Comics #178 (1947)

For these features, I like to do something a little different at the midway point. This year I’m going to take a look at the classic Donald Dock comic “Christmas on Bear Mountain.” Donald Duck wasn’t just a movie star back in the day, but he also starred in his own line of comics published by Walt Disney. The author and illustrator was the renowned Carl Barks, who also would pen the Uncle Scrooge comics as well. Barks didn’t get to enjoy being celebrated for many years as anything published by Walt Disney was attributed to just one man – Walt Disney. He got to take credit for everything. I don’t necessarily think the intent was malicious or ego-driven, but a marketing one. If people thought these were coming from Disney himself then they would be more likely to buy them. This was a problem in those days across the comics world as the people with money got to take most of the credit, and royalties, away from the actual creators. It’s a problem that has thankfully largely been solved, but there’s still plenty of old wounds out there.

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The first page, with Scrooge’s debut at the bottom.

In terms of Donald Duck comics, “Christmas on Bear Mountain” is one of the most famous. It was first published in December 1947 by Dell Comics as part of their Four Color Comics. It’s most notable for being the first appearance of Scrooge McDuck, Donald’s wealthy uncle who would go on to star in his own line of comics as well as the DuckTales cartoons. For his debut, Scrooge is a bit more like his eventual adversary Flintheart Glomgold. He’s a bearded Scottsman with a rather lousy disposition. He claims he hates everybody and everybody hates him. He lives alone in a mansion in Duckberg with just his attendants. He appears to be a cross between Xanadu from Citizen Kane and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. There’s no hint at his adventuring past as much of what will define Scrooge is yet to come, making this version of the character feel more like a prototype Scrooge than the actual Scrooge McDuck we’ll come to know and love.

The comic opens with Donald Duck bemoaning his lack of money in front of his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. He doesn’t have enough money for food, let alone presents for Christmas. He openly wishes his rich uncle Scrooge were more generous, but dismisses that possibility pretty quickly. It’s a convenient thought though as we’re whisked away to Scrooge’s mansion on the other side of town where the old man is bemoaning the oncoming holiday as well. He’s a miserable sort, but also a bit mischievous, and he decides that for Christmas he would like to test the mettle of his cowardly nephew. Scrooge admires bravery and repeatedly references his stingy ways. He never gives anything away for free, but he’s willing to bestow food and presents upon his nephew if he can have a bit of fun at his expense and test his courage. And if he passes his test, he’ll reward him further. He instructs his butler to send Donald a telegram offering the use of his cabin on Bear Mountain where Scrooge intends to spring a surprise on his nephew.

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Many years later, Barks would do paintings of his prized creations and sell them for a tidy sum.

Donald and his nephews are surprised and delighted to receive the telegram from Scrooge offering the use of his cabin for the holidays. The boys set off immediately, though Donald is a little unnerved by the warning in the telegram to watch out for bears. In a bit of role reversal from a popular short like Duck Pimples, it’s Donald who is cowardly while the nephews are dismissive of the warning. They tell their uncle there are no bears around, and the thought is almost put out of Donald’s mind when they arrive at the cabin to find presents and food, lots and lots of food.

Meanwhile, Scrooge is eagerly anticipating pulling his little prank on his nephew. He plans on heading to the cabin himself, but first he must test his prank on his butler, Edgerton. When he summons the unassuming butler to his room he bursts forth in a bear costume prompting Edgerton to dive out of a window declaring he’ll take his holiday now. Scrooge is delighted with the result and immediately calls for his driver to take him to Bear Mountain.

At the cabin, night has fallen and Donald is on the look-out for bears. As the snow starts to come down the nephews declare there are no bears, but Donald is not satisfied. He peers outside through a telescope and is terrified at the sight of a creature, which turns out to be a squirrel. It’s enough to get him to jump into the chandelier and cower in fear, a frequent gag in the coming pages. Scrooge is on his way, but the snow is falling too fast. The roads are impassible, and the driver tells Scrooge they need to turn back. He’s not bothered as he’ll just pull his prank the next day, though he’s not crazy about his nephews getting to eat and sleep on his dime another night revealing he’s never provided a man a free meal in his life.

