Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 3, 2003)
Confession time: of Disney’s Big Three cartoon stars, Goofy always seemed the least appealing to me. Without question, Donald Duck remains my favorite, as the cantankerous and irascible fowl provides a consistently lively and amusing presence. Despite his milquetoast personality, many of Mickey Mouse’s cartoons work well due to their variety. Whereas you almost always know what’ll you get from Donald, Mickey seems substantially more malleable, which lends a greater degree of variation to his efforts.
As for Goofy, like Donald, he presents a somewhat one-note character. Not that discrepancies don’t occur, but it seems fairly inevitable that the Goof will always portray a good-natured simpleton in his cartoons. For me, that personality simply lacks much life. Though reasonably charming, Goofy’s inherent dopiness makes him less than compelling to me.
Those impressions came from the costarring roles in which I’d seen Goofy. However, The Complete Goofy includes only his lead parts, which casts him in a different light. This also means that this package’s title seems somewhat misleading. While it does appear to consist of almost all the shorts released with Goofy in the starring role, it omits scads of others that featured him as a supporting character. Unfortunately, that means you’ll need to purchase Mickey Mouse In Black and White if you want to watch Goofy’s debut.
Despite these semantic quibbles, Complete packs an extensive roster of cartoons. It presents a whopping 46 shorts, and these span a period of 22 years. We start with Goofy’s first lead role in 1939’s “Goofy and Wilbur” and progress all the way to his final starring short, 1961’s “Aquamania”.
As seen in “Wilbur”, Goofy behaved almost exactly the way I expected based on prior co-starring shorts. A gently entertaining cartoon, Goofy actually still seems to play a supporting role, as the flick emphasizes Wilbur the grasshopper. This makes it mildly amusing but it seems like less than an auspicious debut as a lead actor.
With the next short – 1940’s “Goofy’s Glider” – Disney established a formula that would pervade Goofy’s starring roles. The studio produced a slew of cartoons best known under the “How to...” banner. That title wouldn’t officially appear until 1942’s “How to Play Baseball”, but “Glider” as well as 1941’s “The Art of Skiing” and “The Art of Self-Defense” and others would use the same motif. In these, Goofy attempts to learn a new skill, and an off-screen narrator instructs him in the appropriate methods. However, Goofy invariably makes mistakes that lead to potentially comic material.
That style heavily dominates Goofy’s canon. After between “Glider” and 1947’s “Foul Trouble”, almost each of the shorts features narration, and the majority of them work from the “How to...” framework. Some of them loosen it; for example, “Tiger Trouble” includes a little information about Africa and tigers, but it seems less fact-heavy when compared to the standard “How to...” release. “Californy ’er Bust” compares to the others mainly because it uses some narration; it lacks the standard instructional bent of the “How to...” features.
One other aspect shared by a lot of these shorts relates to its lead actor. To discuss these as “Goofy” roles actually seems incorrect to a degree. To be sure, they all include a character who looks like Goofy, but most of the time the resemblance remains skin-deep. A lot of the time the entire cast consists of Goofy clones. Unlike other Disney shorts, these show nothing other than characters who look a lot like the Goof, but none of them act like him.
That points out one of the reasons I don’t much like the Goofy cartoons: the lack of counterpoint. As I noted, many of these shorts include no characters other than Goofy. The only time we see another Disney star occurs in 1943’s “Victory Vehicles”, though Mickey Mouse’s original foe Pete shows up in 1952’s “Two-Gun Goofy” and “How to Be a Detective”. That stands as a contrast to the cartoons that star other Disney major characters, as they often feature additional notables.
This doesn’t happen in Goofy’s shorts, and this leaves him isolated. The lack of a foil or counterpoint creates a serious void. Many of the Goofy cartoons lack focus and feel lifeless because they lack personality. Sure, the character who looks like Goofy adopts a number of different personae, but they all seem artificial. Of course, the other characters were very malleable over the years and took on various tendencies as necessary, but at least they remained themselves; Goofy turned into any number of roles depending on the story.
This led Goofy in some odd directions. During the shorts from the Forties, the “How to...” theme dominates. Even when not formally part of that series, the cartoons demonstrate a very similar format: a narrator relates events while the Goofy lookalike reacts to those stimuli. Actually, the shorts show some variety even when they appear as part of the run. For example, “How to Play Football” includes none of the descriptive instruction included in prior “How to...” features, as it simply shows us a football game. Other shorts like “The Olympic Champ” follow the “How to...” model but don’t use the title.
Whether in the “How to...” vein or not, the vast majority of the shorts in this set provide narration, and that gets very old after a while. The commentary makes many of them seem a lot alike, and they lose personality. It also restricts where the events can go and keeps them from going much of anywhere. I don’t think any Goofy shorts between 1939’s “Goofy and Wilbur” and 1947’s “Foul Hunting” lacked narration, and later explanation-free shorts would occur infrequently.
I understand why the “How to...” formula seemed so appealing to the filmmakers, though. It makes it really easy to churn out a lot of shorts. Take a sport or other endeavor, provide dry recitation of textbook methods to execute that activity, and show Goofy’s erroneous interpretation. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you have scads of cartoons! Granted, the formula veers from that course quite a lot, but it feels clear that formula dictated a lot of these cartoons.
In the Fifties, we still got some shorts in the “How to...” vein, but they went in an unusual path. Goofy turned into George Geef, stereotypical Fifties office worker. This allowed the shorts to enter new territory, as Geef depicted the harried life of the Average Joe. Depending on the needs of the scenario, Geef had a demanding wife, an obnoxious son, and a dog or three; the animals changed with various shorts.
The Geef adventures dominate the Fifties and offer many odd anomalies. For one, Goofy’s ears show up in some shorts and not others. In addition, sometimes he speaks in the classic Pinto Colvig voice, whereas other times he displays totally different vocals. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to these changes, though the Goofy sound mostly appears toward the end of the character’s run. Perhaps the folks at Disney felt sentimental for the old Goofy and tried to make him return.
Despite the presence of Geef instead of Goof, I must say that the Fifties shorts seem much more entertaining than the Forties entries. The whole “How to...” formula got really old, and I found most of that era’s cartoons to appear tiresome and flat. Occasional signs of life occur, and a few standout shorts appear. I’d pick “Baggage Buster”, “How to Play Baseball”, “Tiger Trouble”, and “Californy ‘er Bust” as the best of the decade. Many of the others just all melted together.
As for the Fifties, the animation suffered in that era, but the humor improved. The satirical bent of the Geef shorts provided some life that seemed absent in the tepid spoofs of the “How to...” cartoons. I never quite accepted Goof as Geef, but the material appeared fairly lively and even cynical at times, such as during “Motor Mania”. The fact that most of the Fifties efforts ran shorter than those from the Forties probably helped, as they more infrequently wore out their welcomes.
Unfortunately, as I noted, the animation significantly declined during the Fifties. Speech imagery seemed especially problematic. Not only did lines often not much mouth movements, but also occasionally characters spoke with no motion at all! These concerns made the shorts look somewhat cheap at times, though Disney’s work still remained superior to pretty much everyone else’s, at least in regard to animation quality.
At the end of the day, I simply must acknowledge that Goofy does little for me. The Complete Goofy includes a wealth of shorts, and some seem quite entertaining and inventive. However, the series becomes bogged down with formulaic material after a while, and the absence of additional non-Goofy characters seems like a weakness. Fans of the Goof should adore this set, but I don’t know if it’ll win over many others.