"Pluto's Judgement Day"
Directed By David Hand
.....Late in the afternoon, Pluto is chasing a kitten. The kitten runs through a mud puddle and up a tree, and is followed intensely by Pluto, who lands in the puddle with a mighty splash as he futilely tries to follow the kitten up the tree. The kitten soon loses grip of the branch it is hanging on, and ends up just as dirty as Pluto as the chase resumes. The kitten jumps through a window (knocking it closed in the process), and Pluto follows it, smashing the glass as he leaps inside.
.....Mickey is inside reading the evening paper when the kitten smashes through the paper, and is soon followed by Pluto, who knocks Mickey over without a second thought.
Once Mickey collects himself, he separates the two animals, and commences to berate Pluto for chasing after the much smaller kitten. Pluto attempts to charm his way out of trouble, but Mickey won't hear of it, and warns the dog that he'll have much to pay for on his judgement day before leaving to wash the kitten. Pluto responds by turning around twice and lying down with an indignant huff.
.....Later, as Pluto rests, an unexpected visitor arrives at the door.
It is a cat, who stands up and challenges Pluto. However, unbeknownst to Pluto, he is still sleeping, and simply dreaming. As Pluto begins to race after the arrogant tom cat, Mickey appears out of thin air to caution his pet against chasing after the cat.
The cat accuses Pluto of being a coward, and Pluto rushes forward, and is again stopped by Mickey, or at least an image of him, as Pluto snorts in defiance at Mickey, who disappears as if he were a ghost.
.....Pluto, now happily goaded by the cat, is led through a forest to a giant cat's head. The eyes to the cat statue light up once Pluto runs onto the cat's tongue, and promptly swallows him whole.
"Heh heh heh heh heh...."
Pluto then falls down a trap door, and finds himself on a small pedestal with the words "Public Enemy No. 1" engraved on it. Out of the shadows, a number of ball and chains appear from the darkness, and shackle themselves to his legs, neck, and tail.
.....Then, a chanting noise slowly grows from the darkness.
"We want Pluto, we want Pluto, we want Pluto, we want Pluto......"
In sections, the room's lights turn on, and an audience, a judge, and a jury appear from the ether. Next, an imposing prosecutor appears, and announces that Pluto is Public Enemy Number 1, and that he's on trial for his crimes, before confidently daring the frightened Pluto to find a way to get himself acquitted.
.....The Judge orders Pluto to be sworn in, and the prosecutor presents Pluto with a phone book, which is booby trapped with an oversized mouse trap. Pluto howls in agony, and is quickly silenced by the Judge (by way of his gavel, which temporarily grows in size as it smacks Pluto). The prosecutor announces the coming witnesses, and declares that Pluto's fate is now in the jury's hands. With a sinister wink, the jury promises justice.
The prosecutor follows suit, and is joined by the Judge.
Then, the statue representing blind justice (which, like everything else in the courtroom, is a cat) winks as the scales of justice become unbalanced.
.....The first witness, an overweight cat, is called, and talks of how Pluto chased him.....
"That great big bully picked on me, because I was so fat! He chased me under a steamroller, and then he left me flat!"
The once fat cat turns to leave, emphasizing the severity of his predicament.
.....The jury points at Pluto, and the prosecutor closes in on the frightened pooch. Pluto is reflected in each of the prosecutor's feline eyes, and each of the Plutos whimper once they notice each other.
.....The prosecutor points once again at the gallery, and a trembling, strapped down, cat appears.
Another cat jumps out from behind the first cat and explains that his companion is suffering from dog shock, meaning that he freaks out every time he hears the sound of a dog barking. To illustrate his point, the cat pulls out a dog squeak toy, and activates it.
As promised, the insane cat freaks out, breaking his bonds in the process.
The sane cat pulls out a new chair, and pushes away the insane cat as Pluto, still frightened, shrinks down to only a few inches in height.
.....Next, three black kittens appear at the stage to state their case.
"He drank our milk, and stole our liver, and then he pushed poor Uncle Tom in the river. Oh wah-a wah-ooh, Oh wah-a wah-ooh, Oh wah-a-wah-a-wah-a-wah-a wah-a-wah-a-wah-ooh...."
The kittens walk off the stage, pulling their Uncle Tom's grave with them. After they leave, the 9 ghosts of Uncle Tom appear in sets of three and perform a short dance before fading away.
.....The Judge steps in and stops the parade of witnesses, and orders the jury to deliberate. The jury heads for the Jury Room and, with aid from the revolving door that serves as the entrance, returns immediately with the verdict: guilty. There's an immediate celebration as the gallery storms Pluto, and prepares him for his punishment-the "hot seat", a chair held up above a fire with a hole in the seat.
.....However, just as the rope holding the chair is about to burn and drop Pluto into the fire, Pluto wakes up as a cinder from Mickey's fireplace lands right on his butt.
Pluto drags his burned behind all over Mickey's living room, and then leaps into the bath water Mickey has set up for the kitten, soaking himself and Mickey. Pluto screams in terror at the sight of the kitten, and then Mickey tells Pluto to kiss and make up. The kitten licks Pluto's nose twice before Pluto himself smiles and licks the tiny animal's face, having learned his lesson.