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The story goes out of its way to reveal just how much of a penny-pincher Scrooge is.

The next morning the boys have fun playing in the snow while Donald enjoys rummaging through the fridge for breakfast. When the boys request oatmeal, he tells them they’ll eat their lobster newburg and like it! Later on, Donald tries to relax by the fire but the nephews inform him they need a Christmas tree. It’s the one thing missing from Scrooge’s cabin, and given that it’s Christmas Eve, the place really needs one. Donald has no intention of going off into bear-infested woods looking for a tree, but the kids cry and complain and eventually he gives in. When they first set out, Donald thinks he sees bear tracks and runs back inside to hide under the bed while the boys point out they’re just rabbit tracks. Donald angrily grabs an axe and mutters his way through the snow. Finding only a single hollowed-out tree, the boys are forced to settle and they haul it back to the cabin.

The boys make the most of their sad tree by hanging colored soda bottles from it. Donald is more interested in finding some dessert and the kids are onboard as well. When they leave the living room it’s revealed their tree has a stow-away. A little bear cub emerges from his slumber and climbs out of the tree. He takes note of a teddy bear nearby and gives it a whack with his paw, startling the ducks in the other room. When the nephews come in they don’t notice the cub by the teddy bear, and Donald cowardly asks them to check the other rooms.

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Chandeliers make for great hiding places.

The little cub runs off undetected to the kitchen where he finds the strawberry shortcake the ducks were planning on eating, and consumes it himself. After finding no sign of bears, the others return to the kitchen and are shocked to see their cake has vanished. Donald immediately returns to the chandelier for cover, while the boys nervously tiptoe around the house. The cub though has returned to the tree for cover, and when he sees the boys leave he re-emerges. He drops out of the tree only to land on a roller skate just as Donald hops out of his hiding place. The bear goes rolling along and plows into Donald, who still doesn’t get a look at him but does notice the bear fur left behind. He then returns to his chandelier in terror.

Hearing the commotion, the boys return to the living room but again find no bears. Donald tells them his assailant fled through the door and the boys hear the sound of their roller skate on the floor. They angrily give charge only to slip on the discarded skate and crash into the wall. The bear has a look at the dazed ducklings, before he cheerfully resumes his skating. Donald asks what happened, and the boys don’t know, but they hear the skates and give charge once more. The cub hears them, and grabbing a box of chocolates, jumps back into his tree. When the boys enter the room they see no sign of the bear, but then one of them gets knocked on the head by the discarded chocolate box. They now know the bear is hiding in the tree and one of the nephews angrily yanks the cub out of his hiding place.

Just then, the mother of the cub awakens in the stump the ducks left behind and she is not happy to find her cub missing. She tracks them back to the cabin and smashes the door down. The cub though has managed to escape the ducklings, and after they failed to find him, they plead with their uncle to come out of his hiding place. Assuring him it’s just a tiny bear, Donald finally emerges to aid his nephews in their search. He confidently strides into another room expecting to find a cub, but naturally he finds the cub and his mother. He runs off and dives out the window as the bear gives chase and his nephews follow.

Night falls and the boys are forced to watch from outside as the bear and her cub enjoy the food and warmth of the cabin. After a satisfying meal, the bear lays down to sleep by the fire while the cub plays with the roller skate once more. The nephews then urge their uncle to go inside and tie the bear up while she sleeps while they’ll take care of the cub. Donald does not want to do this, but since the alternative is freezing to death, he has little choice. They slip in, and the boys start chasing the cub around. Donald, shaking uncontrollably, sneaks up to the mother bear. Before he can begin tying her up, the bear lets out a great sigh causing Donald to faint in fright right beside the bear who wraps an arm around him.

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Aww, they look so sweet together.

Just then, Scrooge shows up in his bear costume. He sneaks into the cabin and is immediately met by the cub who is being chased by his youngest nephews. He’s amazed at their bravery, even if it is just a cub, but not as amazed as he is when he looks into the next room. There he sees the slumbering mama bear, with Donald sleeping right beside her. He’s proud to see his nephew in so brave a state and even remarks the boy is like him and doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. The bear then lets out another sigh, terrifying Scrooge who bolts out of the cabin. He’s not too scared to be proud of his nephew though, as he shares what happened with his driver, James. He intends to host the boys for Christmas dinner the next morning and instructs James to give them the good news.

