Duck Pimples, 1945
I know most Disney fanatics, including the company itself, would prefer “Donald Duck And The Gorilla” over “Duck Pimples.” In the former, Donald is tormented by a gorilla, but the only thing Donald has to fear in the latter is fear itself, and it very much reminds me of my younger days, growing up loving Halloween and all. Disney prefers to spotlight the gorilla cartoon, but I think it’s safe to bet that’s because of the heavier dose of implied violence in Duck Pimples. Please enjoy yelling, ghostly characters brandishing guns, axes and switchblades as they threaten Donald with graphic bodily harm.
My father basically established a tradition of listening to Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” every year, and no matter how real I eventually knew it wasn’t, it still set the perfect tone for late October, and this short matches that style. In “Duck Pimples,” Donald is essentially sucked into a terror-soaked illusion brought upon by the radio and comics, so please, pardon me if I don’t find that terribly hard to relate to. Either way, I hope Duck Pimples delights you, and TBH, mildly frightens your children.
The Legend of Ichabod Crane ,1949
NOTE: You’re going to need to skip to about 30 minutes into The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, because of, uh, Mr. Toad. Nothing against this Wind and the Willows adaptation, it’s just more Christmasy than Halloweeny. For almost the entire 1940s, Disney was having a rough time producing full-length animated movies once the US entered WWII and the War Department took over the studio. Following Bambi in 1942, and until Cinderella in 1950, the studio only produced anthology films, hedging their bets with multiple tales instead of a unifying plot. Many fine shorts originate from movies like Melody Time and Fun and Fancy Free, but yeah, Disney’s adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is the main event.
It’s somewhat surprising source material for the company, but of course Disney’s tendency to sugarcoat darker elements is in full effect for Ichabod’s journey. It takes awhile to lead up to Mr. Crane’s spooky encounter with the Headless Horseman, but it’s charming throughout and well worth the ride. Of course, Disney swaps the decapitated noggin for a menacing pumpkin, and even worse, ends with a sequence heavily implying that Crane is still alive somewhere else under a different name. But that’s just a moment to help kids sleep at night – Ichabod is dead, I love it, and if you’ve read this far odds are you do too.
Trick or Treat, 1952
I love this cartoon so goddamned much, and I hope you watch this at least once and end up humming the adorably macabre theme song for the rest of the week. When Donald’s nephews drop by his house on Halloween, Donald foolishly chooses “trick” over “treat.” Yes, we’re all surprised Donald wouldn’t prepare himself for some physical punishment after putting fireworks instead of candy in Huey, Dewey and Louey’s trick or treat sacks, but once they align with a magical witch, shit goes to a whole new level!
Better still, cartoon nerds will undoubtedly recognize the voice of the witch as June Foray. Forgive me, but I only have a few sentences to describe the career of one of the most legendary voice actors in animation – who is miraculously STILL ALIVE AND WITH US. You can hear here unforgettable pipes as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle, Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Magica Da Spell in DuckTales… and practically everything you’ve seen that doesn’t involve live-action. The Simpsons, Powerpuff Girls, Woody Woodpecker, Scooby Doo, Family Guy, I COULD DO THIS FOREVER! Above all, I love that she’s most notable for me as Granny and (ironically in the case of this entry) Witch Hazel from the Looney Tunes series. While Foray has done some voice work for Disney’s animated features, if memory serves, this is the only Disney short she appears in, and it’s yet another wonderful witch… GOOGLE JUNE FORAY!
Life on Mars, 1957
Changing things up a bit is this beautifully scientifically inaccurate sequence from the Disneyland TV series’ 1954 Tomorrowland series. (I’ve written far more extensively about this here.) This cartoon comes from that the perspective of “Hey, we know we’ll be colonizing Mars within the next decade. Let’s smoke a pack of cigarettes and imagine what kind of life we’ll find there!” I ask you to watch this without a smug sense of modern superiority because it’s undeniably beautiful, and unlike a lot of other Disney animation, intentionally unnerving and presented as photo-realistically as animation would allow in sixty years ago.
The video doesn’t just come from wide-eyed sense of space exploration, but also a healthy fear of what lies within the infinite, unexplored regions of the universe. Today we have more answers to the cosmos mysteries and lack the interstellar curiosity of our parents, or even grandparents. We don’t look to the stars with the same enthusiasm anymore. That’s why it thrills me to no end to travel back to a time when our closest planets might have contained a wealth of fascinating indigenous life, back when space travel was much more of an assured reality we’d all eventually experience. All that said, the vibe in this short is outstandingly creepy, occasionally jarring and unnerving, much more so than the rest of the program it’s excerpted from. And yeah, I think you’ll agree it nestles in nicely to a Halloweeny viewing party. Part of that is due to the narrator, Paul Frees, whom Disney nerds will immediately recognize as the announcer in Disney Park’s Haunted Mansion ride.
Runaway Brain, 1995
And lastly we’ve come to the one Disney cartoon I tragically couldn’t include in the Playlist. It seems Disney has done its best to scrub Runaway Brain from all polite corners of the web, and we’re relegated to a Dailymotion embed, the internet equivalent of a Chinatown basement emporium that exclusively sells bootleg Mogwais. I could speculate that it’s because the brainwashed Mickey Mouse doesn’t gel with the company’s contemporary image of its icon, nowadays mostly recognized as a character who sells friendly t-shirts and teaches ABCs to preschoolers. I suppose the older cartoons above can explain their questionable imagery simply by being the product of an older time, whereas “Runaway Brain” is the only short on this list presented in widescreen and even opens with Mickey playing a video game, so that excuse holds up a lot less.
Again, that’s all speculation, maybe “Runaway Brain” is out there somewhere streaming officially and I just can’t find it. But I digress. The short was released in 1995, attached to A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, making it essentially Disney swan song to the hand drawn theatrical short. However, at least Mickey goes out with a big bold bang. Voiced by Kelsey Grammar, Dr Frankenollie (a nod to legendary Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston) swaps Mickey’s brain with Julius, a Frankenstein’s monster version of Pete. The Mickey you know is rendered into a ferocious feral creature, and Mickey must stop his bloodthirsty pursuit of Minnie while trapped in the monstrous body of a hulking behemoth. “Runaway Brain” is simply splendid and I’m baffled as to why Disney doesn’t run it on TV each and every Halloween, let alone why it doesn’t appear on Disney’s recently released DVD/Blu-ray collection of animated short films. Whatever the case, Japan seems to love it. I picked up a several feral Mickey figures while visiting Tokyo, and Julius has even appeared in Kingdom Hearts. At least someone appreciates this forgotten gem.