.....In the early days of the Hays Code (the MPAA's precursor to the modern rating system), a common thread in many cartoons involved a number of (often heavy-handed) morality plays, often running the characters involved through extreme circumstances in an effort to dissuade said character from whatever unscrupulous behavior they were involved in. While this story tactic was largely relegated at Disney to the Silly Symphonies (where such plots were best suited), such plots would occasionally work their way into the Mickey series, frequently focusing on Pluto, whose temper and sometimes spiteful behavior made him the perfect target for a good comeuppance or two.
....."Pluto's Judgement Day" rises above most of these efforts largely because Pluto is quite capable of being everything that the cats try to accuse him of being: vindictive, hateful, and cruel. However, he remains highly likeable despite these flaws. So much so, in fact, that Pluto was actually more popular than Mickey in the '40s. Add this with a short that actually manages to be better with the inclusion of stereotypical images, and you've got a short worth of a first look (or a second or third look as the case may be).
.....The short begins in a manner that would later be used to great effect in a number of Tom & Jerry shorts in the '40s: with Pluto bearing down on his prey. The kitten is very interesting, as it's very tiny, and very realistically designed. Pluto's fall into the mud is a fairly standard gag for this type of situation, but the truly fun bit is seeing the kitten covered with mud as it cries out at Pluto.
It's perversely entertaining to see this tiny animal, covered in mud, standing before Pluto and meowing loudly, especially when Pluto dives at it and misses, only to have the kitten do it again before running away.
.....Mickey's anger with Pluto is well-handled, as is Pluto's painfully shameless attempt to charm his way out of this mess-something he's done more than a few times before (and would do again).
The judgement day line by Mickey is a bit forced, though, as it's not only a blatant attempt to tie into the title of the short, but also guilty of making the entire plot of the short crystal clear not even two minutes into the short.
.....The dream sequence is made readily clear by the entrance of the highly anthropomorphic cat, but a really nice hint during the pan shot is the askew table-a wonderfully abstract touch. The cat enters with a move that embodies the Disney style, as he lifts his stomach in a "tough guy" gesture.
The cat also seems to be vaguely inspired by James Cagney's classic gangster characters of the '30s and '40s, as it shares Cagney's nasally voice and wiseguy on-screen persona. Regardless of the source, the cat's appearance marks a heavy shift in the tone of the short.
.....The appearance of Mickey and Pluto's subsequent dismissal of him is a great touch, one that spotlights Pluto's selfish side excellently. Another great fantasy element is the background outside Mickey's house.
Not only is the area suddenly surrounded by a thick forest, but the trees are menacing cat shapes. Furthermore, they are all askew, and in the second shot, Mickey's fence is also askew as well. This of course builds up to the giant cat's head, which is as bold as it is menacing.
.....The inner chamber is another impressive element, as the lighting effects are second to none here. Achieved most likely by the use of specially colored cels, the initial background goes from an unlighted state to a lighted state in highly realistic fashion. The pedestal and ball and chains are appropriately ominous, as is the chant from the gallery (which is actually vaguely visible on both the restored and unrestored prints I have in my possession).
.....The prosecutor is wonderfully imposing, and an all-around excellent addition, especially when the choice could have been made to make Pete (who is a cat) to serve as the prosecutor. The Judge is also unique, especially since he's the first cat to appear during this dream sequence that isn't a black cat.
Instead, he's an orange tabby (the same type of cat as Garfield), and given a voice highly reminiscent of Popeye. In fact, it's altogether possible that Disney hired William Costello, the original voice of Popeye (who, it should be noted, was fired because "success went to his head"), to voice this character.
.....If the prosecutor's promise to find Pluto guilty wasn't proof enough that this trial is the biggest kangaroo court in cartoons this side of Transformers: The Movie, the swearing in of Pluto using a phone book humorously seals the deal. The prosecutor's mumbling finish to the standard swearing in oath, coupled with the giant mouse trap in the phone book makes for a darkly humorous gag.
The Judge's mallet growing in size as he swats Pluto is great, as is the curt announcement: "Shut up!"
.....The repeated promise of justice by the jury, prosecutor, and Judge is a great touch, sealed with the knowing wink by all parties involved. Justice, indeed. What seals the moment as classic (and solidifies the humor involved) is the not-so-blind Justice statue tipping its scales as it winks. While these elements would all emphasize that there's something wrong here on their own, what makes this scene appropriately cartoonish is that we see all of these things. In fact, this build up would set the template for many courtroom sequences in other cartoons (Disney or otherwise), as outrageousness would be the rule of the day in parodies of our nation's hallowed (and often times quite serious) legal system.
.....Pluto's first victim is a great use of the classic steamroller gag that can only work in cartoons, particularly with the reveal as the fat cat walks off stage. It's followed by the visual of the two Plutos in the prosecutor's eyes, which is not only impressive visually, but it sets up a neat gag as both images become aware of the other.