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I love how Donald’s feathers explode when he’s frightened.

At Scrooge’s the next day, the boys enjoy a hearty meal. The youngest ducks get to consume liters of pop while Donald and Scrooge down lemonade. Scrooge is cheerful and supremely generous, all because he thinks his nephew is the bravest duck in town. To reward his bravery, Scrooge tells Donald he has a special gift for him:  a bear skin rug. When Donald sees the head of the rug he shrieks and faints. Scrooge is confused, but the nephews insist he just fainted from too much turkey. Scrooge actually seems to buy the explanation, but remarks in the final panel he thought Donald might actually be scared.

Like basically every Donald Duck story I’ve ever read, “Christmas on Bear Mountain” is a charming little tale. The humor is not explosive, but will probably produce a smile for most readers. Seeing Donald in such a cowardly role is a little different, not that Donald is ever a model for bravery, but often he’s too stubborn to be truly scared. There’s no real build-up for Scrooge, but it’s fine that he’s ushered in so conveniently and quickly since the story unfolds rather briskly. It’s interesting to see this early Scrooge, which is basically a magnified version of the character that focuses on his less admirable traits while also introducing a playful side. That playful side is seldom explored, so it’s an interesting way to see the character introduced.

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Fantagraphics has re-released a vast assortment of duck comics and they’re the easiest way to acquire them today.

Also like most Donald Duck stories, the artwork of Carl Barks is expressive and detailed. I love the shape of his ducks which are more rounded than the film counterparts. The pages are consistently laid out in a 2×4 format which helps to move the story along quickly in the 20 pages present though I do wish there was a splash page or two. In particular one that revealed more of Scrooge’s mansion or that captured the presents and Christmas setting of the cabin. It’s a minor quibble though. The backgrounds are actually quite populated without appearing busy and the action shots utilize minimal effects. Just the occasional dash line or sweat drops. It gives the comic a very clean, professional, look.

If you’re interested in reading this story yourself then it’s actually rather easy these days. Fantagraphics has republished several Scrooge and Donald Duck comics in large, hardbound, full-colored trades. A lot of bonus content is included and even some panels that were rejected by Barks’ editor at the time which were preserved and restored. The trades total about 200 pages and retail with an MSRP of $28.99 but usually are sold for less. Some are even sold in two-packs with a nice, hard, box holding the books in place. I highly recommend them if you’re a fan of these classic characters. Alternatively, you could also seek out older prints or even an original comic, but that might set you back a bit more depending on the condition and rarity of the edition.

And I also must take a minute to point out that this is post number 500 for this blog. Whether you’re reading your first or if yo’ve read the other 499: Thank you. As an unabashed fan of Donald Duck, I am happy the 500th post ended up relating to him.


Happy 90th Birthday, Mickey Mouse!

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Don’t be fooled, we’re not reviewing this release here, but it’s probably good!

Did you hear? The legendary Mickey Mouse turns 90 on this day owing his debut to Steamboat Willie, which premiered November 18, 1928. Now, nothing momentous seems to occur these days without a dash of controversy. Most fans of Disney and Mickey are well aware that his first cartoon was actually Plane Crazy from earlier that year, but Disney considers Steamboat Willie his true debut since it was the first with synchronized sound and was the first widely distributed. If that’s the criteria Disney wants to use then so be it. It doesn’t really matter since either way Mickey Mouse has endured for 90 years. In that time he’s been a cinema darling, television host, and brand mascot for the massive Walt Disney Company and he’s quite possibly the most recognized fictional character around the globe. If he’s not, then the list of competitors is rather small.

