In 1930, Walt Disney gave his flagship character, Mickey Mouse, just what every anthropomorphic rodent needs: a canine companion named Pluto.
But Pluto (or, as he was initially known, Pluto the Pup) didn’t start out as Mickey’s dog. In his first appearance, in 1930’s The Picnic, he was actually Minnie’s dog, and his name was Rover. And even before that cartoon, a precursor of Pluto popped up in The Chain Gang, which was released a month before The Picnic. In that short, Mickey escapes from jail and Pete is sent after him, trailing a pair of vaguely familiar-looking bloodhounds. It wasn’t until 1931’s The Moose Hunt that Pluto officially debuted as Mickey’s dog, and was formally dubbed “Pluto.”
Over the years, Pluto has arguably become the most lovable Disney creation. And in many ways, this is due to his non-anthropomorphized nature. Unlike most of the other animal characters in the Disney universe, Pluto does not walk upright, nor does he speak, though he does occasionally snicker in addition to typical canine communication such as whining, barking, and growling. His movements and behavior are that of a dog–an uncommonly versatile dog, true, but a pet nonetheless.
In many ways, Pluto hearkens back to Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the seminal animated short that inspired a generation of artists including Walt Disney himself. Gertie’s appeal as an animated creature that could communicate through sheer will of personality alone is revisited in Pluto’s antics. But Pluto also has the benefits of an overly expressive face, which can convey everything from joy to anger to utter befuddlement. Who needs words when the entire audience can tell what a character’s thinking with one quizzical glance or bared grimace?
This scene has become famous over the years, and with good reason. Animated by Norm Ferguson, who had worked on developing the character from its earliest days, the “flypaper sequence” has been lauded by animators and historians for its realistic depiction of a “thinking” character. According to storied Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, authors of The Illusion of Life (considered the veritable bible of animation by many in the field), this single minute-long scene was a groundbreaking moment in the development of animated characters whose thoughts could be telegraphed solely through their movements on the screen, as opposed to relying on dialogue to express their feelings.
As animation scholar Michael Barrier states in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age (2003): “Throughout the sequence, Pluto’s state of mind is always visible, in his expressive face and body. The gags are well-constructed–everything that happens to Pluto seems possible, in a physical sense, with none of the gags forced–but it is the trajectory of the dog’s emotions that makes this sequence so vivid.”
Indeed, Pluto’s reactions to his predicament flow naturally from one impediment to the next. You can almost see the wheels turning in Pluto’s mind as he tries to extricate himself from the flypaper, his emotional responses running the gamut from startled to confused to determined to angry to purely frustrated. In an era when cartoon characters largely relied on witty dialogue and/or music to get their full intentions across to the audience, Pluto’s bout with the flypaper remains an absolute marvel of animation.
An additional fun fact about this short? Playful Pluto is the cartoon shown to the convicts near the end of Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and it’s this experience that ultimately prompts Sullivan (Joel McCrea) to realize the importance of humor in helping people get through their daily lives.
That Pluto–he’s just full of surprises.
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