For this essay, my professor asked us to find discuss an animated Disney short film through the lens of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Quotes in this piece are taken from the translated compilation of Eisenstein’s notes in Jay Leda’s 1988 book, Eisenstein on Disney.
Sergei Eisenstein, a Marxist filmmaker and theorist, had a unique relationship with the animated work coming out of Walt Disney Studios. He found the imaginative way in which Disney physically manipulated characters for utilitarian purposes to be the key element in the appeal of those films. He also responded to the magic of how later Disney films took what he saw as a functionally “grey” world and contrasted it with cartoons that “blaze[d] with color.” Many of these ideas can be better understood by examining them through Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ classic 1928 short, Plane Crazy.
Plane Crazy depicts a world that moves to a repetitive musical rhythm. Farm animals populate the scene, visibly constructing an airplane out of wood using saws and hammers. Following a steady beat, they repeat their motions in an endless loop. Then enters a powerful protagonist, Mickey Mouse, who does not participate in the redundant labor of his fellow animals. Later, it becomes clear these animals are in fact creating the airplane for Mickey, further distinguishing him from the other rest of the characters. This foreshadows their subservient and functional relationship with Mickey.
Following this line of thought, Mickey Mouse exists in this world but at the same time outside of it. Although he is also an anthropomorphized animal, he acts as a god-like character who can repurpose any object or animal to serve him and his goals. In this way, the characteristics of objects and animals tend to conflate in this short as they bend to his will. Not only are objects and animals both featured as Mickey’s personal toys, but they also merge and create new forms which exist only in the world of Plane Crazy.
The overlap of the animate (animals) and inanimate (objects) in Plane Crazy is something that resonated with Eisenstein in several ways. He took particular interest in the form of objects, animals, and people. These forms often took on the shape of bodies, particularly in the case of humans and anthropomorphized animals. In Disney films, these bodies were many times stretched and bent, usually offering an elastic tool for other characters like Mickey to use as necessary. Eisenstein said that this challenged the very nature of inanimate and animate forms. He used the term “plasmaticness” to describe these supernatural claylike entities.
According to Eisenstein, plasmatic entities do have a “definite form.” When they first appear, they are identifiable: a dog, a flame, or a person. However, he said that these are not permanent forms for those bodies. Instead, they take on new shapes and abilities as the animation progresses. He also emphasized that it does not matter what the animal or object is in relation to what it can do as a plasmatic creation. He stated that an entity like this, “skipping along the rungs of the evolutionary ladder, attaches itself to any and all forms of animal existence.” For example, a plasmatic octopus in a Disney short can paint a picture or build a house just as well as any mouse, human, or dog. In other words, they are not restricted by real-world anatomy.
Plasmatic characters are rampant in Plane Crazy. After fixing his hair and becoming a direct stand-in for the famed human pilot Charles “Lindy” Lindbergh, Mickey walks over to the plane the other animals were working on. When he gets there, a Dachshund is waiting for him. While this dog is hardly realistic, as it does walk on two legs, it is has a definite animalistic appearance. However, just as Mickey enters the frame, this Dachshund gets excited and suddenly turns into stairs so that Mickey to climb up into the plane. This moment is a perfect example of the conflation of inanimate objects and animate animals in the short.
The scene continues. Once Mickey is in the plane, the Dachshund shakes Mickey’s hand and eagerly jumps into the body of the aircraft. The dog fastens its feet to the back end and its teeth to the front near the nose. Another animal them comes and winds up the propeller, grotesquely twisting the Dachshund in an entirely absurd manner. Where before the Dachshund was a rigid and sturdy flight of stairs, it is now a malleable, rubber band-like entity which can contort its body to serve as a mechanical component within a vehicular machine.
It is important to note that although no normal dog could perform these actions, the Dachshund, does not appear to feel any pain when it becomes stairs or a rubber band. Indeed, once the plane takes off and subsequently crashes into a tree, the dog appears next to the accident and seems entirely unharmed. Not feeling pain or discomfort is another trait of inanimate objects that has, in this case, been conferred to an animal.
The corollary to the Dachshund in this scene is the plane itself. When the propeller is released and the craft launches off the ground, it no longer behaves like a normal, rigid body. Instead, it winds and oscillates through the air in an almost snake-like fashion. Mickey is quickly thrown from his seat and must grab hold of the broom on the back of the plane. The plane begins to buck wildly, giving the impression more of a rodeo than that of a static, mechanistic object. In this sense, the broom can now be seen as the tail on some wild horse or bull. Effectively, the plane has become an animal.
This was critical for Eisenstein. The plasmatic nature of bodies in Disney animation reflected his interest in the Marxist dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. He believed that graphic conflict can, in combination with the emotional impact generated from the viewer, lead to a better intellectual understanding of the material. In this case, a plane (the inanimate object) and a dog (the animate animal) take on one another’s characteristics. This absurd usage of real-world forms can lead to an immediately humorous reaction from the audience. But upon reflection, a more compelling idea can emerge.
Eisenstein was primarily concerned with the highly-industrialized “grey” world that he felt stood in contrast to Disney’s work. This was why he appreciated Disney’s use of color in subsequent shorts. He said,
Grey, grey, grey. From birth to death. Grey squares of city blocks. Grey prison cells of city streets. Grey faces of endless street crowds. The grey, empty eyes of those who are forever at the mercy of a pitiless procession of laws, not of their own making, laws that divide up the soul, feelings, thoughts, just as the carcasses of pigs are dismembered by the conveyor belts of Chicago slaughter houses, and the separate pieces of cars are assembled into mechanical organisms by Ford’s conveyor belts. That’s why Disney’s films blaze with colour.
In this context, the opening shot in Plane Crazy takes on entirely different meaning. Anthropomorphic animals are holding tools and building a plane useing a makeshift assembly line. However, their actions never waiver and the same frames of animation are used to show their sawing and hammering on repeat. Therefore, they appear almost like machines, and not animals. Viewed through Eisenstein’s eyes, they could represent his “grey” industrialized world.
Later, when Mickey enters the scene, the tone changes and contrasts that first sequence. With Mickey’s arrival, animals like the Dachshund suddenly become plasmatic. They take on new abilities and forms to suit the needs of the protagonist. Conversely, objects like the plane begin to act as if they are animals. In both cases, this seems to be for comedic effect. For Eisenstein, this is also the moment where a new intellectual dynamic can be found. He called this “an unexpected rebirth of universal animism,” wherein the animation reveals life that is hidden in inanimate objects. He stated that animism,
in which there wander vague ideas and sensations of the interconnection of all elements and kingdoms of nature, long before science guessed the configuration of this connection in sequence and stages. Hand in hand with it went also an objective understanding of surrounding nature. Before this, man had known no other way than the supplying of the environment with its own soul and judgement by analogy with himself.
Ergo, when static objects are put into motion, that reveals their inner life. Eisenstein suggested that this intellectual dynamism appeals to the viewer on a primitive level.
Eisenstein said that “if it moves, then it’s alive.” In Plane Crazy, the lines are blurred between the animate and inanimate; characters that move become stationary, and objects that were at first motionless become almost fluid in form. Giving movement to things which could not move previously both draws attention and appeals to humanity’s older animistic tastes. Eisenstein posited that when Disney used this plasmatic approach to his characters, he breathed life into everyday objects, offering a pleasing contrast to the unwaveringly rigid structure of the modern world.