Over the years the Disney company has celebrated Mickey in various ways, some small and some not so small. He’s always been front and center at the various parks, and yet he is still awaiting his first actual ride (with one in production). Walt Disney famously remarked that it all started with a mouse referring to Mickey’s star power in the early days, though he’s only had one theatrically released cartoon since 1995. He did eventually make the jump to television, but his appearances there are most relegated to the younger crowd as opposed to a general audience. This isn’t to say that Disney has mistreated their mascot at times, but to someone like myself who adores hand-drawn animation it does disappoint me that Disney doesn’t celebrate the earlier work of Mickey as much as it could.

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Disney has found some “creative” ways to celebrate its mascot this year.

For Mickey’s 90th, that has been partially rectified. Disney recently released the Blu-ray Celebrating Mickey which is a collection of 13 cartoons that reach all the way back to 1928 and as far forward as 2013. As tempted as I am to check out some Mickey cartoons in high-definition, I did not pick up this set since I already own all of these cartoons elsewhere. I’m still happy to see Disney put out such a package, but cutting it down to 13 feels like such a tease.

In celebration of Mickey, I’m going to list out some cartoons I think are worth checking out. I’ll do one for every decade of Mickey’s life, while also trying to pick a cartoon from each decade (not every decade contains a new Mickey cartoon) to highlight. Almost all of these cartoons can be found on one of the Walt Disney Treasures collections, with the only exception being the cartoons released after 1995. And to make this a companion piece to Disney’s Celebrating Mickey release, I’ll refrain from doubling-up on any cartoon released on that collection (which does include some of my favorites like Mickey’s Trailer and Brave Little Tailor).

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Watch black and white Mickey get terrified!

The 1920s – The Haunted House (December 2, 1929)

Just sneaking into the 20’s is this one, The Haunted House, which features Mickey in (you guessed it!) a haunted house. Animated by Ub Iwerks, The Haunted House contains lots of flashy, spooky, imagery and great sound design. Mickey mostly plays the role of scared victim while an eerie shadowy figure chases him and forces him to play the organ. Don’t worry though, as Mickey does eventually escape, but I like that there isn’t a twist to the ending. The house appears to be legitimately haunted.

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Hell is mostly cats (I say this as a cat dad).

The 1930s – Pluto’s Judgement Day (August 31, 1935)

The 30s is probably Mickey’s best decade and it’s loaded with good stuff. Pluto’s Judgement Day is one of Mickey’s earliest color cartoons and it centers around Pluto who dreams about going to Hell. It’s ruled by cats and the whole thing is brought on by Pluto feeling guilty about being mean to a kitten and the whole thing is really surreal. It has a cute ending so we don’t feel too bad for old Pluto.

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Not the sort of predicament one wants to be found in.

Moose Hunters (February 20, 1937)

To make up for no Mickey cartoons in the 60s, we’re doing another from the 30s. Moose Hunters co-stars Donald Duck and Goofy as the trio try to hunt a moose. They’re terrible at it and get into all kinds of mischief, including Donald and Goofy disguising themselves as a female moose and attracting the affection of a bull moose. It’s all good slapstick, and for some reason hapless hunters make for good comedy characters.

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Donald mostly steals the show here, as he often would.

The 1940s – Symphony Hour (March 20, 1942)

Some consider this the unofficial sequel to The Band Concert, Mickey’s colorized debut. This one is a full ensemble piece as Mickey leads a symphony to impress Pete, who is referred to as Mr. Macaroni in the cartoon. Everything is a disaster though, and Donald has to blow a gasket while Macaroni howls with delight at the misfortune of the band. He turns angry though as the show gets worse, though he comes around when the show ends with applause.

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Pluto’s nose as a speed bag is a pretty good gag.

Squatter’s Rights (June 7, 1946)

No Mickey cartoons in the 70s either, so here’s another 40s toon. Squatter’s Rights was Mickey’s first cartoon in several years, and includes some lines or sounds recorded by Jimmy MacDonald, the second official voice of Mickey Mouse. It also includes Chip and Dale, who are woken by Mickey who returns to his hunting camp to find the chipmunks sleeping in his stove. Or rather, Pluto is the one to make the discovery which begins a bunch shenanigans in which Pluto keeps getting blamed for Chip and Dale’s mischief. It includes a bit of a dark spot with a gun, and it’s also somewhat notable since Chip and Dale end up winning the encounter.