.....The second victim is another stereotypical victim-a cat who has been driven insane because of what Pluto did to it. His caretaker, though, bares a strong resemblance to Gideon, Honest John's dopey sidekick in Pinocchio.
Further investigation reveals that Fred Moore (one of the animation directors for Pinocchio) was an animator on this cartoon, and one of that film's directors, Hamilton Lusk, was the other known animator of this short. Coincidence? I think not.
.....Pluto shrinking down to about a few inches in height is yet another classic 'toon device used to great effect here. Given the great application of these devices, it's no surprise that they became clichés. In fact, pretty much everything in this cartoon (at least in terms of technical feats) was already routine for the Disney studios at this point, thanks to the Silly Symphonies. However, as with most of the great cartoon plot and/or musical devices, good execution can make even the most tired ideas work.
.....The third victims, the three girl cats singing about their Uncle Tom, are fairly blatant black stereotypes, with the familiar "black" facial design to their "black" pig tails. The mention of Uncle Tom is, of course, a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the major hallmarks of the debate leading to the Civil War, and an insanely popular subject of parodies in Golden Age animation. Depending on your point of view, the appearance of Uncle Tom, wherein his spirits appear in threes as he sings an altered version of "Ten Little Indians", is either a silly "nine lives" gag or an especially crass stereotype.
"One little two little three little angels, four little five little six little angels, seven little eight little nine little angels....."
.....However, there's a definite implication here, and that is that Pluto is a bit of a racist, in addition to being cruel (as reinforced by his treatment of the fat and insane cats). For that reason, Disney actually deserves a bit of a commendation for using a racial stereotype here, as it proves a point (and thereby becoming one of the few productive examples of racial stereotypes in animation). However, more than a bit of that good will is lost by the final bit of Uncle Tom's performance.
Uncle Tom's walk, and especially his rattling of his halo like a tambourine, play as cruel attempts to cast Tom as the stereotypical kind (and often subservient) old black man, a stereotype that (if true, as I've never seen it) has kept Song of the South unseen in America since its last theatrical release, in 1986.
.....Perhaps the main reason for the victim list stopping at three (besides the fear of beating a horse dead and then some) is the fact that with the short past the 6-minute mark, the cartoon was almost at the 500 feet mark-in other words, 500 feet of film (the traditional minimum for short subjects in feature films). This isn't to say that the short rushes to its conclusion by any means. However, the best jab at the legal system is saved for last, as the jury goes to the jury room......which has a revolving door!
It's no surprise that Pluto is found guilty, of course, given this jury.
"G-U-I, L-T-Y! Guilty, guilty, guilty!"
While the lynching is quite dramatic (and chilling, as the cartoon has been enthralling enough for the dream aspect to be happily forgotten), there are a lot of extremely funny signs carried by the feline mob.
The richest ones are those showing an image of a hot dog with "Pluto" under it, but one particularly clever one states, "Sic Semper Tyrannis," with Semper Tyrannis being Latin for dog. Another sign has a skull and crossbones.
.....The anthropomorphized flames are borrowed from "Mickey's Fire Brigade", which began production about the same time as this short, and hit theatres a mere 28 days before "Pluto's Judgement Day". However, instead of driving one of the better remembered gags (as in "Mickey's Fire Brigade"), the flames create the short's most suspenseful moment as Pluto almost gets fried.
......Despite the fact that this Mickey short's dream sequence was transparent (unlike a number of other shorts from the black and white days), the shift back to the "real world" is actually pretty jarring-a testament to how well the dream sequence works. However, the technique, which was done in the hopes of allowing the audience to accept some of the wilder situations cartoon characters were beginning to get into, was certainly played out. However, the Disney and Warner Bros. shorts that relied on the "this is a dream" bit include some seriously excellent cartoons, including "The Mad Doctor" and "The Old Grey Hare", which likely extended it's life.
.....Pluto's pretty hilarious as he drags his butt on the floor in pain.
Not only does he look awfully silly, but there's the sound effect of an old-style fire engine playing as he flails about, which only adds to the silliness. It's no surprise that Pluto makes up with the kitten in the end, but it does seem to ring hollow when you really think about it, as Pluto never really learns his lesson, given his behavior in some of the later Disney shorts. For every "Mother Pluto", there's a short like "Lend A Paw" or Pluto's star turns with Figaro that would display Pluto's penchant for malice. (Although this isn't to say that Figaro is an angel, mind you.) While Pluto was definitely toned down after this, there's just enough shorts produced after 1935 that make me wonder if Pluto really learned his lesson (an incongruity that would become even more glaring in the Tom & Jerry shorts when Tom faced a similar reckoning in the '40s.
.....While memorable and certainly entertaining, "Pluto's Judgement Day" can hardly be called a Mickey Mouse cartoon, as Mickey barely appears in it. Of course, this short is one of the many attempts to kick off the Pluto series, which didn't officially begin until 1937. However, it would be a sign of things to come, as Mickey's post-war shorts would be dominated by his much-loved pup, often in bland shorts that belied the lack of attention Walt Disney was giving his studio's short subjects. While history declares "Pluto's Judgement Day" a classic cartoon, its formula would prove to be the series' albatross.
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