Saturday Matinee #76: "The Ocean Hop" (November 14, 1927) - published June 16, 2012
by Albert Gutierrez
It's always interesting to compare early Disney shorts to each other. The 1920's saw Walt create four different animated series: Laugh-O-Grams, Alice in Cartoonland, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and Mickey Mouse. Many of the Laugh-O-Grams were fairy/folk tale adaptations, while Alice, Oswald, and Mickey had their own original adventures. Yet, even among the three, the adventures would be similar time and again. A couple Saturday Matinees alluded to this, such as the similarity between Oswald's "Oh, What a Knight!" and Mickey's "Ye Olden Days." In this week's Saturday Matinee, we'll take a look at "The Ocean Hop," an Oswald short whose premise first saw life in an Alice cartoon, and was later redone with Mickey Mouse.
With a a $25,000 prize at stake, Oswald gets ready for a transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. He's the dark horse in the competition, which includes rival Peg-Leg Pete. Oswald and his little plane are no match for the big guns in the race, reason enough for none of them to be worried. However, Pete still decides to sabotage Oswald's chances, and sticks elastic gum to the plane's tires. When the starter shoots his gun, the other planes fly away, but poor Oswald's little plane falls apart. With the help of some mice and a Bassett hound, Oswald creates a dirigible using two balloons. The mice have some trouble keeping the balloons filled with air, as it sometimes reverts back into the mice. Fortunately, they manage to get one balloon filled. Oswald has trouble trying to find another, until he creates a thought balloon to use!
Meanwhile, Pete has easily taken the lead and passed all other planes along the way. He's well ahead of the other contenders when he reaches a sign that notes the North Pole in one direction, and Paris in the other. Pete switches the markers, being the cheating fellow he is. He hides surreptitiously behind the signpost, as everyone flies towards the North Pole rather than Paris. Night falls, morning comes, and we see that Pete has been well-rested. Oswald's Bassett hound, on the other hand, is tired. In order to move his plane, Oswald removes his ears and uses them as oars. He soon passes Pete, but one of his balloons is shot down. Pete shoots down the other, leading Oswald to parachute down... to Paris! He's the winner!
"The Ocean Hop" is one of several Disney cartoons that dealt with flight. Alice had previously been involved in an air race in "Alice's Balloon Race," while airplanes would figure prominently in Mickey Mouse's first cartoon, "Plane Crazy." Walt was a huge fan of Charles Lindbergh, with both "The Ocean Hop" and "Plane Crazy" paying homage to Lucky Lindy's transatlantic flight from May 20 to 21, 1927. "The Ocean Hop" actually hit theatres six months after this historic flight, thus, continuing to keep aerial dynamics on the public consciousness. Walt's continued fascination with air travel would also lead to his propaganda film Victory Through Air Power, released in 1943. The film promoted the benefits of aerial warfare, while also presenting a humorous and animated look at the history of flight itself.
But back to the three cartoons - "Alice's Balloon Race," "The Ocean Hop," and "Plane Crazy." Between them, we can see how the same ideas get done with different characters. Putting personal preferences aside, it's clear that "Alice's Balloon Race" offers the best treatment of an aerial race. The gags are superior to those found in Oswald's cartoon, though are on par with the "Plane Crazy" gags. In addition, "Alice's Balloon Race" better conveys the sense of being in a madcap race when compared to "The Ocean Hop." Granted, "Plane Crazy" doesn't involve a race and so it can't really be compared in that respect.
Ultimately, with "The Ocean Hop" sandwiched in the middle, we can see how it serves as the bridge between "Alice's Balloon Race" and "Plane Crazy." Ideas from "Alice's Balloon Race" will get re-used and refined in "The Ocean Hop," which again would be re-used and refined in "Plane Crazy." In a way, each one shows the evolution of not only the idea, but the technology of flight itself. Alice and Julius use a balloon, which is co-piloted by Julius and later assisted by a sneezing hippopotamus. Oswald then uses a plane and dirigible, both powered by animals. Mickey Mouse fails at his Bassett hound plane, but finds better success converting a car into a plane.
When we look at the characters themselves, Oswald and Mickey have the upper hand. Alice and Julius act as any 1920's animated character would. There's nothing distinguishable that separates them from the rest, especially with Julius always looking too suspiciously like the more-popular Felix the Cat. Perhaps because of this, we can further appreciate Oswald and Mickey's portrayals. Oswald's pantomime to the mice shows his determination - maybe desperation? - in the race, with his facial reactions more endearing that Julius's in "Alice's Balloon Race." Likewise, Mickey's imitation of Lucky Lindy's hair immediately speaks to the type of character he is. Sure, at the time, Walt & Ub simply turned Oswald's pointed ears into rounded ones and called it Mickey Mouse. But throughout the short, we see a rambunctious little guy who does have his roots in Oswald, before ultimately becoming his own character.
As always, Oswald's shorts can be found in "Walt Disney Treasure: The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." Fittingly, both "Alice's Balloon Race" and "Plane Crazy" are included as bonus cartoons on the second disc of that set. "Plane Crazy" is also available in "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black & White" and "Vintage Mickey."