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The seal is adorable. While he didn’t feature in any other Mickey shorts, he has appeared in the preschool show Mickey Mouse Clubhouse where he’s named Salty.

Mickey and the Seal (December 3, 1948)

Mickey’s only cartoon in the 80s is Mickey’s Christmas Carol, a fantastic long-form short that you’ve probably heard about (or seen me rave about in the past). Rather than revisit a short I’ve blogged about more than once, here’s another favorite from the 40s. Mickey and the Seal is quite possibly Mickey’s cutest cartoon. It’s similar to a Chip and Dale cartoon, but instead of the chipmunk duo we have a seal who Pluto is well aware of, but Mickey is oblivious to. There’s a great sequence where Mickey and the seal bathe together and if you aren’t completely charmed by the happy little seal pup then you have a heart of stone.

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Oh yeah, there’s the good stuff.

The 1950s – Pluto’s Christmas Tree (November 21, 1952)

All right, I have talked about this one before and more than once, but Mickey only had four cartoons in the 1950s and two of them are on that new Blu-ray. Plus, this one is so super charming and worth watching even when it isn’t Christmas time. It is derivative of Donald Duck’s Toy Tinkers, but it once again pairs up Pluto with the duo of Chip and Dale and it just works so well.

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Feral Mickey too scary for the masses?

The 1990s – Runaway Brain (August 11, 1995)

Some claim this is the Mickey cartoon Disney doesn’t want you to see. I’ve always been skeptical of such, but it is further reinforced by the fact that Disney scrubs this bad boy from YouTube frequently, leaving some alone that are of poor quality, while it mostly leaves the other cartoons alone. That could just be because it’s a more modern cartoon and Disney therefore feels it has more value than cartoons that are 60 years old. Whatever the case, this one is a lot of fun and it’s so 90s in style which is great since it’s the only true Mickey Mouse short from that decade. Mickey starts off the short playing video games, for crying out loud! Kelsey Grammer voices Dr. Frankenollie, and it features Mickey swapping bodies with a monstrous Pete (who features a peg-leg!) therefore leading to the character fans refer to as Feral Mickey. It makes Mickey scary, so perhaps that’s why Disney doesn’t promote this one any longer.

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Order restored at the end. Note the life of Donald.

The New Millennium! – New Shoes (April 14, 2018)

So Mickey Mouse has only had one theatrically released cartoon since 1995’s Runaway Brain, and that was Get A Horse which was paired with Frozen and is on the Celebrating Mickey Blu-ray. Rather than spotlight that again, how about we go with the television/web series of Mickey cartoons that began in 2013? This series is great, and it’s a more manic, Looney Tunes/Spongebob take on Mickey and the gang that I absolutely love. Yeah, it’s not traditionally animated, but what is these days? New Shoes is one of my recent favorites from this series and it features Donald and Goofy as well. The trio swap bodies with hilarious results (Mickey becomes Goofy, Goofy becomes Donald, and Donald becomes Mickey). It’s particularly amusing to see how horrible Donald’s life is, as experienced by Goofy (who while getting beaten he sings the old Donald Duck song) while Mickey exhausts himself by trying to take advantage of Goofy’s monstrous height to help people. Donald just mostly enjoys being loved and celebrated as Mickey for a change. Just a great, funny, smart cartoon.

Well, that’s that. As I mentioned, you can find those shorts on the Walt Disney Treasures collection and some can be found elsewhere (Pluto’s Christmas Tree has been re-released numerous times as part of Christmas collections) while New Shoes is free to watch on YouTube. And a lot of those shorts can also unofficially be found there as well, though Runaway Brain might give you some trouble tracking down a good version, but it’s there as well in some form. They’re all wonderful examples of the star power, charisma, and charm of Mickey Mouse. He’s been around for 90 years now and isn’t likely going anywhere. At this rate, it’s all but guaranteed he’ll outlive us all! Now Disney, how about a restored collection of all of Mickey’s classic shorts in HD? Don’t make us wait for him to turn 100!


Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

220px-Movie_poster_who_framed_roger_rabbitNormally, I don’t like doubling-up on posts in a single day on this blog, and ever since last fall Friday has belonged to Batman. Well, I’m breaking my own self-imposed rule today, but it’s for a very good reason. Today is the 30th anniversary of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. On this day in 1988, the then most expensive movie in film history was released to the general public with a lot of buzz and a lot of trepidation. It was a collaborative effort between some of Hollywood’s hottest names; Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and Walt Disney Studios. Adapted from the Gary Wolf novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, there was a lot of fear that the movie would be too “out there” for a general audience. So uncertain about how the film was to be received, actress Kathleen Turner, who voiced Jessica Rabbit, declined to be credited for her role in the film. There was some fear this thing would be received about as well as Howard the Duck, a notorious flop at the time, but it ended up being so much more.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the story of a rabbit named Roger (voiced by Charlie Fleischer) who is framed for a murder he did not commit. Aside from the fact that he’s a rabbit, the plot sounds rather pedestrian at face value. What sets the film apart is its world and the world it shares with the “real world.” Roger Rabbit is a toon. He is a literal cartoon character. In the world created by this work of fiction, cartoons are just as real as you and me. They go to work, make cartoons, and go home. The toons behave like golden era cartoons – they’re wacky, prone to accidents, and always on the lookout for a laugh. At one point in the film, Roger is handcuffed and needs to get himself out. He ends up simply removing his hand from the cuff at one point, then putting it back. When his partner, Eddie, notices and gets furious with him for not just doing that to begin with, Roger explains he could only remove his hand when it was funny.

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Bob Hoskins stars alongside Robert as private eye Eddie Valiant.

Roger works for R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern) and is a star of Maroon Cartoons. Set in 1947, the film basically takes place during the waning days of the animated cartoon short. He is married to the impossibly attractive Jessica Rabbit, a buxom, hourglass figured toon who more or less resembles a human. The film starts out with Roger stressed out because there are rumors that Jessica has been up to no good with another man. Maroon wants private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to do some digging to help his star out. The problem is, Eddie hates toons, but he loves money more. Eddie takes the job, and finds out that Jessica has actually been playing pat-a-cake with Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the owner of Toon Town. When shown the images of his wife playing such a lurid game with another man, Roger goes off the deep end and is plunged into a depression (pat-a-cake is serious business to a toon, apparently). Then things take a dark turn when Marvin Acme turns up dead, and Roger is suspect number 1. Roger proclaims his innocence to Eddie, and Eddie is forced to decide if he wants to help out the incredibly annoying, but likely innocent, Roger or just walk away from the whole thing.

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Even humans are drawn to Jessica Rabbit.

The story unfolds like a classic mystery. You have the gruff detective, the innocent victim, and the femme fatale. Of course, nothing is ever truly what it seems. Shadowing the protagonists is the villainous Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) who too seems to have a hatred for toons. Eddie and Roger are going to have to do some sleuthing, and even take a trip to Toon Town where all of the toons reside, in order to solve this case.

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Roger’s co-star, Baby Herman, is used sparingly, but he’s a scene-stealer.

The story is admittedly fairly simple. The character of Jessica Rabbit is the most intriguing, and not because of her figure, but because she is a femme fatale done well. She possesses an air of mystery and uncertainty, the fact that she is apparently the most attractive toon and is attached to the rather goofy Roger helps to play this up. What truly sets Who Framed Roger Rabbit apart is the presentation. Live actors mix with cartoon ones in truly spectacular ways. We’ve seen this before from Walt Disney with the likes of Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but not on this level. Those films merely feature a few sequences of cartoons and actors co-mingling, where as Who Framed Roger Rabbit is built around that dynamic, and it looks spectacular! When Eddie rides along in the toon cab, Benny, he looks like he’s really riding in it. When he wields a toon gun, it’s convincing. And the world of Toon Town is especially marvelous to look at with its impossible architecture and lavish color scheme. The movie is so visually stimulating that you could watch it in mute and still enjoy it.

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Christopher Lloyd is appropriately sinister as Judge Doom.

Even with the flashy presentation, the film still needed true chemistry between its real-life lead Eddie, and it’s toon co-lead Roger. Hoskins is fantastic at playing the straight-man Eddie. He takes everything seriously and has explosive reactions to all of the nonsense around him, but not in such a manner that would break the film. Helping to make sure he was able to form good chemistry with Roger, voice actor Charlie Fleischer dressed up as the character and would voice it off-camera. Seth McFarlane utilized a similar method when filming the more recent Ted to similar effect. I suppose it’s impossible to say if this truly worked or did not, but the results speak for themselves.

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Eddie and Roger go for a ride in Benny the Cab.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a unique looking film that was impossible to ignore when it was released, but it was still relying on a lead that had never been seen before in Roger. That’s why to help spruce up the film, Spielberg and Zemeckis wanted to make sure that Roger’s world was inhabited by recognizable cartoon characters. That ended up being the film’s strongest selling point as it promised, for the first time ever, that characters from both Disney and Warner Bros. would share scenes together. This leads to the wild team-up between Donald Duck (Tony Anselmo, with some archivable Clarence Nash) and Daffy Duck (Mel Blanc, in one of his last performances) who have a dueling pianos scene where the more outlandish Daffy seems to get on Donald’s nerves more and more as the scene goes on. Mickey Mouse (Wayne Allwine) and Bugs Bunny (Blanc) also get to share a brief scene, which contains an easter egg of Bugs flipping Mickey the bird (apparently, Disney was a bit of a pain to work with concerning how the characters could be portrayed and this was one way for the animators to have a little fun at their expense). Those represent the biggest cameos, but there are many, many more throughout the film from both companies, both major and minor. Part of the fun of watching the film is looking out for them and there’s always a chance that on re-watch you’ll see another you may have missed.

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Toon Town is a rather chaotic place.

There are so many things to pick out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that it’s way too much for me to cover here. Suffice to say, if you’ve never seen this baby then you owe it to yourself to check it out. Much of the effects still stand up today, and much of the credit is owed to animation director Richard Williams. The toons are two-dimensional, but a lot of effort is made to make sure they look like they’re really inhabiting this world in the manner in which lighting is utilized and how often the camera moves. Working on this film must have been exhausting, but oh so rewarding in the end. Due to the nature of the license rights, the complexity of it shots, and incredible of expense of animating over live-action, a sequel has never truly got off the ground. Author Gary West has returned to the character for his novels, and Disney and Spielberg would probably both love to cash-in on the brand, but there are just too many hurdles to clear. Zemeckis has campaigned for a sequel on multiple occasions, but he’s been less vocal about it in recent years. Additional Maroon Cartoon shorts of Roger Rabbit were produced after the film, but even that was a touchy subject as Spielberg wanted to run them alongside his films while Disney wanted them for theirs. And supposedly Disney wanted to create a television show starring Roger Rabbit for their Disney Afternoon block, but Spielberg who was working on televised cartoons of his own (Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, etc) wouldn’t allow Roger to be utilized forcing Disney to create the character Bonkers the Bobcat. Roger has at least been allowed to live on in Disneyland’s Toon Town where he still has a dark ride to this day. Given that Disney has been replacing a lot of older dark rides to make way for more current franchises, one has to wonder if Roger’s days there could be numbered.

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One of the more character-packed shots in the whole film.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is likely one of the most popular and successful films to never get a sequel. It took in around $330M in 1988 dollars, a pretty substantial haul, which more than covered its estimated $50M cost. Its story and presentation are both timeless and also proof that Tex Avery styled humor and gags may never truly go out of style. The rather manic Roger Rabbit can appear off-putting to some, especially younger folks who may not have grown up on Looney Tunes, but apprehensions tend to fade away once the movie really gets going. I’ve introduced this film to a few people that weren’t enthusiastic about giving it a shot, only to see them won over in short order. It’s really one of the best things the Walt Disney Company has ever produced, even if it was released on their Touchstone label. I know it’s a Friday, but if you don’t have plans tonight, you could do a lot worse than settling in on the couch with your favorite snack and beverage for a showing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.


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